The Engineering Design Process: What It Is and How to Get Started
Have you ever tried a new recipe, discovered a few things that didn’t work well, and then made the meal better the next time through? How about adding hooks, hangers, and mail slots in your entryway to manage clutter when you get home? The process of characterizing a problem, thinking through potential solutions, testing the best options, and then further improving upon the solutions is the essence of the engineering design process. Depending on who you talk to, there are between two and 20 steps to this process with varying levels of granularity. However, the underlying goal of the engineering design process is problem-solving. To try to simplify things, I am going to refer to the STEM process often used in education: 1) Ask → 2) Imagine → 3) Plan → 4) Create → 5) Test → 6) Improve.
Regardless of what field of engineering you work in, the first (and I would argue most important) step is defining the problem. This is harder than it sounds. Within the “Ask” phase, the difficulty lies in getting to the root of the problem and not just the symptoms. What factors are at play? Who is impacted by the problem? What results are we trying to achieve? Are there any constraints or limitations? All of these elements play a role in creating a clear problem statement to attack. If possible, make your problem quantifiable and precise. Try to avoid using vague questions like, “How might we make this car better?” There is a lot of ambiguity in terms like “Better,” “Cool,” and “Innovative.” Instead, focus on things that can be measured and tested. “How can we redesign this airbag to have fewer components?,” is a specific question that you can problem solve in a measurable way. My experience has been that a clearly defined problem statement will reveal the best solution or even solve itself.
The next step in the engineering design process is “Imagine.” This is where you need to draw from the right side of your brain as well as the more analytical left side to generate possible solutions. During creative problem-solving sessions at DISHER, two things we promote are 1) encourage wild ideas and 2) go for quantity. Often, the best solution is not the most obvious. Great ideas may pop up from somewhere out in left field after standard ideas have been thrown out. Pulling in people with diverse backgrounds helps with producing this kind of thinking. I recently had a session where an idea from the automotive industry provided a potential solution for a medical product. Do not overlook the value of research inside and outside the problem area during both the “Ask” and the “Imagine” phases. Finding out how others solved related and unrelated problems can give you the mental flexibility to come up with something truly insightful.
A great idea often doesn’t go anywhere without a plan. This is the next step in the engineering design process. Based on all the potential solutions from the “Imagine” phase, engineers select the best ideas to explore further. With the intent of ultimately building a prototype, the “Plan” phase is the perfect time to generate design drawings and sketches. Consider how the prototype will be used, where the design may fail, and how things could be made most efficiently. The extra time spent in the “Plan” phase is also when to consider risks in the project. It is far better to catch that misaligned hole during this phase than after you have started building your prototypes.
Now it’s time to get your hands dirty. Once you have solidified your design and are confident to move forward, the “Create” phase is where you bring these ideas to life. Whether it is a paper model or an autonomous robot, building prototypes is often the most exciting part of the engineering design process. These models are used to answer the most pressing questions. While building prototypes, one key aspect to keep in mind is to use the appropriate tool for the job or issue you are trying to resolve. If the question is: “Will the people like the look and feel of our product?” It might not be necessary to machine the parts out of aluminum. Conversely, if you want to assess the strength of your plastic-part design, a 3D print might be too fragile to provide meaningful feedback.
“Fail fast” is one of the most common clichés in engineering. While this term may be overused, the underlying goal has great merit. During the “Test” phase, the sooner you can find your failure points—the sooner they can be corrected to help keep costs down. Testing does not need to be in a lab with load cells and high-speed cameras. Any feedback and insight you can gain from putting the prototype to use have value. And remember, the data doesn’t lie. Even if it doesn’t tell the story you want to hear. I have seen instances during testing with a less-than-favorable result. The team tests again, only to get the same result. Not until after the team goes through the next phase of “Improve” do they finally find that right solution.
The “Improve” phase is where you apply everything you have learned up to this point. Testing may have shown that the design needs a bigger bolt, or that it was too difficult for a user to reach a button. Regardless of what issues were identified in testing, now is your chance to make the design better. In traditional product development, the most commonly improved items are related to functional test failures. This is often adding support structure for maximum load and cycling conditions. However, don’t overlook the opportunity to improve your product based on user feedback. Ensure features are ergonomic and comfortable to use, the user interface is intuitive and doesn’t need a 40-page manual and remove features that nobody likes. Listen to what your test results are telling you and use your ingenuity to improve the design as best you can. Once you have done that, it is time to go back to the “Ask” phase and do the whole thing again.
While the term “engineering design process” can feel intimidating to some, we execute this process in our everyday lives all of the time with all sorts of activities. Hopefully, this helped you better understand the six phases: Ask, Imagine, Plan, Create, Test, and Improve. By applying this process, you may drastically improve something that has been causing you headaches at work or at home. Even at a minimum, you can use this process to make small, incremental improvements to any problem you want to tackle.