[EAS] Engineering Boundaries

pjk pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Wed Jun 2 18:40:50 EDT 2004

Subject:   Engineering Boundaries

(from INNOVATION, 2 June 2004)

IDEO and some other design companies are now competing in the
management  consulting business against such stalwarts as McKinsey,
Boston Consulting, and Bain. Instead of looking at business issues
as traditional  organizational problems, IDEO advises clients by
teaching them how to look  at the world of their clients and
consumers through the eyes of  anthropologists, graphic designers,
engineers, and psychologists. When a  company goes to IDEO about a
better product, service or space, IDEO  assembles an
interdisciplinary team composed of its own experts as well as 
members from the client company to go out to observe and document
the  consumer experience (with top executives often playing the
roles of their  own customers). Then IDEO puts them all in a room
for a brainstorming  session, after which IDEO designers move to
rapid prototyping of some of  the best ideas identified by the
group, using such tools as iMovies to  portray consumer experiences
and cheap cardboard to mock up examination  rooms or fitting rooms.
Often, IDEO clients discover that they are not in  the business they
thought they were in. Kaiser-Permanente's Adam Nemer  says: "IDEO
showed us that we are designing human experiences, not  buildings.
Its recommendations do not require big capital expenditures." 
Companies often need to borrow new pairs of eyes, so they can see
their  world as anthropologists, psychologists or designers would
see it.  (Business Week 17 May 2004)

Dear Colleagues -

This is a time when the boundaries between the facets of designing a
technology product are getting ever blurrier. The process has been
going on for more than a decade, but its far greater "fluidity" at
present is finally catching the awareness of many who hadn't

For the last 10-15 years I have explained to my students in
instrumentation and product design that with the growing importance
of packaging style in, say, medical products, the industrial design
community was becoming a most persuasive force. Large design
companies like IDEO <http://www.ideo.com/> were adding full
engineering capabilities to their staff, so that they would not only
design the outside of a blood analyzer, they would design the
complete inside as well. Most people wouldn't be aware of this,
because a traditional manufacturer of analytical instruments, IDEO's
client, would be seen as the seller. But everything except the
marketing was increasingly done and/or coordinated by companies like

That was ten or more years ago. So it is not surprising that IDEO is
now also reaching into the transactions that lie beyond manufacture,
as the item above illustrates. Thus the identity of contributors to
a product design supply chain is getting very fluid, with engineers
ever more deeply submerged inside that flow, and sometimes far
removed from the role of highly visible innovator. The opportunity
for such visibility only exist in the early stages of a technology,
when the resources of the technology are still limited, and the
engineer's eagerly awaited results are already clearly understood in
their implications. 

At that early stage the "structure" of product design is dominated
by the structure of the technological resources. That was the state
of semiconductor technology in the 1960s, '70s and into the '80s. 

As technology's resources get more diverse and capable, with
multiple technical solutions for a given problem, the "structuring"
boundary conditions become those of manufacturing at large scales,
with economics and reliability issues dominant. This is the
structure of a technology's production phase.

Lastly, as manufacturing here (and abroad) reaches levels of
efficiency that are ample for all likely demands, eg. when in the
late '80s and early '90s a company like Daewo in Korea makes 20,000
microwave ovens per day, the boundary conditions shift yet further
into the third and last phase. The structure of product design is
now dominated by what in my courses I have tended to call the
"structure of purpose," the creation of reasons for ownership
through marketing, the advocy of ownership through persuasive
styling and design, all the psychological aspects that create and
define purpose. And then these sometimes leave good technological
sense behind, as in those VCRs that only the youngest family members
could program. Technology products are now too complicated for
informed hard-nosed comparison shopping.

Traditional engineers usually contribute nothing to the "structure
of purpose" phase, either because they are not educated to do so, or
because in cumulative managerial shifts they have been left behind
as the "backroom staff" with the technology resources that can
satisfy any marketing whim.

It is not clear that engineering education has come to terms with
any of this. The values of engineering science and reason are
indisputable, yet are not the "reason" of marketing or investment
thinking. Or only in part. 

Yet many engineering educators have a strong sense that reason can
dream what dreams cannot reason. But they haven't figured out how to
sell that to prospective undergraduate engineering majors. Yet it is
essential to figure out how to become more convincing, if
engineering education is to survive in viable form, retaining its
underlying mathematical and scientific reasoning, but made plausible
by its application in new contexts such as IDEO is exploring.


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