Almost everyone can name the man that invented the light bulb.
Thomas Edison was one of the most successful innovators in American history. But he also stumbled. In response to a question about his missteps, Edison once said the now famous quote, “I have not failed 10,000 times—I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”
To solve engineering problems, engineers follow a series of steps called the engineering design process. At its simplest, the engineering design process starts with identifying a problem, conducting background research, specifying requirements and constraints, brainstorming possible solutions and selecting an approach. From there, the solution is developed, prototyped, tested, and refined.
The whole process is iterative, meaning that engineers repeat the steps as many times as needed, making improvements along the way as they learn from ‘failure,’ which can aptly be seen as opportunity. The iterative nature of the process means that engineers use lessons learned from past versions of a prototype or product and apply them to future versions. For every iteration, there are cycles of the engineering design process with more planning, design, implementation, and testing. This model can repeat itself as long as it takes to meet the goals of the project.
The challenges and value of the iterative process
Joseph-Carlos Da Silveira (who goes by Joseph DS), EIT, a master’s student in environmental engineering and a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Ottawa, said being humble enough to embrace the iterative process of engineering design can be challenging but makes for important inroads.
He noted that most research and testing carried out by Canadian engineers is set against a more rigid timeline. And you need to see or report if you have achieved significant results or not at regular data points.
“It’s frustrating when you have your data points, you have so much done and you need to change course,” DS said of research as it enters the testing phase or when engineers need to adjust course. “But it’s an important part of the process.
“Sometimes the assumptions we make are not the most accurate, [and] we have to back down and change directions. It takes time but you learn a lot. Sometimes the mistake can lead you in a great, new direction,” he said.
That learning is an important part of the iterative process and can involve knowing to look out for recurring pitfalls, so you are ready to navigate them more nimbly.
“You have to be mindful of that as a researcher, you have to be ready to reinvent the wheel even if you are on the most beautiful project and you have to think within tight parameters. When doing the real work, you’ll have to make basic changes and hope you are making the project, maybe even the world, better,” DS said.
The iterative nature of the engineering design process can also result in increased efficiency in production and teamwork. A cycle of constant learning and improvement means that future iterations of a product or service incorporates more feedback. The longer the process continues, the more valuable a product's history becomes.
Sheldon Baikie, P.Eng., civil engineer at Newfoundland Power, described how his team has brought the iterative nature of the engineering design process to their documentation improvement process. Moving from handwritten to Excel spreadsheets, each year the team refines and creates even smarter Excel sheets that do the formulas more quickly.
“Our plans were safe at first, but overdesigned,” he recalls. “We needed to be more nimble to change things for the engineers in the field. Now we can accommodate last-minute requests even from the field by revisiting and improving over the six years,” Baikie said.
Leveraging teamwork in the iterative process
Teamwork is an important part of engineering, and goes hand-in-hand with the iterative nature of the engineering design process. Different team members will bring different ideas to the work, depending on their experiences and backgrounds, and team members can learn from the successes or failures that their colleagues have encountered in previous iterations of a design.
“Most of the time you work with others with experience, and when those people see research going one way and it’s not going to go well, they should speak up. Surround yourself with those with experience, even 10 or 20 years of it,” DS said. By working with others with experience you can share the ideas and brainstorming and make more inroads together.
“Recently it has come into focus for me [the value of our iterative process] as I’m training the new structural engineer that is coming on and I can talk about the process the other team members and I have been developing for the last six years,” Baikie added. “And he’s going to be able to take the development basically where he wants to go with it, with many options available.”
Engineering Life is an occasional series that explores the human side of engineering through stories and insights in the lives of engineers. This series is supported by affinity program partner TD Insurance, a trusted partner dedicated to helping engineers and geoscientists get access to preferred insurance rates on car, home, condo and tenant coverage.
For more information or to get a quote visit www.tdinsurance.com/engineerscanada or call 1-866-293-9730.