Pure design work or practical skills too?

Ok y’all - had an interesting conversation with a fellow academic today. (For those who don’t know, I now work in the hallowed halls instead of running my own firm. The pay is way better.) The director of the engineering program insists that there is no need for engineers to have practical knowledge of how to run a press/lathe/take your pick because that is what machinists are for. He said I should know how to design a weld but there should be no need for me to actually learn how to weld. (I’m pretty sure he’s been only in academia, with no actual design work.)

This is WAY too close to garbage in / garbage out for me so I disagreed. I think as a structural engineer that theoretical knowledge is critical but can easily lead to spec’ing a weld that is impossible in a given situation because I don’t know the first blasted thing about welding (which I do, by the way).

Ok, discuss. How do I help a pure academic see that understanding beyond theory is critical to produce useful engineers?

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Practical, hands-on experience is nothing but beneficial in engineering.

Can one design something well without that hands-on experience? Yes, of course it is possible. However, it is also much more likely that details and the intricacies of how things are actually done will be unaccounted for and result in failure.

Whenever I design a process or develop a new way to get from point A to point B, I will have my hands on it as much as possible; at the very least, I will observe first-hand the people I am instructing on how they implement it.

If you’ve never completed a task, or at least intently watched someone else do it, no matter what it is, you will not know the shortcuts and habits operators have. Operators will not change what they do for your design if it means more effort or inconvenience for them. If you create a “better” design, but the implementation is worse than before for no perceived benefit, all I can say is good luck with that.

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It’s handy to know, but, in many instances is not essential.


In my grandfathers workshop, he taught me “1 bushel of cornmeal, 100 pounds of sugar, 1 pound of yeast, and enough water to fill the still” way before I designed distillation equipment for the largest synthetic ethanol plant in the world (at the time) for Union Carbide. My experience with that unit operation gave me confidence. I knew what “fusel oils” were (that’s the wicked hangover in cheap Tequila), so I knew the polishing columns needed an upper column side draw to pull them out.

I think practical experience is a large part of the difference between learning something and knowing it. “Been there, done that, got the t-shirt”.

The best mechanical and electrical guys I have worked with all had some practical experience. Some welding, fabrication, and machine design for the mechanical guys, and some wiring, panel build, panel design for the electrical guys. The absence of those skills led to extra work, rework, and just plain crap. Worst that I have seen was project engineers responsible for designing and procuring machines, that had only Excel and Word knowledge. We would get 80-90% of what was actually needed to work if we were lucky. The rest was up to my group to program around issues and/or help install missing hardware and fixes to get to maybe 95% for start up. Of course, as the last group of engineers to touch it before startup, we got the lion’s share of the blame for every problem and delay. Did, I mention I no longer work at that particular place?? :grinning:

Yes, all true, but how to convince an academic? Present same with a bunch of peer-reviewed papers on the subject? :)

Some people seem to think I’m a pretty good engineer.

I’ve welded things - but I don’t feel that I really know how to weld.

I’ve made parts in Bridgeports - but I know that I’m not by any means a machinist.

I don’t know if it helps, but from a rational view. Practical skills may not help, but, they definitely don’t hurt. It’s like the 2 or 3 years of practice of engineering before becoming registered as an engineer.


I was once a Navy Electricians Mate. Now I am the lead engineer for the largest generators the Navy has. Didn’t hurt me.

If you had have worked as a mason… it likely wouldn’t have helped.


Hmmmm, I’m trying to think of relevant analogies.

How about:

  • Would a symphony conductor be better or worse without knowing how to play any of the instruments?

  • The recent problems with medical devices failing because of poor design. Made by people with technical knowledge of biology and material science but obviously lacking in the realistic side of things not realizing surgical meshes can migrate in soft tissue.

  • Ok, I think this one might hit the nail on the head. Is a professor best at creating a curriculum and teaching in their first semester as a professor? Or does experience as an educator gain them insights into designing successful courses?

I started my technical career as an operator and maintenance tech, then became an engineer and later an engineering professor (and now back to engineer). I’ve seen that engineers that only have a design background, especially those right out of school, often have problems designing for constructability, maintainability, and operability, because they’ve never had to build, fix, or operate anything. This can lead to big problems and a lot of headaches (RFIs, field modifications, etc.). The farther into development the project goes, the more expensive the fix becomes.

