Have you ever wondered about the human ingenuity behind engineering marvels such as the Burj Khalifa in Dubai or the International Space Station orbiting the Earth at a speed faster than 2000kmph? Simply put, such complex technical endeavours would not have been executed to near-perfect completion without rigorous engineering practices.
In a nutshell, the engineering or design process is defined as developing the best solution to a problem. A range of critical factors- such as prior industry experience, team dynamics, feasibility, and requirement- is attributed to a successful design process.
Square One: Pinning the Problem
A key challenge when initiating the design process is the thorough identification of an overarching problem statement. A problem statement involves a concise description of an issue that must be addressed. Problem statements should also include overall requirements, objectives, and relevant variables affecting a project.
At such an early stage in the design process, the technical problem can be inextricably linked to a wider societal issue. A perfect example of this is the current aeronautics development drive towards more sustainable aviation. Diving into the origins of this transformation takes us to the realms of climatology, where the overwhelming scientific consensus that humanity must actively reduce its carbon emissions to offset the worst effects of climate change and global warming. Policy recommendations by the climate science community have led to environmental regulations that have necessitated responses from aircraft manufacturers and researchers (explored in greater depth in ‘Greenwashing & Corporate Environmentalism’).
Although the goal of this piece is to not look at the exact mechanisms of how a real-world challenge is translated to a technical problem for engineers and scientists to solve, it is vital to establish the motives behind developing a certain technology. Failure to do so leads to a misallocation of resources in devising solutions to problems that do not exist, or even the innovating technology designed to inflict harm- such as weapons of mass destruction.
Nevertheless, one of the harsh realities of technological advancement is that it often accelerates during times of conflict. For instance, long-range ballistic missiles were first invented with urgency in Germany during the second world war. Used for bombing, rockets such as V-2 provided a foundation for advanced rocketry. In fact, Nazi scientists such as Wernher von Braun were deemed as the fathers of rocket science (with the wrong intentions) who then pioneered the Apollo Saturn V rocket at NASA that landed a man on the moon- an undoubtedly monumental scientific achievement requiring a zero-error margin of a spectacularly complex mission.
Conceptualising: Unleashing Creativity
Once a problem has been accurately defined, and project feasibility has been confirmed, it is then time to come up with an array of preliminary designs. As a rule of thumb, designs in their conceptual phase should focus on broadly satisfying the system requirements by posing to be promising, unique solutions. After all, real-world problems do not have ‘one size fits it all’ answers. It often is unwise to spend excessive resources fine-tuning the details as there is sufficient room to focus on optimising and re-iterating the model (which will be discussed later in the article). Thus, simple sketching (over eloquent mathematics or physics) is used as the preferred language is communication during conceptualisation.
Furthermore, concept generation is an important bridge between the design intent and the division of labour among multiple engineering sub-systems. An excellent concept not only satisfies the product needs but also provides a promising framework for future refinement. This enables specialised designers and engineers to work in their respective fields or subsystems (such as electronics, propulsion/power train, and structural to name a handful in common mechanical engineering projects). Therefore, design conceptualisation must delicately balance exploratory thinking (intending to result in novel, original outcomes) and grounded realism (to fully satisfy system requirements).
An obvious, yet noteworthy aspect to appreciate is the human factor propelling the engineering initiative. Important factors in engineering team dynamics are:
- Experience/expertise of working groups
- Collaboration between sub-teams and;
- Communication between engineering and management.
From personal experience, prior practical expertise of a design team in the required engineering discipline provides invaluable insight for future projects. Senior system engineers within an industry, for instance, may possess a strong overview of the various interacting subsystems. This enables them to identify the most important subsystems for a given application, thus guiding subgroups on time and resource allocation.
For example, let’s imagine the resource allocation decisions that glider producers may undertake. A glider is a small light engine-less aircraft, characterised by long slender wings. Therefore, assigning half the engineering workforce to develop the propulsion (engine) track of a glider aircraft is redundant, simply because gliders do not generate thrust (engine force). However, glider manufacturers must focus on other areas like aerodynamic performance. Considerable work is devoted to optimising wings for the longest or farthest flight. As outsiders to the world to gliders, we only have a crude appreciation of the most significant aspects of its design process. The detailed intricacies of its design process can be filled in by seasoned specialists within the field, thus establishing priorities within the overarching team.
Similar to experience, previous projects can prove to be vast pools of data and wisdom. Consequently, extracting past data and documenting current work in an extractable format is pivotal. As the nature of engineering is based in applied mathematics and physics, it is common to find oneself lost in databases filled to the brim with numbers. While it is important to compute large datasets for simulation or visualisation, numbers in themselves can be user-unfriendly. Therefore, numerical results must be complemented by explanations of what they mean. Such explanations must be coherent enough for any proficient engineer in other subsystems, future engineers working on the same project, or test engineers to gauge the thought process of the person who generated that data. Disorganised working documents can add an unnecessary layer of complexity to an already sophisticated operation. Sometimes, technical writers are hired to summarise important product features, with the correct amount of detail to not only be user-friendly but also informative. Reading literature on past projects can help in avoiding mistakes of the past, or identifying regions with room for improvement.
Simulation, Optimisation, and Testing
Diving back to the design process, it must be realised that simply building a product is far from the end. Although the nature of working with technology is highly analytical and calculative, engineers often find themselves unsure about the theory used. This stems from the fact that a complete theoretical explanation for real-world phenomena is not fully understood, or multiple theories pose conflicting outcomes. Similar to the scientific method, the worthiness of a product must be tested in practice to cross-verify its performance against system requirements.
However, physical testing is an impractical choice for a number of situations, for reasons such as cost, safety, or timescale (for example, controlled crash tests for full-scale aircraft). Thus, engineers have had to resort to scaled-down prototype testing or simulations. In essence, simulations are computer models used for analysis (extending beyond engineering). Contemporary computational power and software development has opened doors to accurately mimic real-world testing, allowing engineers to rapidly study and optimise existing designs.
To conclude, the design process serves as a backbone to the awe-inspiring technological achievements of today. Every step of the design process has to be executed with flair to translate the designer’s dreams into concrete reality. The interdependence of engineering subsystems, or interconnectedness of design phases post immense difficulty in attributing technological success to any one entity. Yet, the critical aspect championing the ‘Great Engineering Practice’ is human endeavour, with countless scientists and engineers leading society into a technologically advanced future.