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Monthly Spin-Off #9 (Unraveling the Engineering Design Process)

From Ideas to Innovations: Unraveling the Engineering Design Process

In engineering, the problems that we encounter take many forms. They can be as simple as designing a wall hook strong enough to support a picture frame, or as complex as developing the manufacturing process of a soda can. With that, every search for a solution shares a common thread that can be followed from beginning to end. This thread is often referred to as the Engineering Design Process and is followed intuitively by engineers throughout the world. In this article, I will lay out the Engineering Design Process as I see it. I will also share some examples of projects that I have worked on and give you some insight to my day-to-day activities as an engineer at BioSurfaces.

The first step of the Engineering Design Process is to seek out the purpose of the project by defining the User’s Needs. This is achieved by answering and documenting educated questions that attempt to paint a vivid picture of the desired outcome. I have been working on a project where the problem was defined as how to effectively apply our Bio-Spun™ material to various cell culture plates. On the surface, it sounds like a relatively simple problem.

The client who sought us out was hand gluing the material onto the wells one by one. The problem is that each plate has 96 wells, and each well is less than a quarter inch in diameter. And they use a lot of plates. The problem becomes clear. It doesn’t make economic sense for a person to manually glue tiny plastic disks to tiny plastic wells by the thousands!

Once the problem is understood, we can now start asking educated questions which clarify the constraints that we are bound to. Asking questions that get to the heart of the problem are incredibly important. Some questions certainly hold more weight than others and being aware of that is important. If a client is looking to design a life-saving device, the first question asked by the engineers should not be what color the device should be. Ask educated questions about dimensional constraints, safety concerns, ease of use, desired output volumes. Anything and everything that will have tangible impact on the final product. Don’t be afraid to ask questions with the intent to open up the discussion. Help them to see the solution to the problem as you do. As an engineer, knowing how to guide the client to their goal efficiently will make everyone’s life easier in the long run. Once the User Needs are defined, the next step in the process is to do some background research.

Researching the problem will always be beneficial to an engineer, but it holds the most value near the inception point of the process. Use your research to formulate targeted questions. Sometimes you may have to perform research after your first round of questions with the client. It never hurts to return to the client with questions after the fact. Clarification and understanding should be reached before moving forward in the design process.

The next step of the process is to develop clear and concise Functional Requirements. This is where engineering talents are applied to solve the problem as defined by the end user. Functional Requirements are developed using the information gathered from questioning and research done in the earlier step. There should be no limitations during this step aside from those laid out by the client. At this step in the process, I’ll typically have several design ideas that I am working on that I will continue to flesh out. It is often some combination of these ideas that will end up being the final product. This is where an engineer might push the proverbial boundaries and let their imagination run wild. Towards the end of brainstorming, an analysis must be done to determine which idea or combination of ideas will move forward. The idea must meet the needs of the client while also operating within reality (This sounds like a joke, but I’ve seen proposed ideas that break the laws of physics while in college). Once the Functional Requirements are locked down, the project can move forward to the next step in the process of design.

The next step in the Design Process is prototyping. Designing and building the prototype are my favorite steps of the process because you can finally see the idea come to life. I like working through the product idea and breaking it down into steps or subassemblies that are more manageable. Having the ability to isolate individual components can greatly simplify analysis and iteration time. A great example of this is in the design of the electrospinning machines we use. The unit is broken down into three major subassemblies: the frame, the traverse drive, and the mandrel drive systems. With the system broken down, I’m able test and iterate the design of individual components without affecting any other sub assembly.

The Engineering Design Process is an art form that I have far from mastered. It requires a working knowledge of the science behind the design, the machining capabilities available, and an understanding of simplicity. When I was in college the phrase “Keep It Simple, Stupid” or KISS was used daily because of its inherent truth. Inexperienced engineers have a habit of overdesigning a product, resulting in an unnecessarily complicated design. This is something that needs to be avoided as much as possible. Having to go back to the drawing board because a machinist tells you it’s impossible to manufacture your design is embarrassing and a waste of time and money. Take your time on this step and work through the design thoroughly.

Once your design is complete, it is time to manufacture a working prototype. In my case, I perform most of the machining and construction of components in-house. While most parts I design can be manufactured in-house, it is important to know when a part is better manufactured by a specialty shop. For example, if you need a part machined to a high precision for proper operation, it may be better to outsource the work. The time wasted trying to achieve the precision could be better spent elsewhere on the project.

Once you have completed the prototype, the next step is testing and iteration. This is where you will test your prototype to ensure that it meets the Functional Requirements as agreed upon early in the process. If the design does not meet the requirements, you must evaluate why and fix the problem. This may mean that you must return all the way back to the original User Needs to reevaluate whether the product feature in question is feasible. If you planned properly and followed the Engineering Design Process throughout, such a drastic change would hopefully be avoidable. Often, the design will require reiteration. Reiteration should not be seen as a failure it is just baked into the process.

After iterating your design and testing to make sure that it meets the User Needs put forth by the client, you’ve completed the Engineering Design Process. Following the process from an idea to a finished product is incredibly rewarding and why I love what I do. As an engineer, it is so important to provide the client with the product that they expect. Listening to their ideas and keeping them in the loop during the process is a great way to avoid misunderstandings. I hope that this article has given you some insight into the Engineering Design Process while also providing you with some guidance for your future projects.

Written By: Kyle Golden

Senior Design Engineer

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