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A Case for Advancing the Role of Sketching in the Art of Engineering.

[+] Author Notes

David McCormick is a mechanical engineer at RBC Corp. in Lenexa.

Mechanical Engineering 129(09), 35-36 (Sep 01, 2007) (2 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2007-SEP-3

This article reviews a case for advancing the role of sketching in the art of engineering. Engineers have adopted productivity tools that promise more predictable outcomes. Computer-aided design, for example, is one of those tools. The evolution of design documentation made a huge advance when engineers no longer defined their designs in the universal graphics language known as orthographic projection drawings. Engineers now create a 3D simulation of the solid design instead of creating 2D representations of views. The 3D CAD process is closer to sculpting the design than drawing it. Sketches are part of a successful design process acting as a channel between creative engineering thinking and critical engineering thinking. Visualizing a design prepares the way to more traditional analytical engineering activities. In this early phase, engineering decisions are being made with little if any data. Intuition is a guide to get the project to a point where data can be collected and analyzed.

"THOUGHT IS IMPOSSIBLE WITHOUT AN IMAGE."ARISTOTLE

Designing innovative new products entails uncertainty. That is where risk comes in. It is in order to manage risk that rules have been created to make product development processes, as much as humanly possible, predictable, repeatable, and linear strings of events.

Engineers have adopted productivity tools that promise more predictable outcomes. Computer-aided design, for example, is one of those tools.

The evolution of design documentation made a huge advance when engineers no longer defined their designs in the universal graphics language known as orthographic projection drawings. Engineers now create a 3-D simulation of the solid design instead of creating 2-D representations of "views." The 3-D CAD process is closer to sculpting the design than drawing it.

The results contain far more information and are easily understood. The output is also machine-readable, improving downstream processes such as revision control, archiving, and manufacturing.

However, long before a design enters the 3-D modeling stage, there is another important phase of development. This is the critical stage when many ideas are sketched. Ideas are still fluid at this time, and design issues are confronted and worked out. Sketching is the tool for innovation, and is so vital to the engineering process that it should be taught and used as an essential part of engineering education and professional practice.

Creating new products that will sell requires an ability to identify a problem and to visualize a solution. The engineer's work is to define that image in as clear terms as possible so it may be transformed into a real physical device.

The process of visualizing a physical object may seem trivial in the complex engineering processes used today, but the importance of this step in the journey of a product's life cannot be underestimated. If engineers set out hastily in the wrong direction and the design is developed in detail, they will lose an opportunity for real innovation.

Most professionals can recall instances where sketching an idea resulted in a solution or an agreement on a design direction.

In one case, my design prototype for a consumer product was not performing as required, so I quickly sketched a modification that fixed the problem. This sketched design became the key patented feature that led to the product's unique advantage in the marketplace. It quickly was copied by competitors and, after infringement litigation, yielded millions of dollars in royalties and production revenue. Formal CAD documentation of the sketched feature was made-but only after the prototype shop used the sketch to modify the failing model and improve the concept. Working from the design saved days in the project schedule and immediately communicated to the project team the new design direction.

Most things designed and produced could have been designed better. Once they are past the sketching stage, designs resist change. As engineers, we've all experienced "designer's remorse," when late in the project we envision a better design or improvement. But often at this point the schedule or budget won't permit a change.

Tinkering, making improvements, and striving for perfection are innate to the creative mind. Perhaps there would be less remorse if we gave more focus to the concept- development phase of projects and recognized the role that sketching plays in better creating and communicating design concepts.

The power of sketching is most evident when there isn't a clear picture of what the invention is to become. The act of drawing lines on paper and oflooking at the image that is forming brings closure to the incomplete mental image of the object. Sketches make ideas spring to life.

When an engineer draws the image of the design forming in his or her mind, the pen makes a mark and the eye interprets the mark as part of a form. The vague notion of a form starts to solidifY rapidly as more lines are drawn. The eye sees the image take form on the page. As ideas become objects on the page, opportunities and obstacles become apparent. Adjustments are made. Sketches are erased or abandoned, and through this iterative process there is a rapid convergence to a rough design concept.

This process is free of constraints that might hinder a creative mind. Menu-driven CAD conventions can be distracting when developing a nascent idea. Sketching encourages divergent thinking by putting an engineer's mind in a less restricted mode. Designs sometimes break away from preconceived ideas and explore new territory.

Sketches are part of a successful design process acting as a channel between creative engineering thinking and critical engineering thinking. Visualizing a design prepares the way to more traditional analytical engineering activities. In this early phase, engineering decisions are being made with little if any data. Intuition is a guide to get the project to a point where data can be collected and analyzed. No data exists for designs that have not been tested.

Prototyping is done to test designs. At the beginning of a project, these are low-resolution, low-risk prototypes or simulations that yield some quantitative information. As the design develops, the simulations and prototypes have higher resolution and yield more data.

A sketch is the lowest-resolution prototype. It is the starting point for concept design development. It can be quickly created, reviewed, and revised or redone without significant cost and time.

Quick sketching ultimately gets new products to market faster and with better design solutions. The faster the iteration happens, the quicker the ideas converge to a solution.

Collaboration and Amplification

Most work in engineering is collaborative. The communication of engineering design ideas is a key part of collaborative design with the multidisciplinary groups that constitute a product development team.

With CAD-rendering packages, engineers are now able to communicate designs with realistic clarity. There is often quick sign-off on a design that is so easily visualized and so deceptively close to completion. But presentation has no correlation with innovation-especially in the early design stages.

In contrast, early collaborative work benefits from the lack of resolution inherent in sketches. They communicate a fluid design that can incorporate an improvement. It keeps the door open to change.

Sketches themselves influence the structure of the work process as well as the product. Due to their informal nature, they can be used to breach divisional boundaries, say, among engineering, marketing, and manufacturing.

There are times when the inflexibility of CAD licenses, database vaults, and access rights impede the flow of design information needed for fast-paced collaborative design. A sketch promotes dialogue.

Along with CAD workstations, whiteboards have become standard equipment in every engineering office as a tool for creating or working out a design and for communicating designs.

A few skills, which can be taught, can make sketches easier to understand and design ideas clearer.

Grahic Jump LocationA few skills, which can be taught, can make sketches easier to understand and design ideas clearer.

When engineers sit down together, their use of whiteboard sketches can be a powerful tool in design development. .With a few marks on the board, an engineer brings a design into existence so others can turn it over in their minds and envision improvements. A little erasing, more marks, further discussion, and the whiteboard sketch now reflects the group's combined expertise. But it was the engineer wielding the marker who propelled this collaboration. The better we are at communicating a design visually, the more effective we are as engineers.

It is not necessary to be an expert artist to sketch for engineering. But grasping a few sketching skills will make one's sketches more easily understood. For instance, engineers should know how to orient a sketch to the viewer's eye using simple perspective techniques and visual awareness. Use of outlining and detailing add weight and emphasis that better communicate the design. These skills are easily taught and can be used immediately on the job.

Business leaders speak universally of the need for America to leverage its innovation to remain competitive in the global economy. Management is looking for ways to do that.

An organization can encourage creative engineering through the use of sketching methods. Being committed to using these skills may require new procedures and best practices to be included in the product development process. This usually involves some formal training and the possible use of outside consultants.

It is important to recognize that sketching is a teachable skill that may improve creative output. Sketches can be created by anyone, including customers.

The rewards of this will be measured in successful and longer product life cycles as well as a more satisfying and creative workplace.

Copyright © 2008 by ASME
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