When I first heard this question it bothered me a lot. I began studying engineering in order to follow my love of physics in high school. It seemed that engineering was directly in line with physics; you learn the rules, you use formulas, you calculate, and voilà! Your design is ready.
The real world of engineering design
The two first years at university never hinted at anything else. It was during my third year that I got my first hint that it was not exactly so. I was given my first design project in the class of “machine elements”, better known today as “engineering design”. Feeling confident that my studies so far would help me to calculate everything I needed, I soon realised that I didn’t know what I was doing. Nothing that I studied in “strength of materials” prepared me to calculate the wall thickness of the simple gear box I was supposed to design!
Luckily I could ask my father, a mechanical engineer himself. I still remember the example he gave me to prove that calculating for stress is not the answer for every engineering problem; in fact, it was just a small part. I tried to argue but eventually I had to accept the harsh fact that not everything can be calculated.
Is it dangerous to make assumptions?
My next big frustration came a year later in a term examination on turbo-machines. The question given did not have all data required to solve the problem. After the exam our professor said that we had to assume the missing data. I felt like the sky had fallen on me! Giving an exam with missing data? Unfair and unacceptable! I failed. Still to this day I don’t know whether the missing data was intentional or just a human error on his side, but in later years as a teacher, I never failed to instruct my students to assume something whenever I wanted them to do so.
Science or Art? Am I an artist or a scientist?
Shortly after my graduation, during my first career steps as a design engineer, I attended a mechanical engineering convention where a lecturer raised the question, “Is design a science or an art?” Suddenly it struck me like lightning! Is it possible that I am an artist and not a scientist?
I shall try to answer this question in my next blog post.