WHY ENGINEER? — Chapter 6 — Where Do Ethics Fit In?

When I was a new engineer on the job, I learned a valuable lesson.  Quality Control is not about Quality of Design.  Quality Control is about being assured that the drawings were followed faithfully during the manufacturing and testing phases of producing products.  That was fine with me, and still is.  I don’t actually want a Quality Control Engineer telling me how to design “real” quality into a product.

Ethics, on the other hand, is something your company doesn’t think you have unless they put it in you!  Now that is where I start to have a problem.  It is quite evident that ethics as a subject has been taken over by the legal profession.  It is not about “doing the right thing.”  It is about doing nothing that will put the company in legal trouble.  That’s all it is in their view — case closed.

Well, that may be all it is to a lawyer.  That may be all it is to Management.  That is not what it all is to me.  When you take your first class in ethics that is sponsored by your company, you’ll see what I am talking about.  Ethics is not about keeping your word.  Ethics is not about telling the truth.  Ethics is only about keeping the company out of court.  They won’t come right out and say that to you, but that is exactly what they mean.

It has always grated on my sense of justice that a company has the gall to set itself up as the judge of ethics, as if you had none of your own when you hired on.  And I would guess that working for the government works the same way.

Now, I have no objection to keeping the company on the right side of the law, but to me there is much more to ethics than that.  Understanding the laws that affect your products and business is a good thing, but always adhering to the truth is not heavily stressed in ethics classes.

Once someone lies to me, I will never trust them again.  And lack of trust is erosive.  It wastes time with having to check things that you are told because the teller lacks credibility.  Customers in particular hate being lied to.  Can you blame them?

Unfortunately, I have run into quite a few coworkers who lie to get what they want or to get what they think the company wants.  That usually means putting you down and taking credit for your work or not telling a customer the truth about what you are going to supply, when, and how much it will cost in the end.

Watch your back and the backs of those you trust — and watch the backs of your customers!

WHY ENGINEER? — Chapter 5 — What Influences Decisions

The simplest answer is “everything”.  Maybe the question should really be, “What Should Influence Decisions?”

I suppose the answers depend on who you are, but since this is my blog, I can only offer you my view.  Here is the list as I see it:

  • Safety
  • Performance
  • Expected life
  • Reliability
  • Maintainability
  • Ease of operation
  • Cost

I would include legal requirements, such as government regulations, but they can affect any of the above.  And in that sense, they do affect decisions.  Weight is also a frequent requirement, so is power usage, range of operating conditions, simplicity, etc.  However, these types of requirements usually fall under one or more of the above categories.

What this should tell you is that writing the requirements for any particular design is by no means an easy task.  And getting them right is extremely important.

And what shouldn’t affect decisions, or at least should not significantly compromise a proper design?

  • Politics
  • Personal animosity
  • Ignorance or stupidity on the part of the customer — that may take some polite convincing on your part.

We haven’t discussed schedule.  As they say, “time is money”.  I would caution you against swapping time for any number of real requirements, but don’t hang on to unnecessary requirements.  When you make a promise of time to a customer, put yourself in their shoes.  Quicker is better, as long as you meet all necessary requirements.

One last thing, aesthetics!

So, here is a little story from the past ––

We were in competition for particular device that was to be mounted to the Apollo Space Suit.  And as a part of that competition, all the potential suppliers were required to show prototypes of their designs to NASA.  We all complied, but there was one thing that our company did that a competitor did not do.  We paid all of our attention to performance and none to aesthetics — even in how we presented our design that day.  Our man on the scene said that he placed our fully compliant design on the table for NASA to see.  Ours was not bright and shiny, nor was it colored in anyway.  It simply worked as ordered.  Right after our man placed our device down, the competitor brought out a Tensor light and placed in on the table.  Then he put down a piece of black velvet.  And then he put down their design on the velvet — all shiny and color anodized.  And then he turned on the light.  The only thing their design lacked was compliance to the design requirements — not a small thing one would think.  And what went through the mind of our man?  “We are going to lose.” And so we did.

Not sure what to do with this imformation…

Why Engineer? Chapter 4 — Research, Development, and Design

This is not a big subject, but it is worth discussing.

Generally speaking, the categories are pretty much as given below:

  1. Research – Research is the type of work that involves figuring out how something works, what laws or rules it follows.  It may or may not be pointed at a specific final application. And it may be that several separate areas of research ultimately underpin the development and design of a product.  The research may or may not be original.  Indeed it may simply be a matter of finding the research of others and cataloging it for future use.
  2. Development – Development is an early stage of design in that you take what you learned from your own research and/or someone else’s research and you develop a method(s) to put the knowledge to a practical use.  Development bridges the gap between research and the design of the final product.  It is the application of the knowledge gained in research to a practical objective.  It can be simply one approach to the design or a series of approaches to the design.  And part of what is being developed is the specification(s) of what is desired in the final design in terms of performance, life, maintainability, and price.  In this case, performance is really all encompassing.  It is not just how well the design accomplishes its mission, but how easy it is to use, what resources it expends, and possibly some aesthetic issues.
  1. Design – In a final sense, the design is what defines the final desired product.  The word design will show up during the development phase, but I use it here to designate the final design.  The final design will probably go through rigid test and evaluation to assure that it meets its by now firm requirements.  Failures may require backing up into the development phase to some degree in order to solve the problem(s).  Once those issues are resolved, the final design will continue to be tested at some level to be sure of the manufacturing and materials that go into the final product.  Those “acceptance tests or inspections” may vary over the life of production, but their objective is only to assure the quality of the final product.  They are not meant to be a test of the design definition.