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.

With every problem, there’ll be many solutions. And as the expert, you need to select the best one, while considering the following factors:

  • Cost
  • Feasibility
  • Build time
  • Functionality
  • Reliability
  • Complexity
  • Serviceability

These seven factors can become overwhelming. Hence why simplicity is key to producing the best product. Einstein perfectly put it,

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

At the same time, never make something too simple, only to fall short of your design specs.

Finding simplicity in engineering solutions isn’t easy

Simples designs are never straightforward. In fact, they can be much harder than complex designs to brainstorm.

Imagine you’re trying to mount a device to your home wall. You can quickly hammer 100 nails into your wall to get the job done. Or, you figure out structurally how best to support your load on the wall. Through investigation, you find you can get away with 3 large strategically placed wall hangers versus 100 nails!

The 100 nails will not only drive your spouse crazy, but it’ll cost more money. Then imagine the nightmare of moving the mounting location in the future.

The same outcome from our example applies to real-world engineering. I see many poor design implementations, which cause everyone heartache.

I advise you to never quickly settle on the first solution, which strikes you. A poor solution may make your life easier, like hammering 100 nails into your wall. But you’ll create a nightmare situation for everyone else involved.

Properly analyze the outcome of every engineering solution

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

  • Will the solution create problems for consumers and operators in the future?
  • Will future maintenance be easy and straightforward?
  • How will regulatory agencies view the design?
  • Will the implementation of the design be over the project budget and increase the build time?
  • Can the design be further simplified?

For example, I designed new EV charging stations for a parking structure with many floors. We had to route power conduits from the switchboard in the basement, to the chargers on the fifth floor.

The client wanted to directly drill through the concrete floors to route the conduits. Even on paper, it made sense to go vertically straight up and avoid extra costs. Sounds simple enough, right?

But this is where you need to hit a big pause. Let’s circle back to the questions we asked above.

If you know about California building departments, you know how they’re particular about submittals. They want to see every last retrofit structural detail with supporting calculations. And many times, it’s for good reason. They want to ensure you don’t compromise the structure. The problem is…

This would require obtaining existing structural as-built drawings, assuming they exist. Then, many costly structural tests would need to be done. In the end, this would turn into a huge structural design effort, and it’d be anything but simple. This made this option a no-go.

Instead, I suggested using the existing pipe chases for the conduit routing. This is the area where the existing conduits already route from one floor to the next.

The cost of material doubled, as the pipe chases weren’t near chargers. But we saved tens of thousands of dollars of unnecessary structural work. Also, the building department submittal process went smoothly.

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 little maintenance.

But today, many cars have all types of issues right out of the lot. One big reason is because of complexity. There are just so many moving parts and electrical connections. This creates more potential failure points. Naturally then, repairs become more expensive, due to increased 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. It was also the U.S. Navy’s most expensive aircraft to operate. It required 40 to 60 manhours of maintenance per flight hour. All because of complexity, namely from the airframe. The awesome-looking sweeping wings were a maintenance nightmare.

Not surprisingly, the Navy retired the jet early.

What about overengineering in designs?

Sometimes, designs are overly complex due to laziness. In other cases, an engineer may lack the experience and knowledge to create simple designs. However, in certain instances, overengineering may be a factor.

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 to make the car airborne. Whenever the traffic on the 405 in LA gets too mind-numbingly insane, you flip open your wings.

But in the end, the primary function of a car is to get you from point A to point B on a highway.

So you only have doors to get in and out of the car, an engine to move you, and pedals with a steering wheel to help you drive. This would be a perfectly engineered car for me. All take this car any day if it gets me from point A to point B without leaving me on the side of the road. The other fancy bells and whistles I could do without.

Often, I see overengineering from people who 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, creating a simple design is a challenge in itself.

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 of the devices is a huge selling point, which often gets lost in the amazing hardware.

In fact, we never think twice about the simplicity of Apple products. And this is because their devices are so well designed.

So follow in Apple’s footsteps, to deliver simple products without compromising on functionality. No different than how you hyper-focus to ensure public safety. This applies to all types of engineering.

Conclusion

Place yourself in the shoes of the builder, manufacturer, or consumer. What would you want to see in a design?

You’d want the easiest-to-use product, which requires the least amount of maintenance. So as an engineer, always aim to deliver what you would want to see. Otherwise, you’ll create a world of pain when you pass the baton to the next person. This is 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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