Step 1: Define the Problem
I was teaching a course in engineering design this summer where I asked my students to try to define engineering in an essay citing examples from class and our main course text (“Invention by Design: How Engineers Get from Thought to Thing”). Because I do not believe in asking people to do something you yourself are unwilling to do, I’ve taken some time to write my own draft.
When engineering educators gather to converse about engineering design, generally one can expect to hear some delineation of “the engineering design process.” In some ways, a meta-construct of the process helps generalize the conversation to exist independent of the actual products designed by engineers. As engineering products differ considerably across various engineering disciplines, focusing on engineering design can open a window to define what engineering is. Engineering design is a process that can transform an idea into a masterpiece while simultaneously conflating the needs and wants of a dynamic social system.
Engineering refines and materializes various ideas towards a functional beauty that sometimes can only be fully appreciated by the parent designer. Many engineering designs, such as Velcro, start with a very primitive design that can only be appreciated by the inventor. A simple walk in the fields led to the idea for a radically different type of fastener. Manufacturing challenges abounded, but engineering persistence enabled the creation of robust processes to deal with assorted limitations. Additionally, this engineering persistence to improve existing solutions leads to many more innovations. Even among common objects, like the paper clip and the pencil, we find shifting engineering conceptions that address challenges of usability, product diversity, suitability, machining, and sustainability. Prototypical solutions also carry within them a beauty of making something transparent to an engineer as ideas move from paper, even if the prototype is a far cry from the “real” object. Paper and card stock can become real tools when designing an airplane as these simple materials provide a way of thinking about aerodynamic principles. Clay models can help engineers see how various components fit together from an outdoor toy sculpture to a proposed new car design. While prototypes rarely have the same utility as a “fully produced” product, the prototypes still carry the ability to bring beauty to an idea, if only in the eyes of the beholder.
Yet, as more people come to appreciate “fully produced” products of engineering, engineering also acts as a prime agent that conflates our needs and our wants. Engineering allows us to develop capabilities to form and shape our material world in incredible ways, even as we fail to appreciate the full gamut of a product’s effects. While we need clean water to drink, centralized water infrastructure brings with it all sorts of challenges related to expansion, operation, and maintenance in a complicated network. When people need to move this water in large volumes opposite of gravity, engineers tend to develop large, heavily centralized systems of pumping networks and large supply pipes. Some technologies, such as those associated with water, remain relatively constant in time while other technologies, such as those associated with communications, change rapidly. While people need to communicate, development of certain communicative technologies must be developed as a system, with supporting technologies. The development of the fax machine network to support global business communications lead to several questions regarding the necessity of globalized commerce. Trade of some descriptor appears in virtually all social groups of humans, so creating some means of supporting trade is a need. Yet, engineering has enabled trade to occur on a global scale. Is our desire to conduct business around the clock playing global leapfrog a need or a want?
Moreover, engineering occurs within a dynamic social system and space, where dominant players and considerations direct the process. Asking questions about wants and needs changes the shape of engineered artifacts. Even something as common as the aluminum can morphed as engineers began to consider differing criteria considering that most “aluminum cans” began as steel cans that required a church key to open them. For example, the changing availability of materials affected the costing, the changing consumer acceptability of a two-part system affected how the manufacturing, and the changing attitudes towards the environment affected the distribution and disposal. Even within a single design process, different team members bring differing considerations to the table. Yet, as a team works to move towards a solution that works, sometimes engineers experience a needed myopia. For instance, in a Rube Goldberg machine, every individual step of the process must be a consistently high reliability event. If one step doesn’t work, then it is naturally to zoom in to troubleshoot the step. Yet, in that troubleshooting, engineers re-scope the problem to focus on one very small component of a very large system. Moreover, as engineers become more and more focused on making something “work” according to one set of criteria, the engineers can miss other criteria. For instance, a bridge design plan might meet all of the technical parameters of the topography while lacking political support for the financing and maintenance of the bridge. Without all pieces coming together in a cohesive system, the engineering processes can fail.
The engineering design process provides an interesting focal point to the nature of engineering. Engineering design remains future-oriented by considering how to make an idea a reality. Moreover, engineering design provides the space for critique of current systems and processes. Some of these critiques can lead to uncomfortable places of revisioning needs and wants. Constant internal critique of the engineering processes invites questions of appropriate size, scale and scope. As such, engineering design can bring cohesion towards previously disconnected things, or engineering design can bring discord to such a degree that the engineering design process employed in a particular project is deemed a failure. Engineering reflects a dynamic space where ideas, people and materiality meet, working together to accomplish the task of transforming a rough-hewn idea into a masterful work of art.