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Are Manufacturers Skirting the Edge of Engineering Negligence?

Lately at this blog, I’ve been writing a lot about the distinction between engineer, designer and drafter roles in engineering organizations. Ultimately, I’ve been trying to get a firmer handle on who exactly does what and what engineering technology they use to do it. In response to one of my posts, Matthew Loew, sent me over an article he wrote called Is the design engineer extinct? at Machine Design. Here’s the most relevant excerpts, some of which is taken out of sequence, that is most relevant to this discussion.

Unfortunately, the design engineer is becoming a rare breed in industry and might even be headed for extinction in the U.S. A competent design engineer has one of the most critical roles in product development, but there are fewer and fewer with the requisite skills. One reason is people confuse the capabilities of CAD engineers with those of design engineers.

Design engineers are mechanical, electrical, structural, and other
engineers who use CAD, modeling, and simulation tools to develop
components and systems. In contrast, CAD engineers mainly use CAD to
create a geometry that becomes a product. CAD engineers are essentially
modelers and detailers with a degree or enough experience to let them be
granted the title of engineer.

While designers with good CAD skills generally shouldn’t be given
overall product engineering responsibility, the truth is it happens in
many organizations. Designers are often paid less than engineers and
when a designer proves resourceful, they can appear to management to be a
suitable replacement

From my perspective, I don’t think we can reliably determine the activities of an individual’s job from their title any longer. Someone can have an engineering title but spend 80% of their time creating drawings with a CAD software application. Someone else with a designer title could spend 90% of their day making product form, fit and function decisions or shepherding the product through the development cycle. Ultimately, I’ve come to the conclusion that associating specific titles with specific activities are moot. You have to understand what someone is doing in their day to day job and go from there.

Is the design engineer extinct? Perhaps, but I don’t think that’s the point. Are all of the activities that need to be performed in the development cycle getting done? I believe the answer is a resounding yes. I think the subtle theme in Matt’s article that’s never quite expressly said is whether or not those activities are being done by qualified individuals. I imagine this would be somewhat of a self-correcting problem where engineering-negligent manufacturers ruin their brand, are engaged in litigation and eventually go under. However we venture into what is a complicated and debated course topic for any engineering ABIT (org site) accredited school: engineering ethics. But I’ll save detail on that for another post.
Lots of questions here to discuss. Are design engineers extinct? Is engineering work being done by unqualified individuals? Are some manufacturers skirting the edge of engineering negligence? Let me know what you think.

Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.

Chad Jackson is an Industry Analyst at Lifecycle Insights and publisher of the engineering-matters blog. With more than 15 years of industry experience, Chad covers career, managerial and technology topics in engineering. For more details, visit his profile.

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  • http://lifeupfront.com/ Jeff Waters

    Totally agree, you can’t simply go by the title. In my experience (in the US), there are CAD people who primarily do detailed design and documentation for a large % of each day. In general, these people have a 2 year MET degree, while a small proportion have a BSME (or are working on a BSME at night). In general, they are not doing what you describe above as the “engineering” function.

    Then, you have the engineers. Many have been exposed to CAD, but do not use it frequently enough to maintain the requisite skill. These are the folks doing most of the fit/form/function/validation work you describe. And, they are generally degreed and competent to do so.

    The former is procedural, and the latter is creative. We are seeing a huge strategic shift across many industries to outsource all forms of procedural work. So, I think we’ll see more drafting/documentation work being outsourced, while (for the time being) the engineering work stays put.

    • http://www.engineering-matters.com Chad Jackson

      I agree with your points. I do think the qualification should be something of a mix of both technical engineering education (statics, dynamics, thermodynamics, etc.) and experience. I find it really interesting that there are Professional Engineering (P.E.) qualifications that aren’t really used in the discrete manufacturing space. Also, in the AEC space, you have to get sign off from a licensed structural engineer for renovations and such. I guess it’s because the front end of the process isn’t nearly so regulated as it is there.

      Thanks for commenting.

  • http://lifeupfront.com/ Jeff Waters

    Totally agree, you can’t simply go by the title. In my experience (in the US), there are CAD people who primarily do detailed design and documentation for a large % of each day. In general, these people have a 2 year MET degree, while a small proportion have a BSME (or are working on a BSME at night). In general, they are not doing what you describe above as the “engineering” function.

    Then, you have the engineers. Many have been exposed to CAD, but do not use it frequently enough to maintain the requisite skill. These are the folks doing most of the fit/form/function/validation work you describe. And, they are generally degreed and competent to do so.

    The former is procedural, and the latter is creative. We are seeing a huge strategic shift across many industries to outsource all forms of procedural work. So, I think we’ll see more drafting/documentation work being outsourced, while (for the time being) the engineering work stays put.

    • http://www.engineering-matters.com Chad Jackson

      I agree with your points. I do think the qualification should be something of a mix of both technical engineering education (statics, dynamics, thermodynamics, etc.) and experience. I find it really interesting that there are Professional Engineering (P.E.) qualifications that aren’t really used in the discrete manufacturing space. Also, in the AEC space, you have to get sign off from a licensed structural engineer for renovations and such. I guess it’s because the front end of the process isn’t nearly so regulated as it is there.

      Thanks for commenting.

  • Jimpfiz

    As a “non-engineer” that has worked for years with engineers as a client service resource and watched some of my ideas created by people with the talents to design them, I have a few thoughts about CAD use, the role of the engineer and function. Simply put, those with the art you describe and it is art I have seen it accomplished have to be working outside his/her industry and organization with a communication/service/resourceful type to have quality products, proper R and D, creative allocation transform the institutional agenda, reallocate human resource and define a new realm where small side projects become reality again. In discussing quality individuals and talents it is my view that, at this point, a grass roots, possibly a bit painful, movement of open minded, talented business people merge with the “true design engineer”. Jim

    • http://www.engineering-matters.com Chad Jackson

      Hey Jimpfiz, thanks for your comment. I think you’re right in that an engineer has to have some business awareness to help make the company successful.

  • Jimpfiz

    As a “non-engineer” that has worked for years with engineers as a client service resource and watched some of my ideas created by people with the talents to design them, I have a few thoughts about CAD use, the role of the engineer and function. Simply put, those with the art you describe and it is art I have seen it accomplished have to be working outside his/her industry and organization with a communication/service/resourceful type to have quality products, proper R and D, creative allocation transform the institutional agenda, reallocate human resource and define a new realm where small side projects become reality again. In discussing quality individuals and talents it is my view that, at this point, a grass roots, possibly a bit painful, movement of open minded, talented business people merge with the “true design engineer”. Jim

    • http://www.engineering-matters.com Chad Jackson

      Hey Jimpfiz, thanks for your comment. I think you’re right in that an engineer has to have some business awareness to help make the company successful.

  • Wcpezza

    Be careful–there’s an awful lot of engineering going on in much of that modeling activity. The main difference between an Engineer and a D&D person is that the Engineer makes the decisions and the D&D person has those decisions made for him and then fills in the details.

    Before solid modeling, we Engineers sketched our requirements onto a piece of paper and handed it off to D&D. Solid modeling allowed us to go straight to the design ourselves.

    This was great in that we had more control over the design of our products, but the downside was that when non-technical managers looked over our shoulders and declared “Oh you’re a CAD operator.”

    I work with marketing to develop the specs and concept, I do the solid modeling and the analysis of that model. I design for process and manufacturability and assembly, I run the project and take the product through to production acceptance and hand-off.

    All of this requires engineering knowledge and a lot of diverse, cross-functional experience — and most of all TALENT (you’ve either got product design talent or you don’t.)

    In the end it is a lot of stress and a load of responsibility—so, I get a little touchy when some wonk looks over my shoulder and says, “Oh you’re a CAD operator.” “Cad operator” is a term coined most probably by someone in HR. Experienced technical people would never say anything that inane.

    I know someone that thinks that the paperwork and documentation is engineering and that the design is the “fun part”. I am certain that this person espouses this idea because he doesn’t have the talent to design a product and so he seeks to diminish the perception of those that do. In any case, my accredited university declared me an Engineer — Nobody else gets to redefine that.

    Solid modeling has had a profound impact on product design by making the Engineer intimate with the design, rather than the Designer. The Engineer owns the design like never before.

    As a result “Design Engineer” has a whole new meaning. A thorough Engineer needs to do much of his / her own CAD work. Otherwise they are only doing part of the job.

    • http://www.engineering-matters.com Chad Jackson

      Great comments!

      I agree with a lot of your points. Somewhere along the way, a stigma started to be associated with using a CAD software application. But the cost of employing a ‘CAD operator’ is less than employing an ‘Engineer.’ I also think executives see a 3D model on the screen and think that’s all the definition that’s needed and that the design is complete. Yet they don’t realize the lack of engineering behind the thing.

      Thanks for your comments! Have a great holiday.

    • Wild Bartlett

      I’d say there are some legitimate concerns that knowlege in both engineering and design work is being lost–partially due to technology. There are many advantages to solid modeling and design work, and–with properly designed software–it can help focus people on the details of the design problem. Unfortunately, intuative and simple design tools are the exception and engineers and designers are fequently sidelined into problems interacting with the software/computers etc… Perhaps eventually an engineering software will be developed that recognizes its role as a tool for learning and communication within the office.

  • Wcpezza

    Be careful–there’s an awful lot of engineering going on in much of that modeling activity. The main difference between an Engineer and a D&D person is that the Engineer makes the decisions and the D&D person has those decisions made for him and then fills in the details.

    Before solid modeling, we Engineers sketched our requirements onto a piece of paper and handed it off to D&D. Solid modeling allowed us to go straight to the design ourselves.

    This was great in that we had more control over the design of our products, but the downside was that when non-technical managers looked over our shoulders and declared “Oh you’re a CAD operator.”

    I work with marketing to develop the specs and concept, I do the solid modeling and the analysis of that model. I design for process and manufacturability and assembly, I run the project and take the product through to production acceptance and hand-off.

    All of this requires engineering knowledge and a lot of diverse, cross-functional experience — and most of all TALENT (you’ve either got product design talent or you don’t.)

    In the end it is a lot of stress and a load of responsibility—so, I get a little touchy when some wonk looks over my shoulder and says, “Oh you’re a CAD operator.” “Cad operator” is a term coined most probably by someone in HR. Experienced technical people would never say anything that inane.

    I know someone that thinks that the paperwork and documentation is engineering and that the design is the “fun part”. I am certain that this person espouses this idea because he doesn’t have the talent to design a product and so he seeks to diminish the perception of those that do. In any case, my accredited university declared me an Engineer — Nobody else gets to redefine that.

    Solid modeling has had a profound impact on product design by making the Engineer intimate with the design, rather than the Designer. The Engineer owns the design like never before.

    As a result “Design Engineer” has a whole new meaning. A thorough Engineer needs to do much of his / her own CAD work. Otherwise they are only doing part of the job.

    • http://www.engineering-matters.com Chad Jackson

      Great comments!

      I agree with a lot of your points. Somewhere along the way, a stigma started to be associated with using a CAD software application. But the cost of employing a ‘CAD operator’ is less than employing an ‘Engineer.’ I also think executives see a 3D model on the screen and think that’s all the definition that’s needed and that the design is complete. Yet they don’t realize the lack of engineering behind the thing.

      Thanks for your comments! Have a great holiday.

    • Wild Bartlett

      I’d say there are some legitimate concerns that knowlege in both engineering and design work is being lost–partially due to technology. There are many advantages to solid modeling and design work, and–with properly designed software–it can help focus people on the details of the design problem. Unfortunately, intuative and simple design tools are the exception and engineers and designers are fequently sidelined into problems interacting with the software/computers etc… Perhaps eventually an engineering software will be developed that recognizes its role as a tool for learning and communication within the office.

  • Doug

    I agree that design engineers are becoming extinct. In my experience unqualified people lead to poor designs, massive cost in extra design time, and extreme frustration for the people that are qualified. The definition of a CAD engineer and design engineer needs to be redefined and companies need to somehow filter their resumes. Both have their place but it should properly match the job description.

    • http://www.engineering-matters.com Chad Jackson

      Thanks for comment Doug. I think you’re right. Unfortunately, I think some executives see a 3D model and think a design might be done, not realizing far more needs to go into the definition of the product. Completely agree.

  • Doug

    I agree that design engineers are becoming extinct. In my experience unqualified people lead to poor designs, massive cost in extra design time, and extreme frustration for the people that are qualified. The definition of a CAD engineer and design engineer needs to be redefined and companies need to somehow filter their resumes. Both have their place but it should properly match the job description.

