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Using Agile in Hardware Development & Manufacturing?

wikispeed-using-agile-in-hardware-engineeringThe question of ALM-PLM integration has recently become one of the hottest topics among product developers, ALM and PLM tool vendors, and hardware engineering & software development experts worldwide.

Understandably so: with the advent of IoT and software increasingly powering the innovative features of modern products, the problem of unifying hardware and software development lifecycles is fast becoming the single biggest impediment of innovation.

Essentially, the issue at hand is the challenge of bringing together the Waterfall/V-model method generally used in hardware engineering, and the iterative and incremental Agile way of developing software. Connecting all the processes and data involved in these disparate development streams, and allowing users to manage both lifecycles from a single platform is a fundamental challenge ahead of tool vendors.

Integrating ALM and PLM isn’t just a technical challenge. It also entails a shift in how development is managed, and how the methodologies traditionally used for hardware and service components can work together. However, some are looking at – and successfully implementing – a new approach: that of taking Agile further, and using it for hardware development.

Increasing the velocity of hardware innovation

A prime example of this is Wikispeed, a US-based innovative automotive manufacturer. Wikispeed applies techniques borrowed from Scrum, XP, Lean, Agile, Test-driven development, and Object-oriented programming. They blend elements from all of these methods into a process that allows them to dramatically increase the velocity of their automotive hardware development activities. Using this process that they refer to as extreme manufacturing, they were able to build a modular car with extremely low consumption (100 miles per gallon) in about 3 months back in 2012.

Today, if you’re an automotive engineer and have a revolutionary idea for a new car component, it might take you up to 10 years to get that idea realized. The primary reason behind that is that your company will be waiting for the return on its investment in multimillion dollar factory infrastructure. As a result, it’s not uncommon to see multi-year development cycles in automotive hardware development – and that also makes innovation sluggish.

At Wikispeed, that development cycle is 7 days. Every 7 days, the team looks at what has been accomplished during the previous sprints, and checks that against requirements, user feedback, etc, much like an Agile team. Therefore, fixing issues and improving certain components can take place much more frequently, accelerating development.

Bringing Agile to manufacturing

Wikispeed’s founder, a software consultant for Scrum, Inc. by the name of Joe Justice, has been working in Agile software development all his life. Therefore, upon founding Wikispeed in 2006, it seemed logical that he’d start using the same framework he’d been working with all those years. Except for this time, he used it to build a car.

As a 2012 Forbes article put it:

"At Wikispeed as in Agile software development, work proceeds by trying to figure out what customers want, defining those wants in terms of tests, prioritizing which tests are to be worked on, working in short cycles to deliver features or products that meet the tests, finding out from customers whether that’s what they really want, and then continuing the cycle once again."

Customer focus goes hand in hand with test-driven development at Wikispeed. Self-organized teams, much like those developing software in an Agile environment, work together to create a modular product that perfectly fits the requirements of the user. All tasks are derived from test cases – basically, test cases are defined first, and once the team knows what to do, they’ll find ways to get there. Developers work in pairs to reduce the time needed for training and documentation.

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Overall, this “new” methodology to manage the development of hardware proved to be surprisingly successful. Wikispeed has been able to produce a fully functional, road-legal, low-consumption car that complies with road safety specifications in 3 months. Using this collaborative, Agile method, they developed a chassis that at the time was the lightest in the world to achieve a 5-star crash rating equivalency. Not only did Wikispeed manage to work fast, they created a high quality product that complies with the necessary road regulations and standards.

It would be way too early to state that after software development, Agile will move on to revolutionize hardware manufacturing. That said, Wikispeed did provide a successful example that helps us broaden the perspective as we think about how to integrate software (ALM) and hardware (PLM) development.

As the most Agile ALM solution on the market, codeBeamer ALM supports the use of Agile and scaled Agile (via SAFe®) in large, geographically dispersed teams to work on complex projects. To learn more about how codeBeamer ALM could help you manage your Agile projects, whether hardware or software, and how you could benefit from its comprehensive ALM capabilities, join our upcoming webinars or simply get in touch with us. Ready to start? Sign up for your free trial of codeBeamer ALM!

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