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How Can You Design a Product Without Spending Many Years Understanding that Product

When I first entered industry, I spent some time working in a factory environment. I decided that the sort of work I was doing wasn’t what I had hoped and negotiated an opportunity to spend some time in the design office. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the practical aspect of it (as I do enjoy working on the shop floor / factory and getting my hands dirty), but it just didn't match my technical qualities. At this point a number of people asked me, “How are you going to design the products, if you don’t know them inside and out?” At the time, I didn’t really have an answer to this question, I just wanted to learn from experienced engineers and work in a CAD environment. It has taken me around 5 years in industry to be answer this question in full. Knowing the answer to this has also allowed me to be able to move into any industry and apply my knowledge to be able to design any product or system.


So, let's go into it. Firstly, I want to say there is a big difference between being a CAD technician and being a Design Engineer. A CAD technician is simply somebody who is able to utilise the CAD tools to scheme up designs based on inputs from other people. I certainly don’t consider myself or anybody within this company in that bracket, but maybe at some point in the past I would have. It takes time to understand the underlying principles of engineering and how to apply different techniques to problem solving. An engineer is not built in a day, it takes many years of practice, training and experience to become a competent engineer who can adapt to a variety of situations and apply their skills to a mixture of products.


Throughout the design phase of any product the first thing is to understand what you are trying to engineer. There are many ways to achieve this. A “go-look-see” approach works very well because you get to understand the component in terms of its assembly or interaction within a larger system. However, this only works if the product is already in production and you are looking at improving performance or reducing weight. Another approach, if a design engineer is starting with a blank sheet of paper is to benchmark against similar components and systems. A practical example of this is bench marking of components within the Automotive Industry. Many large companies will either have access to software the breaks down a competitor vehicle into individual components or a specific department that performs this role.

An example of a vehicle tear down and comparing various components that make up a full vehicle system. Source: The Truth About Cars


If there are absolutely no products to benchmark against, applying the first principles approach is the most effective method of design. This is in contrast to designing by analogy in which a component is designed with specific features based on a previous component which does not perform the same function but may have certain similarities such as material, load cases or manufacturing processes. To be able to do this, you must strip the component down to its fundamental data points and individual specifications. Specifications are a designers road map. They govern the technical aspects of products, so it is important to have a specification written up before a design is commenced. This will include such information including material, manufacturing process, performance under stress, interaction with other components / materials, surface finish etc. By creating this information you can now break the product down even further to its elementary truths. An example of this is a brake pressed sheet metal component being broken down into its material thickness and material to then determine minimum bend radii.


Initially, the progression of a design engineer will be to understand the overarching field of engineering that they will be designing for. This may include knowledge of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering or civil engineering fundamental principles. This can be learned through applied experience or in a study environment such as university or college. These principles will always (or should always) be taught before understanding the parts, assemblies and systems that you will be designing for. A good example of this is a fundamental understanding of electrical power systems to then be able to undertake design processes such as substation layout design. In short, this means that it is irrelevant if you have commissioned or worked on specific substation components, however, of course it would be very useful to have gained this knowledge, as presumably the engineer would have been understanding / learning the overarching first principles of power systems such as electrical safety clearances and methods of grounding specific components just to name a couple of examples.


If there are absolutely no products to benchmark against, applying the first principles approach is the most effective method of design. This is in contrast to designing by analogy in which a component is designed with specific features based on a previous component which does not perform the same function but may have certain similarities such as material, load cases or manufacturing processes. To be able to do this, you must strip the component down to its fundamental data points and individual specifications. Specifications are a designers road map. They govern the technical aspects of products, so it is important to have a specification written up before a design is commenced. This will include such information including material, manufacturing process, performance under stress, interaction with other components / materials, surface finish etc. By creating this information you can now break the product down even further to its elementary truths. An example of this is a brake pressed sheet metal component being broken down into its material thickness and material to then determine minimum bend radii.


Initially, the progression of a design engineer will be to understand the overarching field of engineering that they will be designing for. This may include knowledge of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering or civil engineering fundamental principles. This can be learned through applied experience or in a study environment such as university or college. These principles will always (or should always) be taught before understanding the parts, assemblies and systems that you will be designing for. A good example of this is a fundamental understanding of electrical power systems to then be able to undertake design processes such as substation layout design. In short, this means that it is irrelevant if you have commissioned or worked on specific substation components, however, of course it would be very useful to have gained this knowledge, as presumably the engineer would have been understanding / learning the overarching first principles of power systems such as electrical safety clearances and methods of grounding specific components just to name a couple of examples.

An example of a typical layout of a substation within a digital mock-up CAD software package. Source: Substation Layout Sweat

To conclude, a design engineer is not necessarily a better role than any engineer working in a manufacturing environment. Our philosophy is that all engineers should have the same core skill sets and it is the secondary skills such as route cause analysis, as commonly used by manufacturing engineers, or an understanding of CAD packages, as commonly used by design engineers. This varies depending on what field you specialise in but the secondary skills should never limit you to undertaking new roles and responsibilities.


To better understand what the key knowledge principles of each engineering field are check out our Types of Engineering Page using the link below:


https://www.engineeringfirstprinciples.com/types-of-engineering


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