Careers in Design Engineering
Design is for everyone
Opportunities in design engineering are vast and varied. All the verticals addressed by IEDF—Aerospace, Agriculture, Automotive, Electrical & Electronics, Green Tech, IT & Computing, Medical, Telecommunications—have ample opportunities to cater to a student's curiosity and inventiveness.
Design engineering goes beyond design. For example, a test engineer may not have much to do with design but generally his effectiveness on the job increases if he has some insight into the design. Sales and marketing teams can explain their products better and answer technical queries promptly if they have been introduced to the product's design.
A student contemplating a career in design engineering might wonder what sort of opportunities we are talking about. We enumerate some of the important areas in which a student can contribute and be creative at the same time:
This involves both industrial design as well as engineering design. While products are usually designed to satisfy market requirements, at times engineers produce concept designs in anticipation of what the market might need in the future. Product design is challenging in many aspects, at times requiring social and cultural understanding of the markets.
Research and Development
R&D is essential to building new technologies for the future. The work done in R&D often precedes application in industry. However, R&D laboratories in companies also take up the job of solving challenging problems by applying innovative materials, methods, tools and processes. An R&D engineer works at the cutting-edge of technology, is required to be creative and must be a proactive problem-solver.
Engineering is about finding solutions to problems. When a prospective client approaches an engineering firm for solutions, engineers have to understand the client's problems and the relevant engineering constraints. Engineers then need to take these requirements to internal teams and work out a feasible solution, which is then put forward to the client. Proposal engineering is all about this interfacing between external clients and internal processes. It is about personal interaction as well as technical knowledge. Proposal engineers require good awareness of the market so that proposals stand out against market competition.
The word architect comes with its connotation of being important. Architecture is an activity that translates client requirements to high-level product specifications, all constraints considered. The architect would outline major components of the system and define key interfaces. The architect operates on the big picture, leaving the finer details to design engineers. In general, the architect works with many teams across the company from design to testing, from R&D to S&M.
Much of today's engineering activities rely on good software. In addition to software design and programming, software engineers building design software need to be competent with the particular domain for which the software is intended. The job of these engineers is critical since they put effective and efficient software tools into the hands of design engineers.
This is an iterative process in which results of analysis can lead to design improvements and optimizations. Engineers involved in analysis often interact with those who make models and prototypes. Analysis is a difficult and challenging task. While there may be scientific methods of analysis, experience also accounts. Sometimes the best analysts are those who combine science and art in the right proportion, those who find the right balance between logic and intuition.
Before a product can be prototyped, drawings have to be made. The good old pencil-and-paper method might work at initial stages but ultimately engineering requires precision. Therefore, drawings are often made using software tools. Drawing is a critical aspect of design since mistakes here will affect manufacturing and production. It is therefore critical to get drawings reviewed and signed off formally.
Design of any complex product is a team activity. There will be frequent reviews and appraisals on the design. Design will be evaluated based on cost, quality, performance, usability, safety and many other factors. Engineers involved in design appraisals need to see the big picture as well as the fine details so that the final design gives a competitive advantage in the marketplace.
Making models can be either in software or actually building a small scale model of the final product. The purpose of this activity is to get a feel of how the product or system would work in the real world without building the actual one. Modelling can bring out design defects, bottlenecks and areas of optimization. Making models often requires ingenuity on the part of an engineer and an in-depth understanding of how the system works.
The work of an engineer does not stop at design. Engineering is essentially about building things. Design has to be translated into a working prototype to establish feasibility and proof of concept. Building a prototype involves many engineering decisions starting from choice of materials, consideration of cost, availability of component parts and many more. This activity is tied closely to the design of the product itself. Problems encountered during this phase serve as valuable inputs to designers who may then go back to think about necessary redesign.
Testing is essential to bring out problems in the product before it reaches the market. Test engineers have to be inventive in coming up with effective test cases to catch as many problems as possible. A test engineer may also be required to come up with effective test procedures and tools to improve the overall test process. Test engineers often have to work closely with designers to ensure they understand the product well. Their inputs can be valuable even at an early stage of the design process.
Verification checks if all the components perform their required tasks as stated in the original engineering goals. Verification derives its reference from architecture documents, engineering requirements and design documents.
Documentation is either internal (within the company) or external (outside the company). Where external documentation is involved, documents can be engineering documents read by partners and industry collaborators. Alternatively, documents can be end-user documents that need to be written in simple language devoid of technical jargon. In all cases, technical writers need to have a good grasp of the technology to be able to translate complex ideas into simple language.
Education & Training
This can be within academia for those keen on research. Alternatively, this can also be technical training to corporates who may want to fill their knowledge gaps. In either case, trainers must have engineering background and experience to add value to their delivery. They must be well versed with the latest technology while not forgetting the basics. Technical training is about teaching but it is also about learning new things on a continuous basis.
Product enquiries and problems coming from clients are handled by engineers in technical support team. These engineers interface with customers on a regular basis and provide support on products. No product usually goes out in perfect condition. There will always be at least a few issues to be ironed out. Technial support engineers therefore play an important role. Customer satisfaction is to a great extent dependent on their level of support and effective problem resolution.
Technical Sales & Marketing
Effectiveness in S&M is largely determined by engineering expertise. When personnel involved in these activities lack engineering background, the loss to the overall business can be considerable. There will be delays in understanding customer needs, in translating needs into clear documents, or in interfacing with engineers within the organization. Increasingly, engineers are becoming very important in S&M teams from initial negotiations to final deliveries. It is fair to say that a company's financial success is closely tied to the success of S&M.
Industry standardization is critical to engineering. Engineers involved in this activity will interface with industry experts across companies, clients, vendors, supplies and even government bodies. This work requires good knowledge of the latest technology. Engineers must be capable of evaluating various options and propose what's best for the industry. Engineers have to be able to make convincing arguments with supporting data so that standards are approved as desired.
About the Author
Arvind Padmanabhan graduated from the National University of Singapore with a master’s degree in electrical engineering. With fifteen years of experience, he has worked extensively on various wireless technologies including DECT, WCDMA, HSPA, WiMAX and LTE. He is passionate about training and is keen to build an R&D ecosystem and culture in India. He recently published a book on the history of digital technology: http://theinfinitebit.wordpress.com.