Applying Agile Principles to Traditional Engineering Design

Agile software development methods evolved as a reaction to traditional project management methods that focused on documentation, change control and the linear execution of tasks. Agile methods recognize the complex and highly non-linear nature of software development and address the associated risks by encouraging a range of working practices. While these practices are well accepted within the software industry, they have not yet permeated into the more traditional engineering design disciplines found in the aerospace or automotive engineering industries. The following considers the how some of the main agile principles and practices associated with Scrum, eXtreme Programming and Test-Driven Development, could be applied.

Small Regular Deliverables

At the heart of agile is the incremental delivery of projects in small regular intervals, rather than one large delivery at the end. Each of the delivery iterations is a subset of the entire development lifecycle and is demonstrated to the customer. This has the effect of reducing the risks associated with the development progressing in a direction that is not consistent with customer requirements. Applying this principle to engineering design does have some limitations, particularly since the cost and complexity of construction usually prohibits multiple iterations. However, within the design phase of an engineering project, there are good opportunities to use this approach and it is this part of the product life cycle that has been considered.

During the design phase of an engineering project, milestones are often introduced to mark preliminary and critical phases of the design. These milestones do encourage incremental delivery, but they are neither small enough, nor regular enough to be consistent with agile principles. Modern CAD tools enable rapid development of digital mock-ups that can fulfil this objective. The CAD model can contain sufficient design detail to accurately represent the product and surrounding structure. As a result the CAD model can be used as the basis for verifying many different acceptance criteria. Additionally, rapid prototyping systems enable the creation of physical mock-ups that greatly enhance customer engagement and interaction with the design process.

From an agile perspective these deliverables are important for customer engagement and verification of the design direction. However, prototypes that do not add directly to the final product are not valued as highly as actual progress toward the final delivered product. That said, there is still significant opportunity to make incremental deliverables part of the design process and no technical reason why this cannot occur throughout this phase of an engineering project.

Deliverables Measure Progress

Customers often propose an earned value schedule for a project that is based on deliverables and is linked to either financial payments, or the release of additional project funds. These types of earned value measures are compatible with agile principles, particularly if they are granular enough to encourage close customer involvement in the project.

For engineering design projects, the CAD model is increasingly becoming a digital representation of the complete product including geometry, materials, manufacturing details and even the original design intent. Measuring the progress of CAD model maturity and conformance with acceptance criteria will provide the most agile measure of project progress.

Customer Collaboration

Customer satisfaction is considered important in engineering design projects, but the value of customer involvement in the development and review of the design as it progresses, is not widely utilized. Many project resource models fail to consider the benefits that can be achieved through close engagement with the customer, even for tasks that may appear well defined and understood.

Traditionally, the approach has been to develop highly prescriptive specifications and then negotiate changes with the customer using forms and documents such as Engineering Change Notes. In an agile environment, changes are driven by the customer and embraced by the development team. During the design phase of an engineering project there appears no reason why the same approach cannot be used. Additionally, when collaboration occurs between the customer and the engineering design team, the customer will tend to accept a greater level of responsibility for decisions as they can clearly see their impact on scope, schedule and cost.

The Scrum model advocates meetings that occur daily and at the end of each delivery iteration or sprint. The daily meetings involve the customer and all team members and are an opportunity to discuss each team member’s progress, plans and any obstacles. The iteration review and planning meetings also involve the customer and is their opportunity to prioritise the order in which features are implemented. This ensures that the development team are always working on the features that are of the highest value to the customer. These meetings may not always be practical because of team size, geographic locations or prior commitments; however, even at a small scale they have significant value. In large projects where the majority of engineering design work occurs in a separate location, a daily telephone or internet conference call with all team members will achieve a similar result and is a technique that is very valuable.

Simplicity and Design

Starting with the simplest possible solution that satisfies customer requirements and then maturing the solution during course of the project, is a common agile practice. This approach is somewhat at odds with software architecture design principles, which often need to be addressed early in a project. The conflict is typically resolved by developing software in such a way that it can be re-structured as easily as possible.

The main techniques for achieving this include: maintaining loose coupling between components and implementing automated tests. The loose coupling provides the opportunity to easily replace components or restructure the overall design with minimum impact. Automated tests allow architectural or component changes to be verified quickly thus further lowering the cost associated with changing and evolving the solution through the course of the project. This process is often referred to as refactoring.

For engineering design projects, implementing the simplest possible solution is an implicit assumption for most engineers and therefore compatible with agile principles. What is lacking however, is automated testing that verifies design changes. Significant work has already been done to automate structural analysis methods using both computational and classical analysis methods. However, this analysis is generally performed manually as a supplementary activity, rather than a concurrent activity that is automated. Therefore an opportunity exists to implement automatic design verification against customer defined acceptance criteria.

Embracing Changing Requirements

Traditionally, engineering project management practices have emphasized the need to control change. This is partly because project change has been closely associated with project cost, especially within a fixed price environment. Conversely, agile principles are based around an assumption that change will inevitably occur during the course of a project and that it is better to position the solution and working practices so that they can easily adapt. Furthermore, in an agile project it will be necessary to compromise at least one of either project; scope, cost or schedule and customers need to appreciate that they are responsible for guiding this compromise.

The agile practices of refactoring and automated testing help, software projects adapt to change, while the close customer involvement ensures that changes are identified as early as possible. For engineering design projects these principles can be applied as equivalent technical solutions exist, however the costs associated with automated testing can be very high. Consequently, engineers typically question the return on investment associated with automated verification. Additionally, engineers often take a conservative approach to alternate design methods and therefore changes are typically met with strong resistance. That said, there is generally a trend towards engineering automation and this is likely to evolve into automated testing.

Pair Programming/Working

Pair programming has attracted controversy because managers typically assume that having two developers implement the same functionality is only half as efficient as conventional working models. As an agile practice, pair programming has the effect of increasing software quality through peer review. Quality is critical as it ensures that the resultant software is in a state where it can be adapted to meet changing or additional requirements.

In a typical engineering design environment, the practice of pair working is uncommon. This maybe in part because of how tasks are broken down and matched to people with appropriate skills and experience. Another reason maybe the perceived cost ineffectiveness. Either way, the clear benefits that pair working provides should justify its adoption more widely.

With this in mind, there may be better ways to decompose engineering design tasks so as to exploit the skill and experience combinations that pair working offers. An example could be pairing a structural designer and analyst, instead of having the designer initiate structural layouts and the analyst size the structural features. This would encourage a more concurrent approach and result in a higher quality design and less rework.


Agile methods have become the default approach for software development projects. Many of the agile practices and principles can be more generally applied to other disciplines including engineering design. The opportunity for engineering design organizations is to improve the reliability of project success and the quality of resultant designs.

2 comments for “Applying Agile Principles to Traditional Engineering Design

  1. Rick Zhang
    Sun 26 Apr 2009 at 6:24 AM


    I am a fan of both Agile and your weblog. I have been following your blog for a while. I particularly like this post on Applying Agile Principles to Traditional Engineering Design. It is very insightful and interesting.

    Keep up the good work. I am looking forward to reading your next post.


  2. Mon 27 Apr 2009 at 5:54 PM

    Thanks Rick – Great to hear you enjoyed the content and would be interested to hear if you are able to apply any of the ideas at your workplace.


Leave a Reply

Fork me on GitHub