Do engineers invent things? Yes and no. Inventions are problems solved. And some engineers solve problems of all types, while others don’t.
For example, some engineers invent new equipment and programs. Just like you see in your favorite movie where an engineer is hard at work in a desolate office.
While other engineers build new systems and methods that you never hear about. They do this without inventing anything physical that captures the media’s attention. Rather, they improve:
- Installation methods
- Maintenance methods
- Engineering processes
Then some engineers, don’t invent anything at all.
Clearly, there’s no specific group of engineers who only invent. Rather, engineers of all backgrounds can and do invent.
It all comes down to finding a problem in any type of engineering. Then figuring out a solution that doesn’t already exist.
Every invention begins with a question
We can improve everything around us. This constant search for improvement begins by asking questions.
Here are some sample questions you may hear asked:
- Can computers become smaller and faster?
- Can videogame graphics look more realistic?
- How can we reduce carbon pollution from the air?
- Can the range of a Tesla Model S car increase to 1000 miles?
- How can cars become safer?
- Can we produce healthier and even tastier fruit?
You get the point. The list of questions is endless and applies to all parts of life.
Look no further than how life was just a couple of centuries ago. So much has changed in so little time, by people asking and answering simple questions.
Now, to better answer our main question, let’s drill into all the different invention types.
#1 Inventing new innovative equipment
When you think of inventions, this is the first thing that comes to mind. Inventing the next new shiny object that does something amazing.
So these engineers invent new devices and equipment you see all around you. Also, plenty of things you don’t see.
These are engineers who commonly hold a bunch of patents under their name.
Now today, these types of inventions more times than not aren’t world-shattering. Rather, they make incremental improvements over existing inventions. For example, making a device or equipment:
- More durable
Then in a few instances, an invention will bring us something completely new. Think back to when Apple released the first iPhone.
We were all blown away with these fancy looking phones.
Now yes, the tech wasn’t new per se. But, how Apple assembled the phone for consumer use was innovative.
One interesting point is how today’s awe-inspiring inventions require a huge group effort. Thousands of years ago, one person may have invented a tool for pyramid building.
But today, we need hundreds of engineers to invent anything world-shattering. This perfectly highlights how advanced and complex technology today has become.
#2 Inventing installation methods and replacing old equipment with new
These engineers use newly invented equipment to improve existing installation methods. Also, figuring out how equipment can be better installed to make building easier.
Then, there are some engineers who invent new ways to address aging engineering solutions.
Think of a substation in a city. Many substations are ancient and standing on their last leg. So, they require a complete makeover to continue safely operating in the future.
I’ve worked on many substations over the years. I’ve replaced the existing equipment with new and better equipment.
It’s never straightforward work though. Because of space constraints, and compatibility issues between equipment.
In the end, the goal is to keep a substation operational and at the same time make it better. For example, some design changes I consider include the following:
- Replace air-insulated switchgear with gas-insulated switchgear
- Replace old electromechanical relays with modern digital relays
- Relocate equipment
- Increase substation capacity
- Improve safety for substation operators
Then there’s a bunch of minor details you need to consider as well.
It’s not like replacing a car tire. You don’t tell your mechanic to replace the Goodyear tire with a Michelin tire.
All in all, this can lead to the following improvements for a substation:
- Increased reliability
- Reduced environmental impact
- A better functioning substation
- Improved safety for substation operators
- Less future maintenance
In short, there’s a lot that goes into updating old equipment. You can’t just assume sticking in new equipment will get the job done.
This is where the inventive mind of an engineer comes into play.
What do engineers need to know to update aging equipment?
Clearly, you don’t need to invent new equipment to become an inventor per se.
As we learned, another facet of inventing is fixing problems. You’re using existing equipment to improve the system’s operating today.
Exactly like the substation example, I explained earlier.
To pull this off, you need a proper understanding of old and new engineering practices.
Only then, you can integrate new equipment into existing systems. With the goal of building new and better systems.
Important Note: there’s not one book that tells you how to use a piece of equipment in every application. Too many edge cases exist for every piece of equipment.
