Engineering Design Process Explained

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Engineering Design Process Explained

There is no place for guesswork in modern engineering design processes. The reliance on engineering design process steps is paramount in solving today’s and future complex problems. This mindset is defined by a series of steps that make problem-solving iterative and effective.

Engineers have found this structured way of solving problems extremely helpful as it applies to many types of projects. The strategy has a proven history of saving project costs and delivering quality results across many engineering disciplines. So, anyone looking to be successful in the engineering sciences field should know and apply the engineering design process.

In this guide, we look at the full engineering design process, highlighting the main steps, their features, and relevance. There are seven steps of the engineering design process that you should follow for your design to be successful. Read on to discover all the intricacies of the steps and why you should apply them in your next project.

Engineering Design Process

The Engineering Design Process Steps

Here are the engineering design process steps in detail:

Define the Problem

Define the Problem

Defining the problem is the first step in the engineering design process. One of the most popular inspirations for this strategy is the Albert Einstein quote “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” What it implies is that defining the problem is the most important and yet difficult part of the engineering design process.

You may have seen engineers that tend to ignore this part. The allure of being focused on the potential solutions and disregarding the problem can be strong for some inexperienced engineers. A design process that fails in this step can be costly and time-consuming eventually.

Problem definition is necessary because the engineer and the client must agree on what the solution is seeking to address. If there is no agreement on design requirements, the chances of creating a solution to a strange problem are high. The client will most likely be dissatisfied with the design.

What is an engineering problem? We can view it as consisting of a need, a desired result, and a problem context. The need motivates the design engineer to search for answers. It should be as clear and concise as possible. On outcome, the design engineer needs to identify the qualitative requirements of the project. Using the required outcome, the engineer should be able to derive a quantitative representation of the customer’s needs.

It is also important for the engineer to understand the context of the problem. This is where the engineer and the team consider if they can tackle the engineering design.

In summary, defining an engineering design problem is a thorough exercise that needs the engineer to understand the context of the problem. Defining the constraints of the project and writing a problem statement are part of this step. When well executed, problem definition should help craft reliable ideas. This would pave the way for a satisfying design solution.

Brainstorm Possible Solutions

Brainstorm Possible Solutions

The goal of brainstorming possible solutions in the engineering design process is to generate many solutions. A shorter list of the possible solutions (typically up to five) is then identified. The most notable aspect of this step of engineering design is the engagement of the generative element as opposed to the evaluative one.

There are three parts to this step of the engineering design process:
Preparation

Preparation for the participants in the brainstorming session can take many forms. For instance, you could request everyone who would be attending to bring a specific item to the session. Preparation ensures that everything goes on smoothly during the brainstorming session. Have the right questions and let everyone who is participating know what is expected of them.

 Brainstorming and Capturing

In the initial stages of brainstorming, the aim is to capture all brainstorm solutions. Every member of the team should be engaged. Everyone shares their potential existing solutions on the display board and the rest react in whatever way. Everything should be captured, including the rebuffs from the rest of the team. If the goal is to have 4 final ideas at the end of the session, the board should capture at least 12 brainstorm ideas.

A good brainstorming session is technically a scientific method that adheres to some basics:

  • Focus on one contribution at a time

  • Encourage as many possible solutions

  • No idea is too wild or out of place

  • Develop others’ ideas

Application of constraints

The final step in the brainstorming session should be the selection of the best ideas using this concept. Team members are free to identify the best ideas and mark them on the display board. New ideas usually emanate from the application of good constraints. If you can apply the constraints and focus on particular topics, the best solutions will emerge.

Here, we are talking about constraints such as time and resource availability. If the project poses any constraints, this is the time to consider them. The result should be the best ideas for the engineering project.

Select An Approach

You have a design problem – and several viable solutions from as many possible solutions. So, what next?

Very rarely, you can compare the design solutions or approaches one by one and one solution comes out the clear winner. It is an easy step, but unfortunately, it doesn’t happen often in the engineering design process.

