Lessons Learn in Design engineering career

A list of insights and lessons learnt from experience as a mechanical design engineer

This is a list of lessons I have learnt through experience as a mechanical design engineer while working on various projects .

Lessons Learnt on skills required for Design engineering

Top uncommon skills/ abilities to have as a design engineer (any industry)

1. Creativity - Imagination and power of creation.
2. Holistic approach which is not narrow in scope to only CAD or one aspect of product development.
3. Combining Theory with Practical constraints - Textbook problem solving with practical problem solving.
4. Ability to define & Formulate a design problem . "Problem well defined is half the solution"
5. Translating understanding of manufacturing, assembly & Materials to "Design for manufacturing "
6. Building systems and not just modelling objects
7. Communicate clearly, precisely and efficiently.

On new value generation and creative exploration

    While working as an engineer in Automotive industry . I realized one thing. The importance of mechanical engineering skills is highly underrated in the industry and also there is a massive opportunity in the domain for the ones who can Create and think differently .

    Really the "new value generation" is in creative exploration .
    At that time, my way of thinking changed from being single minded in which I just focused on my domain only to thinking more openly about general mechanical design engineering.

    I started finding underlying common principles between very different systems or products. Looking at systems in new ways and adapting ideas from one application to another became easier.

    That point I realized when to stop dwelling too much on the details and when to look at the larger picture. When and what to focus the energy on.

    On Simple design

      Keeping it simple in mechanical design is often the most difficult task.

      It’s easy to make designs more complex by adding parts here and there. But simplicity , cleverness, elegance is rare

      On engineering drawing not only being about standards, rules

        Making an engineering drawing or manufacturing drawing is not only about standards and rules but about conveying design intent, communicating information with clarity to one who is not aware about the design.

        - Selecting views and details which help in preparing the manufacturing and inspection plan.
        - Setting tolerancing schemes which point to functional importance of the features on the drawing.
        - Highlighting key characteristics and features of designs
        - Reducing ambiguity

        On Use of simulation in Design

          Simulation has become very easy for design engineers. A great tool in the hands of the thoughtful designer. But also can be mis-used (Garbage in Garbage out ) or over-used.

          Meaningful simulation and analysis is based on Design decisions made off of it.
          Colorful plots make for good presentations but without insight and inference they are useless.

          On design sometimes just being a series of selections

            Occasionally, design can be just a series a selection or decisions made to develop a configuration.
            Having the requisite background knowledge to make informed decisions and have confidence to back them up is key.
            Every design problem doesn’t require us to re-invent the wheel.

            On combination of creativity, fundamentals and work ethic

              Basic Engineering design skills equation
              Creativity x Strong fundamentals x Work ethic = Output

              High creativity without strong basics and lack of work ethic = lot of imaginations but no output.

              High creativity and strong work ethic but lacking basics = No analysis - No predicted behavior

              Low creativity but High on fundamentals and work ethic = decent output but can be better through creativity .

              High on creativity with Good fundamentals but zero work ethic = wasted opportunities .

              On asking the right questions

                Asking the right questions is more important than finding the accurate correct answer.

                While working on engineering design.
                We can build systems by approximating solutions which maybe inaccurate and can be further proven by testing but you cannot build without asking the right questions and making the key considerations which may include aspects of mechanics, materials, manufacturing, product requirements.

                There can be many solutions to one problem but which one is apt for requirement is found by asking the pertinent questions.

                on Knowledge work

                  Learning to differentiate knowledge work into
                  Creative , Evaluation , Documenting and Decision activities .

                  Creative and Design activities:
                  Coming up with new ideas- Brainstorming
                  Making a sketch of a layout
                  Generating a new shape or model in CAD
                  Planning a system and creating a mind map

                  Evaluation activities:
                  Checking the weight, cost
                  Checking the stress, deformation etc. other engg parameter
                  Checking the motion
                  Checking the assembly feasibility
                  Testing physically

                  Documenting and Decision activities:
                  Documenting design requirements
                  Referring literature
                  Writing down observations
                  Manage documents and ideas
                  Record key insights and learnings
                  Taking design decisions - Making trade off in design documenting etc

                  Importance of Intellectual property

                    While working on a project in developing a frame /chassis for an automobile I became fascinated with the creative aspect of Mechanical design .
                    Realized that similar to paintings , music, mechanical design is also a modern art but the difference is considerable. To make anything useful it has to be reliable , durable and functional . So this art combines analytical and creative thinking in a very unique mix with prior knowledge and experience .
                    Unlike art pieces which have one time value . A design engineer can generate art in the form of plans which can be put into motion in the form of production and build long term value lasting generations . Think about the first inventor of the wheel or the first inventor of a robot or car or plane or machine tool . The value of those inventions and the underlying skill(design engineering) far outweighs any modern invention because everything else is built on it.
                    If there were no mechanical devices there would not be need to control them using electronics and programming.
                    Hence Intellectual property is so valued.

                    On specialization and exploring parallel domains

                      Specialization is required to be a subject matter expert but it also narrows down the scope of learning and impact you create to one domain. Innovation generally happens when problems are solved holistically along with systems thinking and divergent thinking .

                      I learnt that being a specialist is first important to develop focused skills and knowledge sets in one domain but then there is a point it starts to become almost saturated , then explore parallel domains and creative aspects which opens up a lot more opportunities.

                      Importance of strong engineering basics

                        No matter how advanced engineering tools like CAD, Simulation and other design, analysis, AI software become, the importance of strong engineering basics will remain .

                        I learnt that it is possible to develop solutions by just using creativity, tools (prototyping) and trial and error but reliable, durable , robust and well planned/ well predicted design can only be made with strong foundational understanding of engineering concepts.

                        On Divergent and convergent thinking

                          A very valuable insight I developed while solving problems
                          Engineering problem solving requires two types of thinking alternatively
                          1. Divergent thinking
                          2. Convergent thinking

                          Divergent thinking is about exploring , researching and brainstorming options, configurations , layouts etc

                          Convergent thinking is narrowing down on one and focusing all our energy to make it better , more optimized.

                          Knowing when to use which is always a struggle .

                          Example: When coming up with a new mechanism to perform a specific function
                          First we need to think in divergent way . To explore multiple possibilities , options.
                          Then we focus on one option and drill down its details and work on the next stage of design.
                          Later we realize that the option we selected can be revamped to make it better or even be replaced due to an issue , hence we go back to searching / exploring.

                          Being too focused narrows down our vision
                          Being too open minded makes us lose focus.

                          On Pareto principle in learning

                            When I started new projects, the first phase was always about learning .
                            It felt overwhelming at first . As if I needed to know everything about the domain to the start with and it was going to be impossible to learn, the Imposter syndrome creeping in .

                            Then I realized the Pareto principle (80/20) also applies to things we learn . Some subjects or topics matter more than others and prioritizing them keeping the end (design execution) in mind helped a lot. Then my job was cut out to find sources for those high priority topics first .

                            Developing our own learning goals thinking about the end in mind is very effective instead of wandering about.
                            It is not humanely possible to learn deep about every field.

                            Knowledge iceberg

                              95% of what we learn is Tacit knowledge which is from experience of solving problems and working on projects. Highly context driven learnings including insights developed from experience.
                              Rest only 5 % of what we learn is from books, literature, and other documents.
                              Documenting small portions of that 95 % has proven very useful to me.
                              Whether it be lessons learnt during projects or when things go wrong/ right. Why a certain design is better than another or why such a selection is justified etc.

                              Categories: Skills and knowledge