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One of my biggest nightmares involves getting a call from my boss over the weekend; there’s a problem and they need documentation that I manage, but they can’t find it on our shared drive.
As someone who is responsible for the files and documents related to electrical work, I always want to make sure that all the data I manage is accessible to my team and coworkers. If they need to look at anything I’m working on, they’ll know exactly where to find it. It goes without saying that my teammates should always be able to find what they are looking for at any point in time.
At a small company, it’s important to have rules and guidelines about managing documentation. I’m sure bigger companies have full-time employees who oversee PLM systems and make sure every piece of work is documented in a clean and comprehensive way. In a startup environment, though, this type of work usually falls on engineers and the technologists doing the actual testing. On top of our engineering tasks, we must make sure that the details of our research and testing are documented. In such a fast-paced work environment where new issues and tasks arise almost every day, there is always lots to do, and it is very easy to forget what was done a week ago, not to mention a month or a year ago.
For a while, I was the only electrical engineer at my company, and I was constantly backing up my data. However, sometimes when I’m in the rush to get things done and move on to the next task, things like documentation slip through the cracks. I always reassure myself, “I did the testing, and I will remember what I did if it’s needed.” But we deal with so many tasks that it is impossible to keep it all in my head. The information is in there somewhere, for sure, but no human can remember every detail of everything they’ve ever done, unless they have a photographic memory. Even then, a photographic memory is no use to team members looking for that previous revision.
For instance, recently I was working on some EMI issues with one of my set-ups. We did some work on this over a year ago, but I couldn’t remember exactly what was done or if any changes were made to the system because there wasn’t any real documentation about the testing or results. I asked the co-workers who were involved with the issue at the time, but no one could remember any of the specifics, or even the outcome. So, I had to start from scratch: everything from defining the issue, identifying why it is present, and understanding the root cause, to figuring out the solution and implementing it, as well as making sure that I documented all the information every step of the way.
A few months later, someone asked me about it, and I had a hard time remembering every piece of the puzzle. I looked over my detailed documentation and I immediately remembered all the specifics of the project. Sometimes that’s all we need—a quick refresher, a summary, or a few bullet points to remind us of what was done. Now, I can always go back to that document and answer any questions about the issue with certainty. This was a great lesson for me personally; now, I would never let anything I do go undocumented, because doing it all over again from scratch proved to be a big, complicated task. And an unnecessary task at that.
Some areas are problematic in the best of times. For instance, revision tracking of design files can turn into a rabbit hole very quickly. Whether it’s 2D drawings, PCB design files or CAD files, everyone has different processes and philosophies about revisions. What constitutes a revision bump? Do I have to let everyone know, even if it’s a really small change?
In theory, of course, it would be best to track every single change, but as with testing documentation, this can prove to be a tedious and time-consuming task. Some people update the revision with every minor update, while others don’t even start revisioning documents unless they are close to being released. In my opinion, the revision tracking process is dependent upon your team members and their needs.
As long as everyone on your team is on the same page and there is a system in place, it’s easy to follow the process and guidelines and keep everything up to date. This, of course, means you need to come up with a system in the first place, and this on its own can be quite a challenging task. On one hand, you don’t want to—for a lack of a better word—spam your coworkers or manufacturing partner with documents every single day. But on the other hand, you don’t want to be complacent about changes either, as this can lead to issues such as modifications not being implemented, different drawings with the same revisions, and many more mistakes, missteps, and miscues.
Revision tracking also proves to be challenging when you have a lot of products and a variety of technical documentation that needs to be tracked. Certain projects can have one revision convention, while others may need something different. Some documents don’t get updated as often, while for others, there aren’t enough letter and number combinations to keep up with all the changes.
PLM systems and software can be helpful for tracking, but before you even get started with one of those systems, you must have all your documents with proper revisions, and set up in the first place, so that the system can track it for you. Anything we can do to keep the documentation up to date is very helpful when it comes to sharing files with contract manufacturers, new co-workers, or contractors; if it is managed properly, it is useful for avoiding problems in the future.
But getting to the point where everyone is used to the revision tracking system you put in place can be a long and challenging process. This is why it’s best to start the tracking system from the early stages of design, even though that’s not everyone’s first thought while developing a new product. If you start early enough, by the time you’re overwhelmed with the amount of work you must do, documentation becomes second nature. The truth is that this type of discipline and proper data management can help engineers and companies complete their goals and meet their objectives.
My philosophy is that we should leave our positions better than we found them. If we move on to another job or company, whoever comes after us can use the data and files we created to get familiarized with the job and start running with it right away. This is all achievable if you follow the rules that are set forth and make it your goal to not leave anything undocumented.
In the end, it really comes down to doing what works best for you and your design team. Develop a data management process, stick with it, and take responsibility and ownership for your portion of the work. There are many benefits when it’s done properly and it’s definitely better than the alternative. I’d rather struggle a bit in the beginning and take the time needed to get familiar with the system in place than start panicking at the last moment when documents are not up to date, and revisions are not matching up or files are missing.
As an anonymous engineer once said, “Control your data; don’t let it control you.”
Tamara Jovanovic is an electrical engineer with Happiest Baby, a Los Angeles-based developer of smart baby beds.
This article originally appeared in the November 2021 issue of Design007 Magazine.