Engineering in the Age of Coronavirus

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  • May 18, 2020

The COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak in China early this year led the Chinese government to close down businesses in February, including manufacturers. Chinese engineers, many of whom were on a New Year holiday, returned to find locked offices and were unable to work. Where an American engineer might have said “Fine, I’ll work from home,” working from home is far from commonplace in other parts of the world, notably Japan, China and India.

In a study done by International Workplace Group, it was found that China and Japan are the least likely to let office workers work anywhere but the office. (Picture courtesy of IWG.)

In a study done by International Workplace Group, it was found that China and Japan are the least likely to let office workers work anywhere but the office. (Picture courtesy of IWG.)

One Tier 1 automotive company, which is headquartered in the EU with operations in China, found its design department suddenly out of commission from the government-imposed lockdown. Like automotive companies all over the world, their design team relied on the current norm: workstation-based CAD and design files that reside within their workstations or on the company’s servers. There was a scramble to get their engineers onto the cloud-based CAD application Onshape, one of the few CAD applications that works on the cloud. This enabled the engineers to access their designs from their homes, as well as let them collaborate with their colleagues and their managers.

A Decentralized Work Force

COVID-19 created a dire situation that forced Chinese manufacturers with a strong work-at-the-office culture to find ways to work from home. Out of a job and without financial safety nets such as the unemployment compensation available to many in Europe and North America, many workers would have suffered hardship. A similar scenario is unfolding in India, which has a similar work-at-the-office culture. This is not only through demands of management, but a cultural norm that having a good job at an office—especially with a large, well-known company—is a mark of status and social standing. Office workers proudly display their company photo IDs and wear their company’s logos on clothing and backpacks.

But in Western industrial countries, it seems like the novelty of working at the office has worn off. “Flexible” work, which includes working from home, is more in demand. In the International Workplace Group (IWG) survey, 4 out of 5 job candidates, when asked to choose between two companies at which to work, would choose a company with a flexible work policy assuming all else was equal. Clearly the new generation of American, Australian and European engineers do not appreciate being tied to a desk.

The Tools We Need to Work Safely

Engineers value uninterrupted, concentrated individual effort, yet also have to concede that engineering itself must be collaborative. Not only are there multiple—and multidisciplinary—engineers on a team, there are non-engineers to contend with, including managers, salespeople, marketing and IT—and the list goes on. It takes a village to make a product. Any product that can be conceived, designed, marketed, manufactured and sold by a single engineer is one that is made in their workshop and sold on their front yard.

Getting that village, or company, to hum like a smoothly-running machine and create a successful product is something the industrialized world has become very good at. The spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, however, changed the game. Though the spread of the epidemic seemed slow at first, like a baseball pitcher winding up only to deliver a 100mph fastball, the current pandemic has changed the norm. 

Suddenly, that smoothly-running machine shudders to a halt. Our communications and tools all worked according to traditional constructs: we met face-to-face, worked shoulder-to-shoulder, ate in the company cafeteria and returned to work in our cubicles. All these norms are too close for safety in the COVID-19 age. 

While COVID-19 has blown up the workgroups we had, we would do well to remember that the tools that let us work and collaborate in real time, across states and oceans domestically and internationally, can let us work just as effectively when our team members are remote.

Design and Engineering Software

Soon after the first business PC—the IBM-PC—came on the market, a portable version came along. Compaq put a handle on a 30-pound PC in the early 1980s and called it portable; this trend to mobilize continues to this day. 

Mobile workstations, once the second computer for the few and the proud, have become the mainstream all-purpose machine. Companies found that engineers were diligently working extra hours at home—and often more productively—when entrusted with a mobile workstation. Many engineering and design software platforms make “floating licenses” available so that the engineer can “check out” a license and use the software at home, when they are not at the office. 

Data, including drawings and model geometry, can be accessed through remote access software and VPNs on your office workstation, from centralized “vaults” or with PDM software. In the last few years, cloud storage has made data much more accessible—and the user of that data less dependent on in-house IT staff.

The latest generation of CAD software, Onshape, is furthest down the road of mobility. Onshape runs on the cloud without so much as a download, and also uses the cloud for data storage. Not only does running on the cloud set the user free from having to install the software, but the software can also be used anywhere, on any device that can run a browser—from a smart phone (which is good for viewing models, if not working on them) to a gaming computer. 

CAD may have been the last type of application to go full-cloud; it seems like almost every other type of application has been doing it forever. We are quite used to cloud-based applications for almost everything except CAD. We get quite annoyed if an application has won’t run on our MacBook, for example, or runs differently than it does on our PC at work.

We have arrived on the cloud with Google office applications, like Sheets and Docs, and these applications let you work at the same time on the same document with far-flung team members. You don’t have to worry if the files between devices or computer have been “synced” if you are using Google docs, Google Drive, Box or Dropbox. 

Your sales staff are no doubt using Salesforce.com. It seems like the Bronze Age when contacts, records and transactions were kept on their hard disks, painfully shared by exporting to spreadsheets, while all the time insisting they be backed up and having to secure them if the salesperson left the company.

Real time business communication is commonplace with Slack in the lead, and Microsoft insisting that Teams is just as good, if not better. The copper wire-based office phone line has been pulled out of most offices and replaced with Voice over IP (VoIP), an Internet-based solution that had a rocky start with mangling conversations. These days, VoIP now offers reliable and quality communications—most of the time—with better access and options.

Teleconferencing has gone beyond a standard fixture to becoming an annoyance. We hope managers will learn that just because you can call for a conference at any time doesn’t mean that you should. Engineers need to work some time. But even for meeting-weary staff, every now and then having the ability to pull in colleagues you once saw every day in person may not be so bad. Admit it, there are some people you are starting to miss.

It’s now been a week of working from home for many people across North America, but it feels longer. About a third of the U.S. population is under some version of a stay-at-home directive, if not a law. Entire countries, such as Italy and India, have blanket lockdowns. 

However, as we settle into the new normal—working apart, working flexibly, working from home—the benefits become apparent. In the Bay Area, notorious for its commute, we have an extra two to three hours in the day. We are allowed out for exercise so we can enjoy our hikes—provided we maintain our social distance six feet away from each other. We have can make our meals at home and kiss our babies goodnight. 

A number of us have found we are actually more productive than at the office. The hour-long conference room meetings were not helping productivity. Companies that previously had rigid be-at-the-office rules have had to give them up, and we can hope we won’t go back to them when this is over. We have, after all, created the flexible work environment the modern workforce wants. If there is one silver lining to the cloud of COVID-19, this could be it.

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