With this article I will attempt to reveal my passion for engineering, by providing my view on what it truly means to get deeply involved in this powerful science. Happy reading.
The word engineering shares its roots with words such as engine and ingenuity. It comes from the latin word ingenium, a noun denoting an innate disposition or ability. Ingenium evolved into modern English as ingenuity, the aptness to problem solving, cleverness in design and skill in devising.
And this well represents what engineering is about: finding efficient solutions to problems. The key difference between an engineer’s answer and anybody else’s lies in the word efficient. It is not just about devising a solution, but one that requires the least amount of resources, time and effort. The latter does not refer to the effort of actually creating and materialising the inventions, which more often than not requires a great deal of dedication and numerous attempts. It is a reference to the effort required by the beneficiary of the solution, which should be kept to a minimum. Brilliant engineering is not only efficient, but majorly invisible.
Simple solutions to everyday problems, machines, constructions, objects, materials and systems around us rely on a paradigm of hidden components and concepts organically fulfilling their specific design objective. The enormous amount of thought that went in the making is not apparent, like the submerged part of the iceberg, if you allow the reverse reference to a common analogy.
The remarkable work behind things that we take for granted, like a hidden world, reveals itself only when one attentively approaches the study of engineering.
Engineering is the art of exploiting, controlling and handling the laws of nature to the advantage of humanity. While all engineers are passionate about mathematics, physics, chemistry, sociology and human behaviour, this knowledge becomes a merely a tool for the creation of machines, materials or systems which will improve our quality of life. Just like a painter must have an understanding of colour mixing, knowledge of different types of supports being it canvas, wood, walls or clay, and familiarity with the different application methods of oil, pastel, watercolour and acrylic in order to ultimately convey a message without any obstacles to creativity, so does the engineer need a high level of proficiency with the sciences in order to set the ingenuity free when creating, inventing and devising.
The difference between the engineer and the artist is mainly in the considerably and not even comparably larger set of constraints which the engineer must work with. First an foremost, the strict laws of nature. Then the limitations on materials available, time, cost, existing technology, and specificity of the final goal. All these constraints seem to create a maze or an insurmountable distance between the engineer and the final objective. However, by virtue of innate disposition, the engineer will find stimulus in this challenge. While an artist thrives in the open, the broad and limitless, the engineer would be lost, and needs the focus, the obstacle, and the constraint to form a starting point. This does not make the search narrower or less noble. It is a different order of infinity. While the artists finds a perfect number amongst all the possible ones, the engineer finds it in a close range. There are still infinite real numbers there, if I were to reference calculus.
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What engineering as a profession requires on a daily basis is not very relatable to by the majority of people who are not in this field. Most engineers find intrinsic satisfaction in the final product of their work. In the abstract, the vision requires completeness, lightness, and measurable performance. But while this is an ideal objective in any project, the journey necessary to reach it is what constitutes the biggest portion of an engineer’s life. And this journey is made up mainly of compromises, abundance of approximations and essential learning on how to embrace errors as a considerable component of the procedure. Non-engineers perceive the invention of something new or the creation of technology that works as a rather deterministic process. But the reality is far from it. Engineering any solution is mainly an iterative process. It is like the Hydra labour, whereby attempting one solution will create two more problems to be solved. When finally the whole system finds self containment and stability, that is when then the engineer will propose the solution.
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We are very familiar with the notion that most technological solutions never reach closure and are open ended, in continuous evolution. The convergence to a perfect solution is gradual and almost artificially paced. This latter aspect stems from the fact that modern industry, the driver of technological development, is governed by economical efficiency.
The job of most engineers is therefore not to create the best thing, but the best possible thing at the lowest cost. This is usually the most significant constraint. As a consequence, it is not unknown that the most impressive technology and inventions are in the hands of those without a budget limit or with very abundant resources, such as large governments and corporations, or in industries in which cost is not the main issue, such as motor sports and other forms of elite competition.
All of the above considerations reflect deeply into the personality and character of most engineers. People who work for the advancement of technology, for the benefit of a common idea of progress, but do not necessarily seek public recognition. This is a reiteration of the fact that clever engineering is invisible in most cases. Invisibility is an objective and is perceived as a quality, even though a counterintuitive one for most people.
Being methodical, straight to the point and not particularly self aware are traits perceived as dry, almost tedious and uncreative. But these are not inherent to the engineer’s personality, they are reflection of a life dedicated to intransigent problem solving. The individual personality, like in every profession, manifests itself subtly in each single invention and creation, with a spark of ingenium being the common denominator.