Be your own first customer

This is classic advice from the software/startup scene, but it can apply to other types of engineering too. It is far easier to build a great product if you build something which is useful to you, not what you imagine someone else needs.

Always try to validate your predictions, even if the project has already finished

Engineering is mostly about using assumptions and models to make predictions.  For example, we predict the maximum demand on a circuit, then size the cable appropriately based on a predicted voltage drop, predicted temperature rise, etc. The project often ends at this point.  We’ve done the modelling and produced a result or a design.  We …

JFDI

Sometimes you need to analyse every option and optimise everything to the nth degree.  Other times you’d be better off just making a decision and moving forwards even if it isn’t perfect. The skill is obviously in knowing which is appropriate for your current situation. If your personality naturally inclines you towards one or the …

Consider security from the beginning

This mainly applies to electronic and software systems, but can apply in other domains. Thinking about security from the outset is obvious in hindsight.  Adding security later is often awkward and sometimes impossible.

Learn about Poka-Yoke

This was part of the Japanese manufacturing craze a few years back, but it is definitely worth keeping some of the principles in mind when designing anything.  It basically translates as “idiot-proofing”. Essentially you need to consider what someone could do wrong at every stage of manufacture, installation and use, and try to prevent it …

Keep designs as simple as possible

Always look for the simple, elegant design solution. Anything complex is likely to be difficult to design, fragile to operate and expensive to produce. It is often ok to sacrifice a small amount of performance if it lets you achieve simplicity.

Try to answer the question on the back of a fag packet

An order-of-magnitude estimate is often good enough to answer many questions, or at least to discount possible solutions. “Could we use a counterweight? … quick calc … “yes, but it would weigh about ten tons so we wouldn’t be able to carry it in the van” … discussion moves on to other options.

Build something as soon as possible

You learn far more from building a rough mock-up and playing with it than just speculating, even if it is extremely primitive. Often you’ll discover that the part of the design you thought would be the crux is actually easy or doesn’t matter, but that some other aspect you’d overlooked is actually the hard part.

FMEA

Learn about “Failure Modes and Effects Analysis” and apply it to your designs. Spending time considering potential failure modes is always worthwhile. You don’t have to create a big spreadsheet like the formal FMEA process does, though a simplified version of this is actually surprisingly useful on many projects. Often the most useful ideas to …