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Entrepreneurial Engineering: Start with the Problem

We’ve all been there—the boss, the sales rep or the customer rushes in with a problem that needs to be solved—STAT. You’re told what to do and asked how soon you can get it done. The temptation to just implement the idea into a fully-fledged solution is enormous. And why not? It gets the job done, makes that person happy and lets you move on to solve other problems.

I’ve succumbed to this way of thinking many times. The results are always the same—an adequate design that leaves me and everyone else feeling flat. I know that I could have done better, because in the past, I’ve come up with amazingly
simple yet incredible solutions that have given me immense satisfaction, knowing that I’m improving people’s lives and truly helping my company be the best that it can be.

What did that take? It took an entrepreneurial engineer mindframe.

You can create extraordinary designs that revolutionize whatever it is you’re working on, be it a tool, implant or an exciting new device.

Entrepreneurial engineers look beyond the obvious: “This is broken; I must fix it” or “Here’s the problem; please solve it,” to see the bigger picture. So often, it’s less valuable to take problems at face value and solve them as assigned without looking at the matter more broadly. Ask yourself some key questions to gather ideas, make them tangible and lend detail to your design.

Gather Ideas

  • Is this matter a symptom of a bigger, different problem? If a part broke in a larger assembly, it’s probably not the part that is the problem. What’s happening in the overall system? I call this treating the illness, not the symptoms.

  • Is there a different approach, technology or method for the overall system? Perform some research to see how others have solved this type of problem, and not just in your field. It’s amazing how many technologies can be applied wholesale across multiple industries. Look not only at company websites, but also at the patent databases to see what’s new and exciting in the handling of this problem.

  • Talk to the source. Sales and marketing personnel are great at their jobs, but they often don’t translate “surgeon” well. They also don’t speak “engineer” well, so they may not accurately explain the exact problem or new product idea in terms that will allow you to move forward. Arrange to meet with the source, which is often a surgeon or medical provider, and get the information in terms you understand.

  • Observe the problem in situ whenever possible. Is the problem really what people claim it is? Sometimes, a complaint of a hand tool being “too heavy” is really a tool with a center of mass problem that strains the wrist and only seems heavy. Being in situ also allows you to observe other issues that may be solved with a new or combo device.

  • Interview other users—actual users of the product with their own two hands, not customers or purchasers. Have these users show you the product and identify its strengths and weaknesses. What would they do to improve it?

  • Brainstorm with engineers and people from other backgrounds. Many brains make for light work! You cannot think of all of the possible solutions yourself. However, someone else may say something that sparks an incredible new pathway for the design that you hadn’t considered. Establish rules when brainstorming to keep people engaged and having fun, so no idea is squelched or said to be stupid. I cannot tell you the number of times that the “stupid” idea has gotten me thinking creatively and thus led to a good idea, faster.

Make it Tangible

  • IDEO’s “Fail early, fail often” motto is some of the best advice I’ve ever heard. As engineers, we like to get down to brass tacks almost immediately, using a CAD system to create a model. This is absolutely the wrong way to proceed. Always build a physical mock-up or rough prototype, even at five times scale, to explore concepts. See what doesn’t work before any real money or CAD time is consumed. You simply don’t know what you don’t know, so by mocking it up, you learn about constraints you have or must apply to your design.

  • Share your research with sales and marketing early. Tell them what you’ve learned, and also tell them about disruptive products that exist and what you feel about viable alternatives. Remember, these are talented people with great ideas, but they are not engineers, so you have to present your research in ways that they’ll understand. Edward Tufte’s book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, may be helpful for you. Also bring in your mock-up so they can see what you’re thinking. You want to get buy-in from all your stakeholders before you dive into a detailed design of the solution.

  • Sketch your ideas. You need to learn to sketch well. We’re not talking perspective portraits; just the basics of isometric renderings of shapes like boxes, spheres and cones. With these, almost any geometry can be sketched decently. I teach a class on hand sketching to engineers, showing them how to turn knowledge of a box into a desk or a laptop, a cone and a sphere into a mint chip waffle ice cream cone, and so on. A picture is worth a thousand words. Become better at making pictures.

  • Talk to the machinists. They are experts in their field and can be extremely helpful to you. Ask them how they would fabricate your part, what would make it easier to fabricate or assemble this part, what kind of tolerances they could hold with that method of fabrication, etc. Also, don’t hesitate to ask if they like the design. If they don’t, they often have very good reasons why and can tell you how to do it better.

Detail Your Design

  • CAD comes last. CAD is not and likely never will be a design tool, no matter what anyone says. It’s a powerful solid modeling tool that lets you do complex geometry, but you have to know what you’re modeling before you begin. You cannot figure it out as you go along, and the more time you have invested in a CAD solution, the more resistant you’re going to be to starting over from scratch. Save it for last.

  • Remember the 80/20 rule: 80% of the problem, constraints, etc. are known. The off-the-shelf parts fit together only one way, the sequence of components is set, the shape often has known constraints and so on. So, start with all of your knowns. Make CAD models of everything you know, and then you’ll only have 20% of the problem left to solve, which is usually the structure that holds everything together.

  • Remember that design is iterative, not a linear A to Z process. You try something, you learn that impacts an earlier design decision, so you go back and change that, which changes something else, etc. If your design has a range of motion or goes through configuration changes during use, you need to animate your CAD model or provide snapshots at various points in time or operation. For me, this is where I learn that I’ve made a mistake or forgot to consider how I get from point A to B, and thus need to iterate on my design yet again.

  • Analyze last. Yes, I said CAD last, but analysis is required after your CAD design is basically done. Finite element analysis (FEA) can help optimize your design to make it stronger, lighter and less prone to failure, but FEA is only as good as your ability to define the loads and boundary conditions. So, always use standard engineering calculations to back up your intuition and confirm that your FEA results make sense.

  • Remember that a CAD model is just a pretty picture. It is not how the work gets done or the part gets made. Drawings are your engineering report and, as such, they must provide absolutely all the information needed to make the part or assembly. Students often complain that their drawings don’t look as clean when they show all the views, hidden lines and dimensions, to which my response is, “So?” You need three orthographic projections and an isometric view on every drawing, without exception, unless the geometry is cylindrical. Tolerances are critical and should be as loose as you can tolerate and still be able to have the part work. Do a tolerance stack-up to make sure that all your worst case conditions work in your assemblies, too. Understand GD&T and why it must be used. Tolerances are not enough, as they cannot control concentricity, perpendicularity or position of one part geometrically relative to another. For complex surface geometry, dimensions often don’t make sense. For these situations only, it is fine to refer the machinist to a CAD file for the geometry—but do this sparingly.

Finally, remember that every piece of work is the signature of the person who did it. Make sure that yours is a John Hancock that people remember as being elegant and strong. 

Will you have the time and resources to accomplish each of these steps every time? No, of course not. But you have the power to change the way you approach problem solving. Pause. Take a look at the big picture. Engage the right people. Utilize the right tools. Little changes in your thinking can make a significant difference, and I’ve found that the entrepreneurial engineer often produces a more valuable product and finds greater value in his or her work.

Dr. Deborah Munro is the President of Munro Medical, a biomedical research and consulting firm in Portland, Oregon. She has worked in the orthopaedic medical device field for almost 20 years and holds numerous patents, mostly in the area of spinal fusion. She taught mechanical and biomedical engineering at the University of Portland for eight years, where she also founded a Master’s in Biomedical Engineering program. Her current interests include developing new medical device solutions for companies and assisting them in their regulatory compliance efforts. She can be reached by This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Munro Medical