Einstein said “Scientists investigate that which already is; engineers create that which has never been”. What engineering consists of can be hard to define because it covers so much. Everything man made is the result of engineering in some form. In a broad sense, engineering has been a part of life since creation, man is always trying to rearrange things around him to suit his needs and desires. Building a fire to stay warm regulates the ambient temperature to suit a need for survival in extreme cold, or it can be merely to suit a preference. Creating a means to catch a fish for dinner means making a hook, a spear or a trap. Sometimes it means making multiple attempts, failing several times, and through the learning experience, coming up with a working solution. The “art” of engineering refers to a high level of expertise in which the engineer works through many solutions to come up with a “best” solution based on a variety of constraints. Usually the hardest constraint to deal with is cost.
To Einstein’s point, Natural Science over the centuries has been engaged in man’s understanding and explanation of how things around us work. The most fundamental principle of natural science has been the ability to prove conclusively how something works. John Stuart Mill’s “A System of Logic” lays out the ways in which properties and mechanisms can be empirically understood. This forms the basis of all modern engineering. In order for something to work, we have to have proven, repeatable characteristics from which new things can be created.
One professional engineering association defines engineering as “The creative application of science to the development of structures and machines…”. The process of engineering, regardless of what field it is in, is a uniquely creative process. It requires strategic selection of components and analyzing performance to meet an objective.
Design might be defined as ‘the specification of an object (or process) satisfying a set of requirements and constraints’. In the context of design, this includes the aesthetic qualities of the object being designed. If one considers design as the superset of engineering, then engineering concentrates on the application of science to the design in question. We often consider the design of a building or a car in terms of its aesthetic qualities. Even in the engineering of something like a suspension bridge, the engineering can achieve a level of beauty the elevates the engineering to an art.
So the demarcation between design and engineering can become a little blurry. Generally, I would define design as being primarily aesthetic and engineering being functional, with both aspects capable of achieving the level of “art”. There is certainly art in both camps.
My prayer for the New Year is that everyone in the engineering community finds themselves involved in taking some risks and creating new products and processes that meets important needs and elevate our spirits with great design and engineering.