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The 6 Essential Qualities of an Automotive Design Engineer (Part 2)

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While Part 1 of this list focused on the technical and skill related aspects of design engineering, Part 2 focuses on the productivity and political skills you should acquire to become a good designer.Following are three of the most important skills to develop in this area:

4. How to Be Organized

OrganizedAutomotive design engineering is incredibly complicated. Tell someone you are an automotive design engineer and they expect you to be a methodical Poindexter that has all his calculations memorized and can draw up a part in a day. While we wish this was the case, design engineers are not superheroes. When it comes to designing a part, 10% of the information will come from your own brain and your knowledge of engineering. The other 90% will come from calculation programs, historical test logs, and design rules that have been in place for years. You have an immense amount information available to you when you are a design engineer. And keeping it all together is sometimes of a feat in itself.

If you are trying to determine the risk of your decisions or trying to support a design decision you must keep your information organized and readily accessible.Here are a few great ways to stay organized as a design engineer:

  • Make a list of all the resources that you use on a regular basis. Think of the calculation programs you use, the design rules you need to access and the test or historical data you use to make decisions. If the resources are on your network or in files, create an excel sheet that provides links that are easy to access.
  • Print and post your most frequently used references in your office. I always make sure that I keep a list of up-to-date part numbers, a hole/journal tolerance chart and a full assembly view of the project that I work on the most. What information do you access 10 times a day? Be sure to post that on your wall.
  • Make sure that you or your team has an easy to navigate folder structure. Since automotive engineering takes place in a team environment 95% of the time, you need to always know where their supporting data is for your work. Keeping folders dated and labeled in a consistent way ensures that you can all find what you need quickly.
  • Keep project meetings on an agenda. When you are designing a part you will most likely have multiple meetings about every little detail. These meetings need to be well organized around a specific focus. Always make sure you send an agenda about the topics that you want to discuss to keep everyone focused. Send out meeting minutes with agreed upon due dates for items so that you and others can keep on track and monitor progress.

 

5. How to Determine Risk

As a design engineer your main goal for a part is proper function. Proper function could mean that a part needs to achieve a specific goal, or that it needs to last for a certain amount of time. Whatever the case may be, safety and proper function are always your focus. Like Dr. Frankenstein, you assume the risk of whatever monster you create, good or bad.

Many times in prototype or serial production stages, there are factors to consider beyond just the safety or the strength of the part. Sometimes the design you create will work perfectly, but cannot be produced without significant costs, making it cost-prohibitive. Here is where a good designer needs to go back and determine what features are the most critical for the design and how to meet the cost constraints of the project. Balancing risk with cost, knowing where to cut, and figuring out unique solutions are important skills for any design engineer to acquire.

Risk and reward highway sign concept with stitch style on fabric backgroundCost factors come up near the beginning of the project, but the largest risk factor facing design engineers is when a production issue arises. As I stated before, an automotive design engineer is usually expected to support a project well though the production phase. Multiple times during production, things will go wrong (big understatement). In an automotive environment, these problems rear their ugly head far too often and will be sure to get everyone’s attention. A supplied part may come in just outside of tolerance and will require the design engineer to sign off saying that it will not affect function. If it does affect function, then the line will have to go down and the plant will miss its quota, or worse miss a shipment to a customer. Believe me, you will have the production managers and manufacturing engineers pushing you to approve every deviation that is put in so that they can build. With deviations to parts and process, the design engineer needs to be able to weigh the pros and cons and accurately judge the effect of rejecting or approving defects.

So if you approve the deviation there could be a risk to function but if you reject it you may be shutting the line down (and the plants income stream) until they fix the issue. So how do you determine what is the right call? The three best ways of doing this are:

  • Know which dimensions are critical and which are “nice to haves” – yes all features are important but knowing which dimensions are absolutely not changeable will help make your future decisions much easier.
  • Determine from history what has worked and what has not – If you have history on your deviation or history from a previous product line, this can greatly help you make a clear decision on whether something can be deviated from or not. Historical data can help in a pinch, but is not always available or relevant to the problem you face.
  • Go from worst case to actual case – When two parts are designed together, they have a certain “worst case tolerance” i.e. if you have a 25mm rotating shaft at max tolerance, the minimum of the housing should be greater than 25mm. If a deviation comes in for the shaft being 26mm, the housing may not fit if it is at its minimum. If there is a mating part that could interfere at a max/min tolerance, it may be wise to have a statistical sample of the mating part measured, to determine how close you are to the “worst case”. This way you can see how the parts will actually fit together, when they are matched in assembly.

6. How to Support an Argument

Since you will essentially be the “part expert” when you create it, many people will need your knowledge on different decisions made about the part (like deviations). This means that you will need to present a case or show the facts about a part. In the example above about deviations, you may determine the risk is too high and have to support why you decided that the line had to shut down. Other times there may be a critical feature on a part that you know is critical to function, but is very expensive. Whatever it is, you will have some directive that your manager or department will lay out for you to achieve.

Support an argumentWhen presenting on a topic,do not present design information without a factual basis for everything you say. You should provide proven data or at least historical or statistical studies that support why you want to go in a certain direction. Screen shots and CAD models are a must for a design engineer to visually present why they should go with your ideas. If you are looking for the best way to get your data into a presentation, look no further than Snag-it. This screenshot software is incredibly versatile. It enables you to quickly get any bit of information off your computer, highlight and mock up the important bits, and drop it right into your presentation or email. I used this at work for years and liked it so much I purchased my own copy at home. It can be purchased on amazon – usually for a discount.  I would highly recommend getting this program to any design engineer.

One of the most important skills for any engineer is the ability to break down complex information into the most important details. At every automotive engineering job I have had this was done using one of the most annoying but important tools available – the “One-Pager”. A One Pager is just what it sounds like, a one page document (usually a power point and sometimes two or more pages) that lists all the critical information about a particular project. Why did I say it was annoying? Because sometimes you are presenting incredibly complex information to management individuals who may not be technically savvy. In this case you have to consolidate the information down to the bare basics. Here is where the 80/20 rule comes in to play with your projects. You need to figure out what information is absolutely critical for someone to make a decision on your topic. Yes, making a 20 page presentation on your actuating clutch is good to share information amongst the design and production engineers. But when presenting to management on a topic, their time and need for detail is limited. Be sure to keep your presentation to a handful of slides at the most and cover only the most important topics. Being concise, effective, and persuasive will make you look like an all-star to management.

So what other knowledge do YOU think is important to a design engineer in the automotive industry? I would love to hear about any stories (good or bad) that you design guys and gals have from  your experiences!

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