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Engineering: The nature of problems
Engineering: The nature of problems

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We have seen how a solution falls into one of three categories (innovation by context, innovation by development, and routine solution) according to the need that drives it. Furthermore, the need is shown to be the point of reference that should be kept in sight throughout the process of finding solutions. Unless the need is accurately stated, the ideal solution cannot be obtained – a case of 'garbage in, garbage out'.

We have examined the process of finding a solution step by step, using examples to help us see where and why particular approaches are most appropriate at various stages, such as for instance the best kind of modelling to use. Sometimes it is enough to make some rough calculations by hand in a few minutes, but at other times this is not sufficiently accurate. So at the other extreme, a physical mock-up or computer-aided modelling technique such as finite element analysis may be needed to provide the necessary data.

The bicycle design example enabled us to explore the idea that a solution is always a compromise, but that the best compromise can be found by the use of quantitative tools such as merit indices.

We saw that the solution-finding process generally contains loops, where certain steps are repeated until an acceptable result is obtained. The important point to note about this is that a trip round one of these loops (so long as it's not the loop that leads back from the very end of the process to the very beginning!) is not a failure, but a means of refining the solution.

Finally, we looked at the engineer in the context of wider society and saw that engineering has been central in providing the high quality of life enjoyed by many. The other side of this picture is that a significant proportion of the spectacular disasters we have witnessed involving failure of components have been attributable to poor work on the part of engineers. This lays a heavy responsibility on our shoulders to make sure we know what we're doing.