Curious question, right? For those that are in engineering and have been exposed to the development of various types of products, you might have pondered this question before. It’s hard not to see other design and engineering processes and wonder what is the same or different.

But for me, it’s a little different. In the past few months, I’ve been doing some recent research into engineering professions. I’ve been looking at concentrations of engineering roles in different industries and trying to gather a characterization of their type of work. For a particular type of engineer in a specific industry, how much time do they design. How much time do they engineer?

Types of Development Work

The deeper I’ve looked, the more I’ve become grim. You see, I have a hypothesis. And it depends on the difference between design work and engineering work. For the sake of this discussion, here’s my definitions.

  • Design Work: In this type of product development activity, the focus is mainly on form and fit. The shape of the product is paramount.
  • Engineering Work: In this type of product development activity, the focus is mainly on function. How the product operates and performs is paramount.

Types of Products

Now, after some thought, I see products falling into three main categories.

  • Highly Engineered Products: These products cannot be launched or delivered without frequent engineering work performed during development. Here design work is driven by engineering work. During development, there are frequent calculations and simulations that are performed. Development teams closely document the decisions made along the way. They create highly detailed specifications including more specific documents like FMEAs. Requirements, which are used to drive performance and function, are managed as well. And of course there is detailed verification and validation.
  • Lightly Engineered Products: These products need some level of engineering work before they can be launched or delivered. In this case, there is probably more design work than engineering work. However, the amount of work where this is required is far lower. There may be occasional calculations. There is probably a nominal specification. Requirements aren’t managed or tracked. There is nominal verification and validation.
  • Designed Products: These products are launched or delivered with almost no engineering work. Design work dominates development. There are few calculations or simulations. There probably is no specification. Requirements are not tracked. There may be some validation in the form of destructive testing.

The Implications

Obviously there are mammoth gray areas in between these categories. But here’s my point. I believe that each type of product requires different rations of designers (those focusing exclusively on CAD) and engineers (those responsible for function and performance). Here’s my take.

  • There is even balance between engineers and designers in the development of highly engineered products.
  • There is a high ratio of designers to engineers in the development of lightly engineered products.
  • There are few to no engineers in the development of designed products.

So that’s where the grim part comes into play. As you move from companies with highly engineered products to companies with designed products, the number of engineers falls quickly. Furthermore, if you think about company size, as you move from very large companies, where there can be specialized roles, to smaller companies, where there are more “multi-hat” roles, you have engineers who are doing less and less engineering work with their time.

Conclusions and Questions

In my mind, the concentration of engineering work will be at larger companies developing highly engineered products. And as you shift away on both product complexity and company size, the responsibility to develop products becomes more and more form focused and as a result, can be done by a designer. Not an engineer.

There. That’s my brain dump for the day. Concerning? Troubling? Longstanding fact of engineering? Would love to hear your thoughts and perspectives.

Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.