I saw an interesting article on Forbes today, entitled Entrepreneurs Need Creative Thinking After the Idea.  The author makes the extremely valid point that we don’t just need to use our creative muscles at the beginning of the process.  Instead, the most successful of us go back and forth continually between the more creative, wild and crazy way of thinking, and the judging and sorting way of thinking.  We need both of these at every stage of the process, whether we are designing and building a part or a company.





I just saw this article in the paper about a project to clean up the big patch of floating plastic in the Pacific, and at the same time create fuel for the boat doing the clean-up.  Quite a win-win situation, when you think about it!

Here are some more details about the machine and how it works:

Article on Energy Rebels

Clean Ocean Project




Back in January, Chris O’Brien wrote a column (here’s the blog version, since the full version is now in the archive) discussing the myth that only young people can be creative or innovative.  The title in the print edition was “Do you lose your innovative edge after 30?” And that’s certainly the way a lot of people think about it, perhaps particularly people in Silicon Valley.

Myths usually have a grain of truth in them somewhere, and this one is no exception.  For example, a random selection of kindergarten students can astound most adults with their idea generating prowess.  Young children tend to be more free in the brainstorming process, all else being equal, probably because they haven’t yet been told “that will never work” as many times as we have.

But innovation requires more than just idea generation — it also requires the ability to evaluate ideas, to develop them to the next step, to try things out, and to start the whole cycle again at the next level of detail.  One must thus continually jump back and forth between idea generating and evaluating in order to be truly innovative.  And several of these steps are actually enhanced by age, education and experience.

As I was thinking about this article, I happened to hear part of the Fresh Air show on NPR.  This was an interview of Barbara Strauch, health and medical science editor at the New York Times and author of The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain.  As it turns out, while there are some areas, like remembering names, that grown-up brains do less well, there are other areas where they excel.  Studies show that people in middle age, which she is counting as 40 to 68, are actually better than younger people at  getting the gist of arguments, recognizing categories, sizing things up, and analyzing, among several other things she lists.  These are skills which are very useful in innovation in the stage of evaluation and developing to the next level.

So what’s an engineer to do?  Is it inevitable that as one gains in some of these other skills, one is also losing the ability to brainstorm and generate new ideas?  Not necessarily!  We can improve our creative thinking by practice and attention — like any other type of thinking we do.  Here are some ways that will keep your creative juices flowing at any age.

Keep reading

Many people recommend reading in your field.  And that’s a good thing, no doubt about it.  But I find reading things that are only tangentially related to what you do, or are related to what you want to start doing, or are maybe not related at all, even more helpful.  Books, articles, or blogs on engineering and how it relates to the rest of the world, on areas of engineering other than your own, on business, and specifically on creativity, can all be very useful.

Just a few of the many excellent books on creativity:

Experiences in Visual Thinking

Drawing on the Artist Within

The Care & Feeding of Ideas

Conceptual Blockbusting

A Kick in the Seat of the Pants

A Whack on the Side of the Head

Use your inventiveness in other pursuits

My second recommendation is to use your inventiveness in other pursuits, in addition to your work.  Creative thinking, like any other type of thinking, improves with practice, and the creative process is essentially the same, whether the output is a story, a drawing or painting, a mechanism or structure, a menu, or a sculpture.  Two of the things I do are “random ingredients” and paper mache and plaster.

“Random ingredients” is something I do with friends.  This is for one of those days where there is nothing to cook in the house, I couldn’t be bothered to go to the store, and I don’t want to spend the money to eat out.  I get together with one or two friends that are in the same boat, we combine our “nothing” and invent dinner.  The process involves group brainstorming, a good imagination for taste, texture, and appearance, and working within tight constraints.

I’ve made a number of sculptures of faces over the years with several different paper mache and plaster techniques.  I also taught a friend two of these techniques and gave on-going suggestions for her project of a “Flintstones” mobile built out of a golf cart.  This uses hands-on skills and 3D thinking, both in ways that are somewhat the same and somewhat different than in traditional engineering jobs.

Do brainstorming and creativity exercises

It seems clear that creativity and idea generation improve with practice.  Of course the traditional way to generate new ideas with a group is the brainstorming session.  If you do have access to a group, this process not only provides fresh ideas to solve the problem at hand, but also gives excellent practice to the individuals who engage in it.  As a reminder, two rules when doing a brainstorming session are to withhold judgement for later, and to build on other people’s ideas.

But sometimes a group is just not available.  In this case you can still do idea generation alone.  Techniques abound that are designed to help break out of your previous thinking.  Many of the books in the list above have exercises and suggestions.

Take classes (or teach them!)

Another thing you can do is to take classes.  Full academic classes at universities or community colleges can be great, but so can one time only talks on various subjects.  In the 90s, I took not-for-credit art classes from a teacher I knew in Ann Arbor.  In the last couple of years, I took 5 quarters worth of Pro/Engineer and 4 quarters of SolidWorks at my local community college.  And I often attend Cafe Scientifique for one hour talks on a variety of scientific topics.  The academic classes gave me some in depth knowledge and skills, the art classes improved my drawing and especially my seeing, while Cafe Scientifique exposes me to ideas and topics that I otherwise would not have known much about.  All are excellent fodder for the design process.  I’m thinking about what my next classes will be — possibly bicycle repair, but I haven’t decided yet.

