You have a wild idea. Will it actually work?

As an engineer, I’ve been involved with my share of wild ideas, visions and desires. I’ve listened to and entertained, against my better judgment, some many of a wild idea. Some ideas I regret not to have taken more seriously, several I was retained to prove or disprove their validity, and many that developed into some really exciting devices. Along the way it became evident that there were some basic and necessary guidelines, a few of the key ones were: don’t be too quick to judge, focus on the details and always keep the goals in sight.

In this post, we revisit the engineering process. In an earlier post I was a bit premature launching immediately into physical prototypes. As designers and engineers we well know that building a prototype has a powerful lure – everyone wants to witness their visions and ideas enter reality. However, a poorly executed prototype does only one thing, sends you back to the drawing board. Prototypes have one basic purpose, risk reduction. Previously discussed in an earlier post was the specification, but for now, let’s set that topic aside. Before the specification, there must be a sound idea and vision in which the engineers can apply their wares. The idea needs to be sound and tirelessly driven with a clear understanding of the desired end result.

What makes a sound idea?

What makes a sound idea? There are a dozen adjectives that immediately come to mind.  But foremost, it must satisfy a need and offer a perceived value.  Whether the need is imaginary or real, the need must be well defined and understood. Understanding and defining the need is your charter, how to satisfy and develop it, is not. You must resist the temptation to begin to conceptualize a solution, that, although you may think this may help clarify your thinking, it will do nothing more then defer you from your primary charter. It is essential to focus on the “why”, “where”  and “what for”, not the “how to” — leave this up to the engineer.

I can’t begin to tell you the countless number of concepts and prototypes that have been brought to Adept with the simple request to “make it work”. Conversations often begin with, “we have a design that is 90% complete, but we need some engineering help to…blah, blah, blah…..(make it work!)”. Thankfully, they realized they needed engineering help. Although, when it comes to new designs, making it work must begin from the ground up. It must be grounded in solid engineering principles targeted at meeting each and every; why, where and what for. My intention is not to insult anyone, to be honest, several of the concepts and prototypes I’ve been brought were well conceived and cleverly constructed. But generally lacked the necessary attention to detail and adherence to engineering principles.

By now, you’ve put two and two together and realized where this post is leading us. If an idea is well understood and established the next step is a specification. The specification is merely a document that defines:

  • What is available?
  • Where will your idea operate?
  • Who or what will operate your idea?
  • What must the end result be?

This holds true for devices, products and processes. A colleague of mine once put it quite clearly, “without a specification you (the engineer) will never know when you are done.” I’ve gotten a lot of mileage from that statement. Not only does the specification provide a clear delineation of the need to be satisfied or problem to be solved, it also serves as a reminder of the requirements and target, so they are not forgotten. The specification does not need to be complicated or cast in stone and can be in the form of a working document. If you are not an engineer, it can merely be a list of requirements and subjective wants. IT is part of an engineers job to take that list and compile is into the necessary technical guidelines that will define your vision.

Engineering ideas requires commitment !

Throughout the engineering process, it becomes evident requirements may oppose one and other and/or place an excessive burden on the overall design which  may be damn near impossible…and the engineer’s nemesis! Trade-offs must be made in order to find the ideal balance of performance, cost and risk. These trade offs will lead to decisions made early on in the process while the concept and specification are being fine-tuned. These decisions will either make or break a project. They are not to be taken lightly or made in haste. Again, keeping the end-game can not be mentioned enough. But a well formulated idea (from a wild idea) with a proper specification will lead you to that result. Obviously, further discussion is required about this extremely important point in the design process and will be left to later blogs, stay tuned.


1 comment

  1. So many engineers want to dive right in, developing the next big invention without any sense of product requirements. And then you have Product Marketing folk, with their “napkin” sketches not even knowing the customer’s needs. Matt is so right, without clear definition a product development life cycle may experience “scope” creep, over running schedule and budget. Also, without well defined requirements, you’re left with ambiguity, never really knowing if your design met the goal especially during feasibility and validation testing.

    So now you say “How much definition is enough or too much?” Over my 28 years engineering, I’ve work with (Even written a few) those DOD novels, 30-50 pages defining subsystem functionality, and we’re not even talking about an entire product. Developed systems for the USPS, talk about the mountains of paper! Now it’s single entity products for Stanley Engineered Fastening. I now take the KIS approach, keeping it simple, clear and concise, when generating product definition documents. Matt touches on it in his article, be flexible, be adaptive throughout the product development life cycle especially when innovating new technology, requirements can change as your problem set evolves and faced with new failure modes.

    So whether you’re developing the next Tesla, Google Glasses or iPhone 6, well defined product definition is essential for solid design.

    Neil Baldino
    Stanley Engineered Fastening


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