We learned that engineering teams in electronics companies face notable challenges, which lead them towards an agile way of working. Modern agile practices were invented in the software industry and then have proven themselves to fit well in this area. However, can this experience be applied to even more complex product solutions requiring hardware and software components?
For the past six months, we have been engaged in applying agile for a UK-based company that produces electronics for transport enterprises, including contactless readers, fare-collection gates, and various solutions for traffic management.
Complexity in the Hardware Design Process
The complexity of multiple interrelated processes makes it difficult to assess how much progress the teams of mechanical, electrical, and software engineers are making throughout multiple sequential phases of new product development. Engineering teams typically follow the plan-driven approach to gain better control over complex processes. Still, there is always a need for more transparency and agility, even in a more document-driven environment.
The difficulty lies in the fact that today electronics do not exist independently but are integrated with software. Integrating mechanical parts with electrical components should also satisfy the software requirements for the hardware specs. Therefore, launching a new product or even upgrading a legacy device can take years, depending on the complexity of the device.
In the waterfall-like model, each team mainly operates separately from the others. In the initial phases after several months of work when requirements for the device are collected, and the prototype is prepared, the team still realised that the requirements for the device could have been better so they should rework the hardware prototype for the next revision.
What distinguishes hardware from software? Even a minor defect in the product design could become a massive problem if the hardware prototype goes into production. The price of a mistake is very high.
Applying Scrum is more challenging in the hardware domain than in software development. The electronics development process requires more diligence and documentation. At the stage of printing boards, the prototype must be perfect and tested as much as possible. If defects exist, the company loses money, and its reputation suffers.
The second problem is pre-ordering long-lead items, including materials with a long production period. It is necessary to plan and replenish electrical components far in advance before you start building prototypes. Another several months will pass from the moment there is a working prototype until you have all electrical long-lead items delivered and ready for mass production.
Reduce lead time and gain a competitive advantage
Agile product development of complex electronics begins with a team of mechanics building the concept model and defining other elements (such as buttons, sensors, etc.) based on customer requirements. Next, the electrical engineers design hardware to fit into the mechanical part. If they struggle to fit it in, mechanical and electrical engineers collaborate to find a balanced solution. Then the software engineers can get a rough build to learn how the software can be written to satisfy customer requirements.
Agile can help build cross-team collaboration while shifting the focus from plan-driven task management to accelerated learning cycles between specialised teams. The waterfall-like approach dramatically extends the time for making an integrated hardware prototype with working software, thus prolonging the time needed for a product launch.
The introduction of Agile for electronics companies will enable “parallel engineering”. During the development of the concept, the electronics team will assemble rapid prototypes that fit 3D printed models without bringing the elements to “mechanical perfectionism”. These prototypes will help software engineers to test electrical boards sooner.
A hardware team can create an engineering sample in just a month of such work. Software engineers still have ample time to test the overall performance and ask the hardware team to increase memory for the software when there is still time. And electrical engineers, in turn, can request heat-resistant housing materials and more powerful cooling systems from mechanics due to higher heating of the board.
Constant feedback between teams will enable faster delivery of the mature integrated prototype of hardware and software components faster. This approach of parallel engineering will provide a substantial competitive advantage.
SAFe in Electronics
Applying the Scaled Agile Framework is a significant advantage for the large-scale development of highly complex solutions. Implementing SAFe in electronics can take some time to coach the specialists who were used to working in a plan-driven way and struggled to shorten the lead time. In 6 months, we managed to adopt the agile approach in the hardware team so that they could build engineering samples more frequently.
Challenges using the Agile approach in Hardware Domain
1) Additional effort is required. The software development team desires to write software on ideal electronics. We do not provide perfect electronics.
2) Work intensity is increasing. Electrical engineers have to produce boards more frequently, letting some defects pass on in the early stages. However, this drawback has an advantage, as electrical qualification testing will be done faster as software teams have already tested multiple hardware aspects.
3) The incremental creation of engineering samples for software testing is becoming more expensive. The company has to buy components more often. Introducing the Agile approach will increase the price of prototype development as it requires more interactions with procurement to purchase required parts. Additional time spent by specialists at all levels can affect the overall development cost.
Benefits of SAFe
When implementing an Agile approach for electronics companies, we recommend using SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework). SAFe is an ideal solution for teams that create a complex product consisting of mechanical, electrical and software parts.
Thanks to its techniques, it allows you to effectively coordinate the interaction between specialised teams, look for interdependencies and control dependencies between teams.
Agile can add extra costs to get things done faster because it is necessary to produce 3D parts more often, order more materials and chips, and electrical engineers create more engineering samples so developers can write software sooner. But ultimately, it will allow the company to shorten the lead time. If the finished product is put into mass production not in years but in months, the extra costs will pay off as it will reach the market faster than competitors.
P.S. This case will be discussed in more detail during the mini-conference “Agile trends 2023: remote work and agile approaches in new industries” on 02/08/2023 at 19:00. Registration and participation are free.
Author: Slava Moskalenko, Co-owner of Agile.Live