Teaching others, whether in a classroom setting or simply one-on-one, is an excellent way to solidify your own knowledge, learn something from your student(s), think of a new way to explain something, or find some new connections between this area of knowledge and other things.

Stay curious!

I find that the most creative people are the most curious.  Indulge your curiosity when you wonder about something.  Look things up.  Ask questions.  Try things out.  Your creative process will be all the stronger for it.  Who knows, you just may have a conceptual breakthrough in your latest project because of it!  And in my book, you’ll end up being more interesting as well.

If all this sounds like an awful lot of work, keep in mind what Thomas Edison said:  “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”  So if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to my own perspiration now.

So Matthew Loew wrote an article about whether the Mechanical Design Engineer is a vanishing breed.  (Matthew refers to a “Design Engineer” but here in the Bay Area that is often a particular kind of Electrical Engineer, so I’m using the longer term.)  He’s looking at it from the point of view of someone doing the hiring, so I want to talk about it from the point of view of the person seeking to be hired.

I have always considered myself to be a generalist.  My undergraduate degree is from St. John’s College, whose program consists of what used to be considered an education, reading and discussing the classics.  I went there rather than a more conventional school even though I knew I was most interested in math and science in some form.  I made that choice partly because the students there were engaged and excited about learning in a way I didn’t see at other schools, and partly because I wanted to understand the basics and the beginnings and the underpinnings of things, and where else was I going to get to actually read and study Euclid, Ptolomy, Newton, Einstein, Lobachevsky and so many others, rather than reading a textbook?

After St. John’s I knew I wanted to study engineering, and I specifically targeted Stanford because of their emphasis on both aesthetics and performance.  While taking undergraduate engineering courses to prepare for applying to graduate school, I fell in love with free body diagrams and hand calculations (i.e. solving a problem, usually to find stresses, using pencil, paper and calculator, but not a finite element analysis (FEA) tool).  They were so cool!

I give all of this as a preface to comment on Matthew’s shock at someone saying about a statics problem, “I have not solved one of those since college.”

I’m a seasoned mechanical engineer, with a Master’s Degree and over 10 years of experience.  Not only that, but I’m someone who loved to do hand calculations and was extremely fluent in them at one time.  And I’ve done a hand calculation maybe once a year in all the time I’ve been out of school.  That’s probably being generous.  Could I do one today?  Of course.  Would I be as fluent at it today as I was when Shigley was fresh in my mind?  I don’t think so.

So why is that?  There are a couple of reasons.  When you work in a large company in a mature industry, your job tends to be very narrow.  There is the perception that if you’re doing only one function day in and day out, that you’re going to be especially fluent and proficient.  While there is some truth to this, there is also a big downside to so much specialization.  It can easily make someone become so narrowly focused on that one function that they lose sight of other aspects that affect the part.  Designing the perfect part for crashworthiness, for example, is completely useless if the part can’t be manufactured, can’t be assembled to other parts, or costs 20 times what any other part in the structure does.

So let’s say my job is working on side impact for safety and crash.  I’m doing FEA, I’m evaluating test setups to make sure they are correct, I’m correlating my analyses to test results, I’m suggesting design improvements to get the performance we want, I’m working closely with the stamping guys and the assembly guys to make sure my design improvements can be manufactured, etc.  But one thing I’m definitely not doing is doing any hand calculations.

Which brings me to the second reason.  When you’re working on something with a complex geometry such as an automotive structure, and the type of performance you are concerned with is the crash performance, or even separating out the primary normal modes of the structure from those of the engine, there just is not a hand calculation that makes sense.  Now if you’re working on a small component part whose geometry is fairly simple and the main concern is whether a human hand pushing on it will break it, then sure, a hand calculation is great, and will give you at least a first order answer.

From my point of view, the frustrating thing is that, even if you’re very  interested in being a generalist engineer, there is no career path for that.  On the one hand there is the factor of each job being fairly narrow, as outlined above.  So that would lead the would-be generalist to do a bunch of very different jobs.  Yet short of an admittedly impressive stunt like the San Jose recent graduate who did 50 jobs in 50 states in a year,  most employers would rather hire someone who’s already done the exact same job in the same industry.  This makes the mission of doing a bunch of different roles a very difficult one.  As a result people, even those who are actively fighting it, tend to get typecast into one particular role.

Robert A. Heinlein once said, “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”  I agree with him, and while there are things on his list I haven’t yet done, there are others I have done that he didn’t list, like milk a cow or weave a cloth.

I agree with Matthew’s list of what a mechanical engineer should be able to do.  But just because I haven’t done something lately, that doesn’t mean I don’t have the brains and the drive to figure it out!