Engineering Design Processes
They say that everything that is worth doing is worth doing right, and engineering is one of those things that are worth doing and must be done right. This starts with the design process, i.e. stages to go through during engineering designs.
Perusing through various related literature shows that there is no one particular engineering design process. Everyone focuses on what they choose. In some cases, the processes are only a handful, and in other cases, the processes are a lot more. But do not be fooled. There are no shortcuts. It’s only that some consider certain processes minor, and therefore, no need mentioning them. But others list everything.
Regardless, there are certain stages that many agree are essential in engineering design process. Below are the major ones:
Understand the Problem
This is categorically the one most critical stage of any engineering design process.
When one undertakes an engineering project, they are trying to find a solution to a problem. The first things, therefore, is to acknowledge that there is a problem. But most importantly, one must understand the problem they are trying to solve. Many projects fail because of failure to do this correctly and comprehensively.
When looking to build a bridge, for example, the lack of a bridge is not the problem, but what has led to the lack of a bridge in the first place? Is it politics? Is it too much bureaucracy? Is it the environment?
The problem involves the factors that will directly affect the construction of the bridge: distance, topography, type of soil, weather and climate patterns, etc. All these elements have a direct impact on the design decisions, including the material to use, the tools and equipment that will be required, among others.
Failure to understand a problem in its full scope is the first sign of an impending failure.
Define the Project Goal
Now having understood the problem, this stage is about describing the project and its goals. In other words, the focus on what the solutions – to the problem – the project should solve. The tea does not yet consider ‘how' to solve the problem, but ‘what' problem to solve.
Some sources refer to these solutions as specifications. That is an explicit list of requirements that a material/product and service seeks to satisfy. The team can determine these specifications by design constraints and functional requirements.
Do a Background Research
Having defined and understood the problem, but also the solutions required, it is now time to start considering ‘how’ to deal with it in all its variedness, i.e. what the actual project implementation will entail.
It is also said that there is nothing new under the sun. In other words, what you’re dealing with has been done before. In this respect, the team conducts a background research on similar situations that have been dealt with in the past.
But remember, no two circumstances are the same. This is why the background research does not in itself provide solutions that will be directly transferable to the current project. Rather, it aids the brainstorming process. Therefore, approach the background research stage as a ‘guiding hand' toward working out new solutions to the new problems at hand.
Brainstorming or Ideation
The team is now armed with a vital body of knowledge on the situation at hand. The team now understands the problem and what solutions the project process should produce. The team has also conducted a background research and seen what has been done before, but also in what ways the previous cases differ from the current one. It is now time to throw ideas about, i.e. brainstorming.
Brainstorming, alternatively referred to as ideation, simply relates to the formulation, imagination or conception of an idea. In other words, the engineering team now decide on ‘how’ to implement the solution.
The engineering team includes the findings of the background research process here. The questions they ask include: In what ways is this situation similar to that situation, and how did they deal with it? In what ways is this situation different from that situation, and how must we tweak what they did then to deal with differences? The team also asks: What is unique to this situation that has not been seen before, and how do we deal with it?
In other words, the team uses their experiences and background research to come up with an entirely novel project. In the end, the ideas generated at this stage can be several.
It can be hard to decide which of the suggested possible ideas to go with. It is important to remember that what will be done will have a direct impact on people and even on the environment. The team must, therefore, understand the ways in which the project will work in real-life. This is what prototyping does.
To prototype is to ‘create’ the ideas, and provide the same contextual circumstances it is likely to face in the real world and see how it behaves. If we’re talking about a bridge, the team can construct an actual miniature bridge with the same idealized specifications and see how it responds to circumstances.
Alternatively, (and this is perhaps the most cost-efficient option) the team can use software to develop a model on the computer.
The ultimate goal is to see which of the ideas are most feasible and effective. If they all fail (e.g. the bridge crumbles in every case), the team must return to brainstorming and ideation, and find more ideas to work with.
Finally, Make the Right Choice
Here, the team chooses the one idea that has the best results, in terms of durability, aesthetics, etc.
But it is not always that the prototyping stage provides the perfect solution. Therefore, the team may need to either refine the better result (among the prototypes) or combine various good traits of various prototypes to come up with a better design.
From here, the team can begin thinking about starting the project itself.