As Senior Director of Mechanical Engineering at ‎Microsoft, Andrew Hill and his team were central to the development of Microsoft’s Surface range of tablet and ‘2-in-1’ computers. He spoke to AMT about how technology and digitalisation continues to change the way he and his team work, and how Microsoft is seeking to take a lead in innovation in this area.

AMT: Tell us about what your role with Microsoft entails.

Andrew Hill: I lead and manage the Mechanical Design team for the Surface Book business. Previously I led those same teams in work on the Surface Pro 1, Pro 2 and Pro 3 tablet computers.

AMT: How is digital technology altering the way designers and engineers work?

AH: Digital creation and collaboration tools remove friction from the creative process and allow people to share and iterate on ideas together much faster. For example, an engineer may have an idea about how to solve a problem in the hinge, and can quickly share a digital sketch of even a simple CAD model with other members of the design team. Because the idea is shared in a digital medium the people the idea is shared with can edit and extend the idea natively and move it forward faster.

AMT: How does Microsoft create and promote a culture of innovation?

AH: We work very hard to iterate ideas for what products will be. These iterations allow us to really crystalise the vision of the product. Once we have a vision crystalised the team can be laser-focused on realising those visions. Collaboration is a big part of that and fostering an environment where communication and collaboration are encouraged and rewarded is a big part of it. We are lucky in that the product making teams are very humble and put the product first which is a big part of setting the tone for a collaborative and innovative environment.

AMT: Do you have examples from your own work in the development of Surface range of how new technology is creating disruption in this area?

AH: We are fortunate to be in a virtuous cycle of designing products that we use to design the next products. That quick feedback loop both changes the way we work and allows us to make better products continually. Sharing data via OneNote and on the Cloud also means faster and much more efficient ways of working.

AMT: Tablets and ‘2-in-1’ computers such as Surface are one technology driving significant disruption in how we work. What effects are they having on design, engineering and manufacturing?

AH: For me in my job having a device that runs full CAD software, allows for digital sketching and allows my backpack to be super light for traveling is such a great thing. Being able to share sketches digitally really accelerates how people can iterate on ideas together.

AMT: We hear a lot of people are talking about digitisatisation and Industry 4.0, and their potential impact across manufacturing. What are its implications for design and engineering?

AH: The amount of knowledge that product makers have about how their products are made and how they are used is exploding. Access to that information is so powerful for making better and faster design decisions. Becoming conversant with the tools and techniques of analysing data and making decisions from that data will become more and more important. We’re quite active in the area of Industry 4.0 and have demonstrated a number of live examples at Hannover Messe in the past few years, mostly focused on IoT and analytics.

AMT: How significant is design-for-manufacturability in the development of a product like Surface? How does that consideration influence the process?

AH: So critical. The very best part of designing products like Surface is the interplay between the art of design and the art of industry. We try very hard to be humble about where ideas come from and sometimes a designer will have a great idea for how a part should be made and sometimes a manufacturing engineer will have a great idea for how a part should be designed. The meritocracy of ideas is so fulfilling. We take a lot of pride in craftsmanship of our devices and that means working closely with manufacturing partners at all levels.