General Engineering Introduction/Design


Engineering Design is completely different than architecture, industrial, or environmental design (see Engineering_Art.)

Beginning students know how to play. Play is about doing things first. The goal is to add design. This is done by slowing down. Think first. Plan. Write before doing anything. The thinking, planning, and writing is called engineering design. Without engineering design, there is no discipline. Freshman labs turn into chaotic messes with everything taken apart, tools scattered everywhere, sharp edges dulled, homogeneous substances mixed, new parts mixed with broken parts, and donated items mixed with garbage.

Engineering design creates the opportunity for problems to show themselves and for students to transition into problem solving.

Engineering design can be broken up into three areas:

1. Art within boundaries such as Profit, Form, Function, Complexity, Longevity, and Time.
2. A scientific process that accurately predicts success through calculations, use of handbooks, and codes of practice.
3. A business process that results in deliverables such as: Problem Statements, Gantt Charts, Drawings, Test Procedures, Presentation, Prototypes, Progress Reports, Theory of Operations, Instruction Manuals, Software, Documentation.

These topics are covered in the papers Engineering Art, Engineering Science and Engineering Entrepreneur. Below is what to expect in engineering classes, where inspiration comes from, and a pep talk on not being intimidated by complexity.



Every object in the world was not designed according to an established, mature process. Design rule discovery is not the starting point of engineering. But there are design concepts that have emerged for known objects. Chess players learn named openings and defenses, but there are not known design rules behind each of the 1043 possible chess positions. Instead, Engineers start by learning what the chess pieces, or artifacts, are. Engineers then organize them into different named openings and defenses or games (made objects.)

Engineers solve a complex problem (winning a chess game,) into smaller pieces (artifacts,) and then create made objects (named games.) What engineers study in school are the artifacts associated with different, old, already made objects. These include:

This process prepares an engineer to make unique objects using standard artifacts and to discover new artifacts.

Complexity Intimidation


One of the big problems of engineering education is watching a professor scribble on white board or black board. The complexity is intimidating. Inside the professors head are unspoken, unnamed, simple artifacts. The goal is to use them yourself. Body language generates emotional clues to exactly what these artifacts are. They are what make watching someone write so much better than reading a text book. If you can name the artifacts, write another engineering design book and become famous. Try to recognize them evolving within yourself. Look at your homework problems a week later. Be amazed at the complexity of your own work.

Look under the hood of a car. Examine a circuit board. Take a tour of a manufacturing plant. Let the full weight of the complexity inspire awe. Non-engineers feel this awe, and then they feel intimidated, then inferior, then depressed, and then they hide from engineers. Instead look for patterns, edges, and connections. Chop it into smaller pieces. Make a hypothesis about each piece that starts with "if I were the design engineer, I would _____________."

Chop Large into Many Small


The first part of most engineering projects is figuring out what small part of a large problem is going to be tackled. This is what is negotiated with the client, principal investigator, or instructor. Creating artifacts is done the exact same way. Look at just one piece of the car engine, look at just one trace or component on the circuit board, look at just one tested unit of code. Don't look at everything at once. Anybody can be overwhelmed by complexity or problems.



Creating artifacts involves hiding problems/complexity. Take a picture of the complexity you are trying to understand. Draw a picture of the full complex object that has never been created. Draw circles or spheres in your mind around the whole thing. What crosses the circles?

Cut pieces off the solution or complexity. What did you cut? What is inside the cut cross-section? What crosses the boundaries of the circle/sphere created by cutting? What crosses the boundary of a free body diagram are forces. What crosses the boundary of a control volume is heat and work. What crosses the boundary of a node is current. What crosses the boundary of a cloud or algorithm is information.

The goal of creating artifacts is to hide the complexity both inside and outside. The only thing left is what crosses the circle or sphere's boundary. This is where engineering design starts.

Unique versus Ideal


In 1495, the kingdom of Naples had been overrun by France with 40 light, mobile cannon. Cannon balls crossed the circle. A new type of fort had to be designed. Today they are called “Star Forts”. For more than 200 years the esoteric art of fortress design consumed countries. Eventually an “ideal fortress” concept was debated. Is there an ideal McDonald's that can be built without modification on every site? Or does the site require an ideal of it's own?

