We recently explored how numerous companies across nearly every industry had already been embracing a more flexible working environment well before the circumstances of COVID-19. However, some of the more physical aspects of product development cannot be folded up in a backpack and executed at home. CNC machines and assembly lines, for instance, can’t be quickly relocated to the guest bedroom or garage.
Yet, there are still plenty of other design tasks and processes that are more flexible – critical work that doesn’t require teams to remain in a fixed location.
To find out how companies with an office-first culture have been coping with the unexpected remote work situation forced by the coronavirus, I recently checked in with OceanGate, a Seattle-based developer of manned submersible vehicles for research, documentary films and adventure travel. (The main difference between a “submarine” and a “submersible” is that a submersible needs to be recharged and supported by a surface vessel, while a submarine is fully autonomous with a renewable power source onboard.)
It’s not a stretch to say that Dan Scoville, Director of Engineering and Operations, was born to design subs. In addition to his extensive background as a subsea engineer in the oil and gas industry – solving mechanical problems 10,000 feet below the surface – he’s also a lifelong adventure diver who has found more than two dozen shipwrecks that were previously undiscovered.
OceanGate is collaborating with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, to develop and manufacture a new aerospace-grade carbon fiber hull for its submersibles. The company is also now preparing for its 2021 Titanic Survey Expedition for “citizen explorers” to visit and observe the historic wreck site 380 nautical miles south of Newfoundland, Canada.
OceanGate currently has seven CAD users, three of which are out-of-state contractors who have always contributed remotely. But for the core design team, working from home is a brand new experience.
“I've never been a work-from-home guy. Well, at least not for teams,” says Scoville. “In my past lives at previous companies, we've never had that as an option. My sense of it was that being remote makes it harder to collaborate – that the team is better than the sum of its parts when everyone is face-to-face.”
“So the big thing that I’ve learned through this process is that our engineering team can be productive at home, especially if we're all remote and maintaining regular communications throughout the day. We use Microsoft Teams for conferences, but Onshape helps us tremendously to collaborate on the mechanical front,“ he adds.
For the OceanGate production team on the shop floor, duplicating the same tasks is tougher, Scoville acknowledges, but says “we’re using the time to write procedures and really up our game on the paperwork and documentation side.”
PTC’s Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) Onshape product development platform allows multiple engineers to simultaneously work on the same CAD model remotely online from any computer, tablet or phone. Whenever one engineer makes a design change, everyone else on the team instantly sees it.
A comprehensive Edit History tracks who made which design change and when – and teams can also instantly share CAD models with colleagues or external partners with varying levels of editing/viewing access.
“The greatest part about Onshape is that I can always see everything that my team is doing. And I don’t need to have a specific licensed computer, use a VPN, or have a separate PDM system. I can just quickly login online and see what they are working on,” Scoville says.
“Onshape is really collaborative,” he adds. “Our team has recently been working on this ‘dropping legs’ mechanism to let the pilot shed weight in the case of an emergency. It’s a deep backup feature and I can just pop into the design and see how it’s going. It’s also valuable for getting quick feedback from our CEO. We can both be in the model and he can say what he likes, what he doesn’t like, bring up issues and offer suggestions.”
OceanGate’s inaugural Titanic Survey Expedition, scheduled for summer 2021, will consist of a series of week-long missions aboard the Titan submersible. Each mission will carry 40 people including 9 “citizen explorers” alongside researchers, crew and historical experts. The citizen explorers will assist the crew in roles such as communication, navigation, sonar operation, photography and dive planning.
The submersible can be navigated by a video game controller, allowing crew members to be able to take turns piloting without any knowledge of traditional submarine gauges and instrumentation.
“More people have walked on the moon than have been to the Titanic,” notes Scoville. “So it's pretty rare for anyone to be at those kinds of depths in the ocean. It’s a really exciting opportunity.”
“I’ve been telling my team all along that the sweet spot to get the engineering done for the Titan is between January and Q3 of this year. If we get the design right, we’re going to be in good shape when we get into next year,” he says. “I feel like we’re progressing really well right now. This hiccup has slowed us down a bit, but I’m pretty happy that we can keep going and stay on track.”
When the business sector in Washington state returns to “normal” again, might OceanGate have a more flexible approach to remote work?
“I’m definitely more open to it now because I can see that it is working,” says Scoville. “I’m very curious how this might change the entire engineering industry. I think many more companies will adopt this work-from-home mindset now that we’ve been forced to learn it, worked our way through it and proved we can still be productive.”
“It all comes down to productivity,” he adds. “There are definitely guys who I feel confident in already who are going to get more done at home than they would have at the office because there are less distractions, and fewer people interrupting them throughout the day.”