In the first entry of this blog series, I introduced the four tenets of the agile software development method and briefly explored how they might be applied to the wide world beyond software. In particular, I’m focusing on their application to product development and mechanical engineering.
Second Principle of Agile Development
The drafters of the original agile software development manifesto broke their philosophy down into 12 specific principles, to better illustrate their values and guide any companies that want to follow their lead. The first of these is as follows:
“Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.”
This is an aspect of modern software development very familiar to the public; any regular computer user is familiar with the constant stream of patches released for the various software they use. It has become a running joke that one silicon valley company updates its software more often than any user even accesses it per day. The video game industry has taken this idea to an extreme, selling “early access” versions of their games, sometimes little better than alpha-tests, and letting early adopters guide the improvement and evolution of the final product. As much as we grumble about downloading new updates, though, the fact that these companies are constantly patching, iterating, and improving their work shows us their concern with releasing the best product they can, and as such we feel more valued as customers.
Continuous Delivery in Mechanical Engineering
This principle may not seem particularly useful to a mechanical engineering project on first glance; after all, you can’t download a patch to fix the stripped nut on your blender, which recently plagued our office, or increase the aerodynamics of your car’s bodywork. However, it’s worth broadening the idea of one’s “product” beyond just the physical item that ends up on store shelves. Indeed, the entire engineering process, from prototypes and concept drawings to field service and customer support, should be considered a company’s product. A company’s reputation, the thoroughness of its testing, the guarantees it offers on its products…all of these are just as intrinsic to a part as its actual dimensions and functionality. These are aspects of the product that will help it stand above competitors that might otherwise be very similar.
Since we can view the entire engineering process as a company’s product, it makes more sense to look at “early and continuous delivery of valuable [products]” in a mechanical engineering context. The manufacturing company I worked at previously prided itself on its transparency, keeping clients informed on the progress of their orders all the way from initial PO to final ship date. The clients knew that their specifications were being met, that the new designs they requested were passing safety testing, and that everything was proceeding on schedule for a timely release. They knew that, as a lean manufacturing operation, we could adapt and change with them as their own requirements from further downstream changed. They knew that we guaranteed the quality of our design and workmanship, and if problems arose during use we would back up that promise with rapid action on shipping replacements and assigning field service teams.
Current technologies make this collaboration even more achievable. With the ever-increasing functionality of CAD suites and the growing prevalance of cloud-based file-sharing software, a mechanical engineering firm can easily involve their client in the product development process. Glew Engineering recently retrofitted a client’s 120-foot counterflow heat exchanger, and we sent SolidWorks files back and forth half a dozen times, iterating with the direct input of the field service engineers who hired us. Even if one’s client doesn’t have CAD capability, tools such as Adobe 3D files and screen-sharing programs can allow for the same collaboration and cooperation.
Even if a company ships one unit every five years, it’s worth remembering the benefits of what agile development strives for in small batch production (See Ries at pp. 184-187) . That single unit is what they sell, but their product is the amalgam of their expertise, their reliability, their cost and efficiency, and their service and support. So, it pays to deliver this entire product to clients, frequently and visibly. They’ll thank you for it.
 Beck et al. ‘Manifesto for Agile Software Development’. N.p., 2001. Web. 11 Mar. 2015. http://agilemanifesto.org/.  Ries, Eric. The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses. United States: Crown Publishing Group, Division of Random House Inc, 2011. Print.