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'Do you have an in-hands mentality?'

Over thousands of years mankind has grown from primitive beings to what we are today through our use of tools. Some other species show rudimentary tool use, but we have embraced it to the level that we make tools to make tools to make tools... I have been involved in making a tool to calibrate a calibration tool that in the end allows a big machine to make part of a product. But there is a concerning anti-movement happening as well. In just a few decades, engineering has changed from a physical + mental skill towards a digital skill. And yes, the engineer is now free to go about as his or her mind pleases because everything is virtually possible. Personally I am a design engineer with an in-hands mentality. I can design things with real material stuff and make it work. I will sometimes use virtual steps like CAD models for several reasons (and with 3D printing it has become more), but always the final goal is a real working product/prototype/test.

I carry around something you could call a rarities cabinet. I collect samples from project surpluses, stranded endeavors and innovative spoils of war from engineering fairs. To others it appears like the bag of Mary Poppins; things keep coming out you don't expect. But to me it is part of my profession. It helps me use things from other markets or other engineering disciplines to solve problems. But I also have bad stuff in it. Things I have done wrong or that went wrong in my team. I use them as examples in case someone is about to repeat the mistake.

I will share one example because it brings us closer to the core of this article. Someone used a 2 mm centring pin to gain an accurate alignment of two parts. The pin was to be inserted in hard anodised aluminium, in a tight fit. The thing is that these small pins are hard to get into their hole. You need a very small press, or a hammer and magic. As soon as the pin hits the hard anodised wall of the hole, it will create its own path into the metal and maybe even be bent in the process. Especially if you choose a pin without leading taper. The engineer in this case fully trusted his FEM analysis of his Computer Aided Design and assured me that the pin would do its job nicely. I shared one of the assembly solutions I have come across: grind the pins down on one end and glue them in place. You may laugh about this or be infuriated at the assembly employee, but take a pin that size, put on cleanroom gloves and try for yourself first.

The engineer tried to convince me with his calculations and 300% safety margin. When he finally agreed to make the pin larger he suggested 2.5 mm. I asked him if he could make it 8 mm. The whole discussion started all over, but in the end the pin was changed to a decent 4 mm and with leading taper, or some sensible insertion allowance. To come back to my cabinet: it holds such small pins and cleanroom gloves to give to a reluctant engineer. Together with a 0.5 mm Allen key and a M1.6 bolt.

Now to the core issue. How come this engineer tried to fit such small pins? Its easy, in his virtual reality the pin is inserted with constraints, needs no glue, hammer or gloves and can align the parts accurately with no risk of bending. On screen the pin isn't even small. Especially if the entire part is small but full screen. The engineer is detached from reality.

There is a chance that we, engineers are forgetting what we are good at. We are the species that make tools. Yet we are moving away from in-hands mentality. How many mechanical engineers have used a lath or a milling machine in the past five years? How many engineers don't even have a workshop around? Those who do, often may not borrow the calliper in the workshop. We are detaching from our background. And it shows. Take a look in the average design department and try to tell what profession is sitting in each chair. By making our tools virtual, we are also making our identity as toolmakers virtual.

What to do? I believe this is a great opportunity for those who still have itching hands when they see real tools. Just by obtaining an essential tool kit and having it around at your workplace, you make yourself more able to respond. For a quick test, a small change or a hasty assembly at the peak of things. By doing so, you become less detached, you show what you are capable of and get to results faster.

Your collection of tools and samples together are the material counterpart of the skills you write on your resume. When I go to a job interview, I bring part of my rarities cabinet. To show what I have done, what simplicity I seek, and the example with the 2 mm pin. As soon as the box opens, it is the subject of the interview. And I get the chance to show who I really am.

Quite recently I pitched this idea with my peers to see if I can realize a mechatronic extension to my rarities cabinet. I hope to share my findings in the near future. In the meantime please let me know if you acknowledge my view of fading in-hands mentality.

Written by: Erik Niels Boerma, Inventive Design Engineer for TMC  

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