Give your youngster engineers some gray hair

edison_in_lab2.jpgEvery year, a new crop of fresh young faces leaves engineering school and joins us in industry. Some of these kids are brilliant. Their parents all grew up with computers- and modern technology is encoded in their genes.  None of them have used a rotary phone or remember a time before the internet. They can embrace and master new technology with incredible ease.

I’ve visited well over 800 manufacturing and product development companies in the last 8 years. It’s my job to understand their industry, design, and marketing challenges as quickly as possible. It’s usually easiest to get the big picture by seeking out senior folks with a few gray hairs. They may not be the most technologically advanced, but they have a pragmatic understanding of what works and what doesn’t.

Experienced engineers are invaluable because they’ve been around the block a few thousand times.  They have an intuitive sense for what makes a good design, what can be easily manufactured, and (sometimes) what design path will lead to the best profit. They can make knee-jerk decisions that drive the youngsters mad:

“You didn’t even do any calculations or FEA analysis and you’re going to say that plastic part needs to be a half inch thick???!!!!???”

Very often, after a bunch of analysis and simulation, it turns out the old geezer was right! Why? Is he a mathematical genius who can do all this stuff in his head? Nope. He’s simply been kicked in the gut thousands of times by physical prototype tests that failed. Thomas Edison was one of the most prolific innovators of all time. He largely created through a similar process of relentless trial and error. Every failure was internalized and colored his intuition for future projects. Here’s a great write-up on the “Edisonian Approach”:

The downside of this approach is that it takes a lot of time. I do not think of upfront CAE tools as magic answer machines. I have come to understand that they are really just tools to move the same kind of tinkering you’d do “out back in the shop” into a virtual lab on your desktop computer. There are three primary advantages: time, cost, and insight. Let’s focus on the time factor.

Think about how long it takes to procure materials for physical prototypes, get them built, apply test sensors, perform an actual experiment, and interpret the results. A new hairdryer concept, for instance, could take months to move through that process.  So, your young engineers will need to hang around for many years before they can build up significant real-world experience and intuition. Upfront CAE based experiements can be completed in a fraction of the time. An engineer can try out dozens of ideas in a single workday, wildly accelerating their experience and developing engineering intuition.

Nothing can totally replace the gut kick of a warranty recall to make design lessons stick. That’s how your gray haired engineers earned their intuition. Fortunately, the use of upfront CAE can certainly build more value, experience, and solid gut-feel judgement into your youngest engineers in an extremely short time.

An upfront CAE purchase should not be considered a technology expense. It should be thought of as an investment in human capital.

Since I mentioned Thomas Edison (one of my heroes), here’s a quick word from the man himself. Enjoy!