What Ancient Civilizations can Teach Us About Engineering

August 4th, 2014:

Every few years there seems to be a new TV special explaining the “secrets” of how ancient civilizations accomplished their technical and engineering feats. There are claims that Martians built the pyramids, time travelers laid the Easter island statues, Bigfoot was seen leaving the site of the Big Dig, and so on. The explanation that is easier to swallow, is that ancient civilizations were very proficient with the technology of their day, in the same way that modern humans are proficient with modern technology. The reason why the methods of ancient civilizations seem mysterious and confusing to us, is because in our quest for faster, better and cheaper technologies, we have forgotten the “old methods”. As the pyramids demonstrate, even “primitive” technology can accomplish impressive feats.

What does this mean for the modern design and engineering field? Engineers and designers working in the industry in 2014 are afforded technological luxuries on a daily basis. Developments such as 3D CAD, mathematical modeling software and 3D printing have made it possible for the industry to do more, more quickly. However, that doesn’t mean we should abandon the “old ways” altogether. Just because we can draw something in a computer, doesn’t mean we can’t get the idea across more quickly in a hand drawn sketch. Just because computational software “does the work”, you still need to know the formulas to know if the answer makes sense. Just because we can 3D print something doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be faster and cheaper to make a quick prototype out of foam.

As engineers, our job is to solve problems. The technologies we use are tools to help us solve those problems, not solutions in and of themselves. That is to say, we should look at what the end goal is and figure out the most efficient way to get there. We should not rely on one method simply because it is the newest, or most comfortable, or easiest. Instead we should use the tool that most efficiently accomplishes the task.

Personally, I am very comfortable using CAD programs.  I frequently find myself using the program as I develop concepts, throwing my ideas at the screen, then erasing and re-drawing until the part works. However recently I’ve realized that, in the early stages of concept development, it would be much more efficient to sketch my ideas as opposed to resorting to CAD. A recent class by our industrial design team further reinforced this lesson. Even though (for now) my sketches are slower and less refined than what I can do with a computer, they are much more suited to impromptu brainstorms and whiteboard sketches during meetings. In this way, the low tech approach of sketching is preferable due to its portability. It still makes sense for me to develop my sketching skills despite the fact that there are far more advanced methods than pencil and paper.

The take-away is that, as industry professionals, we must use the correct tool for the job in all scenarios. In some cases, the “tool” that we are using may not have changed in the last 30 years, but that may just be evidence that it has been perfected. Finally, we should never overlook a tool or method simply because of its age. We should always keep knowledge of methods new and old, because we never know when something may be applicable.

- Mechanical Engineer Gerard Libby, Goddard Technologies