Learn why simple engineering solutions are always best

Simple engineering solutions are always best. They may not always be the most obvious, but they’ll save you money and future headaches.

When it comes to engineering, there’s never just one solution to a problem. In fact, many different solutions exist. As an expert, YOU need to decide on which solution you think is the most appropriate.

Your decision hinges on the following factors:

  • Cost
  • Feasibility
  • Timeline for project completion
  • Functionality
  • Future troubleshooting and maintenance

These five factors are all critical and need to be heavily considered in the design phase. This applies to all types of engineering.

As Einstein once perfectly put it,

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

It’s important to note, simplicity comes in all shapes and sizes. Whether it’s in a suspension bridge or the next smartphone.

At the same time, you should never make something simpler if you’ll fall short of your design specs.

Finding simplicity in engineering solutions isn’t easy

Simples designs are never straightforward. In fact, simple designs can be much harder than complex designs.

Just think about it. Imagine you’re trying to mount something to your home wall. You can quickly hammer 100 nails into your wall to get the job done.

Or, you can figure out structurally how best to support your load on the wall. This would require investigation and a lot of thought though.

But if you can get away with 3 large strategically placed wall hangers versus 100 nails, that’s a win!

Because 100 nails in your wall will not only drive your spouse crazy, but it’ll cost you more money. Plus, imagine the nightmare if you wanted to move the mounting location in the future.

The same outcome from our example applies to real-world engineering ALL the time. I see so many poor design implementations that it hurts.

In short, never quickly settle on the first solution that strikes your mind. The solution may make your life easier, like hammering 100 nails into your wall.

But you’re creating a nightmare situation for everyone else involved.

Properly analyze the outcome of every engineering solution

Before you finalize a solution direction, make sure you evaluate all parts of your design idea. Ask yourself the following questions about your design:

  • Will this give problems to consumers and operators after X months of ownership?
  • Will future maintenance be easy and straightforward?
  • How will regulatory agencies view this design?
  • Will the implementation of the design cost a lot of money and take a lot of time?
  • Can this design become more simple without compromising functionality? For example, using less material, or using newer technology.

As an example, I once designed new EV charging stations in a huge California parking structure. The parking structure had multiple floors.

We had to route power conduits from the basement where the main switchboard was, to the fifth floor. The plan was to install all the EV charging stations on the fifth floor.

The client wanted to directly drill through the concrete floors to route the conduits. Sounds simple enough, right?

By doing this, we’d easily route the conduits to where we wanted to terminate them. We’d go vertically straight up. On paper, this was the simplest design. And frankly, it sounded like the best yet simple idea.

But this is where you need to pump your breaks and go back to our questions we asked above.

If you know about California building departments, you’d know they want to see a lot of details. I’m talking about, they’ll nitpick and ask about every small element of your design. And many times, it’s for good reason.

I’ve had plenty of experience with building departments. I knew they’d request all types of structural details and calculations. They want to ensure the structure wouldn’t become compromised through the drilling.

This would require obtaining existing structure as-built drawings. All to determine the material and slab thickness among other things. Thereafter, many structural tests would need to be done as well.

In the end, this would turn into a huge structural design effort. Something no one had planned and budgeted for.

Plus, obtaining a copy of building as-builts would be a challenge in itself. A lot of the time, as-built drawings from old buildings are missing, or are inaccurate.

So the drilling was NOT an option. The number of hoops we’d need to jump through would not be worth the effort. We’d waste months of time, and burn a lot of money for what started out as a simple project.

Instead, I suggested we use the pipe chase for the utility conduits and pipes. This is where the existing conduits route from one floor to the next. Thus, we just had to find the location of this pipe chase.

In the end, the pipe chase wasn’t near the new EV charging stations. But it was the most straightforward design option for everyone involved.

The building department didn’t even have one comment on the design.

In short, simple engineering solutions always win out!

Complexity makes troubleshooting a nightmare 

f-14 tomcat carrier launch
F-14-tomcat-carrier-launch (Photo Credit: Robert Sullivan)

If you’re old enough to remember, you know how little problems you had with older cars. You could easily push a car to 250,000 plus miles with very little maintenance.

But today, many cars have all types of issues right out of the lot. One reason is they’ve become so complex. There are so many moving parts and electrical connections inside of cars today. They’re like computers on wheels.

This naturally makes problems more common. At the same time, repairs become more expensive. All because mechanics need to do more troubleshooting.

An even greater example is the F-14 Tomcat. Yes, the badass jet Tom Cruise piloted in the blockbuster movie Top Gun.

The maintenance costs for this jet alone were insane. In fact, the life-cycle costs of maintaining the jet exceeded the $38 million acquisition cost.

This is because it has such a complex airframe with certain design limitations. For one, the awesome-looking sweeping wings were a maintenance nightmare. They were overly complex.

This is why the F-14 is the U.S. Navy’s most expensive aircraft to operate. It requires 40 to 60 hours of manhour maintenance per flight hour. For this reason, the Navy retired the jet early.

What about overengineering in designs?

Sometimes designs are overly complex because of laziness. Other times, an engineer lacks the experience and knowledge to design something simple.

But at other times, overengineering comes into play.

Let’s go back to our car example. What if we could add a bed, video game console, and microwave to the car.

Or even better yet, add wings so the car could fly too. You know, whenever the traffic on the 405 in LA gets too mind-numbingly insane, you could flip open your wings.

The list of design additions is endless.

But in the end, what is a car used for? It’s used to get you from point A to point B.

You have doors to get in and out of the car. There’s an engine to move you, and pedals, and a steering wheel to help you drive.

This is the main function of a perfectly engineered car. I’d want a car that gets me from A to B without all the bells and whistles any day if it doesn’t leave me on the side of the road.

All in all, sometimes I see overengineering because people aren’t challenged enough. Other times, it’s from inexperience.

If you’re part of the latter group,  learn to meet project specs while keeping your design as simple as possible. In fact, that’s a challenge in itself, that’ll feed the former group who become bored with their designs.

Make simplicity a staple in your design criteria for all projects

simple apple iphone design
Apple iPhone (Photo Credit: Bagus Hernawan)

“It takes a lot of hard work,” Steve Jobs said, “to make something simple, to truly understand the underlying challenges and come up with elegant solutions.”

The headline of Apple’s first marketing brochure stated in 1977, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

There’s a reason why Apple devices are so popular. The simplicity in the devices is one of the huge selling points that gets lost in the amazing hardware.

We never think twice about their simplicity. But that’s because these devices are so well designed. That’s the secret!

So with anything you design, aim to deliver a simple end product. No different than how you focus on public safety with all your designs.

Now, add simple engineering solutions to your list of design criteria.

Then, start every design with the mindset of creating simple designs. As a result, you’ll make it a habit to always create simple yet functional designs. A win-win in my book!

Conclusion

Keep it simple!

Complexity in itself is never a good thing. Your goal should always be simple engineering solutions while meeting your project specs.

Put yourself in the shoes of the builder, manufacturer, or consumer.

What would you want to see in a design?

Of course, you want the most simple design without compromising functionality. So as an engineer, always aim to deliver on what you would want to see.

Otherwise, you’ll create a world of pain when you pass the baton to the next person. And frankly, that’s poor engineering!

What are your thoughts on simple engineering solutions? Do you think engineers can simplify a lot of existing designs today?


Featured Image Photo Credit: Bagus Hernawan (image cropped)

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