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Go for outstanding engineering designs by suppressing your subconscious

I have been reading through selected bits of what must be an outstanding book on engineering design (Pahl, Beitz and Wallace). It is written, not from an electrical, electronics or mechanical engineering perspective, but from a designer’s, - and this is quite different.

According to these guys, design commences with abstracting an idea in an effort to identify the essential problems. This is where we, as engineering professionals, should really come into our own. Often so-called solutions are already available, but are based on fixed ideas and constraints which often don’t even exist. As the book suggests; it is absolutely critical that we avoid focusing on conventional or perceived solutions which are lodged in our subconscious. An extremely difficult task, as this involves stepping right outside of our comfy zones and thinking laterally. It involves ‘ignoring the particular or incidental and emphasizing the general and essential’. In other words we have to identify what the “crux” of the problem is. For example, in designing a labyrinth seal, the “crux” of the task is designing a shaft seal without physical constraints. Further questions regarding the “crux” should be asked. For example should “it”:

  • Improve the technical functions e.g. the sealing quality or safety

  • Reduce weight or space

  • Significantly reduce costs

  • Significantly shorten delivery times

  • Improve production methods

Each of these goals may result in different design outcomes. Only once the “crux” of the task has been correctly identified, can we move onto formulating the overall task.

I would love feedback from you on design problems you have encountered and the novel solutions you employed to solve them.

I was intrigued by Freeman Dyson’s take on design: “A good scientist is a person with original ideas. A good engineer is a person who makes a design work with as few original ideas as possible.”

Yours in engineering learning


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