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My Opinion on Multidisciplinary Design

Richard Nass

July 19, 2012

3 Min Read
My Opinion on Multidisciplinary Design

Back in the good old days, when electrical engineers were electrical engineers, life was a whole lot simpler. They designed the hardware and threw it over the wall to the software guys. The software guys would do their part, and when the system didn't work properly, they each blamed the other group. Being as it was way cheaper to make the fixes in software rather than hardware, the software guys always had to make the system work, regardless of which side of the wall the errors actually occurred on. They grumbled, but they usually got the system working. Such a phenomenon went on through about the 1980s, give or take a few years, depending on the application.

The next phase to be ushered in was concurrent hardware and software design, thanks to concepts like simulation. This allowed the software to be written before the hardware was complete, so both the hardware and software could be tweaked along the way when necessary. The result was a better final product, a quicker time to market, and less contentiousness between the two groups.

Phase three, at least in my timeline, is where different disciplines of engineering were required to communicate through all phases of design. To a large extent, we are still in this phase. Now, designers of various applications are all converging and operating on a project simultaneously. In most cases, those engineers are responsible for tasks that were previously handled by a "specialist." An example of this is where the EE is doing mechanical engineering and vice versa.

Now we have automotive engineers, biomedical engineers, aerospace engineers, materials engineers, computer engineers, software engineers, and the list goes on. As an aside, is there a difference from today's computer engineer, which used to be a software developer, and before that was a software programmer?

These folks clearly all see themselves as engineers, or designers as a similar term. However, they likely cross many or all of the original disciplines. Their work may not require them to actually perform the functions of the disparate groups, but you had better believe that they need to be aware of them -- in most cases, intimately aware.

What's the next phase? Is it where we are just "engineers," rather than being associated with a particular discipline at all? Here's a very interesting quote I lifted from a blog site called drawar.com:

  • Designers evoke great delight in their work. Engineers provide utilitarian value. My original training was that of an engineer and I, too, produce practical, usable things. The problem is that the very practical, functional things I produce are also boring and ugly. Good designers would never allow boring and ugly to describe their work: they strive to produce delight. But sometimes that delightful result is not very practical, difficult to use, and not completely functional.

When I first saw this, I was kind of insulted. But (unfortunately), the more I thought about it, the more true it seems to be. My training was also as an engineer, and I was trained to design practical things, not glitzy or glamorous products.

What's your take? Let us know in the comments section below.

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