July 2016

Achieving engineering excellence

The importance of engineering excellence has increased multifold in a fast-changing modern world, says Dr Gopichand Katragadda, group chief technology officer at Tata Sons

Developing into a good engineer is a lifelong venture. Engineers have created the world we live in today. The industrial ages of mechanisation, electrification, and digitalisation are the consequence of engineering excellence. Each age has impacted the work environment and the skills required for success. With the advent of mechanisation came factories and the nine-to-five work culture. Engineers designed, built and diagnosed the steam engines, the cams and the pistons that mechanised all production processes.

With mechanisation came rapid transportation systems by land and sea, enabling larger global trade. Electrification enabled higher efficiency in operations making mass production possible with every factory tool being motorised and the creation of the modern production line. Engineers designed and built electricity generation, transmission, and distribution equipment that brought electricity to homes, factories and farms.

With digitalisation, the primary work location shifted from the factory to the office. Increasing level of automation and remote operation of factories allowed engineers to focus on electronic design and software implementation for factory and office automation. Today, with the democratisation of digitalisation offered by mobile phones, engineers are building cyber-intelligent systems that digitalise every conceivable decision through algorithms.

Despite the rapidly changing environment, the underlying basis for engineering excellence endures. Broadly speaking, I group engineering excellence into three categories: 1) building a solid foundation, 2) developing an engineering mindset, and 3) focusing on execution.

Build a solid foundation

  1. Strong fundamentals: When in doubt, always go to the fundamentals. Be it Newton’s Laws or the derivative Navier Stokes Equation, Maxwell’s equations or the derivative static, diffusion or wave equations. It is important to understand the physical meaning of mathematical expressions and be able to hand calculate approximate values of variables for critical verification. It is also important to understand the limitations of numerical methods and determine where experimentation is necessary.

  2. Deep technical focus: Rome was not built in a day. It takes time and focused effort to develop engineering excellence. Each new learning experience is just a door that opens up a myriad of unknowns. It is important to focus and develop deep-rooted expertise in a single technical area for a minimum of six years early in one’s career. It is also true that once an expertise is developed, the ability to translate the learning to other technical areas is relatively quicker and easier. However, the credibility from the core technology area sticks throughout one’s career and hence is extremely important.

  3. Hands-on expertise: The best way to ‘see’ an engineered part is with your hands. There are a number of hurdles to be overcome between a thought experiment or theory and actual realisation in the field. It is important to take every opportunity to experience the complete product life cycle. Books cannot capture or substitute the lessons of hands-on learning. Speed in engineering comes from a gut instinct of what might work. This instinct is developed through hands-on work.

  4. Simulation expertise: Experimentation matters. With advances in simulation, the volumes of iterative physical experiments required have been dramatically reduced through the effective use of validated models. It is important for modern-day engineers to effectively use simulation tools and computational power at their disposal. At the same time, it is important to understand and prevent numerical errors that creep in through a variety of sources.

  5. Continuous learning: Once an engineer, always a student. The accumulated knowledge in engineering is huge, but miniscule compared to the amount of unknown possibilities in the physical world. An engineer excels by continuously striving to be at the edge of knowledge and scientific progress. It is the mapping of a new science or material to new market needs that advances the frontiers of engineering.

Develop an engineering mindset

  1. Attention to detail: The devil is in the detail. Engineering is about figuring out the details. Many showstoppers are not apparent at the big picture level. Manufacturing issues, cost issues, life issues, and ‘maintainability’ and ‘inspectability’ issues are amongst the many issues that need to be fleshed out. Solutions to problems can create new ones in their wake if regression analysis and testing are not performed. Engineering excellence, hence, is in the detail.

  2. System-level thinking: ‘The whole is other than the sum of its parts.’ From an engineering standpoint, it is important to be able to define and model complex interactions among components that make up an engineered system, and implement the system with effective use of available resources. While we work on a component, the system should not be forgotten. In system engineering, the output of a system is typically linked to a customer need.

  3. Market and customer orientation: First understand what the market needs and then proceed to make it. Engineering is about serving the market. Every feature should be looked at from a customer’s viewpoint. This does mean not just listening to the customer. It also means anticipating the customer need and changes in the market. It is important to maintain an external connection through journals, tradeshows, databases, industry peers, end-customers and emerging markets.

  4. Innovation and change orientation: Innovation is finding new ways of creating value. An engineer should keep abreast with the cutting edge technology, while serving the current market needs. Every new market need and customer problem can be looked at as opportunities to innovate, leveraging the latest knowledge in the field. Innovation is clearly not only idea generation, but also the ability to take the idea to market. Innovation needs the engineer to create with freedom, nurture with passion and change with detachment.

  5. Engineering judgment: An ounce of engineering judgment sometimes works the miracle of tonnes of analysis. Engineering judgment comes from the confidence and decision-making capability developed through technical knowledge, experience and an appetite for risk-taking. Engineering judgment enables the engineer to quickly sense and articulate risks, and also come up with optimal solutions to complex technical problems. Engineering judgment is a starting point and needs to be followed by detailed analysis, experimentation and validation.

Focus on execution

  1. Critical analysis: Measure twice and cut once. The ability to draw the right engineering conclusions from available data includes understanding whether the data is insufficient to support a claim and what additional data would enable a better conclusion. Also important to critical analysis is knowing which tool or experiment would give you the best information required to make the right conclusion and decision.

  2. First time right and design margin: Quality is reputation, quality is credibility and quality is revenue. With products such as aircraft engines and nuclear reactors in the portfolio, there is no second chance. Being right the first time with adequate design margin is of paramount importance. Having the right tests and statistically significant number of tests to ensure confidence in our designs and testing our designs for failure to understand the validity of our design margins is critical for success.

  3. Detailed documentation and design practices: Work not documented is work not performed. Every engineering success and every failure has a lesson that needs to be shared. Documenting is also a way to unlock certain missed details. By writing for others, you articulate certain assumptions, which upon expression might throw new light on the problem being addressed. Documenting your work is also a means of collaborating with yourself over time. Design practices are vital to ensure design knowledge developed through intense analysis and experimentation is transferred to the engineering community.

  4. Cost / productivity consciousness: One of the responsibilities of an engineer is to take an idea to market. A significant component of success in the market is to be able to give the best value. To ensure good contribution margins while providing excellent customer value, an organisation has to have a handle on the cost and productivity. Hence, the engineer’s job is to also keep in mind the cost and productivity while still optimising quality and schedule.

  5. Sense of urgency and desire to win: Sometimes it is all about time-to-market. The engineering incentive is to be the first with an elegant technical solution to significantly enhance human health or comfort in an environmentally friendly way. A sense of competitiveness and a race to be the first have defined many engineering successes from the light bulb to the aircraft engine to decoding the human genome.