Collaboration is possible when you least expect it

Martin Tomasz -January 21, 2013

Years ago when I was working in Antarctica as a science support engineer, a researcher challenged me to solve his need for some sort of contraption to remove surface seawater moisture from ice samples taken from the ice shelf. The group was investigating how certain algae produce antifreeze proteins to survive the cold without freezing (not exactly problems I face much in my current role at Touchstone).

Exciting! I had a number of AC motors in my shop collecting dust, and combining these with belts and spindles of various sizes for speed reduction, I envisioned my Rube Goldberg machine spinning around an ice sample held at either end in some sort of vise. Maybe I’d add an armature for more centripetal action? Regardless it was going to take some serious stabilizing bars to keep the thing from careening out of control and hurling ice chunks at the scientists.  Clearly I’d need the metal shop’s help.

That’s when Mike, a friend and the guy in charge of facilities maintenance for the science building, wheeled in a clothing washer. Mike had caught wind of the challenge and had a much simpler and smarter solution than my contraption. Mike operates in a world of maintaining machines, and I in a world of designing them; in this case the former provided the best solution. Not to mention that he knew where the unused laundry machines were hidden.

So instead of building my dangerous machine (as fun as that would be), my task was reduced to rewiring the cycle timer so that it was on perpetual spin (and remove the annoying buzzer). Mike’s was to re-plumb the washer so that the water flowed out the bottom by gravity without the bilge pump running (required for draining the tub of water during the wash cycle).

The point of course is that sometimes reuse is better than design. But it also points to the value of collaborating with people with vastly different perspectives to get those ideas. Everyone I know seems to have a story like this. For example, a former colleague participated in a contest to design a laser scanner.

The winning design had spinning mirrors, the result of a collaboration between electronics designers and a mechanical guy.  This design left the others pondering their solid state designs with multiple lasers aimed at various angles and thinking “Why didn’t I think of that?”

In my own humble experience, it’s hubris to think you, alone, can “think of that” design every time. If you are open to it, collaboration is a valuable tool that can help you look at any design problem in an exciting new way.  That, in turn, can drive innovative thinking. And isn’t that the most rewarding part of our jobs as engineers?  

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