More often than not, there will be several possible approaches to an engineering design problem. Only a complex decision-making strategy or tool can help determine the best approach. An example of a popular scientific method in such instances is the SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis.

The best way to start the evaluation of these different approaches is to identify or define criteria. An approach must meet these requirements to be deemed suitable for the design process. Some relevant factors to consider as you define the criteria are:

  • Technical design requirements

  • Environment

  • Customer preferences

  • Project goals

  • Ethical issues

  • Durability 

Following the definition of the criteria, score the approaches on how they meet these requirements. A rating scale or even numerical figure can apply. Sum the scores to get a total under each criterion. With this method, you can easily determine the strengths and weaknesses of the approach. You will be able to get the approach that scores the highest.

However, this strategy of the engineering design process has its limitations. For instance, there could be data uncertainty. You could also test the approaches by simulating the conditions or using the suggested solution under real conditions. If there were any assumptions, this type of evaluation would put them to the test. Testing is also good at providing feedback and data. In the engineering arena, popular methods of testing approaches are prototypes, observations, and experiments.

Documentation is essential in this stage of selecting an approach because it helps in improving or modifying the solution. Before you can select an approach, consider other ways of evaluation, including getting feedback and comparing the alternatives.

To select the best from the existing solutions, look at the data and the criteria that you applied. Remember to justify your choice and record every action taken to arrive at the solution. Sometimes the selected approach doesn’t work as expected or new information emerges. Therefore, the design engineer should be flexible to revisit the steps of the engineering design process if need be. He or she should not tire but develop as many solutions as possible.

Develop A Design Proposal

For the client’s approval of the selected design approach, a design proposal may be necessary. It is within the design proposal that the design engineer can provide all the details about the solution so that the client can understand it. These proposals can be in the form of reports, AUTOCAD drawings, models, and so on.

Here are critical elements that a good design proposal in the engineering design process should capture:

  • Client’s design requirements on comfort, security, energy efficiency, and so on

  • Aesthetic appeal

  • Implementable technically, socially, economically, and practically

  • Legally compliant

  • Full details

Creating the design proposal is a comprehensive exercise that needs intense information gathering. That may mean even arranging meetings with the clients for clarifications. Alongside engaging the client, the design engineer may want to conduct further research regarding the project. For instance, a building services project or something similar may require a site visit. It helps in discovering potential project constraints, such as site orientation and neighboring properties.  

Typically, design proposals for engineering projects are availed through reports, models, and drawings. With the emergence of computer software solutions, computer presentations and models are now common. Once the design proposal presentation part is done and the client and the designer concur, the engineering design process moves to the next step – the creation of the model or prototype.

Make A Model Or Prototype

Make A Model Or Prototype

In this stage of the engineering design process, the models and drawings are transformed into tangible products in readiness for testing. A prototype can be as simple as a 3D-printed model. Some prototypes are also in the form of CNC-machined products. The design engineer needs to create prototypes or models to identify any design flaws to avoid costly manufacturing costs.

Making prototypes also gives the users a chance to give feedback on performance. But these are not the only reasons why the engineering design process incorporates a model or prototype phase.

Share Ideas

Prototypes help design engineers to share ideas with project stakeholders. This is because a physical product is typically a more effective way to communicate than mere text or images.

Improve Product Functionality

A model or prototype can be placed in the user’s hands. This is an opportunity for the design engineer to improve the functionality of the product based on the feedback received from the user. Often, the areas that can be improved through this strategy include the ergonomics or user comfort aspects of the existing solutions.

Reduce Manufacturing Cost

Prototyping helps determine the cost of manufacture before the design is taken into full production. When a basic part replacement costs tens of thousands of dollars, it would be more prudent to alter the design at the prototype stage.

Test And Evaluate

The next step of the engineering design process is to test and evaluate the prototype. The question is: Has the design engineer used engineering sciences and delivered the solution as envisaged? If the solution needs fine-tuning, this is where to get all the answers.

