By Yingdi Xu

Engineering and design are the two primary topics involved in the life cycle of any product; however, it may not be understood by someone who is unfamiliar in this field. Fortunately, AlbertaSat has Abigail Hoover here to express these two concepts to rookies in the field. She is the Deputy Project Manager of AlbertaSat and is also in her fifth year as a Bachelor of Design student at the University of Alberta. Abigail first joined AlbertaSat as a member of the mission design team. Soon after joining, her passion guided her to discover the nature of building a satellite by joining the systems engineering team. It is a giant transformation from mission design to systems engineering since the latter requires an overall cognition on all the subsystems instead of a single one. This change also required an impressive skill to be able to get things structured. Abigail greatly enjoyed her work with her fellow system engineers and looks forward to her new role in AlbertaSat as she transitioned to project management earlier this summer with her fantastic team. Throughout her degree, Abigail has operated in a nexus between industrial design and engineering. Although the fields are different in nature, they often form a cohesive relationship with the shared ambition of seeking innovative technology and products for the betterment of humanity.

Engineering and design are like twins since they both transform ideas into three dimensional visualized and realized products. This is the most fascinating point of engineering and design since the products will become alive by these processes. The difference between engineering and design is that design is human-centered or user-centered. Design is more like a pre-engineering process to outline the functions in products and requirements for their designated mission performance. Engineering also involves human-centered components, but it is often more focused on technical requirements. Engineering is a process to map designed products onto users.

The symbiotic relationship between design and engineering changes depending on the end goal. For example, designing a Boeing 777 and an F-16 require different processes. This is because Boeing 777 design concerns safety and reliability while F-16 design concerns maneuverability and combat reliability. The differences arise because the Boeing 777 is a commercial flight while the F-16 is a multirole fighter. After the designing phase, the products have been outlined and it is time for greater considerations about the exact components used and the interaction between the products and their users. The users, as the terminal of products, determine at least 90% of the successes of such products. A downvote from user experience could ruin an outstanding design result. Because of this, engineering and design are not independent from each other but are instead interrelated. Abigail brings us a brilliant example to express this even further: the original design of the first space shuttle was not going to have windows because windows are not essential to the subsystems to maintain operations. Raymond Lowey, a famous industrial designer of the time, persuaded designers to add windows by highlighting astronauts’ amazement when looking at Earth from space, otherwise the spacecraft would merely be a can-like submarine. This improved the overall user experience of astronauts. As this example highlights, to make an effective design, always consider users in loop.

Because the analytical standard of evaluating the design effectiveness is hard to define, a specific scenario requires specific principles. In some extreme cases, the effectiveness and efficiency could conflict with each other. They are both critical, but effectiveness is more critical if there is no exact time deadline. To make the design process clear, Abigail gives us a flow chart: research, problem isolation, product development, prototyping and testing, and return to product development. Prototyping and research require many iterations to select useful resources for further brainstorming. Both designers and engineers hold responsibility during these steps of product design, each bringing forth a unique skill set.

Although engineering and design are strongly interrelated, there are frequent disagreements between engineers and designers. This is often a result of a lack of understanding on what the other field can provide. It is resolved if the considerations of engineers and designers intersect rather than separated from each other. This means that the transposition thinking of both groups is a must-do. An environment of effective teams is required and it can be built by enhancing communication and individual willingness to learn. An effective design requires highly skilled and experienced teams. For someone who is new to the team, it is important to overcome the difficulties as a less experienced member and to be open to potential failure as they gain knowledge of how things work. This is done by asking questions and practicing skills required. Abigail mentioned that the technical members do need to think outside the box by always asking “why” for whatever is not intuitive or not clear. It is important to feel free to express one’s ideas and share them with others. Finding a white board and scribbling something regarding the thought-process on an idea to strengthen the independent self-driven research is the best way to do so. Abigail also pointed out that more people from multiple fields other than engineering is great to energize the teams because expertise on each component is helpful to discover more potentials on such designs than before. 

For small design-engineering cells (containing 1 to 3 members), Abigail gives her advice towards successful design and engineering processes:

“It is important to gain the right support from certain expertise and never give up. Building a satellite is hard but the effort will be paid off if the team can always learn from the past. Additionally, the design and engineering process is not only formal, or team based but also a practical hands-on activity. That being said, anyone can pick up something easily accessible to train themselves. The suitable kick-off resources for beginners can be any tinkering tool kits and models from hobby shops or books.”