6 Easy Ways to Improve your Mechanical Design Skills

In this day and age, everybody wants the edge. Young engineers coming out of school want to have the skills necessary to be a great designer.  However, engineers coming out of school lack not only experience, but technical ability as well.  That’s okay.

Here are some ideas to help you get that edge quickly

  1. Know that the obvious solution is not always the best
  2. Brainstorm often
  3. Ask yourself what the next step I can do
  4. Leverage the strengths of others
  5. Fail more
  6. Be prepared for critique

College is where engineering fundamentals are taught and a love for learning is fostered; not where technical skills are developed and honed.  Early on in your career, you may not have a clue about what specific area of engineering you’d like to enter into.  Once you find an area that interests you, you can trust that these technical skills will be developed in your workplace.  Surprisingly, though, in my experience, many engineers don’t rely on their technical skills to give them that edge, but rather on the scientific mindset they have developed.  That’s our greatest asset!  So with that in mind, here are some easy tips for becoming a better designer from the start.

1. The obvious solution is not always the best


When a problem arises, there will often be a clear path forward for solving it.  Don’t stop there. Every problem in design has multiple solutions…search them out!  I wouldn’t stop thinking of solutions until I had at least four or five.  Keep going even if they are ridiculous or cost prohibitive.  In the changing times we live in, what is cost prohibitive today may not be in five years.  For example, led light bulb were $25 to $40 when first introduced, but now affordable at around $1.25. 

Every problem has multiple criteria that are often in competition with each other.  A classic example is cost and quality.  Generally speaking you have to sacrifice one for the other.  

Some solutions are great but its overall implementation might be a problem.  For example, decreasing a critical bolt torque value when there is a large field population of units can cause a problem.  You would need to have a firm cutoff date for the old torque, change all manuals, retrain internal and external maintenance personnel and probably add a notice decal to the area where the fastener is stating the new torque.  As you can see, not an easy task.

So, get multiple solutions and evaluate them later.  Ideas build on each other.

A good designer will have solutions that answer all of these questions:

  • What is the least expensive solution?
  • What is the most expensive solution? Is there opportunity to use new technology or automation?  As technology changes, this might be affordable in a few years.
  • How long does it take to implement? Rushing a solution often causes more problems than it fixes especially when the product is to be serviced for many years after the sale.  If you have too much time to implement, you can start to procrastinate or over think /over-test a design while missing out on sales opportunities.
  • Can safety or quality be improved?
  • Can waste be eliminated from the product or the process to produce it?
  • What is the ideal solution? Often you can back your way into this.

Having answers for these questions can get you thinking out-of-the-box to come up with innovative solutions for easy problems.

2. Brainstorm often

Let’s face it; we don’t have all the answers!  Good ideas come from others imputing ideas into your work and vice versa.  If you are like me, you might want to shoot down an idea that seems unworkable.  Don’t do that!  Resist the temptation to say anything negative about another idea.  At the start of a brainstorming session, if every “bad” idea is taken off the table immediately, people stop contributing.  And that’s the worst thing that could happen.  So, please don’t do that or if you see someone else doing that, stop them.  Yes, those ideas may be bad, but I have seen many times over the years, that those bad ideas can be shaped and formed into good ideas eventually.  When multiple people share their input, they can each bring a new viewpoint and build on the idea.  That’s teamwork!

I recommend a group of 4 to 8 people with at least 2 people from other departments.  This gives balance and promotes different perspectives.

3. What’s the next thing I can do?

This question governs my design process.  My mind doesn’t seem to follow any known logical paths when I am designing.  I am constantly shifting back and forth between modeling and calculations and then I’m working on an entirely different section of the design and then circle back again.  It may seem unstructured and frankly, bizarre, but the truth is very simple; I get stuck.  And often.  You will, too.  When I get stuck, I simply ask myself, what is the next thing I CAN do? 

For example, today I was modeling a bolted design and needed to know what bolt size and plate thickness to use.  I started working the calculations and determined that I needed more information from the model.  So I modeled.  My modeling got to a point where I needed more information from a part that was all the way on the other side of the design.  Before I knew it, I had my model in order and could finally come back to sizing my bolted joint. I discovered the next thing I could do.

In the midst of a design project there are times when you are really stuck.  You’ve hit a brick wall.  Perhaps you have trouble determining what your next tangible action could be.  In these cases I recommend windshield time.  This is the time you spend on your drive to and from work looking through your windshield.  Your brain is somewhat on autopilot (but keep your eyes on the road) and your mind is reaching into its subconscious.  (Ever pass a traffic light and struggle to remember if it was green or not?) That’s when new ideas often come.  I highly suggest that you immediately, but safely, write down or record these new ideas.  You don’t want to risk losing this groundbreaking new idea!  You may need to pull over first.  If you have an idea when you are asleep, get up and write it down.  Don’t fool yourself into thinking you’ll remember it in the morning, because you won’t.  Yes, it’s inconvenient, but definitely worth it.

4. Leverage the strengths of others

In case you didn’t know, you don’t know everything.  Woo hoo!  I can’t imagine the burden of knowing everything.  I remember when I was a teenager and I knew everything, but I digress.  Yes, you don’t know everything, but you can use that humbling truth to your advantage.  Find someone you trust to be your mentor and glean from their knowledge and experience. Now that I have been mentoring for a while, I thoroughly enjoy when young engineers ask me for guidance.  I relish the opportunity to be able to impart what I know to the next generation. Don’t be fearful to ask for help, because mentors are mentors because they want to help you succeed.   Be willing to ask for help and you will see your own knowledge and experience grow.  A little warning here, your mentor is going to push you and it will not be pleasant.  Know that they are grooming you so that someday you will be a mentor.