This situation is aggravated by universities employing faculty who have never worked as engineers, but are considered qualified to teach engineering because of a PhD. Unfortunately, the emphasis on research has led to this. Can you imagine letting a medical doctor who has never practiced medicine teach future doctors?

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I don’t know where your colleague got his/her opinion, but I doubt it’s based on a rational analysis of skill. It is probably more closely related to a hidden sense of classism, privilege, or just plain snobbery. If that person holds that believe loudly and repeats it often, then be careful trying to prove the opposite, or, worse, exposing to the world their incompetence. They may not react graciously.

My thoughts: I am the bridge between the theory and the application.
I don’t have to develop the science, but I can put it into action.
I don’t have to saw the wood, but I can specify where it must be cut.
The engineer can see both ends of the bridge, therefore can understand how to cross the river.
The people who stand firmly on either shore can’t do that.

Analogies aside, if you are looking for a strategy to help this person, the slow approach is necessary. Consider the impression that will be made by 3-way conversations where an interlocutor (another technically adept friend) will discuss triumphs of engineering with you where your insights into practical technique were crucial to the success. You two bat it back and forth making sure to applaud each other for your cleverness. At some point turn to your 3rd and ask them if they’ve ever had a comparable experience?

The higher the status of your interlocutor, the more jealous this wayward academic will feel.

Perhaps you could point out to the director that the assumption:

“Engineering Degree = Design Career”

is not necessarily true.

There are plenty of opportunities for graduate engineers in construction management, construction, industrial operations / maintenance, etc. where practical knowledge / experience is a big advantage or even a requirement.

Even if an engineering student’s intent is design, life has a way of forcing unexpected turns (maybe what you are experiencing right now)… which many times is for the better. Not a bad idea to have “backup” skills / credential.

A specific example: We (electric utility) purchased steel tanks from Chicago Bridge & Iron. After construction was complete and crews had demobilized, a welding defect was discovered. CB&I sent one of their (graduate) engineers to design a repair, based on field conditions… then do the welding himself. He told me CB&I required all of their engineers to be certified welders precisely for cases like this… CB&I did not have to mobilize an entire crew to do a few minutes / hours welding.

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Great reply SRE, and you are correct.

It diverges a bit from the original thesis, “The director of the engineering program insists that there is no need for engineers to have practical knowledge of how to run a press/lathe/take your pick because that is what machinists are for. He said I should know how to design a weld but there should be no need for me to actually learn how to weld.”

I remember being chastised by a chief draftsman about 50 years ago for using the term ‘rebar’… I was corrected and the term was ‘reinforcing steel’. It’s good to have the experience and with time you will develop what you need…


Does this academic have MBA training or aspirations?
Remember the MBA statement?:
“A manager has no need to have a knowledge of the processes that he is managing as long as he applies good management techniques.”
There is a gap between the knowledge base of a graduate engineer and a mature engineer.
This gap is filled during the maturing of an engineer.
Part of the knowledge/experience gained after graduation is a knowledge of the weldability, machineability and general constructability of his design.
In some instances this knowledge or lack thereof may not matter.
However if one agrees that this knowledge is important then the easiest, quickest and best way to acquire this knowledge is with hands on experience.
It is not absolutely essential that this knowledge be gained by hands on experience, it’s just that hands on experience is often the the most efficient way to gain this knowledge.
While reading this thread the " Hyatt Regency walkway collapse" came to mind.
Maybe not the best illustration, but related.

Thanks, everyone. He’s a PhD with no experience outside academia which is definitely clouding his view.

I just keep remembering having to redesign connections because I couldn’t picture how the members would go together in the construction sequence. Once I started volunteering for Habitat, I made a lot fewer mistakes like that.

I’ll try to minimize his, shall we say, damage by stressing practical experience in the class I teach and when advising.

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This is all too typical of academia. Fewer and fewer professors have practical experience and many times even less common sense. A few years back I was very pleased to see a new mechanical engineering professor learning to weld, then showing his students a few practical applications.

In my classes, one segment I teach is welding. My welding experience as well as my years in testing and inspection of welding have been incredibly valuable in conveying the practical aspects as well as the theoretical.

Tell the director…“In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not!”:grinning:


Many have a tendency to dismiss as unimportant that with which they do not know or understand.
As in;
“Look how successful I am.
If I don’t know it then surely it is not important.”

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This right here!