Engineering Design

Engineering design is an iterative process used to identify problems and develop and improve solutions.

Let’s break that down:

Engineering design is a process. It involves tools and ways of thinking that people can use in almost any situation. Each part of the process reveals information about the problem and possible solutions.

Engineering design is iterative. Engineers are expected to repeat the process. Steps like defining, planning, modeling, and testing, can be completed in different sequences to find the best possible solution.

Engineering design is problem-solving. It always has a purpose that is specific and known. It may involve experiments to better understand the problem (or a possible solution), but the goal of engineering design is always to solve a problem.

Engineering design is finding the best solution. Evaluation is an important part of the process. Solutions have different strengths and weaknesses and have to stay within the physical limits of available time, cost, tools, and resources. Engineers have to choose the solution that provides the most desired features with the fewest negatives. That’s why engineering is often called “design under constraint”.

The engineering design process can be extremely useful to any individual trying to solve a problem. But engineering design can be – and usually is – done in teams. Each team member brings different knowledge and experience to the process, which usually improves the results.

What does the engineering design process look like?

The engineering design process is a remarkably flexible and useful way to look at many different kinds of problems.  Here's a fun video that uses a the engineering design process to successfully solve what seems like a non-engineering problem.

 

This example shows a number of different steps, but not everyone approaches the design process the same way. That's okay. There are actually several different models used to teach and talk about engineering design. Here are a couple of others that are pretty simple:

NGSS model of the engineering design process   EiE model of the engineering design process

Notice that neither of these models has a specific start or end point. Designers often jump around between steps. 

What do I have to be able to do solve problems this way?

One great thing about the engineering design process is that it relies on skills that anyone can do and can learn to do better with practice.

Different models of the engineering design process includes different “steps”,  but there are a few skills that anyone doing engineering design are likely to use - and most of these you are already familiar with. Here's a list:

  • Ask questions
  • Do research
  • Brainstorm
  • Draw/sketch
  • Construct models or prototypes
  • Conduct tests
  • Evaluate results
  • Present solutions

Professional engineers may work on problems that are bigger in scale and complexity, but the basic process for solving them is the same as the one you can use to solve everyday problems. The difference between planning a taco party and designing a city's water system is amount of specialized knowledge and experience required to solve the problem.

What if doesn't work?

Regardless of how you approach engineering design, there is one essential thing to keep in mind: Failure is okay.

In fact, failure is expected and even embraced in the engineering design process.

The whole point of this process is to develop and test creative solutions to a problem before implementing them in the “real world”. Having a prototype fail in the design process is a GOOD thing, because that means the designer has learned something new about the problem and potential solutions. That increases the overall probability of sucess!