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Qualities Bad Engineers Lack

Want to think more logically? Try taking something apart

If you’re an engineer and you’re reading this, you probably have experience with taking things apart or repairing them. I remember taking apart my prized toy train as a young boy. One time I even dismantled my father’s radio, only to get in trouble when my father found out. I was eventually put in charge of fixing gadgets around the house when they broke, which only caused my penchant for dismantling things to escalate even further. In my teens I was sometimes even asked to repair hi-tech devices like televisions, microwaves and VCRs, despite having no hope of success. All I remember is that I really enjoyed taking things apart. I loved the feeling of suspense when taking the cover off a device to find out what was inside. (Readers are warned that removing the cover of an appliance will generally void the warranty.)

Meeting my Match

My biggest surprise came the first time I opened up a VCR. Upon excitedly removing the lid, I found that the head for reading video signals that rotates against the videotape was mounted on an angle. (Photograph 1)

Photograph 1

While I was initially convinced that the head would need to be made horizontal with the tape to produce a clear picture, upon inspection of the drum assembly I found that the drum had been precision mounted that way. I don’t remember whether I realized at the time that I had bitten off more than I could chew, but the experience did teach me that VCRs are a force to be reckoned with.

The discovery that the drum in a VCR is mounted on angle would have been perplexing to me as a teenager. I remember subjecting a tutor at my local science museum to a barrage of questions. The tutor, who I imagine did a fair amount of research on my behalf, came back to me with an excellent explanation. Back then we did not have the Internet at our fingertips, so I was very lucky to encounter such a good tutor.

Knowledge Alone Won’t Cut It

And that brings me to the theme of this article. An engineer’s duties are varied. While some tasks simply involve executing a set of steps, sometimes a client will ask us to identify the cause of a problem, or a test of a device under development does not go to plan and we are required to find a solution. I wonder how the readers of this article would fare on tough jobs like these. While I am no genius, I am as good as the next engineer when it comes to tackling day-to-day challenges by inferring the causes of faults and proposing strategies to help identify underlying causes. Skills in analyzing (inferring the cause of), and finding solutions to, unexpected issues are referred to as ‘logical thinking skills’, and logical thinking is held to be a requisite for engineering. Ultimately, it really comes down to the extent to which you question situations. This is because when your mind questions something, it is compelled to find the answer; the more something intrigues you, the greater the lengths you will go to find the answer.

As someone who has been asking "why" since childhood, I am not fazed by a few hiccups: if anything I enjoy the challenge. (This may be why people find me strange!) Even more curiously, I find myself making predictions and conjecturing on situations I know nothing about whatsoever. While I can’t be sure that my childhood habit of taking things apart has made me a better engineer, I believe that my questioning disposition has come in at least some use.

However, you will also encounter the other type of person: the type who can’t handle unexpected situations. Interestingly, this type is more likely to know a lot and appear skillful at first glance. However, on closer inspection, one realizes that these people are only good for regurgitating information, such as situations they encountered in the past or the compatibility of parts. They tackle problems with brute force, armed only with facts. In other words, they’re unable to infer what lies in the gap between known information (facts) and observed phenomena (issues). Having these types on a problem-solving team can be a headache. Meetings tend to turn into bragging contests. This can mean that you spend a lot of time on a task but come away with few useful findings. You might work with one of these types!

While knowledge of facts is important in engineering, most real-life problems unfortunately take more than just facts to solve. If anything, it is usual to go into a situation completely unprepared and be required to come up with a solution on the fly. Such situations require logical thinking skills.
However, logical thinking is not something you can master by simply reading a few books. Ultimately, it all comes down to experience: the more hands-on experience you have, the more skills you will gain.

Dismantling is Conducive to Logical Thinking

Think of a highly capable person you know. I think you will find that he or she has the qualities listed below. I am also willing to bet that he or she has, to some extent, a fascination with taking things apart. Am I right?

(1) Constantly curious about how things work; not satisfied until they understand the principle behind things (even if such understanding is not required at that moment) and keep looking for answers until they are satisfied.

(2) Strongly empathise with clients’ problems during meetings with clients (taking a "why" approach to analysing clients’ requirements).

(3) Possess a broad general knowledge extending to topics outside electronics that often comes in handy when least expected.

I have probably given you the impression that these types are all-round assets. However, there are a few caveats. Engineers with a penchant for taking things apart tend to spend a lot of time trying to discover underlying principles and causes: these activities may even end up dominating their work. While this may be seen as a positive where time is aplenty, fault repair is often a battle against time. Engineers need to be able to read situations and properly balance their curiosity with an ability to arbitrate solutions... Or at least, that would be the textbook advice. In all honesty, I still find it hard to embark on a solution to a problem until I am satisfied that I have understood the cause. I just tell myself that my approach is often quicker in the long run. I suspect the dismantling-minded engineers reading this will be able to identify.

And even if you are of a "normal" disposition and not obsessed with taking things apart (the younger engineers reading this, perhaps), it’s never too late to have fun identifying the causes to problems. My advice is to find something you’re interested in and find out how it works. It doesn’t have to be related to electronics. Just develop an interest in lots of things, try to understand how they work, and occasionally take something apart. That experience will come in handy one day.

I’m now pondering what to take apart this weekend.

Kenichi Otsuka
Solutions Development Division, Solutions Development Department (Supervisor)

[Major achievements in product development]
PFX2000 series battery testing system
PFX2500 series charge/discharge system controller
Custom built charge/discharge systems and charge/discharge power supplies

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