Adequate, Not Best

What almost all students and many faculty members don’t realize is that engineering design/application solutions are rarely the best (or optimal). Indeed, most engineering solutions could probably be described as adequate. The best solutions are too costly, either in terms of the time required to develop them or resources expended. Adequate solutions meet the required specifications and not much more. There is certainly an element of creativity and intelligence involved in the engineering design process, but there also must be a certain amount of restraint.

Adequate Means No Superfluous Elements

I once assigned a project to my transport process design class focusing on the ventilation system for a BL-4 biosecurity laboratory government building. Class members were asked to provide a detailed project report, including a layout drawing of the ventilation system and locations of its different components. I role-played the part of a government contract officer, presenting these budding engineers with the required project specifications and answering their questions.

On the project due date, one group proudly submitted a beautifully prepared report, complete with professional-looking layout drawings prepared with computeraided design software. Their calculations were correct, and they had also included in their submission several extra rooms and bathrooms that they had designed to make the proposed building “even better.”

Rather than praise them for their additional efforts or give them extra credit, I took off several points for the superfluous submissions. Here are the points I made:

  1. The government would have questioned the resources spent designing some things that were not included in the original specifications. This could have resulted in a reduction of payment to the engineering design firm in terms of compensating for the economic value of the extra efforts.
  2. Good engineers would have suggested that the extra facilities should, perhaps, be added as an improvement and that they could design these extra facilities if another contract were awarded. They would then have had additional compensation for what they were, unfortunately, willing to provide free to the government.

Adequate is real engineering; best does not make sense in engineering practice. I have used this illustration many times in class to demonstrate that there is a big difference between engineering education and engineering practice.

Adequate Means Adjusting to Tight Deadlines

I once had a student who had a hard time with this. He had a dyslexia problem that he compensated for by spending inordinate amounts of time on his engineering assignments. He was, by any measure, dealing well with his disability. The problem was that the design problems I assigned had to be completed in two weeks. These were not trivial design problems by any means and were of the kind that normally would have been assigned for an entire semester’s work. However, I wanted to give students several opportunities to learn how to complete an engineering design from start to finish, so I assigned three of these projects each semester. There was one project each for fluid flow, heat transfer, and mass transfer. The application areas were in medicine, biotechnology, food, and environment. The pairings of transport processes and application areas varied from year to year.

This particular student was used to being very thorough, but doing so would have required that he spend more than two weeks on each project. In the real world, engineering deadlines can be hard and fast, with no second chances or reruns. This student knew what the time limits were, but he had to make serious changes in his performance methods to meet the deadlines.

First, he had to adjust his style; second, he had to follow through. He was able to do this, but it was traumatic for him. He eventually learned that adequate was good enough; best was a luxury that he could not afford if he was going to be a practicing engineer. I commended him for making the adjustment, which he also applied to other aspects of his life. He no longer felt he had to work ten times harder as others without his disability; he could do just fine as long as he mastered how to apportion the time he had available.

Adequate Solutions Meet Expectations

Unfortunately, students in many engineering curricula are not given the opportunity to learn how engineering after graduation actually works. No matter whether the graduate finds employment in industry, services, or academia, as possible examples, hard deadlines must be met, and the development of engineering judgment is crucial to understand the effort needed to meet the requirements by the deadlines. First, and foremost, the engineering solution must meet the specifications; next, the solution must be as economical as possible in terms of expended resources and the time allotted. It is then up to the engineer to use the time between deadlines to equip him- or herself with the abilities to do the best possible job the next time a deadline looms.