When an ideal can be found, then design stops. Have the ideal eating utensils been designed? Once something starts selling, engineering is often limited to incremental changes. This doesn't mean it is ideal. But still, most engineering deals with stuff that is not in WalMart. Most engineering deals with unique, one of a kind devices that are sold to other engineers. For example, there are approximately 55 long wall mines in the world. The number is decreasing. Each new one built is a celebration in uniqueness and lots of engineering.

If the ideal can be found, the engineer works him/herself out of a job. The ideal comes after generating the unique. There were different temperature scales for solids, liquids and gasses of different types until the ideal of temperature (zeroth law of thermodynamics) could be identified. There are little ideals and big ideals. Most engineers find little efficiencies, little ideals. These then create technology jobs, and the engineer must move on to designing something else.



Artifacts are related to the Greek concept of Form. The Greeks believed there were ideal Forms. This initially helped evolve Greek civilization. But the ideal Form concept crippled Greek STEM. Fractions were ugly. Infinity was evil. Open ended projects could not exist.

Ideal Forms don't exist as fundamental building blocks, in a limited, knowable set like the periodic table. Artifacts of all shapes and sizes need to be created constantly.

One can describe what is wanted from the software, but this does not dictate the form of the software algorithms. Connecting two things together seems simple. Why are there whole courses on fasteners? Because Form doesn't follow function. Function can be deduced from form, but form can not be figured out from function. When the function desired is a light weight roof (other than thatch roof), then new forms (such as a static body,) have to be created.



The collective fears/opinions/preferences of the human race emerge in culture, art and dreams. Carl Jung discovered forms in the collective. He called these artifacts archetypes. They appear to be form with unknown function. What crosses the boundaries? What defines the boundaries? This is engineering science!

Archetypes appear in dreams. There are two types of dreams: those that rehash the days activities, and those that are very different. The goal is to be able to distinguish between them and guide them. Begin by recording dreams in the morning and preparing for the dreams at night. Study emergence. This improves engineering in two ways:

First, it helps the creative juices flow.
Second (hypothetically,) it helps create solutions that are going to be more generally accepted than those that flow out of day time logic.

Design Homework Solutions


Most engineering classes start with the science of something simple. Then you are asked to design a bridge. You struggle to find shortcuts (artifacts) to make bridge design easier. Then in the next chapter the well known artifacts (static bodies) used by most engineers are revealed. Once students discover this pattern of engineering education, they shout, "Why didn't you show me the shortcuts in the first place? Is engineering merely torture?" The instructor replies, "If your goal is to be technician, if your goal is to become an expert at following the design rules, then... YES. Engineering is torture." The goal of every engineering student and the goal of every working engineer is to find the patterns, forms, archetypes, chess pieces, and/or circles. (Hint: when studying for a test, read the next chapter.)

The goal is not to design a set of rules for everyone to follow. Your instructors are not going to chop every problem into steps in order to eliminate frustration. Managers want engineers to solve problems different ways. Managers want engineers to arrive at different solutions and harmonize. Managers want engineers to arrive at the same solution completely different ways. When everyone agrees, every step of the way, there is no management/instructor/client/PI confidence.

Instructors will grade future homework assignments like managers. If every student's solution is exactly the same something is wrong with the way the course is being taught. This quickly turns into an ethics issue.

Draw in Your Notebook


Draw stick figures. Draw badly. Start with lists and turn them into charts. Try. Take some art classes. Take the first CAD classes at a community college where the basics of drawing by hand are taught. The goal of these sketches is to remind yourself of enough detail to be able to turn them into electronic documents. The goal is not to communicate to others with them as was done in the past. Now engineers communicate through electronic documents.

Design History


Search Google Books for "Engineering Design." The goal of most books is to describe a design process for a particular technology. After reading many theories, it is clear they apply to particular large scale projects that require teams of engineers. Design appears to be a team organization, task management, and business process first. There usually is an attempt to broaden the philosophy so it applies to all technology. Yet the design systems described are usually different. Why? Why haven't any organizational artifacts emerged?

Organizational design is a competitive business secret. There is a whole group of "efficiency" or "group management" engineers that work on design processes within a business. The goal of this course is emphasize small design steps involving a couple of engineers, not large ones that involve an entire class or group of engineers. Best practice is not going to be released into the public domain or taught in a course like this... if it does exist. It appears that every technology, every place, every time, and even the people involved create and re-create design processes.

