8 benefits of having a more software-like hardware development process
The infrastructure for hardware development is aging, as these tools were built many years ago. Engineering requirements, on the other hand, have increased; engineers have to manage more work, complete projects faster, and gain efficiency. Oftentimes, the tools they are given are legacy and haven’t caught up to meeting these current demands.
Software development has grown and evolved over the years. By being the first some years back, much modernization of software development was initially through trial and error. Because software and hardware are so closely connected, they are starting to cross-pollinate across teams. Hardware engineers are cherry picking what can improve their current processes. Although these principles cannot be simply copied and pasted from SW to HW development, much can be borrowed and adapted. Here are some of the benefits of doing so:
Increasing engineers' efficiency
Better workflow management makes for less stressful working conditions, and more productive ones too. Feeling overwhelmed or disorganized can lead your fellow engineers to be discouraged or ultimately burn out. Simply put- clearer milestones and live documentation increase employee retention, which significantly affects your talent acquisition costs and team morale.
When engineers are forced to sift through emails for design notes or restructure a network drive folder hierarchy to find test data, they’re not only wasting time but are feeling less productive. Cloud-based design review and ticket tracking systems are an easy way to get more productive.
Catching problems earlier
As with software, when there are more touchpoints in hardware development and during the sub-sequential design review process, problems are identified earlier. Unlike software, problems are far more costly due to the manufactured components in hardware. A misplaced line of code does not have the same price point as a misplaced capacitor. Being able to resolve them during the beginning stages will save you time and extensive troubleshooting in the long run.
Running small, more focused design reviews earlier in the design process can help teams focus on key areas and reduce redundant work (reviewing the same thing multiple times). For example, if you’re adding a new radio receiver to a PCBA, don’t make your EMI expert sit through a 4-hour general design review, but review the specific component and relevant parts on their own. As an added benefit, if you conduct your review digitally, you’ll have organically generated some of the theory of operation documentation you’ll likely need to later in your design workflow.
Gaining institutional knowledge
By taking a software engineering approach to hardware engineering, the documentation that remains post-release can serve as a repository for future learnings and troubleshooting. It can serve as a refresher for upcoming projects, and a resource that new hires or engineers not involved in that specific project can leverage to strengthen their institutional knowledge.
Is the ongoing project aligned with your organization’s high-level business goals? Having a more software-like hardware development process adds an extra layer of ‘why’ on top of ‘how’. This alignment is critical to ensure that your priorities match those of other departments and prevents wasting months on a project just to see it be placed on the back burner.
Improving your customer experience
Better documentation simply results in better visibility and timing. When end customers have better visibility, they have a greater understanding of how your product came to be. This allows real-time status updates (and less correspondence with the customer who is constantly ‘checking in’.)
It also reassures your teammates and the customer that you will meet the deadline or contract of delivery. Rather than assuring them that everything is running smoothly, showing them why improves customer communications.
Recycling your platform's data for multiple purposes
By administering design reviews on a collaborative platform similar to the review process of software, all of the historic documentation left behind after you complete a project can be a learning lesson to those internally for the future. It can be recycled into training material for new employees, and a guide for existing employees who may have similar projects to tackle in the future.
Recycling this content from the design review documentation can also help your organization create customer-facing materials that will strengthen your client’s relationship and improve the interactions customer support has with the client.
Increasing your speed
Timing is everything; clients are requesting faster deliverables. By utilizing a software like a process for hardware development, you’ll experience fewer delays even with shortened deadlines. This allows for products to launch faster and go to market sooner. The less of a gap there is between when you conceptualize your idea and when it is in your customers’ hands, the better the opportunity for your organization.
Reducing integration problems
The complexity of merging various types of engineering together - programming firmware on hardware, mapping pins, software calling on the physical attributes from the hardware, and so on.... is a recipe for problems.
As you near the end of the design cycle and you’re ready to release, having a similar process for both hardware and software teams ensures a smoother handoff and, if necessary, collaborative troubleshooting as the software is integrated with the hardware.
If you change your hardware but the software isn’t updated to understand these changes, issues arise. By having these multiple teams collaborate, brought in the loop to make adjustments, and participate in reviews, all stakeholders can make sure nothing breaks when it’s deployed.
By no means can software principles be identical to those of hardware. Hardware requires more sensitive lead times for physical parts, has to take into account fluctuating material costs, and ultimately the cost of a mistake made during the design process is much more costly. But even despite hardware’s lower risk tolerance, software continues to act as an influence of principles.
What do you think translates well from software to hardware? Which principles have failed or worked? Let us know below: