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Let’s put this together
I have been thinking about businesses lately, specifically how engineering businesses work. That got me to try and explain in my mind how an engineer goes about designing something. As an engineer myself, you would think it would be clear to me. And if it is not, then maybe others, non-engineers, have a skewed view of how engineering goes about designing.
My son is thinking about building a log cabin. They sell them in kits, all precut and numbered. You follow the instructions, add an incredible amount of sweat and when you are done you have a house. I cannot understate the amount of work that goes into this effort, but the steps are all laid out, logs cut and numbered. There are buckets of bolts, tubes of glue, windows. Everything you need to complete the project.
One of my many hobbies is cooking. The best cooks follow recipes. Either ones they themselves have developed or from someone else. Even in a restaurant, the chef follows a recipe. This is how you get consistency in the taste of your dish. If you don’t follow the recipe, you might have a great dish or a terrible dish, but you won’t be sure until it is done. Your customers will experience something different each time, even if they order the same dish.
When I was a teenager, I loved to put together jigsaw puzzles. Whether you have a 40-piece puzzle or a 4000-piece puzzle the process is the same. You look for all the edges and put them together to form a frame. Then you start connecting all the same colored pieces and put them close to where you think those clumps go based on the picture on the box.
How is this different from engineering?
We could draw some important lessons in engineering from the three stories above, but what I want to highlight is the differences. Each of the three stories has a common thread. They are processes and they are what some would call linear. You can see the end from the beginning, if you stand on your chair.
In a jigsaw puzzle you have a picture of the finished product and, most probably, all the pieces you need to compete the puzzle and make a picture that looks just like the one on the box. It is my opinion that engineering is not like that at all. In engineering you might have a description of the end product or a picture made by a bad cartoonist at best. There are no parts and the path that leads from beginning to end is not well defined. While there is more than one way to get there, there are also many dead ends, sharp curves and unlit alleyways.
This can be very upsetting to someone not used to it. To an engineer who has cut his or her teeth on many a project, this is familiar territory. You might feel that time is wasted trying something that winds up not working. The seasoned engineer will shrug and say, “Seems like par for the course.” Not that time is not of the essence, but the course is less like a 100-meter dash and more like a scavenger hunt.
If you have talked with many engineers, you might have noticed that lots more goes on inside their heads than comes out of their mouths. What I mean is, we develop a process that we are comfortable with and we can apply it to each project we work on. Explaining that process is not something we are comfortable with.
It is like the difference between a musician and a music teacher. A musician might be able to listen to a song, walk up to a musical instrument and just play it, having never played it before and it will sound great. That comes with literally thousands of hours of practice. But ask them how they did that, ask them to explain it so that you can do it as well, that they might struggle with. A music teacher on the other hand is practiced at explain things to students so that they can progress in their abilities.
While communication is key in any group activity, we as engineers are not as skilled at it as we need to be. Detailing out the steps that we must follow to do a project are straightforward if you look at it from far enough away. When you start trying to explain each step, in detail, before the fact, you start to see the blind alleys, the retracing of steps. It looks chaotic and haphazard.
Engineering is a skill that is learned by experience as well as study. Study provides the tools necessary to do the job, but experience is what we use to plan a strategy while doing a project. Unless you are skilled at project management, not something that most design engineers have done, you probably have that strategy in your head and have not thought about the steps, you just do it.
I want to challenge each engineer out there to start out each project by writing out a plan. First a rough, high level plan, then fill in the details. This will take you less than an hour. At the end of the project, go back and compare what you though you needed to do at the onset with what you actually did. If you do this each time, your initial strategy will get better at predicting the reality of engineering design. Whether you manage others or just yourself, developing the skills to manage a project will make you a better engineer and a more effective communicator.
Sean O’Leary is sometimes known as the Celtic Engineer. He was involved in putting two missions on the space shuttle. He has worked at the Smelter’s Biproducts department of Kennecott Utah Copper. Has helped design ballistic guidance systems for Northrop Grumman. Worked on various DARPA projects, an anti-RPG system known as Iron-Curtain and has been involved with the downhole oil and gas industry. He currently is the owner of Celtic Engineering Solutions a consulting Engineering Company in West Jordan and Murray Utah.
At Celtic Engineering Solutions we help our customers navigate through the winding roads of engineering design that lead from the initial concept through to the final product. We help demystify the process, give us a call today and we will help you with your project.
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