Hardware Development Team Composition - Engineering Roles and Responsibilities

A big chunk of my advisory work covers the composition of hardware development teams or the restructuring of teams.

I recognize that there often is a different0 understanding of what roles are found in hardware development teams and what usual responsibilities they take.

This article gives an overview of common engineering roles. I’ll add technical management roles in hardware development teams in a separate article followed by my experience in assembling a tailored ace development team - including tackling the insource vs outsource question. 

Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

Please note: In the very early phase of starting a hardware development business, not all roles are instantly required and essential roles will not equal the amount of people - wearing multiple hats is certainly a necessity in early stage startups for the founders as much as for the first hires. But I strongly recommend, the founder team ensures key hardware engineering roles (depending on the product) and their responsibilities are covered from the very beginning in order to always control the core technology and own the hardware product roadmap in house. 

Engineering Roles (in alphabetical order):

Certification Engineer

In order to release a new hardware product into the market, compliance with Industry regulations, safety standards and other meanings of certifications likely is required - and it is managed in local markets, almost never globally.

Certification engineers navigate through this landscape depending on the markets the product is getting designed for.

Main responsibilities

  • Compliance assessment - identify applicable regulatory requirements and standards with foresight to todays and future markets, including ongoing implementation of regulatory updates as required

  • Develop certification strategy and plan certification - evaluate certification requirements and translate them into manageable requirements for engineers

  • Compliance Test Coordination - perform and/or witness compliance testing with internal or external labs, evaluate test results and address non-conformities to engineers

  • Compliance Management and documentation, ensure all requirements are met and properly documented

  • Regulatory liaison, initiate and maintain communication to regulatory bodies, ensure smooth certification approval process and communicate with all stakeholders in the project regarding certification timelines

Electronics Hardware Engineer / Electrical Engineer (key role):

The Electronics Hardware Engineer has expertise in schematic design, electrical system architecture, component selection and creation of circuit board layouts. She ensures the electronic design meets the product requirements in terms of design, function, reliability, safety, certification and manufacturing.

Main Responsibilities:

  • Schematics design and designing and prototyping electronic circuits and systems.

  • Technical coordination of suppliers and manufacturers for component sourcing

  • Prototyping, testing and validation of the design

  • Design optimization e.g. for performance, cost-effectiveness, reliability etc (DfX)

  • Collaboration with firmware engineers and software engineers

  • Researching and feasibility studies for new designs

Depending on the product you are building, the skill set of the Electronics / Electrical  Engineer will differ - this role requires a customized description of the required skills - e.g. battery engineering, power engineering, communication systems engineering.

When your product contains electronic components as a core function, consider the Electronics Hardware / Electrical Engineer as a key role in your team and cover the expertise from the beginning.

Engineering Technician

The Engineering Technician supports the engineering team in various aspects - the job description depends a lot on the company and how the role is defined in a specific company. I personally see the Engineering Technician as the brain and hands to pick when it comes to design for assembly, testing various configurations and simply working very hands-on to help engineers verifying their drawings will work in real life.

Main responsibilities can be:

  • Testing and quality control, rapid testing of different components or variations, collecting data and analyzing data for performance and reliability, modifying components for test

  • Tooling definition, maintenance and calibration - test and decide on efficient tools made for the specific use case, ensure roll-out in workshops, ensure reliability and completeness 

  • Troubleshooting and repair - identify technical root causes, develop mitigation strategies, modify, test and implement revised parts or procedures

  • Design & Documentation: develop CAD drawings, create rapid prototypes, document findings and test reports, evaluate designs for maintenance and repair

Industrial Designer 

When developing a hardware product, especially one facing millions of customers and users, the Industrial Designer plays a pivotal role in developing a balance between aesthetics, ergonomics and functionality. The best industrial designers are artists with a brilliant product vision in combination with technical expertise.

Main responsibilities:

  • Generate creative concepts for the form and overall design with respect to the targeted group of customers

  • Create sketches and renderings of the product concept and communicate design ideas by realistic virtual models and rapid design prototypes

  • Definition of user experience and user interface design, ensure user-centered design

  • Material definition and finish selection in close collaboration with mechanical engineers

  • Prototyping and testing for usability, ergonomics and brand match

  • Develop design language and branding in collaboration with other stakeholders

Field Quality Engineer

For every hardware product, a Field Quality Engineer plays a significant role in ensuring product quality over the product lifetime. It is the field quality engineer who knows best what goes wrong with a product once in the market and where it may fall short in efficient maintenance. Best FQE are not only great engineers but also excellent communicators since they get direct feedback from customers and workshops.

