When I was starting out in my engineering career, I was tasked to design a custom high-voltage power supply. I started with the power part and once I had that done, I figured out the control system I’d need and finally did a rough layout of the control panel.
I shared an office with the chief engineer who had begun work on a project of his own. Much to my surprise, the first thing he did was to tack up a large blank piece of paper on the wall and begin to draw the control panel. His explanation to me has guided my thinking about engineering design ever since. His reasoning was that the most important part of the design was to understand what the user needed to do. He put himself in the user’s place and thought about the way he would like to interface with the system. Only then, did he begin to figure out what he’d need to make all of that happen. His approach was to start the design from the outside, while I started with the guts of the system and finally got to laying out the control panel almost as an afterthought — he started with the user, while I started with the more difficult engineering challenges.
One of the reasons I became an engineer was that I loved solving problems and dreaming up widgets. Over the years, I started to realize that could be something like a booby trap. Too many times I was tempted to use clever technology because of the pleasure it gave me. Thinking about that blank piece of paper on the wall would usually bring me back down to Earth. My job as an engineer was to produce a design that would give the user the functions they needed by using the simplest technology consistent with performance good enough to exceed the specs by a reasonable margin. I would also have to consider reliability, ease of maintenance, safety, and cost — these, to my mind, call for the simplest approach that would do the job. Another thing I keep in mind is the quote attributed to Einstein: “Everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.”
As an editor, I get to review a vast number of press releases about new technology and research and find myself remembering that blank paper on the wall. Too many are very clever ideas that seem to me either gimmicky or impractical for providing good solutions to important problems.
But there are always some that stand out and get me to say “aha!” Those are the ones that I think could become game changers, because they promise to improve existing technology or even to conceive of brand-new ideas for filling a need. And they do it in ways that seem practical and scalable — almost simple in their effectiveness. For example, I was excited about the Q&A that will appear in the April issue of Tech Briefs: “Spray-On Coating Could Make Solar Panels Snow-Resistant.”
What first caught my attention was that I hadn’t ever thought about solar panels getting covered with snow and ice — an obvious and significant problem. As more of our energy supply relies on solar solutions, maximizing their efficiency will become ever more important. The solution the team of researchers developed is elegant in its simplicity, although it took years to perfect. Key to their success, was thinking outside the box. Instead of trying to move the entire sheet of ice, they realized that if they initiated a crack between the ice and the solar panel’s surface, the crack would easily propagate and cause the entire sheet of ice to fall off. And they were able to achieve this using readily available, non-exotic materials.
Prof. Tuteja didn’t create a brand-new, highly complex solar panel. He saw the problem, kept the idea simple (“crack the ice”), and came up with an idea that Einstein might have appreciated.
Read the Q&A: Spray-On Coating Could Make Solar Panels Snow-Resistant.
What do you think? Share your questions and comments below.