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How Does One Get Into Design

  1. Aug 24, 2012 #1
    I have a quick question regarding graduate school. One of my dream's has always been to design aircraft - hence, I would like to focus my career on engineering design. The problem is that I have no idea what type of background a student would need to enter into this type of field. Currently I am going to graduate school for CFD; I understand that some professors research design methodologies, but this seems like a "wishy-washy" subject for a PhD/Masters dissertation. I feel like design is something that you must have a natural ability and can be improved through practice - much like art or music. My question, in short, is what type of background to design engineers typically have before they go into industry? Thanks.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 24, 2012 #2
    I am a design engineer (not in aerospace, though). I don't agree at all that engineering design is a "wishy-washy" subject. I also strongly disagree that you have to have a natural ability for engineering design. It might be true for aesthetic design, but that's not what engineering design is about. Engineering design is about synthesizing the state-of-the-art in a given field in order to solve problems in a way that maximizes whatever figures-of-merit are important in a given situation. That can be performance, cost, time-to-market, whatever.

    To be an effective design engineer you need both a broad and a deep understanding of whatever subfield you are specializing in. This is why the trend is for design engineers in advanced fields (such as aircraft design) to have advanced degrees. It is quite challenging (though not impossible of course) to have a simultaneously broad and deep understanding of a field without an advanced degree.

    Sometimes in engineering design we push the boundaries of the state-of-the-art in order to achieve our objectives (I have 5 issued US Patents and dozens of peer-reviewed publications). This depends largely on the objectives of your organization. However, Engineering Design is distinct from Engineering Research in the sense we invent when we have to in order to meet our objectives, not to advance the state-of-the-art for its own sake.

    Most MS and PhD programs in Engineering are biased towards Engineering Design, so it shouldn't be hard for your to find a good project. I don't think you want to research "Design Methodologies"... I think you want to be a practicing designer. These are not the same thing. Many academic design methodologies end up not scaling well when applied to practical situations. At best, design engineers typically update their practices based on methodology research, but wholesale adoption of a "design methodology" is the road to ruin. In many large industries, most of the advances in methodology come from industry and are mixed with ideas from academia.

    You asked about the backgrounds of design engineers. I can give you one data point. I have a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering and my Ph.D. project was the design of an analog-to-digital converter that broke new ground in a particular technical dimension (hence it was appropriate for a Ph.D. project). After graduation I was hired by a semiconductor company and I've been designing system-level analog integrated circuits ever since.

    One last thing... keep in mind that there is no such thing as an "aircraft designer" any more. I'm not sure there has been one since the 1930s. Complex systems are designed by enormous teams, so you could contribute to the design of a subsystem. True, every ship has a captain, but that is something you achieve at the very end of a career.

    There is a chill wind blowing in industry, and the trend is to try to hire people who have already done what you want them to do. The best place to break into design, in my opinion, is in graduate school.
  4. Aug 24, 2012 #3
    I dont think design is a wishy-washy subject at all! In fact, I believe becoming a great design engineer requires a special blend of theoretical and practical skills. The "wishy-washyness" I was referring to the research in design methodologies. Thanks for the info - it was very helpful. For grad school, the message I am getting from you is to do a PhD topic that is specialized but interdisciplinary.
  5. Aug 24, 2012 #4
    One more question for you carlgrace: what is a typical day like for you as a DE?
  6. Aug 24, 2012 #5
    Well any good PhD topic will be inherently interdisciplinary. In my opinion, one of the main points of the degree is to teach you how to take initiative and responsibility to complete challenging projects that are under-specified (meaning part of the job is figuring out what to do!).

    As for a typical day, of course it depends, but most of it is spent in front of a computer. Today for instance, I did some simulations of an IC I'm working on, while at the same time doing some powerpoints for a presentation I have next week. I also spent a couple of hours in meetings hashing out the programmablility of another project I'm working on. Next week I'm part of a team meeting with a potential collaborator (basically trying to get some money from them) and I have meetings supervising the testboard development for an IC I sent away for fabrication in April. I probably spend 60% of my time doing actual productive design of circuits and 40% in meetings and management tasks.

    I don't really spend much time in the lab anymore. When a chip comes back either I will get in the lab and try to bring it to life, or, more likely I will only go into the lab if there is trouble making it work.
  7. Aug 26, 2012 #6
    Thanks alot! I hope a background in CFD will enable me to pursue aircraft design. I love the theoretical aspect of CFD but my desire to "invent" really strays from theory. The problem is that most grad programs are either purely theoretical or pertain to applications. For instance, testing a new model in the wind tunnel is a pretty cool and fun thing to do yet it does not call for extensive a critical/analytical mindset. In other words, you can get your work done without answering "why". On the other hand, working on something such as CFD calls for much more abstract and critical thinking, but seeing a computer simulation of a model is not as stimulating as carrying out physical tests and seeing your creation come alive! It would be nice to do both. My gut tells me that one who works on CFD can also be taught the practical aspects of testing. The reverse, though possible, seems like much more work. Im just another grad student trying to sort out one of the biggest decisions of my life.. No big deal...
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