How to think about Engineering Design

The need for Engineers

For a client looking to employ the services of an engineering consultant or designer, establishing the right selection criteria can be a difficult undertaking and is further compounded when the required outcome of their appointment is unclear or ill-defined as is so often the case.

Many clients experience frustration as the project develops and the scope of the engineer’s appointment, moves and changes. With some engineers unable or unwilling to move with the developing project. This scenario is typical for large, complex or speculative projects.   

At its heart, this problem relates to how risk and value are managed within a project. Selection of the right engineering consultant can provide great value by minimising capital expenditure and enhancing overall system efficiency. Conversely failing to properly understand project requirements can result in the project being over-engineered to accommodate a perceived risk in the eyes of the engineer.

The solution to this consists of two parts, capturing the use-case requirements of a project at the earliest stage possible and ensuring that the engineers with the right breadth and depth of experience are available for the project.

Use Case Requirements

The use-case is a term more familiar in software development than in engineering, however it is still highly relevant. It is often forgotten that an engineering system is designed to address a commercial need within an organisational system, sometimes referred to as the “meta-system”. The engineering system must be designed to operate within these constraints, which may include commercial budget, human interface, safety or efficiency. An engineering project that fails to meet the needs of the meta-system, intuitively can be considered a failed project, however there is another side to this that must be considered. After all, many project requirements may not have been fully understood at the outset.

For a typical consultant engineer, the answer is easy, they can attempt to engineer out all risks and so reduce the risk to themselves. However, the inclusion of “nice-to-have” elements into an engineering project can themselves introduce risk, in terms of cost, time, quality and complexity. There is a strong argument that it is not the responsibility of the engineer to unilaterally make these decisions, but it is their responsibility to properly communicate potential value and risk to the client or decision-maker.

Properly establishing the project use-case requirement and employing the services of engineers with commercial awareness can enhance the value of the project from the outset and can avoid retrospective value management exercises.

What makes a good engineer?

According to the Royal Academy of Engineering in their publication “Creating Systems that Work”, most engineers can be sorted into two categories, “Hedgehogs and Foxes”. Hedgehogs are experts in a specific field, their deep knowledge is crucial for the correct design and operation of that element. Foxes on the other hand know a great deal about a wide technical field but do not share the same in-depth knowledge.  

The third type of engineer according to the Royal Academy of Engineering is the “T-Shaped Engineer”. T-Shaped engineers have developed experience and understanding in a broad range of engineering fields; however, they also have an in-depth knowledge in at least one of those fields.

In short, Hedgehogs make excellent specialist designers, applying detailed knowledge to a specific engineering challenge. Foxes on the other hand make excellent project managers, appreciating the technical requirements of a project to enable them to juggle options, organise budgets and review programmes.

However, complex integrated systems design requires T-Shaped engineers who can understand the wider implications of an engineering challenge and can implement solutions across a project. Unfortunately, experienced T-Shaped engineers are uncommon in engineering consultancies, largely due to the industry trend to subdivide teams by engineering discipline.

JDA Ethos

JDA believe that breadth of understanding is the key factor in delivering high quality complex projects. All engineers are encouraged to expand their knowledge base in different areas to become “T-Shaped” engineers. For example, an engineer who can understand both mechanical and electrical systems and the interfaces between, can provide overarching innovative solutions, this in turn maximises value to the client.

Implementing this ethos has enabled JDA to cultivate a reputation for technical competence and problem solving across a range of disciplines. This gives JDA engineers the technical and leadership skills required to drive a complex engineering project forward, a quality rare in the construction industry.