Engineering: the Communication Breakdown

As a modern design engineer, your job is to design and virtually build a part or assembly that someone is going to have to fabricate and assemble in the real world. You are creating models and drawings on a computer that a fellow human-being is going to have dissect with their brain and transcribe into an actual “thing”, that takes up space in the real world, with the tools they have available to them.

So why not design it to their abilities, with the tools they have in their toolkit? Or, in the very least, present it to them in a familiar format that they understand (which would be more practical)?

I became an engineer through unethical and unacceptable means: by experience when someone took a chance on me and exploited my enthusiasm and creativity – taught me how to harness it and focus on the task at hand – and, mostly about what really can be built on the real world.

It’s something that some recruiters and hiring agents dismiss me for because I don’t have a degree, so I don’t fit in a checkbox on their paperwork. But I am full of theory, am proficient in Autodesk Inventor, and professionally certified in SolidWorks.

In short, I am experienced. I learned in the field. I’m good at what I do. I’m an asset. I also think outside the box, am open to criticism, and work well on a team and alone. Work doesn’t scare me. Neither does putting myself on the firing line and pleading my case, in defense of a design.

In the process of getting to where I am as an engineer, I have working with companies where the engineers worked with fabricators and assemblers – directly – so I’ve been able to ask those folks how they want the information delivered to them; or in the very least, have been able to apply processes that help them understand how they’re going to manufacture something – and keep the delivery consistent across the board.

This involved utilizing standardized dimensioning on drawings (a common, but forgotten practice), standardized Bills Of Material, standardized file structures for easy drawing and rendering access, and – here’s the biggie – communication. All of the aforementioned was communicated and taught so that everyone was familiar with the process and could get their jobs done.

I also left my door open to make myself available to anyone who had a question or suggestion and had to problem getting my hand dirty, turning wrenches, to help people get the job done. I’m a natural tinkerer.

I digress.

I’ve left two jobs, in the past five years, where – while working with fabricators and assemblers – I was able to implement these SOP’s to help streamline the manufacturing process. It made us a well-oiled machine where we could all talk to one another during the fabrication or build processes, and learn from one another where applicable.

It allowed for everyone to be part of the same team – where troubleshooting and feedback became less of a burden and more a form of learning and growing.

So imagine my horror when I found out that this wasn’t the norm!?!?

Imagine how I had to comprehend the fact that there are manufacturing companies where the engineers do not communicate with the soldiers in the field!?!?

That, in some cases, there’s a perception of elitism, where the engineers hand-off their compiled information and the people on the floor are simply left to “figure it out” !?!?

As if these engineers float by and hand off their work in a bin and are never heard of again?

Okay.

One. That’s horseshit. Two. In a world of 5S-Kaizen-Lean Manufacturing; how the heck does that type of practice even hold up? How does a company succeed when its labor force is constantly struggling and doesn’t feel as if they have a support line within the engineering team?

That’s like a sales team and a marketing team not working together. You’re getting sparks, not fire – working hard, and not smart. It burns people out and has minimal effectiveness, at best.

Yes, sure – to an extent – fabricators and assemblers are familiar with common practices and are able to decipher drawings and renderings to a point where they can get the job done.

But there are more situations where products can be new and confusing and it’s pure egotism to think, as an engineer, that you can hand-off something you transmitted from your brain to a program on your computer, and then to an uninformed coworker so they could try and figure out what you’re thinking.

Here’s where this rant stems from: a series of unrelated conversations I’ve had the random chance of having over the past month or so with folks who weld and assemble for a living. People who have been in the manufacturing field for a while, who, when I told them I was a design engineer – immediately went into a tirade about engineers and their lack of communication.

There’s lots of jokes about engineers assuming their designs are easy to physically create, a lot of real accurate dingers – but the issue here is that a growing number of engineers are fresh-faced kids coming out of college and are being hired by firms who employ a workforce full of either seasoned welders and assemblers, or seasonal workers with little experience.

These kids are smart, yes – but a lot of them don’t have job experience. They don’t know how to work with a welder, or someone turning screws – so why would they try? They come into the job, pre-programmed to design and engineer widgets; not communicate the process. How can you expect them to step out of their comfort zone and troubleshoot or accept feedback?

I have been fortunate enough to have worked for a large company (Okay, it was Thule), where every person involved in a project was part of the whole process – from beginning to end – so that everyone was well-informed on the methodology used in designing and building the product – whether it was a simple part or complicated assembly.

Everyone was brought on board, even if it took hours of explaining the meaning behind something or the purpose of the product. No one was dismissed – no questions were tossed off. Everything was communicated and had a lengthy paper trail.

But, as I mentioned previously, what I’m finding out, more and more, is that this isn’t what’s happening out in the world – normally. That the normal process is to work in an environment with minimal communication across the departments and to just expect people to figure it out.

As I previously stated – that’s horseshit.

By the way, FYI – ICYMI – This isn’t an issue with older engineers – most of them, though generally thinking of a much more complex wavelength, are open to talking about their designs and welcome feedback. But those guys – like the guys who helped me along the way – are getting to the age or retirement.

It might be a good time, while manufacturing continues to make its triumphant return to the United States, for these companies where their engineers don’t feel the need to inform and educate, shift their step and focus on company-wide communication.

It might take a little more time to onboard everyone, but once you get a process in place and open lines of communication, your company can only profit.

Okay. That felt good to get out!

Talk soon!

Published by Ragged

I’m here in the now, trying to experience life while living it...

2 thoughts on “Engineering: the Communication Breakdown

  1. Well stated and great points Nick. You have a natural ability to tell it how it is and let people know there’s an obstacle to be overcome. I am studying business analytics at the graduate level and there is also a large disconnect between programmers and the corporate affiliates in understanding how to and what personifies risk. It seems everyone is afraid to think outside of the box and share there opinion. People need to be positive and supportive and wake up and be more open minded to creativity and adventurous mannerisms. The same goes for engineering and related process attributes. That’s all for now. Thanks for listening.

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  2. Agreed, brother – it’s the whole “keep your head down and stay in your lane mentality” that has caused companies numerous hours in productivity, as well as myriad other negative side effects. The team mentality needs to be more widespread if people want success in business!

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