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Demystifying Engineering in A Complicated World

Demystifying Engineering in A Complicated World

The engineering design process usually goes something like this: Perform research, define requirements, determine feasibility, conceptualize, design and redesign, review and modify…. Can we just release for production, yet!? Sound familiar? Perhaps to improve upon this process we need to return to where it all started: our childhood!

Take the example of a young girl shooting a basketball. The rim is much too high for her to generate enough force to shoot the basketball high enough to make it into the basket. After all, the ball weighs a full 22 ounces or nearly 3% of her total mass. No matter how hard she tries to throw the ball, she just isn’t able to generate enough force to overcome gravity. What to do? “Simple,” says the girl. She moseys inside the garage, looks for something to stand on and returns to the court with a stool. Genius! The stool gives her just the boost she needs to shoot the ball over the front of the rim. She shoots… she scores! She didn’t calculate the parabolic trajectory of motion for the ball. She didn’t factor in the effects of gravity, friction or even the direction of the wind. She confronted a problem with sound logic and solved it.

Sure, a physics graduate student at {enter favorite Institution of Higher Learning} writing the dissertation for his thesis could have utilized the quadratic model to calculate the vertex of the particular parabola based on the amount of force to analyze and determine the ideal parabolic motion, at a given average wind speed and direction for that particular day. BUT WHO HAS TIME FOR THAT?

Not only would it have gotten dark by the time the calculations were complete, but the girl would have been bored long before the “Perform Research” phase was complete! In fact, she may have gone on to solve several other complicated problems in the meantime.

Let’s reject the concept that “more is better” when it comes to engineering. Over-engineering leads to increased project costs without any real overt benefits. Not only does it drive up the obvious initial engineering cost, but more complicated and over-engineered products can drive up production, equipment and labor costs. It also limits flexibility and increases the probability for oversights. The longer a product is on the drawing board, the more chance for errors.

Well, it’s that time. You knew it was coming. A paper of this nature just wouldn’t be complete without the mention of former Lockheed Martin aircraft engineer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson’s famous engineering principle; KISS or Keep It Simple Stupid. Johnson’s philosophy has transcended science and engineering, and is now used as a universal truth. But its influence on the engineering field remains steadfast.

Start by simplifying the components used for the assembly. If item “A” used for an assembly just needs to be a widget and not a widget deluxe, use the widget. Congratulations! You’ve already kept your cost down on your first component and likely limited the headache of sifting through additional unnecessary options, wiring schematics, programming, etc. during your design and production phases. Simpler components tend to weigh less, which cuts down on shipping costs and have less manufacturer defects from the factory.

Limit the number of skews of the components you do use. If you’re in manufacturing design, you probably design similar type products that utilize like components. Stick to the basic ones that achieve the desired results. This limits the number of components your manufacturer has to keep on the shelf as well! Once in a while you will need the widget deluxe, but save that for when it’s truly required and don’t be shy to pass that cost on to the customer!

Simplify the level of communications in the design phase. This can be achieved by limiting the design team to less members, utilizing only core members for a particular project or minimizing meetings. For those of you who’ve sat through a full conceptualize design-build meeting, you’ll enjoy the ladder. Instead, utilize that time to ensure you’ve selected the simplest base components for the application, review ways to reduce the profile of your doodad, double check spacing requirements, or even use that time to meditate! You’ll thank me later.

Collaborate with all the business teams. Your engineering team is awesome, I get it. But don’t forget to include your sales, technical support and manufacturing teams during the discovery phase. They have vital information directly from customers about related, existing, or similar products that can assist you in making better decisions during your design phase. Use a keen sense to wade through the suggestions; otherwise you’ll be right back where you started with the most over-engineered gizmo on the market.

Finally, enjoy what you do. The Art of Engineering is both a Science and, well, an Art! Embrace the process without overly complicating your precious psyche. You don’t have to go back to stone tools or the abacus to simplify the process. Simply use sound judgement and don’t overcomplicate things. Most importantly, remember this; the young girl is capable of solving her problems with just a fragment of intuition. With a little focus and organization, you can solve the most complicated of engineering problems. All you have to do is simplify things in a complicated world.

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