The first step in design involves distinguishing engineering from management and technician expertise. Most engineers can easily slide downhill into management positions or expert technician positions. While these jobs are needed and rewarding, they are not engineering positions. It is therefore very necessary to clearly establish the boundaries between managers and technician expertise. Engineers don't typically turn into scientists unless they pursue an engineering doctorate. So the focus here is on the engineer and technology, and the engineer and management boundaries.

Art and Practice


Engineering exists in the crack between managers and technology experts. Engineering colleges vary how much time engineers spend in “shops” getting hands on experience. Technicians can spend two years of working with milling machines and then another two years with CNC machines. After a total of four years the technician is ready to work in a company. After approximately 10 years they will be an expert. The goal of general engineering introduction courses is to experience technician expertise, understand the details and procedures techs need to work, and transition "hands on" enthusiasm to "design." Technicians don't design.

The life cycle of expertise starts with engineers and ends with technicians. Engineers do it first and establish the seed of new expertise. Technicians take over during good economic times when there is lots of demand. For example look at CSI shows. Is the Forensics expert a scientist, engineer or technician? In most cases the Forensics character seems to be an expert at many things; too many for a technician. Yet patterns evolve... running software, or operating machines. Community colleges/technical institutes have begun training a new group of experts: crime scene interpretation, mass spectrometer operator, computer forensics information recovery, photo/video enhancement, etc. Eventually the demand for a particular expertise weakens. Demand starts to balance supply. Replacement technician training moves into "on the job training" within corporations.

Software started off in proprietary corporations where crafts have dominated. (A Craft is when only one person is involved in a project from beginning to end.) No engineers. No technicians. The "open software" and "extreme programming" movement has brought this ugliness in to the light. Colleges and universities have tried to find software engineering starting points and artifacts for a couple of generations. Searches for the ultimate single genius person that can craft a complete software package are disappearing. Yet freshman engineers still find it easier start a program from scratch rather than reuse another's code.

The modern “Art and Practice” question is "How much experience must a freshman engineer be given in order to ask for, leverage and appreciate technician expertise?" In some countries engineering students spend a whole year in technician training. Freshman raised in an engineering, science, farming or technician family don't need this. The purpose of this course is to give students an option. If students want to mill a hammer or Stirling engine from blocks of iron, let them. Many freshman don't understand the difference between technician and engineering work and thus walk into class saying “I like working with my hands." The “Art and Practice” goal of the freshman engineering experience should transition them into either engineering or technician programs.

The term “Art and Practice” has negative associations in the US. Before 1950 in the US, most engineers headed towards becoming an expert. But who makes up the list of best practice steps? Scientists? What scientist wants to figure out how to compute rain/storm water runoff during natural conditions and simulate the same conditions when the site is covered with a building? Who figures out the design steps for creating an electric motor for a unique, specific, application? The trouble with the older (before 1950) engineering "Art and Practice" philosophy was that engineers learned the steps, followed the steps but didn't improve the steps in a continuous, always evolving way. The existing design steps were supposed to be followed. Half were learning the steps in order to become managers. The other half drifted toward technician expertise. Improvement was a rare event. During WWII in the US, Vannevar Bush (founder of NSF) reported that the military preferred working with scientists rather than engineers. Engineering and technician work was blurred.



The better engineering books start off with an apology like this: “Design is not, as some textbooks would have us believe, a formal, sequential process that can be summarized in a block diagram.” It is important for engineers to be able to fit into a business design model. The model taught in this course is CDIO, which is becoming a standard in engineering schools. CDIO is not a formal, sequential process. CDIO is a list of engineering characteristics. It is a list of stuff an engineer does. It is a "pick and choose the most appropriate for the project/problem" list. It is a list of all experiences an undergraduate engineering student should have before graduating.

It is important to appreciate the boundaries where engineers hand information to each other within a company. Some engineers like studying big project management design. They typically want to become managers and get a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) after an undergraduate engineering degree. The easiest path to this type of job is through a military academy engineering degree or ROTC type program.

Engineers can become technicians and managers. They can transition into any other career probably more easily than from any other major. They can even become effective doctors, lawyers, or historians. Other disciplines can not transition into engineering as easily. Exceptions include "applied math" or "applied science" majors. Maybe someday everyone will major in engineering, and then go to graduate school to become a doctor, lawyer, historian, preacher, physical therapist, or astronaut.