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From Conventional to Collaborative Engineering

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When it comes to dealing with complex issues in the field of engineering one of the most challenging aspects is working in teams due to the required contribution of various subject matters experts. Design conceptualization is too complex to be left to one single designer as all related parties might be affected by its stages from goal development to ideation. Even the use of specific design tools such as CAD systems might not suffice for team collaboration among team members. Therefore, the use of additional tools such as PDM (Product Data Management) systems might also be required. On the other hand, there is a lack of knowledge regarding the best practices for using these methods to enhance collaboration among team members.

Various methodologies exist to make the teamwork among engineering happen. While one of these methodologies is focused on the problem, the other one is focused on the project. While in the former one there is usually a process-oriented supervisor, in the latter one there is a product-oriented supervisor. The difference is identified at the level of problem-solving The degree within project work tends towards both analyzing and resolving the problem at hand in comparison to the problem-based methodology in which the emphasis is on the problem analysis. While a focus on the project makes the team more directed towards applying knowledge, a focus on the problem makes the team more directed towards acquiring knowledge. Depending on the culture, the preferred methodology might also differ.

According to some research studies, (Johnson and Johnson, 2013), some conditions are required for team management to get better results while working in teams in comparison to individual performance. These conditions include, but are not limited to: 

• An emphasis on individual responsibility to fulfill the shared goals of the team 

• A significant amount of face-to-face interaction 

• An emphasis on positive interdependence among team members

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• Making frequent use of interpersonal skills 

• Making frequent use of group processing of the situation at hand to enhance the effectiveness of team dynamics in the near future.

Furthermore, other research studies explored some ways of turning work groups into effective teams. According to these studies (Oakley et. al, 2013), some conditions identified to achieve effectiveness are:

• Setting reasonable expectations through means of a set of working principles

• Equipping all members with information on best practices regarding teamwork before they begin collaborating with each other

• Dealing effectively with problems by collaborating with other team members 

Different opinions exist with regard to the optimal size of the team and so far no agreement has been reached among researchers regarding this magic number. Yet, most researchers and practitioners would agree that the ideal number of team members would vary between three to five. While two individuals might not suffice to provide a  variety of ideas or skills to maximize the group outcome, a team consisting of more than five members could also result in an unbalanced level of contribution among team members. Besides, when working in pairs, conflicts might also be won by the dominant team member. 

It might also be useful to make a distinction between cooperation, coordination, and collaboration. When it comes to working on joint objectives, collaboration appears to be the most preferred style of working.  Engineering in the traditional sense can be identified as a process of decision-making in which various individuals try to complete different technical aspects. In addition to this process, there is also the social aspect of collaborative engineering in order to reach a predefined target.

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Collaborative engineering can be seen as the synergy between task-work and teamwork. Some common characteristics across successful engineering teams are (Lu et al., 2016):

• Collaborative decisions might result in better outcomes in comparison to individual decisions. 

• Honesty and open-mindedness among team members are crucial in group communication. 

• Team members should be able to contribute their own creativity for creating an added value when making team decisions 

Furthermore, in order to meet the different interests of various stakeholders, the engineering team’s collaboration should go beyond the task-work agreements. In order for this to occur, team members should consider alternative solutions rather than limiting their decision-making process. The desired collaboration process would not happen unless there is a limited ability to train engineers for improved collaboration skills.

Given the close interconnectedness of production and development companies in today’s global world, collaborative engineering is gaining more and more importance. Apart from PDM tools and a few methodologies, possible solutions for mitigating against barriers regarding successful collaboration are still rare. In order to develop successful products within the field of engineering- not to mention newly emerging fields such as mechatronics- collaboration will be the key ingredient regardless of the sophistication of technologies in use.

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Ayse Kok
Ayse completed her masters and doctorate degrees at both University of Oxford (UK) and University of Cambridge (UK). She participated in various projects in partnership with international organizations such as UN, NATO, and the EU. She also served as an adjunct faculty member at Bosphorus University in her home town Turkey. Furthermore, she is the editor of several international journals, including those for Springer, Wiley and Elsevier Science. She attended various international conferences as a speaker and published over 100 articles in both peer-reviewed journals and academic books. Having published 3 books in the field of technology & policy, Ayse is a member of the IEEE Communications Society, member of the IEEE Technical Committee on Security & Privacy, member of the IEEE IoT Community and member of the IEEE Cybersecurity Community. She also acts as a policy analyst for Global Foundation for Cyber Studies and Research. Currently, she lives with her family in Silicon Valley where she worked as a researcher for companies like Facebook and Google.

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