Any good product development engineer knows that, in addition to repetition and practice, they must think critically about how the process of their work relates to the selection of materials, the design of parts, and fabrication. This type of critical thinking and related practical skills help our product engineers determine solutions to even the most complicated problems. It’s in this context that we use the term “insightful product engineering.”
But what exactly does that entail?
First, in general terms, we have to ask the question, “What does a product design engineer do?” In a nutshell, these three activities summarize the life of an engineer:
- Design things.
- Build stuff.
- Solve problems.
Beyond these basics, however, insightful product engineering requires that an engineer must always be a student. The truth is that modern business and rapidly changing technology demand continuous learning.
Our Advice for New Product Engineers
Maybe you just graduated with your engineering degree. After years of solving equations, team-building exercises, and sketching out parts you’re ready to rock. However, the challenge for many engineers fresh out of college is how to start using the knowledge they acquired in the classroom in real-world applications. Additionally, how do you continue to learn once you are out of the classroom? After all, now you’re going to be designing things with no rubric or criteria.
Think of it like this. Imagine when you graduated you received your degree along with a hammer. This hammer represents the tools you were given in college, the culmination of your skills.
Can you do all the things you need to as an engineer with just a hammer?
Probably not — you will need more tools. But how do you get those tools — and the training to use them?
The obvious answer may be to just practice, practice, practice. And while that is true (there is a lot of training involved in becoming a skilled engineer), you will also have to begin thinking about your work from varied perspectives. Because if you only ever hone your existing skills, these may improve, but you may not learn anything new.
However, your goal should be to expand both your skillset and the application of each individual skill. Even for more experienced engineers, it is helpful to reflect on where you may still have room for growth — specifically, skills and experience you do not yet have.
Our Philosophy for Insight-Based Product Engineering
At SGW, our insight-based approach to product engineering is this:
- Establish a problem’s definitions
- Explore solutions
- Identify opportunities to collaborate
- Solution selection
- Solution implementation
- Delivery to client
Here is what these steps require, in more detail.
Establish the problem’s definitions. What problem are you trying to solve? What are your problem’s constraints? This is the point in your project where you identify the scope of your project. Are you designing an entire complex system or just a single part?
Explore solutions. How can you solve your problem? Simply put, what are some possible solutions? Do the solutions you’ve come up with address the constraints of the project?
Identify opportunities to collaborate. Who do you know with the skills to reach your solution? Your peers are as much a tool for success as the tools in your workshop. If you have a question about a project (e.g. how to properly use a type of fastener), maybe someone on your team is an expert on this topic and can provide valuable insight. Alternatively, you may need to outsource your problem to an expert or a vendor who can help.
Solution selection. Make a decision on your course of action. Follow this course of action to reach your end result.
Solution Implementation. Begin to make this solution real. Take it off the drawing board, build it, test it, build it again, and test it again until you have reached your end result. If things go well, your solution should work. If you find there are problems, you may need to keep working on your solution. You may ultimately find your solution does not work.
Delivery to client. When everything has come together right you will have an end result. This is when you are able to provide the solution to your client.
As an engineer, salesperson, or team member at a company like SGW Designworks, you will have questions asked of you — and often. You may need to address a problem as simple as what type of material to use for a product. Or, you may be tasked with building a complicated device with multiple subsystems. For non-engineering roles, this potentially means more consideration for delivery, budget constraints, and project organization.
By applying this line of thinking to your problem, you shed light on areas where the project has potential problems and where you as an individual may need to ask for help from teammates or additional resources to find a solution. This is one way of engineering with insight — knowing when to ask for help.
Let’s look at how this might work in practice. Try to think about how each step of the philosophy is utilized in this example.
Insightful Product Engineering: A Scenario
Say a client has approached your team, and they want to build thermal tiles (similar to the kind used on the Space Shuttle) for their own flying space machine. You also need to find a way to adhere the tiles to the skin of the craft, which is made of titanium.
For the moment, you are going to develop a single panel of tiles to prove it can work. The tile must be able to withstand temperatures of at least 2,000°F. You happen to be knowledgeable in ceramics, so you explore the idea of using ceramic tiles. You also have a good understanding of how ceramics behave in practice and you believe you have at least two possible combinations of ceramics that will work to make the tiles.
One option: since ceramic material is inexpensive, you may need additional layers to hold up against the heat. The other option: using a new material you are less familiar with but has properties that meet your project needs. This option is more expensive but should work fine on its own.
Now, say you do not know of any adhesive that will work for this project. So you approach your colleague Chuck, and Chuck is well-versed in adhesives that can be used effectively on titanium, but they will need to be tested. He agrees to help you with this portion of the project.
Next, you opt to use the more expensive ceramic material. It holds up well in tests you have conducted and is easier to work with. You realize that long-term, it may actually be cheaper for the client without sacrificing safety (the client is very serious about safety).
Chuck has tested several adhesives with the ceramic material that work on titanium. He has selected one from a supplier he is familiar with, and the company has a longstanding record of producing high-quality adhesives.
Then, you and Chuck work to figure out the best way to utilize the ceramics that allows the adhesive to work best. You conduct a test using high-temperature torches, and finally, develop a panel of these test tiles to demonstrate to the client. When the process is complete, they can see how the tiles you have made work in practice.
Lastly, you deliver the demonstration panel to your client and walk them through what you have developed. They are now able to take the demonstration panel to their investors to obtain the funding needed to finish the product. If all goes well, you can potentially do more business with them.
Real World Application
In this example, you identified the problem and possible constraints. In this case, the end result had to hold up to least 2,000° F and adhere to titanium. No matter what, you cannot change these parameters, and that will drive the decisions you make.
Luckily, in this example, you are an expert in ceramics. By applying your knowledge of ceramics to the problem, you demonstrate how insightful product engineering can improve your work.
Next, you didn’t know about adhesives, but Chuck did. Chuck was able to augment your ability to solve a problem by providing his expertise. Collaboration is a great way to learn. By engaging with your colleague to understand his approach (which you should always do), you gain insight as to why this solution works, and in future projects, you are able to apply this knowledge. You may still not be an expert in adhesives, but your knowledge of potential solutions has expanded through collaboration.
Additionally, if you were unable to solve the adhesive problem on your own, then the entire end result you had come up with would be useless. By collaborating, you eliminated the risk of project failure.
In this example, there were multiple possible solutions identified, and in each case, there were reasons why each one may not be ideal. Depending on the constraints of a project and the available resources, an engineer will need to make decisions that lead to best-case scenarios for the project that also address project restrictions. This is another area where collaboration can be critical. More experienced engineers can often provide good insight on why one course of action may be better than another.
When it came to implementing the solution in this example we just see you and Chuck building the demonstration panel using the chosen materials. This is a hypothetical best-case scenario and in real life, this step can take several iterations, but the important thing in this example is that you recognize that the planned course of action is acted on.
Finally, the client receives exactly what they asked for, and you delivered it on time and on budget.
At SGW Designworks, we believe in applying principles of insightful product engineering in every project we undertake. This approach has worked well for us, both internally and when interacting with clients. It has helped us develop both as individuals and as a team, and our product development engineers have a solid grasp on how their skills make a powerful impact on the products they help bring to life.