Engineering is a unique profession. It is very difficult to become an expert in a particular field without that technology becoming out of date. Please see our previous blogs on what our thoughts are on this. This means that to be the best engineer possible and be able to solve a variety of problems with different variables, you need a wide array of skills. Many of these skills that can be learned from a textbook but it is very difficult to break a problem down to its first principles and solve it using the mathematics and physics that you have learnt through the textbook and at university. However, a majority of the skills that you need to solve engineering problems can only be learnt through experience, real life on-job experience.
During my career in engineering I have been given two pieces of advice that has really stuck with me and that I have tried to emulate. The first was before entering study and the workplace where I was told not to specialise too early on engineering. I believe I followed this through study and in the workplace and the experiences I have gained have given me a wide array of skills that can applied cross functionally. The other, and the one I wish to discuss in this post, came about 18 months ago whilst I was at a conference with a large automotive company. The speaker at the time was a director / chief engineer for high end and high performing products. He explained how he got to this point in his career and the amount of different opportunities that he was given and also took. He worked for many automotive companies in different departments within multiple countries. His advice was to do just that, move about, experience different projects and learn new skills whilst doing that.
It took me about 2 month before I changed roles within the company and following this I made a big career decision to move into the aerospace industry. I wanted to learn the fundamental technologies that has governed aerospace for many years. This included taking products back to their first principles from a design perspective understanding technical specifications and ensuring products meet the extremely strict regulations from the Federal Aviation Administration and the European Aviation Safety Agency. Although I gained these skills, I felt I could continue my development within engineering in a more dynamic environment (with slightly different regulations to follow) but still applying the first principles approach and learning from different industry experts.
I now feel in a position where I can really break down engineering problems and designs and utilise the information that I have learnt through education back into the workplace rather than just designing based on previous concepts and assuming they are correct. This method is known as reasoning by analogy and really constraints innovation. By having the understanding of the first principles of a problem and knowing how to break a problem down to this point, applying more innovative designs becomes far easier. This allows cost reduction, weight reduction, new materials introduction, improved performance and many other innovative methods of product development.
An example of a problem breakdown within the automotive industry to improve technology through reasoning up from first principles (looking at cross-sections of beams) - Source: ResearchGate
The point is, without gaining experience on many different projects over the past 18 months, I would not be in a position to engineer the way I do. I hope to bring my experiences and understanding of different problem solving techniques across to this website and allow students to understand the bigger picture of engineering. For some it comes very naturally to apply physics and mathematics to engineering situations but for many others, whilst they may be excellent at the mathematics and physics individually, they struggle to apply this to any appropriate real world engineering example.
If you have had similar experiences and wish to interact with other engineers please have a look on our forum page and discuss (where appropriate - without giving away industry secrets) with other engineers. If you have been fortunate enough to work on a variety of projects and really break them down to their fundamental physics subsequently allowing new innovation, we would love to hear about it!