Simplicity is an Engineers Ultimate Goal

Nathan - Houston, Texas
Entered on March 2, 2009
Age Group: Under 18

I believe in simplicity. Not of the mind but in mechanics and engineering, stemming from a mentality of eliminating variables. Every cog, wheel, or moving part is a variable in a machine, and should one of these parts fail the entire device is brought to its knees, no mater what the part is or the machine that encompasses it.

The consequences of an over complicated machine can sometimes be trivial. In 5th grade I designed a machine that used wind power to role up socks. My wind capturing devise was oriented horizontally, on top of the box. A pair of cogs in the middle that changed the orientation of the bar allowing the socks to be rolled up vertically. Sadly, the only reason I did this was to make the machine seem more impressive. It was not until the machine experienced constant breakdowns did I realize that a functional machine is a better than a pretty looking one. As was expected, the cog system was responsible for all of the failures. As soon as I figured out, and worked up the humility to reassemble my machine in front of a roomful of people, I removed the unnecessary machinery, and placed the “windmill” on its side, greatly simplifying the machine.

Unfortunately, over complexity can have a far more serious effect. The Space Shuttle, arguably the most complex mode of transportation devised, is made more dangerous by its abundance of variables, each one of which can lead to disaster. Dan Tani, a Houstonian astronaut, says this about the Shuttle: “We climb aboard extremely complex machines which hurl us into space, and we have to trust that every engineer, every technician, and every manager has done their job…” I believe spaceflight is well worth the risk, new technologies are developed by the program on a continuing basis, but there are less dangerous ways to get into space. The first space capsule (Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo) were far less complicated, only intended to survive one round trip into space. This made them far less complex, since they were designed with a specific purpose in mind, rather than the multipurpose Space Shuttle. Simply put, the capsules, though by today’s standards primitive, had less of a chance to fail.

It should be the goal of ever engineer to build everything as simple as possible, without sacrificing functionality. I believe in Antoine de Saint-Exupry’s philosophy of simplicity, rather than Rube Goldberg’s.

“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupry