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Can we define 'good engineering'?

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  • Can we define 'good engineering'?

    This is a complex issue, physical, philosophical and even moral.
    Alan A. Shaw
    Designer, owner
    Harbeth Audio UK

  • #2
    Obsession and minutiae - good engineering or not?

    Moved from another thread here .... to continue the subject

    Originally posted by honmanm View Post
    ... and well remember [an unspecified electronics designer] him being obsessive about the slightest details ... however his real obesession was power supplies...
    Without commenting on this specific case (about which I know nothing more than written above) I would like to caution against the obsessive in the design of any product. It simply doesn't lie comfortably with good engineering or product design.

    So what is 'good engineering'? I'd say that good engineering was conceptually linked to best use of natural resources. That means, that the design should have the minimum impact on the environment both during and after its useful life is over, should use as few materials as possible and as little energy during manufacture as possible, avoid using hazardous materials and be fit for purpose i.e. do what it proclaims to do on the can and continue to so so year after year.

    Now, where does obsessive behaviour fit-in with good engineering design? Or indeed does it fit at all? I don't think that it really can: it will surely result in a product that doesn't match my criteria - that is, a product that is 'over-engineered', more complex than necessary, more expensive, more difficult to make, using more or more sophisticated parts and hence, inevitably more prone to breaking down and a shortened service life. Every walk of life has its obsessives but I do wonder who their obsessions are actually serving. What possible merit can there be in over-complication? Surely none.

    We all - me included - cling to certain beliefs about how the world around us behaves, and what is at the core of our product creations. I do not want to be told at the very end of my working life that my entire intellectual edifice is a tower of straw based on seriously flawed assumptions, and thus far, thanks to the BBC engineering foundations, I'm absolutely certain that it isn't. If someone can show me a simpler, sonically better and hopefully cheaper and more reliable way of getting high quality sound into your homes I'd be the first one to reach out and grab it. There is no place here for obsessive behaviour as it is, in my opinion, the enemy of excellence in resource husbandry.

    So, a Harbeth is a minimalist solution to reproducing quality sound, with the smallest environmental footprint we can achive.
    Alan A. Shaw
    Designer, owner
    Harbeth Audio UK

    Comment


    • #3
      The Flying Scotsman ....

      In the BBC Archive, there is a wonderful programme made in 1964 about how four retired steam trains including the famous Flying Scotsman were bought from British Railways by a private enthusiasts. BBC archive here.

      From the sad opening scenes of steam trains await to be cut-up ... to the excellent documentary of the Flying Scotsman in action in 1968 (in colour). Do not miss this. And here, from the children's programme Blue Peter in 1966, the Flying Scotsman passes within three miles of the Harbeth factory. What do you think of the amount of coal and water consumed on the journey and the smoke and steam produced?

      My question is .... are such steam engines good example of engineering excellence or not? There is no right answer of course; this is just to open the subject to wider debate.
      Alan A. Shaw
      Designer, owner
      Harbeth Audio UK

      Comment


      • #4
        Alan:

        Can't see the train video - the usual "out of area" restriction, unfortunately (though as I'm not likely to see the videos any other way I'm not sure what it accomplishes) - but would like to address your second post, i.e. good engineering being based on good use of natural resources.

        That would imply that the engineer is not obsessive, does not overbuild etc. because it's wasteful and unnecessary. That seems reasonable, indeed moral, because resources are always finite and should not be consumed for no useful purpose. And yet, how does one distinguish between good engineering that makes something only as good as it needs to be, and a lazy, "good-enough" mentality, based simply on a desire to do less work?

        I ask this because it's my sense that many people are attracted to the idea of an "overbuilt" product, to the idea that the product - whatever it is - can do far more than they will ever ask it to (examples in audio aren't hard to think of, either). Why, one can only speculate, but I'd venture to say that there's a sense that's transferred from the product to the consumer that his/her limitations are greater than they truly are. At the same time, knowing what is truly "good enough" requires a lot of knowledge on the part of the engineer. For example, if I'm flying, I'd like to know that the plane will survive the worst possible storm it's likely to encounter - I don't want it to be built for good weather conditions only. So in that context, a product that's slightly overbuilt might impart a sense of security.

        So, ego boost (think for example of a massively overpowered automobile) and sense of security (no one's cut any corners with my stuff) are two reasons I can think of for people being attracted to an over-engineered product. How does intelligent engineering address that?

        Comment


        • #5
          (apologies in advance, this has turned into a bit of an essay)

          If I were to try and distinguish engineering from craftmanship, the difference could probably be summed up in one work: rigor.

          Some characteriestics would be
          • Fact-based
          • driven by an understanding of the desired result (i.e. product requirements)
          • long view, output must be
            • durable
            • repeatable
            • maintainable
          • design-time compromises are always needed - a good engineer is one who
            • makes the "right" compromises
            • is able to recognize a flawed design and reset the process before it gets into production


          That's why IMHO "Peter Walker" Quad represents the pinnacle of engineering in the hi-fi world. The way their amplifiers are made, one can see how much effort went into making them easy to build and service. Not just that, their sound is hardly affected by the source and load. Given the fact that the ESL 63s only went into production in the early '80s one can imagine there were a number of resets on that project.

          Some of my favourite PJW quotes from this interview
          • We could make a better [electrostatic speaker] but it would be too difficult to manufacture, to make them producable. It's very easy to have two people stretching skins round and make one sample sound very good. But these days you've got to make a thing that you can set up in production and off they come out at the end of the line all the same without any variation. They've got to be reliable, they've got to last, the plastic mustn't shrink, it mustn't spark, or break down.
          • If people test two amplifiers and say, "These sound different," there's no magic in it. Spend two days, maybe a whole week in the lab, and you find out exactly why they're different and you can write the whole thing down in purely practical, physical terms. This is why these two sound different, and the cause is usually peripheral effects. It is not really a case of good or bad amplifiers, it's that the termination impedances are wrong, or something of that sort.
          • We designed our valve (tube) amplifier, manufactured it, and put it on the market, and never actually listened to it. In fact, the same applies to the 303 and the 405. People say, "Well that's disgusting, you ought to have listened to it." However, we do a certain amount of listening tests, but they are for specific things. We listen to the differential distortion - does a certain thing matter? You've got to have a listening test to sort out whether it matters.


          Now on the other side of the coin there is the "craftsman" approach to audio gear, which focuses on the perceived sound above all else, often by taking a sound basic design and performing component substitutions (or eliminating components where possible) so as to eliminate some of those peripheral effects.

          The "bespoke" approach does have a number of problems
          • not appropriate for volume production
          • long-term serviceability is questionable, often dependent on the individual craftsman
          • high initial cost
          • low resale value
          • new and stronger "peripheral effects" may be introduced as a component which is tuned by ear cannot be tested with every possible combination of source and load


          A non hi-fi analogy could be Jaguar mk 2 vs Lotus Cortina.

          In my (customer) view bespoke audio equipment is a good secondhand purchase... its performance often depends on what else you have in the system, so buying secondhand it can be sold on at the same price if it doesn't match well with the other equipment.

          When it comes to new equipment - especially from a specialist manufacturer - knowing that the product is well engineered is much more important, as I would expect to be using it for a long time (my last speaker purchase was good for 22 years, and hopefully that will be true of the P3ESRs). Two major factors that encouraged me to spend much more than I'd intended on a pair of Harbeths were seeing how a 17 year old pair had stood up to the ravages of time, and learning about the Harbeth approach to design and production documentation. I must confess to scrutinising the spares matrix to see how long old models are supported for, and being concerned by the "old" active M40 support policy (before the conversion-to-passive route was introduced).

          Comment


          • #6
            Steam locomotives

            A good debate all in its own right...!

            In the pre-nationalisation era the UK had four railway companies which strove to compete with each other. Economics and image both played a role - the greater the efficiency of the railway the lower the cost per journey -> more profit or lower prices to attract more passengers.

            Locomotive designs were constrained by additional factors such as the type of coal available, required journey times, and physical attributes of the route (gradients, structures, and curvature).

            And locomotives were produced in different sizes as a large engine is inefficient when lightly loaded or sitting idle.

            Of 1920s locomotives it is probably fair to say that the Great Western's were better engineered, with their focus on standardisation (cutting overhaul times because parts could be used "off the shelf"). On the other hand the appearance of the engines was rather bland and occasionally rather mis-proportioned (e.g. "King" class).

            The last 30 years of British steam were a time of wringing the last bit of performance (including efficiency) from a design concept then 100+ years old... but in time the performance and flexibility of the newer diesel and electric traction systems overtook those of steam.

            Comment


            • #7
              I think (British) designer Jonathan Ives' comments on the new Apple iPad may provide insight into one aspect of "good engineering" - the way the end user experiences and relates to the product:

              http://www.time.com/time/business/ar...6935-3,00.html

              Comment


              • #8
                Personally see great engineering as being made up of 3 parts, and it’s almost always associated with innovation rather than invention, the terrain of geniuses. Its hard work to:

                1. Meet a minimum set of requirements (or hygiene factors) like safety, dependability, ease of use, serviceability, aesthetics, and fitness of purpose (without asking too much, within reason, of the user eg. Must be used on this type of stand etc) . You’ll be surprised how many products have failed this eg. pistons in early Jabiru airplane engines which literally crumbled in the cylinders due to insufficient cooling.

                2. Goes beyond the basics (Point 1) by improving our lives in more ways than one while lessening the load on the environment eg. The forthcoming generation of jet engines which are up to 20% more economical (and quieter) would probably fit this. Some companies have a culture of improving engineering eg. VW and their high compression motors, twin clutch gearboxes (which improve driving experience). Bosch does great engineering with their spark plugs, contributing to greater efficiency. Mercedes has brought airbags and anti lock brakes to be basic aspects of safety improvement in vehicles is another example.

                3. Finally great engineering must do it cost effectively (and be affordable). We can build almost anything which meets points 1 & 2 if we throw enough money at it, but that would defeat all practicality and probably only benefit those who can afford it. (Overkill products are more likely to be just poor engineering disguised as “high- end”).

                Funnily imho great engineering has always been affordable because great engineering seems to be associated with choice, freedom and ultimately success for the companies which involve themselves with this culture. There is nothing hi end about great engineering, Great engineering imho are the Dysons, the NAD’s, original VW Beetle, Anglepoise lamps etc.

                Great engineering is not interconnects so thick you need a sumo wrestler to help install, speakers so heavy (or finicky) you need someone to come and install. In this day and age tube, class a, triple digit output amps, and expensive components are just poor engineering (or overengineering).

                Comment


                • #9
                  engineering & over-engineering

                  Over-engineering is one of thing that, unless it is over the top, can only be judged with the passage of time.

                  For example, Mercedes cars of the 1970s were probably considered to be over-engineered in the area of passive safety - resulting in very safe but realtively unwieldy, sluggish, and inefficient cars.

                  However with the passage of time those sorts of passive safety features have become the norm, even for small cars, and the old Mercs have proven to be remarkably long-lived cars.

                  Now the question it, what is better for the environment (and the pocket) - to have purchased a Mercedes in the 1970s and used it for 40 years, vs. buying a new, fashionable, and more efficient car every 5 years (or even every year as some people do)? I really don't know, as one has to balance the greater amount of fuel consumed against the consumption of resources and pollution resulting from the manufacture and scrapping of at least 3 other cars (I understand that in the UK the service life of a car is somewhere around 12 years).

                  And one can even question the inclusion of so many safety (and luxury) features in today's cars - we burn a lot of fuel moving all that stuff around just in case it's necessary.

                  My personal take on over-engineering is that it is worthwhile (in moderation, and when there is a real problem to be solved) when the product will be made in limited quantities and/or the conditions in which it will be used are not fully understood. In such a case one is trading off development against manufacturing costs - hit the problem with a big hammer, use more and/or more expensive components, and reduce development time and/or time to market.

                  Some companies have a "value engineering" team who, once a product has proven itself in the market, go over the design with a fine tooth comb and eliminate or down-spec components so as to reduce the manufacturing cost. Many times one if you open up an electronic widget you will see places where components are missing - usually a sign that the "value engineering" boys have snipped a few cents off the cost of manufacture.

                  There is definitely such a thing as uncontrolled over-engineering - in which the design sinks under the weight of its own features. This usually results from an unrealistic (or under-specified) design brief and a cautious-minded engineering team. Spruce Goose, anyone?

                  Mark

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    The way things evolve will probably find millions -even billions- of engineering remnants spread on a deserted planet. We destroy ourselves with consuming without measure, and producing vast quantities of every hazardous kind of radiation in order to "communicate" and "control"...
                    Good engineering is what protects life and the planet. Also preserving the balance between humankind and nature. It's not just a long discussion... It's history itself. Has it taught anything to us so far?
                    Nature's mechanics are more important than man's mechanics. But who can realize this? That is the first lesson and step to go on with, before moving to "good engineering" definitions, subjective or not...
                    IMHO of course,
                    Thanos

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Originally posted by honmanm View Post
                      uncontrolled over-engineering
                      Mark
                      :-) its a fine line indeed and as Alan Shaw mentioned, the moral aspect might even step in at some point. i worked in a factory environment in my early career and electronic factory tour articles have my interest. this was one by 6moons in the Nagra factory.

                      http://www.6moons.com/industryfeatur...urnagra/9.html

                      just hit the "back" button at the bottom of the page to go to the tour.

                      just something to add to the discussion of how extreme things can get, in the wider scheme of things in the world today, namely poverty, malnutrition etc.

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Okay, let me tackle this one. What is the moral dimension of "good engineering"? Is there even such a thing? Is it not the case that, for example, a product designed for a purely destructive purpose - say a laser-guided weapons system - could be considered "good engineering" by other engineers on, say, the basis of a clever design, without any reference to the consequence of the use of the product?

                        This example comes to me because of the recently-released video of a U.S. Apache helicopter pilot killing a group of civilians in Iraq, including an Iraqi Reuters cameraman, and then shooting up the vehicle that came to try to help the survivors, injuring children. Truly horrible and sickening to watch. But I suppose the technology that made it possible is pretty impressive stuff, on a purely technical level. Is it good engineering?

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Originally posted by EricW View Post

                          This example comes to me because of the recently-released video of a U.S. Apache helicopter pilot killing a group of civilians in Iraq, including an Iraqi Reuters cameraman, and then shooting up the vehicle that came to try to help the survivors, injuring children. Truly horrible and sickening to watch. But I suppose the technology that made it possible is pretty impressive stuff, on a purely technical level. Is it good engineering?
                          Man is sometimes too smart for his own good. The natural calamities that is happening around the world & perhaps erratic weather could be caused by "advanced technology" too.

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            Originally posted by Gan CK View Post
                            Man is sometimes too smart for his own good. The natural calamities that is happening around the world & perhaps erratic weather could be caused by "advanced technology" too.
                            This really reminded me historical channel vedios in youtube call "ELF weather warfare"....true? Hopefully not.
                            "Bath with Music"

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              Applying some of these thoughts to consumer electronics...

                              Is it a good thing (or not) for value-engineered-to-the-bone products to manufactured at cheaply as possible, be shipped around the world, sold for next to nothing, and fail irreparably in 3-4 years?
                              - They didn't cost a lot to make, but have consumed resources and repidly become landfill (inkjet printers and cheap DVD players are classic examples)

                              On the other hand there are volume market consumer devices, well made and employing expensive components where necessary (as an example, quality CD players from the likes of Marantz, Arcam, etc.).
                              - These last 10 years+, usually have backup service, but in a consumer society are dumped in favour of the latest fad well before they have worn out.
                              - They are certainly well engineered, to a clearly defined specification, price point, and market segment.
                              - And yet one of the eye-popping moments of my first few months in the UK was finding a NAD receiver abandoned outside in the rain.

                              And then there is audiophile gear in which perceived value and "shopping therapy for men" are perhaps the most important factors.
                              - if you wondered why there are so few youngsters getting into hi-fi, it is because those people are spending 2000+ on gaming PCs instead of hi-fi systems
                              - it's probably fair to say that in general high-end gear sounds better than "quality" mass produced item, but what is intensely frustrating is that its performance is so inconsistent, so dependent on external factors.

                              IMO major changes in performance when partnering equipment or cables are changed indicates an absence of an engineering approach to the product design and that is a major cause of audiophilia nervosa.

                              But can we have our cake and eat it, is it practicable for a high-end manufacturer to produce equipment which has impeccable accuracy and is relatively immune to changes in the environment in which it operates?

                              Mark

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