Main responsibilities:

  • Gather feedback and evaluate feedback from customers and maintenance stations/workshops, work closely with customer support and document reported issues, categorize and identify pattern, responsible for early field failure analysis

  • Data Analysis: establish metrics for surveillance on quality, rate patterns, create dashboards and prioritize field issues and report to management

  • Root cause analysis and problem solving: facilitate root cause analysis and work closely with engineers, supply chain and maintenance teams to solve the failure for the current and future product

  • Continuous Improvement Support: work closely with product managers and supply chain managers to implements product and process improvements for customer satisfaction

  • Warranty and return management: support supply chain management and warranty managers in collecting and documentation of warranty cases

The role of an FQE should be implemented from the first piloting phase on. Customer feedback from pilot customers is crucial and - depending on the product - ideally to take on-site and in a structured manner. The best FQE is also capable of supporting those pilot customers in case of failures and therefore is on the forefront of customer satisfaction.

Firmware Engineer (key role)

When your hardware product contains customized electronics components designed by your Electronics Hardware Engineer - you’ll need the Firmware Engineer role to bring the hardware to life. Firmware steers hardware behavior and connects the hardware components to the outer software world, highly depending on the hardware design e.g. components used, it is a core function to ensure safe and reliable operation of the product.

Main responsibilities:

  • Work closely with Electronics hardware engineers to select electrical components and build the architecture

  • Develop the firmware for embedded systems and microcontrollers

  • Implement communication protocols and work closely with software developers building on the firmware interface

  • Foresee future functionalities and implement lifecycle optimization possibilities e.g. remote updates

  • Optimize the system for performance, power consumption and security

Similar to the Electronics Hardware Engineer, the Firmware Engineer is considered a key role when your product contains customized electronics as a core function.

Mechanical Engineer (key role)

A hardware product is by definition a product with physical aspects - and this is what the mechanical engineer focuses on. Mechanical engineers bring experience in enclosed design development and in translating product requirements into engineering requirements which will ensure the product will meet all expectations - including safety, reliability and sustainability.

Main responsibilities:

  • Create CAD models and drawings of the envisioned physical design

  • Ensure material specifications meet the requirements for user experience, integrity, safety, sustainability and reliability

  • Perform structural analysis, thermal analysis and others 

  • Select manufacturing process and work closely together with manufacturers 

  • Apply methods of Design for Excellence (DfX) 

  • Rapid prototyping and testing, perform design iterations

  • Closely collaborate with manufacturers through all phases of the development process to incorporate design optimization

Similar as with the Electronics Hardware Engineer, the required Skill Set of the Mechanical Engineer depends on the product you aim to build. Mechanical Engineers could focus on structure engineering, composites, powertrain and many more. 

Since this article series talks about Hardware Development, the Mechanical Engineer is considered a key role to be covered from early beginning.

Product Design Engineer

The role of a Product Design Engineer varies from the industry and the phase the product development is in. I look at this position being the center engineer to collaborate with all stakeholders and ensure from conceptualization to manufacturing the product always follows the requirements. The role may in early stages overlap with Mechanical Engineer or Product Manager - depending on the individual contributors and their skills in your team. The best Product Design Engineers are of great experience in Design for Manufacturing paired with an excellent take on designing for optimal user experience and are inclusive communicators within the engineering team.

Main responsibilities:

  • Collaborate with Product Managers and Industrial Designers to conceptualize the product with regard to User Experience, User Interface, Material Selection, Manufacturing Methods

  • Translate the Industrial Design into manufacturable detailed engineering designs in cooperation with Mechanical Engineers and Electronic Hardware Engineers

  • Contribute to the decision making to weigh factors like cost, feasibility and performance with respect to different design and manufacturing options

  • Prototype and test with respect to the given requirements - identify flaws in the design and initiate and lead design iterations for optimization

Reliability Engineer 

Hardware is hard - designing a hardware product always comes with the question of desired reliability, durability and performance of the product over time. The Reliability Engineer uses methodologies and techniques to identify and mitigate potential failures. 

