Do Engineers Invent Things? Learn the 4 Invention Types

Do engineers invent things? It depends on your job role. Some engineers are inventors, while others implement the invention of others.

Those who invent, solve problems by answering simple questions. The following are some common questions, which today are fueling amazing inventions:

  • Can computers become smaller and faster?
  • Can video game graphics look more realistic?
  • How can cars become safer yet faster?
  • Can the range of a Tesla Model S increase to 1000 miles?
  • Can tech reverse climate change in the next decade?

Not surprisingly, life today is rapidly evolving on the shoulders of new inventions. Simply look how life was just a couple of centuries ago.

Engineers are advancing humanity in every field of engineering. At the same time, inventions are happening in places where you’d least expect, which we’ll go over.

#1 Inventing physical hardware

Most people think of cool shiny objects, when thinking of new inventions. But most inventions are unsexy hardware hidden from view.

For example, the invention of new hardware in airplane engines and landing gear. These parts are hidden from passengers, but are critical for safe flights.

It goes without saying, most physical inventions are not world-shattering. Rather, they’re incremental improvements, which make things faster, cheaper, lighter, and more durable.

Then in few instances, an invention will overtly forever change the world. Think back to the first Apple iPhone release. But even then, countless past unsexy inventions made the iPhone possible.

Important Note: thousands of years ago, one person would invent a tool for building. Today, many inventions require a team of engineers to work together. This showcases the advanced complexity found in technology today.  

#2 Inventing installation methods 

huntsville utility substation
Huntsville utility substation (Photo Credit: American Public Power Association)

Invention of clever installation methods, often goes unnoticed, which I find strange. Because a large part of engineering is the implementation of designs.

If the implementation isn’t practical, the design will get shelved. Say devising a method to mate two parts together, without compromising the materials. The invention may seem trivial, but without it, a rocket may not be able to launch.

Another example is addressing aging engineering solutions, like an old substation. Many substations are ancient and need a complete makeover to continue safely operating.

Having upgraded aging substations before, I know the work is never straightforward. There are space constraints, and compatibility issues between old and new equipment. To solve the problems, engineers have invented hardware with new install methods. This accomplishes the following:

  • Improves safety for installers
  • Saves costs
  • Reduces install time

Are all new install methods publicized? 

No. As we learned, a facet of inventing is problem solving. You invent, create something, which did not exist before. And this is common practice as an engineer.

Let’s go back to the substation example. In retrofitting substations, I invent solutions, to apply to each unique substation problem. Then if my inventions are good enough, I’ll pass them along to other engineers. Overtime, the solutions become adopted, without any formal publication. I am able to do this, because I have a strong real world understanding of my designs.

This is further captured with the design and construction of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Important Note: a book doesn’t exist, which tells you how to use a piece of equipment in every application. There are too many edge cases. This is where creative thinking as an engineer comes into play to solve problems. 

#3 Inventing maintenance methods

Inventing a new maintenance method, is another unsexy invention. For example, inventing a new way to maintain large power transformers. This would simplify the work of operators, while lengthening the life of transformers.

Great candidates for such inventions, are engineers with decades of transformer experience. They’ll undoubtedly best know how to maintain a transformer. And this highlights the importance of engineering work experience over formal education.

What’s more, you can improve every existing maintenance method. There’s always a better way to ensure something remains operable. The goal is though, to find the simplest, yet cheapest way, to do the maintenance.

#4 Inventing engineering processes

car factory with machines
Car Factory (Photo Credit: Lenny Kuhne)

Think of a car factory and the manufacturing processes inside. These processes, which forever changed the world, did the following:

  • Increased production speeds
  • Improved safety for factory workers
  • Increased productivity in factory workers
  • Maintained high and uniform product quality
  • Reduced overhead costs

The engineers who integrate machines into assembly lines, don’t typically invent the machines. Rather, they invent the processes for the collaborative integration of machines. They understand how assembly lines should work, and what the machines are capable of.

How do engineers think of what to invent?

By having a deep understanding of a subject matter. Then, finding a problem and solving it. Invention ideas can come to you in the following ways:

  • Brainstorming a problem
  • A client hands you a problem
  • Your boss hands you a problem

Now, if you want complete freedom over your invention, start a business. For example, Elon Musk couldn’t have designed reusable rockets without starting SpaceX.

Which discipline of engineering to enter to become an inventor?

First ask, what do you want to invent? This will point you in the direction of the engineering field to enter. Below are examples of physical product inventions, in different engineering fields.

Mechanical engineering: build machines and widgets. You can invent in endless industries, including the following:

  • Vehicles
  • Airplanes
  • Farming
  • Food processing
  • Factory automation

Computer science: invent programs to improve the lives of consumers and businesses. Any task, which is repetitive, is ripe for automation.

Electrical engineering: every device today, heavily relies on circuitry and electricity. Thus, invent around upgrading old electrical devices, or modernizing mechanical devices.

“Do engineers invent things?” wrap up

The inventions of engineers, go beyond the shiny new objects invented by Tony Stark in Iron Man. Most inventions in fact are boring, but they’ve created the amazing world we live in today.

What’s more, you don’t need to be an engineer to invent. A diploma isn’t a gatekeeper to new inventions. Rather, all you need is curiosity mixed with deep knowledge, and a relentless work ethic.

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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