Content sponsored by Fortune Brands Innovations.
My name is Madeline Oswalt and I’m an engineer. When I decided I wanted to be an engineer, I mainly knew I liked math and I liked how things work. Through my time in college, I began to do more group work that challenged us to consider more parts of the puzzle: timing, cost, manufacturing, etc. I really fell in love with the process as a whole- not only designing the widget but also the execution of getting the widget to the customer while also considering the business needs.
I found my niche in new product development (NPD). When I graduated, I landed an NPD role designing the equipment that went into aluminum can factories. Since then, I have spent my entire career in NPD. I have worked on many products from dispensing adhesive onto cars, to high powered UV lamps that cure transistor chips, to my current role designing kitchen faucets at Moen, part of Fortune Brands Innovations. While the equipment I have worked on has been very different, the general day-to-day and processes have been remarkably similar.
There are some common themes that show up regardless of the project: balancing business needs, technical planning, and design work.
Balancing business needs is one of the challenges in NPD I didn’t expect to enjoy as much as I do. I spend a lot of time with marketing to understand margin, branding, product life cycle, etc. This helps me understand the cost and timing the business is expecting. I spend time with project management to see the full project picture and how my technical planning fits into the overall plan.
Some days I’ll meet with finance discussing project budget and capital spending. I have to weigh these needs against the project and against the customer specification. Sometimes the project scope may be something that needs more time or resources. Sometimes we may need to change the project scope to hit a more critical timeline. I work closely with purchasing and operations to ensure we can get the parts at a reasonable cost, and the parts are presented in a way that operations can use effectively.
Technical planning is another aspect I’ve grown fond of. The biggest challenge is planning for the unknown, when we’re designing a truly new product and there are a lot of unknown unknowns. We could have a great idea on paper that checks out analytically, but may fail during testing; Or, we find a new problem we didn’t anticipate during testing. Analyzing the risks in a design in its infancy and using that to generate timing is not easy. It’s a unique problem I don’t often see and a problem I like to try and solve.
Design work is the area of my job I love the most. One of my favorite things is when we have brainstorming sessions early in a project; the opportunities seem endless, and we can be as creative as we want to hit the user requirements. From there we enter “build, measure, learn” loops. We have lots of options for building: a model in Creo or Solidworks, a 3D print, or just something cobbled together to test basic concepts. Early in the design process we may lean on 3D models and then lean on FEA or CFD analysis to determine if we are hitting the user requirements on paper.
Using these learnings, we can update the design accordingly. As the design becomes more solidified, we begin to machine components to test. Here we can work with quality/reliability engineers and lab technicians to develop robust test plans to ensure we meet the user requirements in practice.
During this process we bring out designs to design reviews where the engineering community can provide feedback, help when there is a design challenge, and offer historical knowledge on what has worked/not worked in the past. It’s also important to get manufacturing feedback- we could have a “perfect” design but if the manufacturing team cannot build it, or build it reliably, then rework is needed.
Ultimately, I really enjoy solving problems, and being a new product development engineer gives me opportunities to solve technical engineering problems, as well as other problems. The variety and freedom I have in an NPD role gives me the best of all worlds.