Discover invaluable insights on project management strategies essential for meeting a project timeline in this article. Ready? Dive in!

Plugging this article's title into a search engine will yield an abundance of advice on prioritizing tasks, communicating with teams and stakeholders, managing burnout, building Gantt charts, and a whole lot more. Our project managers and teams are constantly honing their skills in these areas. The fast-paced nature of our work ensures ample opportunities to put theory into practice. However, in this article, we've decided to compile some less obvious tips gleaned from our experience working on projects with tight deadlines.

Setting Clear Boundaries with Customers: What We Won't Do

Outlining boundaries

At the outset of any project, it's crucial to align on goals, objectives, deliverables, and acceptance criteria. Drawing from our experience, we've found it immensely beneficial to establish a clear "out of scope" list. This entails explicitly communicating to the Customer what we will not be undertaking and collaboratively defining boundaries for the project's execution within the team.

These discussions often unveil new requirements and spark fresh approaches. By eliminating tasks, requirements, deliverables, and design tools that fall outside the project's scope, we effectively focus all stakeholders and mitigate the impact of Parkinson's Law, which states that work expands to fill the time available.

The Value of Tactical Planning

Mapping out project tasks and timelines

In the face of unexpected situations or planned project milestones, never underestimate the power of thoroughly analyzing the implications of your decisions before proceeding. It's advisable to document these implications or create a state diagram to visualize the potential outcomes. These materials should be discussed with the entire team, not just the Customer.

Consider a scenario where you're developing a test bench under tight deadlines. The Customer is willing to allocate additional resources, employ expensive manufacturing technologies, and pay for express delivery to ensure timely completion. Your developer, prioritizing structural rigidity, proposes a welded steel frame design, conducting calculations and demonstrating that a similar bolted frame would have inferior characteristics. The Customer approves the simulations, concerned about system reliability and user safety. The design progresses, and the manufacturing team receives the production task.

While challenging, the production team successfully constructs the precise spatial frame, consuming a portion of the limited time buffer. As assembly commences, you proceed with shipping preparations, ordering custom packaging and instructing the logistics team to explore the fastest delivery options. However, you receive a response indicating that transportation companies cannot accommodate your cargo for air transport (3 days) or express road delivery (7 days) due to its dimensions and weight. The remaining options are sea freight (20-40 days) and rail transport (20-30 days). Your hopes of meeting the deadline crumble in the face of these extended delivery times.

This example, while exaggerated, highlights the importance of proactive planning. In most cases, you'll identify potential issues or find workarounds before reaching the delivery stage. Nonetheless, this cautionary tale aims to motivate you to thoroughly consider the chain of events leading to a satisfied Customer.

The Importance of Packaging and Shipping Planning

2 charts illustrating ineffective and effective approaches to time management planning

Imagine the disappointment if a meticulously crafted prototype arrives at your Customer's doorstep, shattered due to mishandling by the delivery service. While insurance and legal recourse may be available, they offer little consolation when a crucial investor presentation is disrupted or a critical trade show exhibit is left empty-handed. This is why packaging and shipping planning are not mere afterthoughts; they are integral to project success.

Packaging can even influence design decisions. An additional 100mm in height could transform a speedy three-day airfreight shipment into a two-week maritime journey. Securing components with wooden elements requires phytosanitary certification to avoid unexpected return shipments. Customs clearance procedures add another layer of complexity. Transportation companies have their own loading and delivery protocols, which can span days or even weeks. Simply throwing money at the problem won't always expedite the process.

Leveraging Off-the-Shelf Devices as Subsystems

Breakdown of the project components

When developing complex products that can be modularized into subsystems, actively seek out ready-made modules. Avoid trying to reinvent the wheel from scratch. Electronics developers will immediately recognize the value of Arduino or Raspberry Pi in this context.

Consider a scenario where you're designing a woodworking machine or an automated laboratory filter. Your device requires a vacuum system within its working zone to remove byproducts (shavings or moisture). This could involve assembling a subsystem consisting of a vacuum pump or turbine, designing ductwork, calculating filters, creating a PCB for turbine drive control, and considering the ergonomics of container emptying.

Alternatively, you could integrate a ready-made vacuum cleaner as a donor component. This approach provides a nearly complete subsystem with predictable performance characteristics.

It's crucial to emphasize that this approach is most effective in the early stages of development. The reasons are straightforward:

  • Focus on core innovation: By utilizing off-the-shelf components, you can concentrate your efforts on the novel aspects of your product, adding value rather than replicating existing solutions.
  • Reduce variability and uncertainty during prototyping: A commercial product, like a vacuum cleaner, is inherently more reliable and predictable than a custom-built system, especially during initial prototyping.
  • Manage expenses judiciously: While development costs for a vacuum system (as in the example) are inevitable, deferring them to later stages of product development allows for more efficient resource allocation.

