Engineering Philosophy

Yesterday I had some time to kill while my car was in the shop so I brought my notebook with me to do a little brainstorming. My wife and I had discussed some of her work situation in the morning before I left home, and I guess that ended up coloring some of my thoughts… Her workplace reminds me of a soap opera in a lot of ways. There seem to be a lot of problems there and at least some of them revolve around a lack of engineering skills. This got me to thinking about what makes a good engineer and also how that applies to a lot of non-engineering disciplines also. I seriously considered putting some of this into the book, but it sort of diverges from the concept I have used so far so I think I am going to save it for another day. Don’t be surprised if I end up starting another book later on this kind of subject though.

This is a kind of interesting image I found describing the spectrum of engineering disciplines according to The University of Memphis. It touches on some of the different areas I discuss in one of my book chapters, though it doesn’t really relate to the engineering philosophy concept I want to discuss here. Its a starting point though.

So what is an engineer? Above all I think an engineer is a problem solver. This relates to a lot of other job descriptions also, I think to be successful at your job or in life you have to have a little bit of this engineering mentality as part of your toolset.

Most engineers have undergone some kind of formal training beyond high school or secondary education. I say most because I have met some people who have worked their way up from the factory floor, have no formal schooling but are in every other way still an engineer. Formal schooling (I include both universities and vocational schools like ITT Tech) provides a lot of valuable information, but it is not always relevant to your eventual career. As an example, I got my electrical engineering degree at The University of Tennessee and actually majored in controls. I probably use less than 2% of what I learned in college in my current career.

So what did I get out of college? Well, I certainly learned more about solving problems. Sometimes the problem was how to get an assignment done in the time I had left to do it. Sometimes it was more technical in nature, trying to make something work correctly under all conditions, again in the time allotted. These are conditions that occur in the workplace, so they are certainly relevant. At the same time, do I use any of the calculus or differential equations I learned in school while doing my job? Fortran or Assembly Language? LaPlace or Fourier transforms to determine the stability of my systems? The answer is definitely no.

The other thing I did get out of college was that it opened doors for employers to actually consider hiring me for positions. I went to college as a 30 year old freshman and had 8 years of military electronics and teaching experience at that time. None of the places that I worked for after college would have even looked at my resume though, they were looking for someone with at least a four year degree.

An academic degree from a university is expensive and time consuming. There is an emphasis on writing skills, mathematics and theory and it tends to lead more toward research, product development and teaching. It is also probably a necessary stepping stone to management for larger companies. A technical degree often takes less time, though there are a lot of hybrid 4 year vocational degrees offered at universities now also. I am speaking mostly about tech schools like ITT Tech and DeVry here though. Both offer 4 year degrees but two years actually gives you a decent amount of hands-on experience. They may also cost less, but are certainly still expensive enough that people need to take out loans to pay for them. Vocational schooling is often at the expense of academics, writing and theory however which is why it is a less likely path towards research and development or management.

What it comes down to is that there are some hoops you have to jump through to even get a chance at a good job. Schools are businesses like any other, and part of their focus is on keeping you there for the required 2-4 or more years, paying the requisite fees and hopefully sending alumni donations later in gratitude for the experience and knowledge that has been gained. Could the key pieces of knowledge necessary to succeed in an automation career have been gained in much less time and expense by diligent self study and more efficiency in the academic system? Probably… but it is difficult to know if the schools would be able to support themselves under these circumstances. Probably not…

So what other things does an engineer need to know? An important skill is that of how to learn. This is intimately connected to the problem solving skills that were mentioned before. Continuing education such as Six Sigma and Lean, Project Management/PmP, product seminars whether of the “Lunch and Learn” or factory training varieties all help contribute to the learning process. On the job training and exposure to other disciplines (electrical, mechanical, fabrication and factory floor operations) also add to the broad body of knowledge required to be a good engineer. Development of systems to assist in ones job are critical, procedures, checklists, templates can all improve the efficiency of the engineering discipline. One of my most important tools where I keep much of the seeds of development is my engineering notebook, as I mentioned before. These may be project based or journal based, I do both. If nothing else, my journal based notebook has a lot of passwords, phone numbers, random thoughts, schedules etc. not even directly related to my job.

