Engineering Design: The Neglected Link in the Innovation Chain

Veronica Silva
June 19, 2018

At the 2013 Canadian Engineering Education Association (CEEA) conference held in Montreal, the  Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Chairs in Engineering Design published a short paper entitled “Standard of Living & Quality of Life Relies on Innovation: Innovation Relies on Engineering Design”.  The paper documented a number of important initiatives that would strengthen Canada’s ability to become an international leader in innovation, particularly innovation that relies on technology. As noted in the paper, a large number of policy statements and reports on innovation have been published by the federal government over the last 20 years. These studies all reached the same conclusion – Canadians are exceptional at generating new ideas but very poor at converting these ideas into economically beneficial activities.

As stated in the CEEA paper: “An invention, a discovery, or an idea is not an innovation until implementation and use has been achieved.”  What is most disturbing about these statements and reports is that they are completely silent on the role engineering design plays in converting ideas into realities. It’s not that the role of engineering design is downplayed – it is simply and completely ignored! At the heart of this neglect is the fact that, although R&D is recognized as “innovation”, the separate and distinct roles of research (the “R”) and development (the “D”) are not recognized.

Innovation requires both R&D and these two activities are not interchangeable. The problem in Canada can be stated very succinctly and follows directly from the fact that research is largely the purview of “scientists” and development is largely the purview of “engineers”. Unfortunately, starting in the mid-1950s, North American engineering schools, including those in Canada, moved away from teaching “engineering design” and concentrated much more heavily on “engineering science”.  This increased teaching of the engineering sciences came at the expense of teaching engineering design. With a greater emphasis on engineering science, research at Canadian universities moved toward the R-end of the spectrum and away from the D-end. Essentially, academic engineers became engineering scientists.

At present, it is virtually impossible for an engineering academic to have a successful career - that is, gain professorial rank and tenure - by pursuing design as her or his creative scholarship. This situation has had a major impact on how engineering students have been educated and trained in the last 60 years. Most academics may have a theoretical understanding of engineering design but have never practiced it – they are not prepared to pass design skills on to their students.

This is akin to surgeons being trained by academics who have never held a scalpel or dentists being trained by academics who have never drilled a tooth. Let me be very clear, at the level of professional practice, engineers are not scientists – scientists discover while engineers create. The solution to the “innovation problem” is not to simply spend more money on “research” unless at the same time we increase Canada’s capacity to “develop” the research results into economic products. And the key weak link in this innovation chain is the limited capacity of design engineering in Canada. Canada has many brilliant, creative design engineers, most of whom have developed their skills after graduation. It’s just that we don’t have enough of them, and we are not producing them at the rate required to drive the innovation agenda.

NSERC is largely responsible for funding technological R&D in Canada. Former NSERC president Tom Brzustowski initiated the Chairs in Design Engineering program to help address the problem of how Canadian engineering designers are educated and trained. Other recent initiatives by NSERC include funding colleges to increase the supply of technologists trained in innovative practices. This initiative will make a major contribution to Canada’s ability to be truly innovative.

But let’s put NSERC funding in perspective. NSERC invests approximately $1.2 billion annually in R&D. A significant portion of this money goes to engineering academics, and it could be argued that some of this money is used to help develop engineering design skills. However, only $3.2 million or less than 0.3% of this budget is earmarked for the Chairs in Engineering Design program to train engineering designers, while approximately $50 million is earmarked for the College and Community Innovation Program to train technologists. These three numbers are drastically out of proportion to the relative importance of researchers/design engineers/technologists in the innovation cycle.

The CEEA paper concluded: “In summary, we state categorically that, until engineering design is recognized as an essential component of the innovation cycle and engineering design skills are developed in a systematic and appropriately funded manner, Canada will never achieve the level of innovation required to succeed in the modern world.” In the paper, the Chairs recommend the following specific initiatives that would lead to this success:

  • measures of innovation must go beyond simply economic parameters;
  • these indicators must clearly distinguish research achievements from engineering design achievements;
  • a “critical mass” of engineering designers must be involved in the education of engineering students;
  • engineering design must be recognized as legitimate creative scholarship and must be appropriately funded; and,
  • the Canada Foundation for Innovation must be mandated to fund development of software and fabrication facilities that will allow engineering students to develop strong design skills.

As we move into an increasingly technocentric world, it will be design engineers that will drive our economic well-being, and the success of Canada as an innovative nation will depend directly on our ability to educate and train innovative design engineers.

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