Engineers are often required to be analytical creators to solve problems and develop, repair and improve different products and processes. To do this they use a range of techniques that are shaped into a workflow known as the engineering process.
Before delving into the parts of the engineering process, let’s first examine what an engineering problem is and how engineers solve problems.
An engineering problem is one that can be analyzed and solved using engineering principles and methodologies. Here’s a few practical examples of engineering problems that are being worked on by various individuals, teams, and organizations around the globe.
- Making water clean and accessible for drinking
- Providing a steady food supply to the world’s population
- Improving cyber security for sensitive information
- Developing viable sources of renewable energy
- Sustainable manufacturing
- Improving healthcare
The challenges that engineers tackle differ between the different engineering disciplines so there is no general list of techniques that will apply to all of them. That being said, most use the engineering process to organise their techniques into a functional workflow that allows for the development of new solutions.
Problem solving techniques engineers use:
- Begin by identifying the problem
- Investigating and researching the problem
- Developing various solutions
- Selecting a solution
- Preparing documentation, reports, plans and specifications
- Implementation of the solution
- Review and evaluating the solution
The first and most critical step of the process is identifying what the problem actually is. An inaccurate definition or understanding of the problem can result in the engineer wasting their time or developing an inappropriate solution.
At this stage it is also important to ensure that the issues caused by the problem are genuine. Regardless of how wonderful a design might seem, it can be rendered useless if it is not helpful, replicates other common designs or is an inferior solution to an existing design.
When identifying the problem it is essential that the engineer considers the criteria and constraints for their solution. The easiest technique to do this is just to write a list for each. Criteria are the features that the solution should have, while constraints are the limitations. There are a number of things to consider when thinking about criteria and constraints.
- The materials that need to be used or are available
- Size or weight requirements for the solution
- The equipment or technology that’s available
- The amount of time required to solve the issue
- The expense of the materials and building process
- How critical and the urgency of the problem
- Who the primary user or target audience for the solution is
After describing the problem, engineers then begin to gather the knowledge and data they require to create a viable solution.
Sometimes in depth research and data collection is needed to better understand both the problem and possible solutions. This could involve taking physical measurements, reading or creating maps, investigating laboratory experiment results, reviewing patents, analyzing opinion poll results, or completing studies.
One technique used during the research phase is investigating past solutions or similar problems which have either been solved or remain unsolved. For many engineers it’s best to strive to improve on what has already been done, as looking at other solutions can lead to better ones.
Once the relevant data has been gathered it is used to assist a group or individual in developing innovative and creative ideas that could solve the problem. There are many techniques engineers can use to assist in generating these ideas.
- Writing lists of ideas for design improvement, modification, magnification, reduction etc.
- Engaging in brainstorming sessions with other qualified individuals where ideas are generated and built upon verbally.
- Writing a list of attributes (e.g. color, function, material, hardware) and for each point developing a set of realistic options.
- Thinking about the issue from a different perspective or context, for example a hypothetical scenario where certain materials aren’t available or from the point of view of someone from a non-engineering background who will engage with the solution.
- Sketch ideas and possible solutions out then modify and build on them with the assistance of others.
As solutions become more developed, modelling can become an essential technique. Three common types of modelling used by engineers are mathematical models, computer models and physical models.
Mathematical models consist of equations that explain a physical system. Here are some practical examples of how mathematical models can be used.
- Calculating the trajectories for spacecraft re-entry
- Understanding changing animal populations
- Estimating the spread of a pandemic or virus
The potential impact and actions of complex systems can be studied using computer simulation models. In certain situations, computer models will also use the principles of mathematical modelling to assist in developing simulations. Here’s a few ways computer models are currently being used.
- Virtual crash testing of new vehicles
- Weather forecasting
- Testing how different factors can impact the spread of a pandemic or disease
Physical models have been used by engineers for centuries to help them understand complex systems and test possible outcomes. They offer the advantage of allowing an engineer to investigate a structure, or system with little understanding of its behavior or the need to make assumptions. These models can be life sized or scaled down to make them more manageable. Here’s examples of where physical models are used.
- Simulating pollution dispersion within a lake system
- Testing how waves are likely to behave in a harbor
- Using a wind tunnel to test the performance and aerodynamics of a vehicle or aircraft design
Once they have developed viable solutions, engineers then employ a variety of criteria to assess the worth of a design based on the nature of the problem. The overall objective is to compare potential solutions against the criteria and constraints and make acceptable trade-offs to choose the “best” solution.
The solution can also be judged in terms of:
- Consumer acceptance
- Investor acceptance
After a solution has been chosen it generally needs to be presented to the stakeholders who must approve and support its implementation. During this stage engineers can use a range of strategies to effectively communicate their design.
- Engineering drawings
- Plans and specifications
- Written submissions
- Verbal presentations with visual aids
- Virtual models
- Functional or non-functional prototypes
- Scheduling and planning documents
For many engineers the implementation phase is the most rewarding as they can see their solution being executed, going from design and theory to something tangible.
During this phase, engineers can be directly involved in planning and supervising the implementation of their design, including manufacturing, construction and developing user processes and safety procedures.
This phase is evaluating if the solution has adequately solved the problem. During this phase the solution is examined in relation to the original constraints and criteria, and its success is judged. Ideas for how it could be modified to achieve different or better results can be discussed, which in itself can lead to the start of a new cycle of the engineering process.