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October 19, 2021

Fostering innovation: BigPicture at the TUHH’s Institute of Mechatronics in Mechanics

Gantt Project Management
BigPicture Team

The Institute of Mechatronics in Mechanics at Hamburg University of Technology is running a fantastic lecture “Applied Design Methods in Mechanics”, where they teach their students how to run projects using our signature product – BigPicture. We spoke with Professor Thorsten A. Kern, the initiator of the lecture at the Institute, on how the use of BigPicture software came to the realization in the academic sphere. We discovered what values convinced him to roll out the use of BigPicture to his students and what exciting projects are being developed with the help of our flagship app.

The Professor

Thorsten A. Kern has a wealth of experience in technology and mechatronics. However, with the transition to academia, he realized how beneficial it would be for students and future project managers to acquire skills in utilizing software solutions in the early phases of delivering projects. Consequently, how those skills will lead to the more efficient development of future complex projects.

First encounter with BigPicture

While working for Continental, Professor Kern was responsible for the company’s Head-up-Display team, leading all engineers. In this area, he was a part of the Interior organization, a cluster for any view machinery, such as head, panel, and touch controls and displays. The process of developing those components was divided into 20% mechanic (including optics), 10% electronic, 20% system engineering and 50% software. Making it the total of hours spent on projects. 

Realizing the need for a software solution

Before coming to this arrangement, Professor Kern had been already closely linked to people responsible for mechanical design. Complex mechanical systems required a variety of technical checkpoints and were subject to continuously shifting change factors. He realized there was a demand for a systematic approach to tasks in a more documented manner. The moment he switched into the management role, he quickly decided to extend what was already established, to this point, in software development to other disciplines such as mechanical engineering, technical engineering, and of course, optical engineering.

As a result, the company started to create an extension to the ecosystem and plan complete projects with Jira. As it was a cross-team assignment for system engineers and project managers, this implied the necessity of visualizing timing and working with time. The tool which was available in Continental’s ecosystem but at this stage not so much used cross-disciplinary and would comply was BigPicture.

BigPicture – a tool to meet the requirements

By taking what was proposed, a process to plan some more complex development became possible. BigPicture turned out to be an excellent mediator between the project management’s Microsoft Project and the world of issues and tasks from Jira. It combined planning, integration and created a level of hierarchy for project leads. Project Managers could easily steer the projects and leave behind Excel sheets. BigPicture succeeded in enabling a direct exchange between engineering tasks and project-management and system-engineering planning.

Thanks to BigPicture, most interdependencies were documented, which was specifically relevant for the optics design flow. The Optical engineer has to target the look and feel of the picture in correlation with the optical functions that need to be implemented for the customer. Many factors need to be closely monitored during this process. For example, if the windshield needs to be changed, as the car is not yet completely fixed, then there is a cascade of things that need to be cost-checked before new alternative solutions are adopted. Basically, change is inevitable in all disciplines of mechanics.

A single change triggers a huge action list, and this was all implemented within BigPicture to follow the change accordingly. These were complex projects that needed to be managed, and finding a single source of truth for everyone was a very beneficial outcome that allowed teams to meet all deadlines and react fast. This is how the team benefited from the app. 

BigPicture’s transition into academia

With the opportunity to switch into academia, Professor Kern had an amazing chance to disseminate knowledge, experience, and good practice gained in his previous experience in the field of Project Management. Thus, he established a lecture “Applied Design Methods in Mechanics”. The program only lasts one term; however, it enables students to go through the complete project management process, from planning stages through completion. The main goal of the lecture is to educate students, how a technical project is solved. 

The initiation of the project

At the beginning of each term, students are given a brief of a project. Some information is willingly missing, and some errors might be implemented into the description of a project. This forces students to analyze the whole project, structure the composition, arrange a complete project planning, evaluate the decision-making process, and return with appropriate solutions.

Students are split into teams to keep the momentum of competition growing and also to allow the possibility of different solutions to emerge. Essentially, the academic team and the Professor are monitoring the development progress while lecturing and guiding through. After all initial decisions are made, students are forced to do the proper project planning. They need to define their roles in project management, the scope each individual is responsible for, and align tasks between each other. 

Incorporating software into the project

From the beginning of the project, students are motivated to document everything in Confluence, as the next step is to arrange the planning in Jira. The assumption is to work with Gantt charts showcasing dependencies, build the project hierarchy and assign roles. This is where they intend to use BigPicture. They got a complete crash course on the app, and are explained how to work with agile methodologies; however, they are not forced to do so, as they primarily use Gantt and Scope modules in BigPicture.

Although these tools are oversized for this task,  using them enables students to get used to the professional environment, which later they will find in any industry. At this early stage, they will gain experience with tools and understand how to deal with assignments in real-life scenarios, allowing them to exploit in the future. 

Projects developed with the use of BigPicture

Oceanographic sensor

Last year, the Institute assigned a project to develop an oceanographic platform for sensor technology called Trifter. A football-sized sensor, to be put into the ocean 200m deep, which is designed to measure energy and monitor the dynamics of the sea. The project entitled to design a version of this platform (sensor) to dive according to the trigger – 3 steps up to 10m,  do the measurements, and return to the surface. Teams had to develop meaningful ways of solving it on the technical level, like adding weights, log cable, etc., in various scenarios. Due to the Covid pandemic spread, unfortunately, they couldn’t submit the physical device. However, they provided the Institute with a digital twin, which is a kind of a sophisticated model. In the end, they had to present how it works for external guests from the oceanography society to gain feedback and comments.

Figure 1. Oceanic sensor project in BigPicture.

Braille cell

At the end of 2021, there is a big conference scheduled to take place in Hamburg. The conference is focused on haptic-touch solutions. Hence, this year students were asked to work on a haptic-related topic. The task is to design a Braille cell for blind reading. One of the conditions is the idea to use this device to allow reading in banking – ATM, or in a public environment. The device itself is a button with constantly changing text. This project is currently in progress. The majority of teams are going with a solenoid solution; however, two teams are using completely different systems.

Figure 2. Early-stage of Braille cell project in BigPicture.

Overall project goals

The most important part of the lecture and working on those projects is the process itself. It is about how the students get to a certain result, and not essentially the final outcome. Breaking down the process, documenting it, and using the newest software to allow seamless coordination is critical. Besides, observing the final results of projects conducted by groups is really exciting.

Conclusion and future use of BigPicture

Needless to say, we had to ask the Professor if there were any other alternative products taken into consideration when selecting the software solution for the lecture. The answer was: Of course, there are some alternative tools on the market which are interesting, however not that suitable to fulfil the needs required, as BigPicture. Also, the choice is connected with the fact we very much like using Confluence for the documentation, so we preferred to stay in the same environment of Atlassian Marketplace.”

The basic methodology of structuring the project stays the same; however, the digital validation is much better now. It’s not only fun but mandatory nowadays. The digital alignment inside the team improves and, in the long run, is much easier.

The future perspective of BigPicture’s growth and availability to integrate with multiple platforms, such as Azure DevOps, Trello, and multiple Jiras, allows students to get fluency in the tool, which they will eventually use in future live scenarios.