I wasn’t planning to write this article now, but a response to my earlier article “Can Design Be Taught at University” made me realise that perhaps I hadn’t made my point. Actually, the response by forum member cwg999 in many ways demonstrated exactly what had gone wrong.
Where should you focus your attention?
Cwg999 stated that the engineer should “focus on the most important parts”. He pointed to the arm mechanism and suggested a calculation of its spring. This is exactly the way of thinking that universities (erroneously) suggest!
How and why did you decide that the arm is the most “important” part? You suggest how to gather the data for calculating the spring, but by this you assume a certain mechanism which isn’t there yet.
No need to reinvent the wheel
Let us look into this design problem a bit deeper. Let us put ourselves in the seat of the big boss, the top executive. Whoever they might be or what their reasons were to design this product, the main responsibility is to make money. You may like it or not (and most engineers don’t), but they have to make a profit for the company with this product (so they can pay your salary), and to that end they must make a toaster that sells.
Marketing v Design
If they happen to work for a big brand name their job (and yours – the designer) is easy. They can make a “me too” product that is very similar to all other brands, and rely on the reputation of the company and the skills of the sales people to do the rest. At most they may decide to employ an industrial designer for a somewhat similar but more appealing envelope to the product. In this case you would probably be happy enough copying a known design with minor improvements. You could easily calculate “the spring” but better still, rely on the spring dimensions of the competitor (a proven design already) and perhaps make minor modifications. Your design work will be mostly to make the parts a bit cheaper and simpler to assemble.
If, however you are luckier (from an engineer’s point of view) and work for a small nameless company then your only chance of cracking the market is by making something new. Your new product must have certain advantages which will make it sell even though your toaster may cost more than the others. That is what engineering is really all about, not just the calculation or analysis, but making a product which stands out, looks different and appeals.
Let us go one step further. A toaster looks so simple and “standard” that it seems impossible to win in the market – indeed it is not easy. But, let us see what features we can offer to the landlady that may persuade her to pay twice the price for your toaster and feel happy about it.
How about a new “sexy” look? How about ease of cleaning and never having the smell of scorched bread crumbs? How about making it very small and lightweight, so that she will be able to store it easily in the kitchen cabinet when not in use? How about toasting her slices in half the time? How about a toaster without this annoying arm that forces her to place the slices in the slot and then, in a second operation, push that arm?
Each and every feature is now completely different from the competition and knowing how to calculate a spring takes you nowhere…there may not be a spring there at all! Each set of requirements along these lines makes another subsystem (not parts!) into the “most important”. I dislike this term so I would rather call it “the leading subsystem”. In a way, this subsystem does not even have to be a sub-assembly, just something that does a function.
Promotion is the key
How do we now combine a full set of requirements into a single optimal working toaster? This is really what design engineering is all about although the toaster is no more than an arbitrary example. You will find very similar issues in each and every product.
You may resent the “exaggerated” power of the marketing departments and managers over engineering. However, without them our toaster would have been much heavier and more expensive, even though it might have been more reliable for achieving uniform toasted slices.
I hope this clarifies my point that design is a form of art that can’t simply be reduced to the repetitive application of formulas or analysis.