For projects large and small, sometimes the best solutions unfold under the guidance of outside experts. It makes sense to use a consultant instead of investing in rarely needed software, or when a niche task crops up that’s beyond your staff’s expertise. But how do you really know when it’s time to hire engineering services? What do they need to do the job well, and how do you make it all work when those people are across the city — or the continent?
Consultants can be lifesavers, or at least project-savers. The above questions and others form great starting points for successfully partnering with outside help, whether a one-person business or a service with multiple experts and locations. Here are the must-do steps for a great outcome.
1. Decide whether you even need a consultant.
Time, resources and experience are at the core of why companies seek outside analysis help.
When the client needs a quick turnaround, the client has a problem requiring expertise and/or equipment that it does not have, and/or the client needs the solution to a complex problem requiring specific expertise that the service provider knows the field better than anyone else.
Sometimes it’s just a matter of project scheduling — you own analysis software, but you’re short on time and simply need someone to get the task done, for example. The in-house team can focus on other areas, or take the time to build up internal experience to do the next job themselves.
Often a company, regardless of size, does analysis infrequently and can’t justify developing in-house capabilities, it’s not just about the cost of the software.
You have to consider getting the tools, getting the training, and adding the headcount. If it’s something you’re going to do on a regular basis, maybe it makes sense to make that investment. If you’re only going to do analysis occasionally, then maybe it’s more cost-effective to let someone else do it.
Many projects require niche expertise, from understanding the properties of composite materials to predicting the wear effects of water flow on a structure. Consultants generally have more time to focus on details that go beyond your everyday workflow; they know the latest in code compliance and standards, or the tradeoffs that can optimize system-level behavior. Even companies well versed in general structural or fluid dynamics analysis may simply not have the depth to thoroughly perform such specific tasks.
One additional, very good reason exists for looking to outside expertise: creativity.
When people go outside for engineering services, it’s often to get ‘fresh eyes’ on the problem, to get innovation injected into their product development process.
2. Be confident you’re choosing the right company by asking the right questions up front.
Fundamentally, the Top 2 considerations are: can they do what you want, and can you work with them? The information you need to decide yes or no, then, comes from answers to such questions as:
- Does the consultant have the level of expertise required to help meet the goals of the engagement?
- Have they successfully worked on similar projects?
- What kind of engineering degrees and how many years of experience does the staff have?
- Have they worked with clients whose names you recognize as industry leaders?
- Is the engagement going to be transactional, or are they in a position to be a long-term partner, learning your processes and practices, with the expertise to help in multiple ways?
- Can they effectively articulate their findings to you in a manner you can understand? Will this include insight into your product or process?
- Are they flexible in how they work, and can they easily accommodate changes in scope — common needs in these types of engagements?
- Do they use the best software tools, and have access to sufficient computer hardware to produce the correct answer to your problem in a timely manner?
Understandably, customers also look for an objective metric, such as hourly rate, to compare to others. If they can do things better and faster, and give you a lower total cost then the total cost and its value are what’s important.
3. Determine the path that starts at proposal and ends with results.
Clients come to a consultant because they have a problem that ideally translates into a specific analysis or experiment.
No one ever just wants ‘an analysis’; they need the analysis to answer certain questions or to use as an example to learn how an experienced supplier approaches the simulation. What do you want to know at the end of the engagement that you do not know now? The more consultants understand the objectives, the better.
The more details, the better. The relevant geometry, material data, loading and all other data should be made available up front. This way, it will be clear what data is missing, providing the maximum amount of lead time for acquiring it.
4. Communication and progress tracking are critical.
Consultants often break a project into one-month sections with defined deliverables, making weekly phone calls to discuss progress. Although face-to-face meetings or site visits are helpful, working with a geographically distant consulting company is comparable to using a local one. Quick emails, easy file transfers, multi-site conference calls, and Skype, Webex or GoToMeeting videoconferencing can all keep the job moving smoothly.
Some projects have crisp statements of work (SOW) and specific milestones; for others, the milestones aren’t as clear. Even when deliverables seem well defined; ask, “How good is good enough?” and put in decision gates — setting a certain amount of time after which to decide, for example, should we now refine one of these four design concepts, or evaluate yet others?
5. Ensure that the analysis you receive is valid.
Validation (they’re solving the right model) and verification (they’re solving that model correctly) are both important aspects of the analysis to monitor. To do so, depending on the size of a project, you may first hire an engineering service to set up a pilot program. You could even work in parallel, compare results to your satisfaction, and then have the confidence to turn over the complete program. Or, going in the other direction, the goal could be knowledge transfer so that eventually you’d do analyses yourself.
Either way, you should insist on seeing some type of basic hand calculation to ensure the results are in the ballpark. Analysts should be able to expose the equations they are using — and even point to relevant papers on the subject so you can see the rigor of their approach. Look, too, for clear definitions of the loading, boundary conditions, material models and simplifying assumptions that went into the analysis.
You should review some type of numerical confirmation of the results, such as mesh density effects, heat and force balance, etc. If the results are counterintuitive, possibly also benchmark the analysis results for a similar component that has already been tested.
6. Make sure you’re comfortable with how the company estimates and structures billing.
You should find a company that offers comfortable terms for your needs and budget. Some bill a minimum as low as one day’s work; others do time-and-materials. Most propose contracts with a fixed/not-to-exceed price, including clear, preset milestones. To test the waters, you could always start with a small project first.
7. Find out how security and intellectual property concerns are handled.
Clients are understandably sensitive about their information, so non-disclosure agreements are standard. Consultants take pains to keep data, procedures and results secure, making sure only the engineers working on the project have access.
At large companies, it’s possible that two people may be working on similar projects for two different clients, so keeping firm boundaries is critical. At the same time, if your consultant will be writing custom code for the analysis job, be clear as to who owns the work afterward.