7 Years In: Lessons Learned as a Product Design Engineer
By Dan Senatore
I’ve been a mechanical engineer at Lunar for almost 7 years, as well as a project manager and the ME intern coordinator for a good portion of that time. I’ve had the opportunity to work with a number of interesting clients, coworkers, and products. They range from large corporations to small startups, hot-heads to introverts, consumer to medical to unclassifiable, parts as big as a monster truck wheel to those you can barely see. And since that magical summer of 2004, some things have continued to ring true. I’ve listed them for you below:
10. The design process works – Brainstorming, concept development and refinement, prototyping, testing, and evaluation work well for solving all problems – simple to complex. Each step teaches you more about the problem you are trying to solve and allows you to flush out all possible solutions. Add frequent reviews with people not involved for a fresh perspective and to check for errors that someone too close to the project may miss.
9. Speak, write and present as clearly, concisely and objectively as possible – No one has time to read long emails or walk through lengthy presentations. If you can’t communicate something in a way that’s easy to understand, you probably don’t understand it well enough yourself. It’s worthwhile to take the extra time to think through an issue to create emails and presentations that are as short and meaningful as possible.
8. Keep designs simple – I know it’s obvious, but constantly ask yourself, how could this design be more simple? This will always result in less troubleshooting later on. In CAD, minimize sketch complexity and number of features in the model tree. Always dimension parts with intent for easy updates. With sheet metal parts, can bends be replaced with formed features to minimize tolerance stack-up? Can the number of parts be reduced or can the same part be used in several locations? If I had to assemble this device on an assembly line, 1000 times a day, which processes would I curse the designer about most, and how could it be made less complex?
7. Give students your time – Attending portfolio reviews, project trade shows, career fairs and working with interns have created some of the most memorable, challenging and rewarding moments of my career. Of course students appreciate your feedback and it’s always great to make new contacts, but when you find someone who is deeply interested in the design process and eager to get involved at a professional level, it is inspiring to talk with them because they tend to ask the most difficult questions and challenge everything. In quick chats at career fairs, I love getting – “What is Lunar’s design philosophy?”, or “What makes you different from the rest of the design firms out there?” During internships it’s – “Why won’t that work?” These interactions force you to think deeply about what you’re doing, at a career and project level, which for me reinforces the excitement in the industry and causes us to push the boundaries of what we’re trying to accomplish.
6. Do tolerance analysis – Rarely enjoyed, but absolutely invaluable. I seem to always find myself wishing I had done these sooner. The first step is determining the tolerances of the manufacturing process for every part in your assembly, and the features within that part. (Vendors can normally provide spec sheets.) Then create cross sections of the most important part stack-ups (or all of them if you have time) to assess the best and worst case fit situations. This helps to confirm if the manufacturing process you have selected for a particular part is the right one and allows you to create meaningful dimensioned drawings for each part. That way you can communicate to the vendor which dimensions are most important. Then when fit or function problems come up during inspection you know where to look!
5. Give people feedback – And ask for it about yourself. It’s never easy for people to take criticism so this can be a touchy subject, depending on the person. This could come in the form of written reviews or just grabbing lunch. Timing is also important. From experience I can say it’s best to address issues as they arise. Talk about what’s working, but be sure to focus more on what could be improved. It may be uncomfortable but everyone will benefit in the long run.
4. Track open issues – Along with their owners, priority, a quick summary, and a due date for updates. Hold regular meetings to walk through the list with all relevant parties to keep everyone updated with progress. It’s also a great way to track when and why decisions have been made.
3. Ask for help – There’s no need to be a hero and try to shoulder ridiculously large tasks on your own. Everyone wants to get the job done well, so if you need help, ask for it. And if you don’t know the answer to a question, say so and find the person who does.
2. There will always be problems – Don’t be surprised or get a bruised ego when parts don’t fit or mechanisms fail. Have backup solutions documented and ready. And backups for those backups. Have the materials on hand to implement these solutions when necessary. And if you know a particular approach is especially risky, communicate that risk along with its consequences if the problem were to arise, along with few alternative approaches to reduce risk.
1. Keep things in perspective – As with any line of work, our jobs can be frustrating, but face it – it’s fun! We have it pretty good. But if things get really rough, just watch this.