Engineering Reality Check
A USC engineering lab tackles design in the real world – factoring in misunderstandings, compromise and basic human nature.
STEPHEN LU WANTS to change the way engineers think about design.
Since the first Neanderthal sanded the rough edges off his spear, traditional
wisdom has held that engineers should design for the absolute optimum – striving to create the fastest computer processor, the most-maneuverable jet fighter, the tallest building.
The only problem is, we don’t live in an absolutely optimum world. “Toyota doesn’t build optimal cars,” says Lu, a manufacturing engineer in USC’s School of Engineering. “It tries to make cars better than other car companies do. All cars are designed by teams of engineers who will inevitably disagree among themselves and have to reach a consensus through negotiation.”
And therein lies the rub: “Most engineers,” Lu says, “have never learned how to negotiate.”
To correct that oversight, the School of Engineering has created the IMPACT Lab, home to a multidisciplinary team of faculty and students bent on creating a new set of rules for engineers. IMPACT stands for Improve Manufacturing Productivity with Advanced Collaboration Technology, offering a hint that collaboration and negotiation within engineering are more complex than they first may seem.
“We’re really talking about a new paradigm,” says Firdaus Udwadia, one of a half dozen faculty members associated with the lab. A born rule-bender, Udwadia holds joint appointments in civil, aerospace and mechanical engineering, information and operations management (in the USC Marshall School of Business) and mathematics (in the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences).
Most people, especially engineers themselves, view engineering as a purely technical activity. And yet, Udwadia notes, engineering failures often stem from an underlying social process. Last year’s Mars orbiter, which preceded the ill-fated Mars Polar Lander, crashed because some design team members used metric units for their calculations while others used English units. The collapse of a suspended walkway in the Kansas City Hyatt Regency hotel, which killed 114 people in 1981, resulted from poor communication between two engineering firms involved in the design.
“Engineering collaboration involves people,” Udwadia says. “We need to work with experts from sociology, psychology, history and other disciplines. Engineers must learn to ask ‘why?’ ”
Lu – who holds the David Packard Chair in Manufacturing Engineering and has appointments in aerospace engineering, industrial and systems engineering and computer science – says that engineers must learn to negotiate with their own very technical tools, such as mathematics, equations, computer simulations and artificial intelligence-based decision aids.
“It’s not the same as business negotiation,” he says, “and yet, engineers can learn a lot from business negotiation.” Engineers must think in terms of the different stakeholders in the product they’re designing – including prototype builders, manufacturers, sales representatives and customers. “We should treat the customer no differently than an engineer on the design team,” Lu says. Most engineers already design for customers, but Lu’s lab is pushing the profession into the next phase – designing with customers and, ultimately, heading toward design by customers.

– Bob Calverley

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