Engineering design and problem solving is prevalent in industry. When designing, engineers tend to use a methodical and well thought process to deliver solutions to a demand or a problem. This is known as the engineering design process, and in this article, we will investigate the process, its steps, and how much it is used by engineers.
What is engineering design process?
The engineering design process is a series of steps that engineers can follow in order to find a solution for a problem. Engineering is a very broad term; the kinds of problems engineers come across can vary massively dependent on the discipline. For a civil engineer the problem may be how to safely design a tall structure capable of withstanding strong winds and earthquakes, for a process engineer the problem may be how to design a process to separate two similar liquids to form a sellable product. Despite the extensive range of issues engineers come across, the problem becomes solved using the same general engineering methodology.
The final solution most commonly involves designing a product or a piece of machinery to solve the problem or meet the objective. Unlike school or university, there is no real right answer to solve a problem and the effectiveness of the solutions are always subjective. None the less the engineering design process is a useful method which can help get an engineer’s creative juices flowing.
What does it involve?
There are several steps to the engineering design process. These may vary from engineer to engineer, as all tend to have their own take on the process. However they almost always follow this general methodology.
1. Define the problem
In order to generate a solution to the problem, we need to clearly define the problem. The initial problem may be quite vague in the mind of the engineer. It may change as more and more information about the problem becomes known. Translating the problem into a clear, well defined and unambiguous statement is key to solving the problem.
After problem definition, information needs gathering. Has the problem been encountered before? What solutions already exist for the problems? How effective/ineffective are the current solutions to the problem? Doing good research early can save you time and effort later.
3. Generate solutions
Now the real leg work starts. With the information at your disposal solutions to the problem need identifying. This is done in a number of ways: brainstorming ideas or conversing with other engineers. This is where engineering creativity can really flourish and where really innovative ideas can come about.
4. Select a solution
Hopefully by this step you have a number of good solutions to the problem. These solutions now need analysis to find the best one. This could involve simulation studies of the solutions or generating a decision matrix where attributes including cost and effectiveness are numerically scored and the results compared. This step is important, not just to solve the problem but so your solution can be justified to other engineers or management.
5. Test and evaluate
After identifying the best solution, it needs testing. This can involve pilot plant tests on prototype pieces of equipment or products. Tests run on these prototypes allow you to analyse the solution, finding out how effective or ineffective it really is. This step helps a lot to identify the advantages and disadvantages of your solution and whether to use it. If tests on the prototype are positive, the solution can then be implemented.
This process is highly iterative. Once a prototype is tested and evaluated you may find your solution to the problem isn’t as great as you thought and you would have to go back to step 3. Alternatively after doing your research in step 2 you may come across information which redefines the problem and you go back to step 1. Engineers get caught up in this process and continuously iterate and iterate until the ultimate solution reveals itself. Eventually the process needs to stop and the solution implemented.
Do engineers really use this process?
This is a difficult question, and it will vary from engineer to engineer. Every engineer will have their own take on the process, but all usually start with defining a problem and end with implementing a solution. No universally accepted design process is available and so the procedure is open to interpretation.
From a personal perspective, I do not generally follow a set process when designing a system or solving a problem. When approaching problem solving tasks, I usually take whatever steps seem obvious to me at that point of time. Looking back however, the steps I take do seem to be very similar to this process. Engineers are logical thinkers, when approaching a problem these steps present a logical and well set out solution. Whether they have been taught the process or they develop it themselves, the engineering design process will always serve as a useful way to solve a problem.