Thus, this is where engineering expertise comes into play. You need to understand the limitations of the real world and your equipment.
#3 Inventing maintenance methods
Like with installation methods, some engineers invent new ways to maintain things. Thus again, they don’t invent new equipment as many people would think inventors do.
For example, inventing a new way to maintain a large power transformer. This new maintenance method simplifies the work of operators. At the same time, it improves the life of the transformer by 20 years.
This again requires a strong understanding of engineering and science. Otherwise, how would you even try to maintain a power transformer? You couldn’t!
What’s more, every existing maintenance method you can improve. Just think about how every piece of equipment needs maintenance.
And let me tell you, many maintenance methods are far from optimal.
#4 Inventing engineering processes
Think about a car manufacturing plant. The car manufacturing process forever changed when machines were first introduced. The changes included:
- Increased production speed
- Improved safety of factory workers
- Increased productivity in factory workers
- Better manufactured products
In most instances, the engineers who integrate machines into assembly lines didn’t invent the machines. But, they invented the process for how best to integrate the machines.
Like the installation method, this requires a deep understanding of a subject matter. In this case, the operation of a given assembly line and the machines.
How do engineers think of what to invent?
Not all engineers invent. But the clear theme is, those who do invent, have a deep understanding of a subject matter.
Thereafter, the invention process starts with pinpointing a problem to solve. This goes back to asking questions.
These problems come to you in the following different ways:
- You think of a problem on your own to solve
- A client gives you a problem to solve
- Your boss hands you a problem to solve
Now, if you want complete freedom over what to invent, you’ll need to start your own business. Then you can pursue whatever your heart desires.
For example, Elon Musk couldn’t have designed his “reusable rockets” without founding SpaceX.
This is why large risky problems a lot of the times come from startups. These companies aren’t afraid to take bold risks and lose money for what they deeply believe in.
So over time, you’ll learn how to identify problems yourself. Then you slowly can move from solving small problems to larger ones.
Which discipline of engineering to enter to become an inventor?
What do you want to invent? This question will help point you to the type of engineering to pursue.
Depending on your interest, there’s no shortage of what you can invent.
Engineering is a very broad field. It touches on almost anything you can think of.
I’m going to go over some examples of things you can invent, in different engineering fields.
Mechanical engineering: build machines for any of the countless industries. For example, here are some different industries that heavily rely on machines:
- Food processing
- Factory automation
Computer science: create programs. The largest companies in the world today are software companies.
These software companies build countless programs to make our lives easier. Here are some companies, to name a few:
- Tesla – it’s a software company for cars
Electrical engineering: design circuitry. Every device today heavily relies on circuits and electricity.
Thus, designing the heart of new equipment for products in any industry.
In the end, you don’t even need to be a specific type of engineer to do any of these types of work. A piece of paper isn’t the law of the land saying what you can and can’t invent.
Just be good at what you do, and invent awesome things!
“Do engineers invent things?” wrap up
Engineers invent many different types of things. These inventions go beyond the shiny new objects Tony Stark invented in Iron Man.
Every physical world improvement we make as humans is an invention. It can be something as unsexy as a new process or maintenance method.
So as long as we expect more from technology, humans will continue to invent.
In short, engineers work together like ants in an anthill. This group effort helps advance life as we know it through endless inventions.
What do you think are the greatest engineering inventions in history? What do you consider to be inventions?
Featured Image Photo Credit: Lenny Kuhne (image cropped)
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Koosha started Engineer Calcs in 2019 to help people better understand the engineering and construction industry, and to discuss various science and engineering-related topics to make people think. He has been working in the engineering and tech industry in California for over 15 years now and is a licensed professional electrical engineer, and also has various entrepreneurial pursuits.
Koosha has an extensive background in the design and specification of electrical systems with areas of expertise including power generation, transmission, distribution, instrumentation and controls, and water distribution and pumping as well as alternative energy (wind, solar, geothermal, and storage).
Koosha is most interested in engineering innovations, the cosmos, our history and future, sports, and fitness.