Another great advantage is leveraging the power of a team.  In a previous role, I worked with a woman whose skills were completely opposite from mine.  She enjoyed paperwork and getting things organized.  I enjoyed the technical aspects of design and am less…er….organized.  This relationship was very productive, and as a team, we launched one of the most profitable projects in the company’s history.  Knowing the strengths and weaknesses within your design team and leveraging them can really propel a project forward.

5. Fail more  

Ouch!  This is a tough one.  Many of us were raised with the notion that failure is bad.  Yes, it is bad when bearing the brunt of it, but don’t let that get in the way of learning from it. Here are two important examples of constructive failures:

The Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989 was to-date one of the largest oil spills ever, at 10.8 million gallons.  It had a profoundly negative effect on the environment.  However, it brought about huge and lasting improvements related to the transportation of oil.  When the news of the spill broke, most newspapers reported that the captain was intoxicated and single-handedly caused this disaster.

Although he was drinking, he was not on duty at the time of the accident.  I’ve personally seen the causal map for this incident.  After ongoing investigation, it was discovered that, in fact, there were roughly twenty root causes for the accident.  Here are a few causes of the accident coupled with improvements made:

  • The ship was leaving the port at night with bad visibility – now large ships only leave during the day.
  • Computers (very new technology at the time) were newly implemented and replaced the human job of navigation.
  • The pilot of the ship was piloting alone because the navigator was replaced by a computer.
  • There were large areas of the harbor that were not visible by radar and the ship was not seen – More radar coverage was added and other harbors were analyzed for similar issues.
  • The ship was a single hull so that if the hull was punctured, oil would leak out even if the damage was minimal.  Today, most tanker ships have two hulls so that the outer hull can suffer damage while keeping the oil safe.
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The other example of a constructive failure is the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington.  Known as “Galloping Girdie,” this suspension bridge would twist violently in the wind until it collapsed on November 7, 1940 after being open for only four months.  A suspension bridge spanning such a great distance at that time was new and fairly untested.  Apparently, solid beams supporting the roadway, which did not allow the wind to pass peaceably, was the design’s fatal flaw.  In fact, on windy days, the wind would get “hooked” inside under the roadway and violently lift one side of the bridge at a time.  After the collapse, wind tunnel testing showed that a solid web beam was not acceptable in suspension bridge design.  As a result, suspension bridges today are only made with open lattice frames.

Please don’t get the impression that I am asking you to purposely try to fail in this manner.  These were examples of huge failures.  Small failures are good.  You will learn more from a single failure that you will from a thousand successes.  When you fail, welcome it, dig in and learn something.

A final thought is to know when your design idea is a failure.  You may have been working on it for a few weeks now and you see that it has one or more fundamental flaws.  Brainstorm and ask for help on it, but be ready to abandon this design.

6. Be prepared for critique – say thank you when you get input/feedback

Let me say this up front–this is a hard one.  You may be tempted to say something like…”But I’ve worked for weeks on this idea and now someone is going to say bad things about my baby?  Not acceptable!”  Designing something is very personal because any design is a reflection of us.  Over the years, I have been able to identify who designed something based on characteristics I’ve seen in other designs of theirs. 

Design reviews can be the worst time for an engineer.  And it can be extremely humbling.  I once had a design review where a question from left field on slide 3, totally derailed the rest of the presentation (about 15 slides).  My design wouldn’t meet a critical, but unknown requirement, so I acknowledged the short coming and admitted that this design would be changing dramatically.  I remained calm and didn’t argue.  I spent the remainder of the time quickly pointing out on each of the remaining slides all the things that would now need to be redesigned.  It was humbling and yet memorable experience. 

Whether your design is reviewed by five of your peers or by two dozen upper level management personnel, it is a daunting situation.  So you need to be prepared for the coming critique.  View it as constructive criticism that could potentially build on your idea rather than seeing it as a personal attack.  There is no way to get around it; people will be asking you to defend every aspect of the design.  Just relax and take a deep breath. You know your design better than anyone else.  Here are some other tips to help with critique.

  • People’s words can hurt – Sometimes they don’t even know they upset you.  Don’t get upset and give them the benefit of doubt.
  • Be prepared, know your design inside and out – If there is an area of the design that isn’t finished or you don’t know how to proceed, let others know up front.  Don’t try to defend something you aren’t that attached to.  I will often lead a segment of the review with, “I really don’t like this idea, but it is the best thing that I have come up with.”  You’ve now turned the tables and taken a weak area of the design and allowed others to be involved in the process.  They will remember that.
  • Know when to defend your decision and when not to – Seems simple, but it isn’t.  Don’t get caught up in the emotion of the situation.
  • Say thank you – This one’s important.  Saying thank you after every question/remark shows that you value the input of others in your design.  It’s not easy at first, but quickly becomes habit.  It’s a sign of a mature and seasoned engineer.
  • Take notes – Show that you are serious about the input by writing it down.  If it is a large group or a short amount of time, get someone else to take notes.  Be sure to follow up with any unanswered questions in a timely manner.

As I applied these six principles in my engineering career, I saw that the quality of my work and my creativity improved dramatically.  I was also able to take on more responsibility and become a resource to my team.  I challenge you to implement these in your life so that you can enjoy the same growth that I did.

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Corey Rasmussen

Corey Rasmussen is an award-winning professional engineer (NC and TX) with over 20 years of product design and development experience. He has two patents related to aerial lifts machinery, has advanced certifications in hydraulics and electronic controls, and specializes in designing mobile equipment. Corey is the principal engineer of Rasmussen Designs and is based out of Durham, NC.

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