Few engineers build products, but usually get stuck in the middle of the design process.
The good news is that most engineering is about making stuff. Engineers are not like the doctors and lawyers of the service sector but shapers of the built world. Even as makers of things we can contrast ourselves with the trades: carpenters, cabinetmakers and potters have a personal connection to each of their creations. Processes and formalisms insulate us from the tactile joy of evolving the textures and mass of our products, of shaping their geometries.
Engineering is not, of course, just manufacturing. I doubt that any engineering readers would deny the artistic groundings of their calling. Modern bridges like the Ratina Bridge in Tampere or the Sava Bridge in Belgrade are not only engineering wonders but are beautiful as well.
The field of architecture is instructive here. Great architects don’t live in ivory towers but they do have dirty hands. Alberti (The Ten Books of Architecture) implores architects to balance manual skill with scholarship. Christopher Alexander views architects such as himself as master craftsmen, leaving building design to the community. Utzon, architect of the Sydney Opera House, spent a month living on the hills in northern Sealand to get the feel of the land where he would later build the Romerhusene.
Engineering is unlike the pure sciences in that it is messy, and that messiness usually shows up in the practicalities of packaging, making things work, and making things last. The rubber meets the road in the physical world. I always admired the Hewlett-Packard engineers who created logic analyzer plug-ins in the 1980s. They would start with the logic design, yes. But they would also see their creation through the development process until they found themselves standing beside it in an HP booth on a conference trade show floor. These engineers certainly drew on the talents of their teammates, and maybe they didn’t control every production phase, but they probably understood them well. And in the end they were vindicated by smiles on customers’ faces.
Design has meaning when you connect with the corporeal fruits of your efforts. There’s a kind of insanity that feeds on the pretense of academic, clinical aloofness. It’s puzzling to me when engineers desirous of building things-for-use shun interaction with users or skirt the human dimension of their work. In the end, it’s all about physical and human practicalities. I remember designing and building my own three-stage superheterodyne shortwave receiver from discarded TV parts 40 years ago . It was fun, and it connected theory to practice in ways no school lab could. Take up circuit design as a hobby.
Even more deeply, it’s important to connect with the corporeal world around you. I’m convinced that rudimentary manual work in the garden, the fine motor motions of sculpting, and the flight of hands across a (piano) keyboard all feed back to that part of our engineering selves that connects to the real world. And I’m convinced that nurturing those connections informs and contextualizes what could otherwise be an overly intellectual mindset. Build a treehouse for your children.
And even more deeply, use these opportunities to connect with nature. She has her laws, and engineers above all are subject to them. Let them become part of you through gardening, painting, woodworking, and pottery. Build a Japanese garden.
It starts with using all the parts of your brain, but it’s more than that. Engage your whole self in who you are and in what you do. Give life meaning in all of its physical environment.