As part of the philosophy part of the discussion here are some items I have identified as the “Enemies of Engineering”:

1. Lack of attention to detail. In engineering accuracy is MUCH more important than speed. I see far too many people making the same mistakes over and over. A decimal point, an incorrect CAD number or component specification can mean huge problems later. It is critical to double… triple check your work.
2. “Not My Job” – problem solving should be part of everyones job. Knowledge of related – or even unrelated – disciplines to your own can be very valuable. Think twice before you ever make this statement.
3. Lack of knowledge. We engineers are often by nature a bit arrogant. We think we know everything, at least about our own field. As we gain more experience hopefully we realize just how many things we don’t know. This is where self study (yes, on your own time!), on-the-job training (OJT) and openness to new ideas can really enhance ones knowledge. Engineers can learn a lot from machine operators, assembly/maintenance, electricians and plumbers, welders, machinists, etc.
4. Lack of experience. Of course this can only come with time. This can again relate to some of the previously stated lacks… experience in your own field is important but experience in assembly, panelbuilding, machining etc. can be very helpful, especially in design.
5. Lack of interest. No drive or thirst for knowledge. “Its just a job”. For people who feel this way I would encourage them to explore other job opportunities. It may be that after people see what other people do all day they will realize just how interesting their own field is. Start by exploring roofing, fast food service or asphalt work.
6. Lack of communications. Engineers of all disciplines need to work together to develop successful projects and systems. I have worked with a lot of truly excellent engineers in my career and when the project didn’t turn out as well as it should have this was usually the major culprit.
7. Lack of exercise. What? In engineering? How could that relate? Well, I sit behind a computer screen for most of my day in a not very optimal posture. Its bad for my eyes and my body, so I need to make up for it somewhere. I am 52 years old at this point and its starting to take its toll. I exercise when I can, but I know its not enough. I’m sure my work and efficiency would be better if I were in better shape.
8. Complacency – “This is the way we’ve always done it”. I see examples of this daily. There is almost always a better way to do things.
9. Lack of organization. When you can’t find things your efficiency is lowered. Other people can also see this as a lack of discipline and lower their opinions of your capabilities accordingly. It can effect many things from career path to personal life.

There are no doubt many more… if anyone else has any thoughts on the subject I would love to hear them. As I mentioned, this may form the basis of another book. I think I have decided not to put this in my current book, I have so far avoided any personal opinions or advice in the manuscript. So what makes a good engineer?

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2 comments on “Engineering Philosophy
  1. I think about this topic a lot. You are right. It’s about attitude and focus first. Education provides the tools to help solve the problems. And, gets your foot in the door.

  2. Tony says:

    Just a little to add:
    — Continual learning is one of the best parts of life. I really enjoying seeing what our ME’s create: precision machined mechanical systems are awesome. I’m trying to find time to dig much deeper into servo control algorithms, just because….
    — I’m a bit of a formal education skeptic (and I highly recommend checking out Walter Russel Mead’s education thoughts at the Via Media blog), but it does have value in providing a broad background (knowledge base?) that is hard for a self taught person to acquire. Also, my physics degree provided a basis in very abstract thinking which, although isn’t directly applicable, has helped me become better software developer.
    — One #7, exercise, I would recommend:
    1. Consider trying a stand-up desk. Supposedly you burn considerably more energy standing up, so it’s worth trying. Ikea has two models which can be hacked into affordable stand up desks.
    2. Check that your work environment has good ergonomics, including lighting and positioning of the major components.
    3. You should do some careful research on food and exercise. There is a lot of disagreement about nutrition, and the science is definitely not settled. I’ve also seen all kinds of exercise theories. So I recommend trying to find what works best for you. My wife convinced me to do some martial arts; I’m not sure it’s great for losing weight, but it helps with my (lack of) flexibility.

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