Unifying Physical and Digital Project Planning

Project planning is important no matter the industry or project development process. Planning lays the groundwork for weeks or months of work, eventually resulting in a completed project, or in my case as a developer, a completed product. Similar to a building with a weak foundation, a project lacking proper planning results in missed deadlines, subpar results, and frustration. Project planning is especially important for both development teams and CAD engineers designing products for manufacturing. For me and my team, a lack of successful planning can result in additional development time, increased bugs, and confusion amongst the team. If a design isn’t manufacturable, then companies can face even larger problems such as parts that don’t meet specs, parts that can’t be shipped, increased design time, and ultimately money wasted. Simple project planning strategies can help you avoid these issues. Project planning has changed alongside advancements in technology. There are now countless tools to aid in project/product planning, many of them with hefty price tags. Tools for this have emerged because, in our digital world, planning doesn’t just happen with pen and paper anymore. There’s a strong need to bridge the physical and the digital when planning so we can seamlessly integrate planning into execution. This helps ensure accuracy and efficiency with time and resources. If you don’t have deep pockets for a fancy new tool to help, you can still successfully unify digital and physical project planning. I’ll use my personal experience doing this at SolidProfessor to explain how. personal planning experience

1. Gather all requirements

Before even attempting to plan out a project, you need to make sure you have the goal of the project or product clearly defined and all of the requirements outlined. This information is often captured by meeting with the project stakeholders. This is an essential step for ensuring that the goals and requirements at this phase ultimately match up with the delivered project or product. For example, when my team and I worked on an LMS Integration project, we met with our sales and success teams to understand what was needed. Once these initial goals and requirements are understood, my team works together to whiteboard ideas for dev execution. As you might imagine, there are a number of ways to build LMS Integration. Whiteboarding, the act of throwing whiteboard paint onto a physical whiteboard gives us a starting place. We use the whiteboard ideas to discuss options, make sure the ideas align with the goals and requirements discussed with stakeholders, evaluate resources to come up with the best option, and ultimately decide on a path forward. In many ways, this is similar for a CAD designer who must understand the shipping/transportation requirements, the environment in which a part must exist, for example, withstand a certain amount of pressure or heat, and the required lifetime of a part before designing. There are many ways for a CAD designer to get to the same result, so all of those options must be considered and evaluated. considering and evaluating options

2. Copy physical content (ideas) to digital tool

Once an execution path has been decided on the whiteboard, we must transfer all of our whiteboard ideas into a digital tool so we do not lose any of the ideas, have a “paper trail” for how we arrived where we arrived, and can quickly iterate and change paths without starting over if we encounter a speed bump with our plan. This digital tool does not need to be fancy or expensive, in fact, I encourage you to start with something that is easy to use and inexpensive. At SolidProfessor, we use Gitlab who offers a free option and is relatively inexpensive for their other plans as well. To digitally record our whiteboard content, we take a photo of our ‘whiteboarding’ exercise and attach it in Gitlab. Attaching a snapshot of the actual whiteboard content keeps team members accountable to the decisions that were made and also helps with speed and accessibility. In the world of CAD, drawings are no longer done on a drafting board so it is imperative that these ideas get added to a digital tool and are accessible to others throughout the “production” team.

3. Organize ideas in digital tool

Now that you have a rough plan, you need to organize the detailed execution of that plan–where do you start? For a dev team, we break down the strategy of the project into small bite-sized tasks and estimate time and effort for each task and prioritize the order in which they will be completed. All of this happens in our digital tool, Gitlab, as it’s as simple as drag and drop. We can make adjustments as needed and also use it as a communication tool for our project stakeholders to know what is being done and when. The key to this stage of project planning is making sure to always work on the most important and impactful items first. For a CAD designer, this step is even more important because they are at the beginning of the project process and aren’t actually shipping a product, but rather a design to the next team. So this type of detailed prioritization is essential in communicating when the design will be sent for printing, and therefore when it will be packaged and shipped. executing on the plan

4. Execute

Now that the foundation of the project has been laid, it’s time to execute on the plan set forth. The two most important factors to keep in mind during execution are communication and executing according to plan without straying. Communication allows you and others to make sure that you continue to be on the same page and executing according to plan. There’s no point in putting in the time to accurately plan if you don’t follow the plan, so making sure you remain within the scope of the project, dedicated to the original goals and requirements of the project, and on schedule, is essential to successful execution. Physical project planning is the critical first step in managing the group’s ideas. Whether it’s a software development team or engineering team, capturing the group’s initial ideas is vital to a successful project. Digital planning is equally important because it’s the space where the project will live until completion. In today’s digital age, we have to consider and integrate both physical and digital planning in order to successfully execute a project, no matter if it’s a development project or designing for manufacturing.

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Jeremy Hamm
About the Author

SolidProfessor Web Developer and future master gardener.