Barbara Stilwell Baker

Mixed-discipline teams are key to complex product development. I wrote about this more than twenty years ago, and it’s still true today.

In my behind-the-scenes role at Stilwell Baker, I don’t often go to customer’s sites. But recently I had the opportunity to join the field trial for a new prototype we’re developing. This project is what we call a “rescue.” Our customer’s previous attempt to develop this product (with another company) failed because they didn’t have the diverse expertise necessary for a complex design.

This is a great project for Stilwell Baker because of the diverse skill sets and deep technical knowledge required to resolve the design issues. The high voltage and digital control circuitry required a complex blend of hardware, firmware, and mechanical engineering all working concurrently in support of each other to meet the product goal.

I watched with curiosity and pride as our engineers melded seamlessly with the customer’s field service technicians. We applied solid theoretical knowledge; while they brought the real world application. They asked how far we could go; we told them the limits as defined by safety standards. They showed us challenges they face in the field, and we changed the firmware to accommodate their needs. Throughout the field trial I enjoyed the warm camaraderie and good-natured teasing:

Customer: what output would you expect in a different installation?
Fred: I’ve done those calculations. I’ll send you a report.
Customer: Aw, we don’t want a report—give us a guess. Why can’t engineers just guess?! C’mon, Fred, guess!

 The benefit of deploying a mixed-discipline team of principal and senior engineers to solve a complex series of problems is a field trial that couldn’t have gone much better. By the Customer’s measure, our prototype exceeded their most optimistic expectations. For Stilwell Baker, the prototype performed as designed—and the minor issues raised were already addressed and designed into the pilot units!

Customer: Did you really expect the prototype unit to perform this well in this demanding installation?
Fred: Well, yeah!