How do you get more work done in less time? That's a question design engineers have to answer every day.
And for good reason. According to the most recent Design News-sponsored survey of the design engineering universe, design engineers today work on an average of 18 projects a year, up from 11 in 1989 and 15 in 1993. They finish three-quarters of these projects in 12 months, and almost half in six months.
The Design News study, conducted by Simmons Market Research, was the magazine's third since 1989. It surveyed engineers on a Dun and Bradstreet list of companies throughout the manufacturing sector.
Among the major conclusions, beyond the increased work load of engineers:
- There are more than 702,000 design engineers in the U.S. in companies with 20 or more employees.
- They have more responsibilities than ever, including R&D, management, testing, and design for in-plant use, as well as pure product design.
- Keeping up with technology, shortening the design cycle, and computerizing design are their top three design challenges.
- Ease of manufacture, higher quality, and lower cost of product manufacturing are their top three design objectives.
The time crunch--coupled with the increased involvement in the total design project--are the major characteristics defining engineering.
"Everything is under the gun, everything is pressure," says Christian O'Conner, design engineer at Pylon Mfg. Co. (Deerfield Beach, FL). "We run with too few engineers."
Adds Mike Cowett, engineering manager for Buyers Products Co. (Cortland, OH): "You wind up fighting fires every day and not accomplishing the bigger picture things you want to accomplish."
There are solutions, however. "I try to make processes and procedures more efficient," Cowett says, "but that's easier said than done."
Mike McIlvenna, general manager for M&M Mfg. Co. Inc. (Beresford, SD), says, "Facilities and equipment are big, and manpower to do the job are what help us get everything done."
Less and less, design engineers are focusing on just a small part of a project. The trend is toward involvement in the total project. The typical design engineer is involved in specifying or approving five of the nine major technologies associated with design work, such as fluid power, electronics, and materials, compared to a little more than three in 1989.
Vital signs. In the design engineering population, 97% are male, according to the Simmons report, and the average age is a little more than 42 years. The typical engineer has been doing design work for 15 years, and 54% manage project teams. The average design team consists of nine engineers.
In their work, engineers face many design challenges. Seventy-four percent say their top challenge is keeping up with technology. That's up from 47% who said so in 1989. Second place is shortening the design cycle, at 65%. In 1989, only 46% of engineers cited this challenge.
Engineers keep up with technology in several ways. The most popular way, says 76% of respondents, is by reading trade publications. Literature from suppliers took second place at 69%, while information from other engineers took third at 50%.
"I read the trades," says Pylon's O'Conner. "I want to know what I can buy rather than invent myself."
M&M Mfg. Co. Inc.'s McIlvenna says that trade magazines provide him with leads and information. Investigative work and R&D are other ways he keeps up with changing technology.
Plugged in. Almost 75% of design engineers have access to the Internet, with 13% connected at home only, 29% wired up at work only, and 33% hooked up at both work and home. However, among engineers with Internet access, 72% still use traditional supplier literature and catalogs as much or more than in the past.
Richard Selva, senior manager for Computer Sciences Corp. (Sterling, VA) says he uses the Internet for "a little bit of everything. We use it to see what customers have, if they have requirements that we might be able to offer them. I check out company's web pages to see what kind of work they do, more from a marketing stance than anything else."
Carlos Castillo, mechanical engineer for Coastal Systems Station, Mechanical Engineering Div. (Panama City, FL), whose company creates prototypes for the U.S. Navy, says he uses the Internet for information on new products and materials.
But, not everyone is moving at the same pace on the Internet. Buyers Products Co.'s Cowett says his company is just getting hooked into the Internet, although he uses it at home. At work, Cowett can see the Internet saving him time. "Probably one of the biggest things is we can e-mail files to our CAD vendor if there's a problem," he says.
While information from outside sources, whether it's in electronic or printed form, is helpful, 64% of respondents maintain their own databases of supplier literature and catalogs, while 25% are linked to their company's centralized computer database of suppliers. Some engineers (14%) maintain their own databases of supplier components and materials.
Engineers also have high expectations of suppliers, with 79% reporting that the most important selection criteria is high-quality products. Slightly less (76%) prefer suppliers who are willing to work with engineers to meet their schedules.
The relationships design engineers have with processors and fabricators are important, too. More than half of design engineers surveyed (55%) say they are involved in the evaluation of materials processors and fabricators. About 85% of companies in the original equipment market use outside vendors for processing and fabrication services, while 60% rely on such vendors exclusively.
"I look for a company that has a broad product offering," Pylon's O'Conner says. "It comes down to working with one catalog and placing one order with one supplier."
O'Conner is looking to save what all engineers seem to covet in today's fast-paced world of engineering--time.
How the study was conducted
The sample polled in the study was selected from a list of companies in SIC groups 34 to 39 with 20 or more employees. Simmons selected a total of 1,347 locations, and conducted a telephone census in Phase I to obtain names, titles, mailing addresses, and number of design engineers at each site in the sample. From this census, Simmons projected the number of design engineers in the universe.
From this census, Simmons selected 4,000 individuals and sent them a questionnaire as Phase II, which addressed engineering objectives and challenges, criteria for selecting vendors, specifying/buying authority for products, use of computers in design, and how engineers meet their information needs. The response rate was 38%, and the results form the basis for projections across the universe of more than 702,000 design engineers, accurate to ±2.5%.
Engineers have their say
Here's what engineers have to say about their jobs, their competitors, and the changing world of design. These quotes are taken from the Simmons study and conversations with design engineers.
"We have developed a strong network of partnerships with other companies. In order to be a world leader in automation solutions, you can't design every component yourself." --Design engineer at a power transmission company
"My biggest challenge is balancing the trade-off that exists between project budget, schedule, and total customer satisfaction in an extremely aggressive environment." --Engineering manager at a manufacturer of industrial machinery
"We're finding that our design responsibilities and business scope have expanded because a lot of customers have cut back or disbanded their internal design and R&D capabilities." --Senior engineer at a composites manufacturer
"As far as today's standards go, you've got to find better, faster, easier ways to do things." --General manager at a small midwestern company
"My job has become more broad-based as I've moved into management roles, but I've also gone with smaller companies, so I wear more hats. I do product and manufacturing engineering, but I also do operations, so it's broadening my base." --Engineering manager at a builder of aftermarket truck components
"I've been with four other companies besides the one I work for now, and each one of them seems to only want to tap into their basic needs. Even though I carry this huge tool kit with me, the focus has been to draw me into exactly what they've got me pegged for in that position." --Design engineer at a manufacturer of aftermarket windshield wiper blades