Through the testing and evaluation step of the engineering design process, the design engineer can assess the production costs. This assessment can be performed for every stage of the manufacturing process. Often, the client will have a limit on production costs. In case the costs go beyond the limit, the design engineer has the opportunity to adjust the design accordingly.

The testing and evaluation phase in the design process is also instrumental in discovering component failure. If a component fails, the response would be to redesign this component. Specific component tests can also be performed at this design process stage.

Prototype testing and evaluation in the engineering design process also make sense when you consider the user’s satisfaction when interacting with the product. Apart from ensuring that the product is cost-effective, the manufacturer needs to consider the desired function.

Testing and evaluating the prototype reviews how user instructions work. Is it safe to use the product? Can the user carry out simple maintenance on the item? These are some of the design challenge issues this phase seeks to answer.

To summarize, good designers use the prototype testing and evaluation phase to achieve the following goals:

  • Allow the client to see the prototype and share views. Any desired changes to the design are deliberated and approved at this stage.

  • A focus group can be allowed to use the product and share feedback. From the feedback, the design engineer identifies design faults and areas of improvement. For instance, the engineer may be prompted to use different materials.

  • This step of the engineering design process can help unearth safety issues in the design

  • Test the prototype against legislations and standards to identify any necessary adjustments to the design process

When done thoroughly and correctly, the testing and evaluation phase of the engineering design process should result in an improved engineering design. This design should answer all the critical questions.

Refine The Design - Iterative Process

Having completed the testing and evaluation step, it is time for the refinement phase. If the testing and evaluation exercises determined that the design requires improvement, a relook into the design is necessary. This review entails revisiting the previous steps above. This cyclic process is called iteration.

Can this phase of the engineering design process be avoided? Maybe not. Every engineering design needs refinement. It is uncommon for good designers to arrive at the best engineering design at the first trial.

For complex or sizeable engineering projects, different teams may be engaged to complete the design refinement in segments. For instance, one engineering team may be assigned the electronics, while the other one works on the mechanical components, and another one on vibration.

The first step as you refine the design would be to relook into the problem definition. Did you miss something in the design requirements? It is important to check for any poor assumptions about the constraints and resources.

You may opt to use an alternative design from the options identified during the brainstorming phase. Once you have picked an alternative design, take it through the steps as before. Follow the loop as before until you get a prototype that performs as required and meets the design requirements.

Create The Final Solution

Eventually, a viable engineering design that meets all the design requirements will emerge. At this point in the engineering design process, it is no longer necessary to refine the design. A complete version of the product is finally ready to be manufactured or created. By now, the engineering design has adhered to all the regulations and requirements.

At this phase of the engineering design process, the production team releases the final design to the manufacturing segment. They will scale up the process and optimize costs. They will also pursue reliable and cost-efficient processes within the supply chain.

Optimizing the production process is critical because its efficiency reflects on the eventual product cost. If the process is expensive, the final design solution will also be expensive.

For this part of the steps of the engineering design to be effective, comprehensive documentation regarding the design should be availed. This covers the product drawings and specifications. The different materials to be used should be specified.

The design and manufacturing teams should work closely to actualize the creation of the final solution. This means offering guidance and instructions where needed. Simply put, there should be a flawless transition because this is where the final solution meets actualization.

Communicate The Results

Communicating the results is the last step in the engineering design process. A good design engineer wants to present and explain the engineering solution. All pros, cons, limitations, and effects/impacts of the product or project should be well outlined to the stakeholders.

Stakeholders that may need this communication include company directors, the local community, government agencies, and fellow team members.

There are various ways of communicating including presentations and reports. The media to communicate are equally varied – videos, pictures, and so on. Of utmost importance during this phase is accurate and honest communication.

Author

Gavin Leo is a technical writer at Aria with 8 years of experience in Engineering, He proficient in machining characteristics and surface finish process of various materials. and participated in the development of more than 100complex injection molding and CNC machining projects. He is passionate about sharing his knowledge and experience.

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