Addressing grand challenges with design engineering

4 min read

As we approach 2020, there are a number of global trends and technological opportunities ahead. But while UK design engineers are held in the highest regard for their innovative nous, for maximum value we need to expand our definition of, ‘fit-for-purpose’.

I’ve yet to meet a design engineer or manager who tells me they’re anything less than frantically busy at work. And, whilst devouring your latest copy of Eureka! over a mid-morning coffee is doubtless an essential part of your professional routine, you could be forgiven for not having read all 129 pages of the Government’s Industrial Strategy white paper.

In fact, there’s much of interest between its covers, not least the setting out of four Grand Challenges, intended to position the UK at the forefront of the industries of the future. Responding to transformational global trends, these challenges represent enormous opportunities to improve people’s lives and the country’s productivity.

The four grand challenges are:

  • growing the Artificial Intelligence and data driven economy;
  • clean growth;
  • the future of mobility;
  • and the ageing society.

In the context of these challenges, and as part of a commitment to increase R&D spending by £4.7 billion over the next four years, a series of ‘Industrial Strategy Challenge Funds’ are being created. These will provide funding and support to UK businesses and researchers tackling specific industrial challenges where:

  • the UK has a world-leading research base and businesses are ready to innovate;
  • there is a large or fast-growing and sustainable global market.

A total of fourteen such funds have been announced so far, and you can learn more about the individual challenges by going to Innovate UK's website.

An opportunity for Design Engineers to shine

New technologies will be crucial in delivering solutions to each of these challenges, but I’m mindful of the late, great Douglas Adams who wrote, ‘We are stuck with technology when what we really want is just stuff that works’. Anyone who’s waited not-so-patiently while their laptop operating system updates minutes before an important presentation will surely recognise the sentiment.

Clearly then, technology alone isn’t enough. It needs to be packaged into products and services that readily deliver meaningful benefits to those who buy and use them. This, of course, is the heartland of the design engineer: bridging the gap between idea and reality, applying engineering know-how to make sure that products function, perform and are fit-for-purpose.

The Industrial Strategy presents an opportunity for engineers to shine because their contribution will be crucial in delivering solutions that don’t just look good on paper, but translate into real value – both social and economic.

In light of this opportunity, it’s worth giving some consideration to how we might maximise the value of the design engineering function within organisations. The subject is worthy of a veritable library, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution but, based on my own experiences, I’d highlight one strategy in particular as being worthy of consideration.

Expanding the definition of fit-for-purpose

How do we define ‘fit-for-purpose’, and how do we know when we’ve achieved it? Our point of reference is the design brief and, more specifically, the requirements laid out therein. The job of the design engineer is simple: prioritise as appropriate, resolve conflicts, compromise where necessary and tick as many boxes as possible. Do this, and you can be confident that your design solution is fit-for-purpose. Or can you? The solution, of course, can only be as good at the brief.

The requirements set out in the brief must be sufficiently comprehensive, detailed, relevant and appropriately prioritised and weighted. If you’ve nailed the perfect requirement gathering and brief definition process, then I salute you. For the rest of us, I’ll wager there’s one crucial area in which your design requirements are at the least poorly defined, and possibly seriously lacking: human motivations, perception and behaviour.

I’ll stick my neck out here and say that a deep, empathic understanding of other human beings is not the defining characteristic of your average (or even extraordinary) engineer. Nevertheless, we ignore human insight at our peril, because the misunderstanding or poor consideration of people’s mindset and behaviour is a critical failure mode.

Regardless of a product’s technical capability, if people don’t like it, don’t understand it or struggle to use it, they’re unlikely to buy it, let alone come back for more. Conversely, a solution that offers a more desirable ‘experience’ can command a premium even where technical performance is no longer a differentiator.

When we think about fit-for-purpose, we need to balance the hard, readily-quantifiable metrics (performance, resilience, cost etc) with an equally thorough consideration of the less tangible (but no less critical) factors associated with human motivations, perception and behaviour.

To do that effectively, we must first consider all the people who will engage or interact with the proposed product – not only different customers and users, but also system integrators, resellers, logistics, installation and maintenance engineers. Then we need to thoroughly understand the circumstances of the interaction: how, why, where and under what circumstances will these interactions take place? We need to look beyond the expected ‘normal’ behaviour, to recognise the unexpected and unpredictable.

Just as we can’t hope to determine meaningful requirements without a thorough understanding of scientific, engineering, manufacturing and business principles, neither can we truly define the attributes of a fit-for-purpose solution without this rich human insight.

Many tools and processes have been developed to help build a deeper understanding of human behaviour and convert that insight into design requirements, but the most effective share a common principle: direct contact and observation. Datasets and desk-based research will get you so far, but there is no substitute for getting out there and watching, listening and learning from real people in real situations.

It should be noted that doing this well requires an investment in time and resources, and demands a distinct skill set and expertise. Collaborating with experts in human-centred research and design, or even social scientists, could be the most practical solution for those without appropriate in-house resources or capability.

Design engineers may not be best placed to lead this activity, but I believe there’s much to be gained by involving them with this process. Being exposed to the people you’re ultimately designing for is always surprising, inspiring and rewarding.

A good case can be made for generally involving the design engineering function earlier in the R&D process, allowing a better understanding to actively inform the design brief. The design process is likely to yield better outcomes if those tasked with fulfilling the brief have a better understanding of its motivations and intent. They’ll also have a more nuanced understanding of relative priorities, especially when considering tangible vs intangible attributes, and empower smarter decisions or compromises in the case of conflicting or contradictory requirements.

Ben Griffin, Innovation Lead, Design, Innovate UK

Innovate UK is the UK's innovation agency. We drive productivity and growth by supporting businesses to realise the potential of new technologies, develop ideas and make them a commercial success.

We work with companies to de-risk, enable and support innovation. Since 2007, we have committed over £1.8 billion to innovation, matched by a similar amount in partner and business funding. We have helped 8,000 organisations with projects estimated to add more than £16 billion to the UK economy, creating nearly 70,000 jobs.