    • http://www.engineering-matters.com Chad Jackson

      Thanks for comment Doug. I think you’re right. Unfortunately, I think some executives see a 3D model and think a design might be done, not realizing far more needs to go into the definition of the product. Completely agree.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_SQUG42GWEPVWW2NNZV44VC76Z4 Glen

    I will play the bad boy here.  I am a retired designer, ie, a no degree, engineer.  I started in tool design in 1957 and progressed through the various fields; aircraft ground handling equipment using fluids, electrical, hydraulic and various power systems shipboard elevators and cranes, R & D tooling, shrimp farms, aircraft and aerospace.  As a draftsman I would have to help the new engineers set their drafting tables and machines.  I sometimes called them educated idiots.  One of the exceptions worked summers as a lumberjack and another worked nights on the floor of Boeing building airplanes..

    Engineering schools turn out students with sights set on being an EIT or PE.  This is like a college athlete looking to go Pro, many hope, but few make it.  Like it or not, most engineering work is design orientated using modest math skills and not many graduates are good designers.  I believe a good designer has to be curious – How does this work, with an eye on how it could be better.  We all would like to design the Space Shuttle, but how many dream of the crawler that moves the Shuttle to the launch pad?  Inside every luxury car is a jack, seat rails and adjusters, and numerous details that have to work for many years.  Under every 747 with a flat tire is a heavy duty hydraulic jack.  Passengers have to board through adjustable walkways or stairs that have to fit more than just one aircraft.  Baggage and cargo don’t load themselves.

    CAD systems are capable of making perfect drawings and designs, often perfectly awful.  CAD drivers are a part of the systems but I believe the system often allows the user to see in tunnel vision, not the whole picture.  I could go on but will wait for objections. 

    • http://www.engineering-matters.com Chad Jackson

      No problem with that Glen. I think you’re right in that most design work uses modest math skills with more reliance on CAD skills. But I have to differ with your perspective on EIT and PE certifications. I know very few folks that have pursued that as of late. In fact, I think it’s relevance is diminishing dramatically. But maybe I’m wrong. Would be good to hear from someone in that organization at some point.

  • Dzdub34

    OK..  So in my 10+ years in product development, I have carried the title Product Designer at all but one company.  All I can say is that the range of responsibilities and knowledge of engineers and designers is broad.  I have actually worked with automotive engineers who have almost no knowledge of automobiles at all.  How does this happen?  To be fair, I have also worked next to some designers that needed their hand heId every step of the way through the development process.  I am fortunate in that I actually earn as much as my engineering counterparts with my experience and 4 year design degree.  I provide as much if not more analytical input into product design solutions than the engineers I support.  Do I have Bernoulli’s equation memorized?  No, but I can certainly find it and apply it to my practical fluid dynamics problem and maybe look at my CFD results.

      On the flip side, I have been passed up on 2 occasions in which I found out after the fact that it was  because I didn’t have 10,000 hours using a specific CAD software.  There is an incredible stereotype that pervades throughout the engineering community that many CAD capable professionals are “CAD Monkeys”.  Only one hiring manager in my whole career recognized that I had more to contribute than just CAD capability despite the fact that my resume stated “product designer”  He actually got to the next line which explained of my involvement with FEA, NVH, CFD simulation, developing DVP&Rs, performing my own analysis and tests and reporting results.  I was hired as a product designer with 0 experience on the company’s CAD system.  I might add this company which I still work for is very well known fortune 500 company with annual revenue of over 18 billion.

    My point is that, in two cases, I wasn’t qualified to be a product designer (lack of 10,000 hours on a specific CAD platform) or an engineer because I didn’t have an ABET accredited BSME.  Despite this pre-judgement by engineering managers that buy into the job title telling the whole story, I have never been unemployed.

    It is common that I get paired with new just out of school engineers on projects.  The bottom line is the rigor that goes into designing robust, customer focused products depends on many variables…  Not titles.  I don’t think the design engineer is extinct yet… maybe more rare.. but not extinct yet!

    Hopefully, I didn’t come off as too bitter..  I have just been bitten by the assumptions of this very issue of what the difference between an engineer and a designer is.  The difference could be negligent design… or it could be a piece of paper from your local university.