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PTC Jumps On the Agile Engineering Bandwagon

PTC CEO Jim Heppelmann at LiveWorx 2016.

PTC CEO Jim Heppelmann at LiveWorx 2016. Image courtesy of Desktop Engineering

As dozens of companies and thousands of attendees descended on LiveWorx 2016 this week, there was a lot of talk about the transformative power of the Internet of Things (IoT) and some pretty mind-blowing demonstrations of IoT-enabled products and services. To help companies get products over the IoT goal line, PTC, the Grand Poobah presiding over the big event, rolled out a concept that is much closer to its product development roots.

During keynotes and major product demos, PTC kept circling back to agile engineering, the concept of applying many of the same agile principles now so prevalent in software development to the design of physical products. The reason design engineers should acquaint themselves with proven agile concepts like sprints and scrums? According to PTC CEO Jim Heppelmann, agile methods are critical to helping companies respond rapidly to feedback from customers as they dive into the complexity of developing IoT products, as well as to accelerate how quickly these new innovations get to market and disrupt existing business models. It’s been reported that companies successfully deploying agile practices can accelerate their innovation by up to 80%, according to a study by McKinsey & Company.

“The biggest problem with agile for [product development] is prototypes,” Heppelmann says. “Prototypes are easy, free and fast with software. They’re hard with product development. In order to do agile for cross-discipline digital products, you need some agile/scrum capabilities [as well as] PLM (product lifecycle management) and ALM (application lifecycle management) — to manage all the data that’s there.”

AgileWorx Announced

PTC didn’t just talk about agile engineering in abstract terms, it actually announced a product — AgileWorx — that it claims is the first Agile solution built specifically around agile concepts and targeted at product engineering teams. Part of PTC’s Application Lifecycle Management portfolio, AgileWorx is a cloud-based solution that serves as a central hub where engineering teams can visualize work in progress, prioritize activities, identify dependences and remove impediments to meeting key design milestones.

One of the key components of AgileWorx is Team Room, a virtual home base for project information, including a Team Taskboard that provides clear visibility, traceability and accountability of all the work assigned to the agile team. There is a backlog management function where product owners can easily prioritize “user stories,” another agile concept, across multiple product variants in addition to sprint planning, a function for defining specific time-sensitive work and breaking down large deliverables into smaller tasks. The platform also links to ALM, PLM and CAD data to ensure more successful project outcomes, claims PTC.

Applying Agile to Product Development

In addition to the official AgileWorx launch, various PTC execs spent time talking up how to apply agile concepts to traditional product development. Scott Morris, a senior product manager at PTC, showcased how he was working with his FIRST Robotics team, part of a STEM competition targeting high-school students, to apply agile engineering concepts to their robot design as a new way to approach the challenge. In addition to organizing into multidisciplinary scrum teams, creating a backlog of stories, and doing sprint planning, the FIRST team also experimented with a new approach to design reviews, swapping out the use of traditional prototypes for an augmented reality (AR) version using PTC’s new Vuforia Studio product.

“Doing design reviews with prototypes is easy in the software world, but much harder to do in the physical world,” Morris explains. “AR used as part of the design review process provides a way to have regular check-ins with customers at the end of each sprint.”

Using the agile methods, the FIRST team was able to switch gears and change a six-wheel design that was having problems getting over obstacles into an eight-wheel concept in fairly short order. “A team of high school students with no engineering background used agile techniques across mechanical, electrical, and software disciplines to create a smart, connected product and solve their problems pretty quickly,” Hepplemann says. “Design teams need to take that as a wake-up call.”

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With PTC as its guide, a high school team leveraged agile methodologies to design, and redesign, its robot for the FIRST robotics competition. Image Courtesy of Desktop Engineering

Joe Justice, vice president of hardware at Scrum Inc., an authority on Scrum practices, made his case for taking the development methodology to hardware by telling the story of the Wikispeed, a project to build a fast, ultra efficient safe and fun commuter car. By leveraging modern software practices like agile, lean and scrum, Justice and team produced a functional prototype of the Wikispeed car in just three months.

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The Wikispeed team used agile methodologies to develop their car prototype in three months vs. the usual multi-year process. Image Courtesy of Desktop Engineering

“You might question whether agile is relevant for what you do because you don’t produce software, but every industry can benefit from these techniques,” Justice said in his presentation. “In fact, for any team or company to maintain relevancy or even compete, they have to adopt these processes.”

Watch this video to hear Joe Justice’s TEDtalk on the WikiSpeed project.

— DE’s Associate Editor Jess Lulka also contributed reporting to this article.

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About Beth Stackpole

Beth Stackpole is a contributing editor to Digital Engineering. Send e-mail about this article to DE-Editors@digitaleng.news.

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