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Using Agile for hardware development to deliver products faster

When metal and plastic are manipulated instead of ones and zeros, is it possible to pursue an Agile development process? Or is the idea of Agile for hardware development an misnomer?

The fact is, more and more organizations have given waterfall the could shoulder and turned to scrum, lean and kanban based models as they make Agile for hardware development a reality. A combination of rapid prototyping, modular design, and simulation testing makes Agile for hardware development a real possibility for modern manufacturing in technology.

From Agile software to Agile hardware

With Agile software development, creative processes are the cornerstone of the framework and constant change is the order of the day. It’s expected that alterations will happen continuously. Relatively speaking, there’s a low cost associated with constant change in software since it requires only time, knowledge, and the ability to type some code. However, the physical world is not as amenable to alteration as the digital world. Hardware changes are associated with high costs and significant resistance.

Yet according to Curt Raschke, a Product Development Project Manager and guest lecturer at UT Dallas, Agile for hardware development isn’t really a fresh idea. In fact, Agile had its roots in the manufacturing world to begin with. “These ideas came out of lean and incremental product development,” he said. In that sense, it is no surprise  the concept has come full circle and Agile has appeared in hardware development. It’s simply requires a fresh look at existing best practices.

For Shreyas Bhat, CEO of FusePLM, a full-cloud product lifecycle management system that uses a cards-based approach to the development process, the question isn’t if Agile for hardware development can be done, but instead, how? “Hardware tends to be self-contained and has too many dependencies,” he said. “How do you split it into deliverable sections? You need to be able to partition the project and come up with milestones for the customer.”

Prototyping and Agile hardware development

Rapid prototyping is one part of the answer to the question of how. “These days, you can build a prototype cheaply and early on to give a customer a feel for the eventual functionality,” Bhat said. “With 3D printing, the cost of prototyping has gone down significantly.” Contract manufacturers have turned prototyping into a commodity in an industry where cost is always a driving factor. Being able to turn to a prototype provider for quick, inexpensive modeling saves both time and money for the actual manufacturer later.

As Bhat explained, the requirements for hardware have to be stable since changing tooling increases costs. Prototyping helps pin down the proper tooling early on. “You have a better idea of what is needed for production. That way, you’re getting the right tooling for your manufacturing line up front rather than having to retool down the road.”

But that doesn’t mean prototypes can solve all problems. Raschke explained one of the prime limitations. I “It works for product development from a form factor point of view,” he said. “You can use it to get feedback ahead of time on look and feel. But you can’t use 3D printing alone for stuff with moving parts that require assembly.”

Practical thinking in Agile hardware design

One answer to the issue of Agile for hardware development is the nature of the design itself. The more modular an item is, and the fewer dependencies are involved within any given component, the easier it will be to make changes. Also, choosing the fewest material types possible to get the job done is key aspect to move hardware in a more flexible direction. Again, these are well-known practices in the manufacturing sector and lend themselves well to implementation within an Agile framework.

When simulation or other types of iterative hardware evaluation are part of the process, it is a smart bet to design with testing in mind. Test driven development (TDD) can readily be incorporated into hardware as long as the limitations and capabilities of the simulating environment are known. Cross-functional teams are the best fit for developing hardware in this way, with an eye toward validating design functionality through iterative testing.

In fact, Raschke revealed  this is one of the prime challenges facing hardware where agility is concerned, particularly in terms of pretesting and system integration. “Design, development, and delivery are not always done by the same team,” he said. “Even if pieces can be developed by the same team, they are different subject matter experts. In a hardware product, there are electrical, mechanical, and software engineers along with firmware specialists, and so on.” These diverse experts would all have to be brought together in order to create a faster, more iterative approach to hardware development. That would be quite a feat for any Scrum Master to pull off.

The future of Agile for hardware development

Startups and fast-growing companies with bright ideas are primed to take on the Agile for hardware development challenge. While it may be risky, there is the chance of a high payoff. In Bhat’s view, “Where there is innovation, there is uncertainty. That’s in the sweet spot for Agile. You can do a lot of ‘what if’ scenarios to try out ideas and quickly release them to the customer.”

However, Agile does have one obvious limitation that Raschke addressed. “Hardware products are developed incrementally, but they can’t be released that way,” he explained. That’s certainly true. Given the high percentage of customers who ignore factory recalls and upgrades on everyday consumer goods, it’s hard to imagine them happy about the constant need to update their hardware, particularly if it involves a trip to a local provider or installation of a kit received in the mail. So, while Agile for hardware development and design may play an increasingly important role in the industry, delivery will remain a fixed point with little room for trial and error.

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