Material and Component Procurement

Unless a project demands exceptional speed, the manufacturing process typically commences only after the design engineer has finalized the design and marked the model as "Ready for Production." The manufacturing engineer reviews the documentation and 3D models, asks clarifying questions, makes adjustments related to the production process, and in extreme cases, may request the design engineer to modify their solutions to simplify manufacturing. The manufacturing engineer then places orders for materials if they are not in stock for the specific prototype. For instance, we do not maintain a stock of steel blanks for milling above 50mm thickness and always order them for each project.

Meanwhile, the project manager and the procurement engineer collaborate to review the list of purchased components, explore procurement options, and coordinate with the design engineer to identify suitable alternatives. The entire process described above can range from a week to several months, depending on the time required for all components and materials to be delivered to our production facility.

Deadlines often serve as a critical factor not only for project success but also for the business success of our Customers. This may be driven by an upcoming exhibition or competition where the prototype needs to be showcased, parallel development by competitors, or pressure from investors demanding swift results. In such scenarios, several strategies can be employed to expedite the project, primarily focused on minimizing the lead time for materials and components from external suppliers.

These strategies include:

  • Early analysis of special materials: If your product operates in demanding conditions or the technology necessitates the use of specialized steels or alloys, structural plastics, initiate inquiries with suppliers for quotes, delivery times, and stock availability within a couple of days after project kickoff.
  • Early procurement of known components: Approximately 80% of the purchased components are identified after the completion of layout models. Share this list with the procurement engineer immediately, inquire about availability and delivery times. You may need to consider alternative options solely based on delivery timelines.
  • Buffering stock for critical components: The layout provides preliminary dimensions of components. Consider ordering blanks with a stock. While this entails additional investment and results in leftover material at the project's end that may be difficult to utilize, evaluate whether these trade-offs are justified to mitigate the risk of missed deadlines.

Design-Manufacturing Interaction: Fostering Collaboration

Design and manufacturing engineers collaboration

Initiate discussions between the manufacturing engineer and the design engineer as soon as the concept or layout of the device is finalized. While these discussions may involve heated debates and some initial tension, if your team embraces conflicts as opportunities for improvement, they will ultimately lead to better technical solutions.

For instance, you may determine that an aluminum enclosure with the appropriate coating can perform as well as a steel one, the milling time will be reduced by half. Alternatively, an oversized component that cannot fit into your machining equipment could be divided into multiple parts and manufactured simultaneously, rather than waiting in line for external metalworking services.

The Designer Who Assembles

Industrious design engineer involved in assembling

The transition from design to manufacturing, from 3D models to tangible components and assemblies, marks a critical and often challenging phase that can significantly delay a project. If your goal is to expedite this stage, we advocate for eliminating it altogether – not by abandoning the manufacturing process but by actively involving the system's designer in its fabrication.

Our electronics engineers don't merely create CAD designs and hand them off to a distant factory; they actively assemble the PCB, verify component functionality, and develop and deploy firmware. These tasks can be distributed among various specialists, including circuit designers, embedded software developers, and other domain experts.

While you could generate text files, record videos, produce drawings, and annotate code to ensure your colleague understands the project, such documentation significantly increases the demands on documentation and communication during information transfer.

We reiterate that high-quality documentation is crucial; however, setting priorities is equally important. Do you require such extensive documentation for the initial prototype? Is it more critical to showcase your product at CES in Las Vegas this year or delay the launch by three weeks to adhere to strict documentation standards? As the product owner, the decision lies in your hands.

If you visit our facility, don't be surprised to encounter our lead design engineer, with 15 years of experience, wielding a wrench in the workshop. After all, as he tightens a specific nut, he's already considering the optimal approach and timing for the task.

In closing,

We venture beyond conventional project management advice to offer unconventional solutions for those facing daunting deadlines. Once again, we emphasize the importance of establishing a clear "out of scope" list, meticulously planning packaging and delivery of the final product, and factoring material procurement into the timeline.

When confronting tight deadlines, rather than reinventing the wheel, consider utilizing readily available off-the-shelf solutions for product subsystems. Fostering early collaboration between designers and manufacturing engineers can optimize the design to minimize rework, while involving developers in prototype assembly can expedite product fabrication.

Finally, prioritize effectively: releasing a product on time with minimal documentation, which can be finalized later, is often preferable to delaying the launch in pursuit of perfect readiness for all project components. Tight deadlines demand unconventional approaches, and we are confident that adhering to these principles will enhance your project's success.