Main responsibilities:

  • Reliability planning: work with product managers and engineers to jointly define reliability targets for the product, identify critical components and systems

  • Failure analysis and prevention, risk assessment: use Failure mode and effects analysis and fault tree analysis, identify potential risks for product performance and customer satisfaction and develop mitigation strategies such as engineering requirements, maintenance routines and tests

  • Reliability Testing: develop test planes and carry out tests for reliability, documentation of test results and feedback to the development team to initiate improvements when required

  • Implement Design for reliability: advice engineers and designers on material selection, manufacturing processes and design considerations to ensure robustness and reliability

Tasks & responsibilities corresponding to a Reliability Engineer are often overseen at a product development start or may get implemented by mechanical engineers and electrical engineers themselves who may not have vast experience in reliability engineering. My advice is to either have one engineer skilled in reliability engineering at the starting team or get spot-on consulting/training early on. To enhance reliability after a product went to market is way more risky, time and budget consuming than investing into these skills early on.

Supplier Quality Engineer 

There is no hardware product without successful suppliers & manufacturers of parts and assemblies. Supplier Quality Engineers (SQE) are the crucial interface between the hardware design team and the supplier. They ensure suppliers meet the standards. SQE are knowledgeable about manufacturing methods and design for manufacturing secrets and they will improve the product quality and reliability by being the main contact on the suppliers manufacturing site.

Main responsibilities:

  • Supplier Assessment, Selection and performance monitoring: Initiate supplier audits - from self-audit to onsite audit with partners, evaluate audit findings and establish a supplier rating system to select reliable suppliers, monitor the supplier quality in terms of reliability, product quality, communications and other defined KPI

  • Support Contract Management: work closely with supplier managers / procurement to develop quality contracts defining not only quantity and price but also quality expectations, performance metrics, inspection requirements etc.

  • Quality Assurance in supply chain: establish a joint quality control process with the supplier by defining quality gates in criterias, conduct inspections and collaborate with the supplier to mitigate quality issues, ensure compliance with requirements and sample testing

  • Root Cause Analysis. Work closely with other engineers to identify root causes in product quality issues related to supplier performance e.g. parts manufacturing, assembly

A great SQE is an engineer by heart, educated in manufacturing engineering and quality control. She is able to connect to a supplier locally and jointly work on product improvement while closing the communication loop between the hardware team and the supplier.

System Engineer

When developing complex systems, the role of the System Engineer becomes crucial to ensure seamless integration of subsystems as well as scalability, reliability, lifecycle performance and safety. System Engineers have a holistic view of the technology from concept to end-of-life.

How the role is set up in a company depends on the complexity of the product as well as the definition of other engineering roles. Different industries have different definitions of the scope of responsibilities. The below list summarizes some common tasks:

  • Requirement analysis and definition: define system and subsystem requirements for seamless integration and scalability

  • System design: develop system architecture considering system requirements, work closely with engineers of subsystems to continuously improve integration

  • Integration and testing: coordinate testing and prototyping of sub-system integration, verify integration by checking requirements and functionality

  • Risk Assessment: collaborate with other engineers to identify risks on system level, assess likelihood and impact, define mitigation

  • System Maintenance: early on define system maintenance requirements to balance expected lifetime, safety, reliability and cost

System engineers often also take over project management responsibilities like project and milestone planning and managing external engineering suppliers.

Test Engineer

Test Engineers are dedicated to ensure product quality and performance. In a small organization or early phase of the company, there rarely is a dedicated person required to fulfill the role. Often the team of Mechanical / Electronic Hardware and Firmware Engineer  takes over the role depending on their own expertise or external contributors help within the development process to fulfill the responsibilities.

Main responsibilities:

  • Analyze the product requirements and develop test plans and test procedures to verify the hardware performance

  • Carry out testing e.g. functional test, reliability test, stress test, environmental impact etc.

  • Find and coordinate work with external test labs

  • Analyze test data and address issues within the engineering team to implement fixes

  • Document test procedures and test results 

  • Ensure compliance with industry standards and regulations in cooperation with the certification engineer 

The above roles are the engineering part of an hardware development team. The next article will cover managing roles and responsibilities such as: Product Manager, Technical Program Manager, Project Manager / Operations Program Manager, Supplier Manager, Engineering Manager

Are you aiming to build, assess or restructure a hardware development team and would like some support or advice? Do not hesitate to ping me for a first chat - email n.noack@taivr.net.


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