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Is tinkering/getting hands dirty the next best thing to experience?

Is tinkering/getting hands dirty the next best thing to experience?

Is tinkering/getting hands dirty the next best thing to experience?

Hi folks!

So I'm in college right now and started later at age 28. Halfway through now and while I'm looking to get an internship, I really want to start getting into the process as soon as I can considering I will be graduating in my early 30's. I know years of experience can't really be fast tracked, but I'm looking to find the best way possible to start really learning about the "art and craft" of engineering.

The best way I've thought about doing this is just getting stuck right in. As a mechanical, I'm taking a manual machining class at a tech school In the next few months so I can get a bit of hands on to see the other side of the theory and how everything all turns out. It will be interesting to see how this matches with my recently completed CAD course. I'm also starting to mess around with arduino which should introduce me to electronics and programming. I'm sort of hoping that by this time next year I can start tying it all together and make some sort of cool project that really tests my skills. I've also signed up to a Maker space in my area that has Lathes, Milling machines, electronics lab, laser cutter, pretty much anything you can think of so I will try and hone some skills there also. I am aware of the sometimes hostile Tradesmen<--->Engineer relationship, so I'm hoping some of these skills will help in being a better designer who can see things from boths sides!

I'm just wondering what anybody else recommends, has any experience in or has done themselves that might be helpful (or anything else I should be doing).


RE: Is tinkering/getting hands dirty the next best thing to experience?

Having hands-on skills as a tech before I studied engineering has made me more successful as a design engineer, since I take constructibility, operability, maintainability, etc. into account when designing. I'm one of the few EEs I know that most electricians I work with don't hate. (However, that's after they get to know my skill level; it's normal for them to hate engineers in the beginning. I did when I was a tech, because most engineers didn't know what they were doing, but thought they did. As a lead tech I had a saying: "If you see an engineer walking toward a piece of equipment with a tool in hand, tackle. If you see an engineer walking away from a piece of equipment with a tool in hand, run!")

However, when I later taught engineering in college, I tried to reverse the tendencies of students who wanted to start by grabbing parts so they could build things by tinkering. I wanted them to learn to have a "design first, build second" mentality. When I taught design, I made sure they understood that they needed to design something, then analyze it using the analysis techniques they had learned - using math, computer modeling, etc., taking into account constraints like codes & standards, schedule, budget, staffing availability, etc. I even sometimes left out key information that I then made them aware of late in their design cycle so that they'd be forced to iterate on their designs. Finally, I made them work as teams, breaking up the tasks among them, and having one member execute a task and a second member check their work, with a third member providing final approval. Once their design was finished, they had to present it for review by me in front of the whole class, where I praised them for what they did well and mercilessly picked apart what they did poorly. Only after they had a final design did I let them build it in the lab, then test it. I clarified my point during the lab - the brain work in the project's front end minimized or eliminated potentially costly errors further down the project timeline. Granted, not every error was eliminated during the design process, but they sure caught a lot of them that would have really screwed things up later.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that hands-on skills can help you as an engineer, but don't forget to learn to plan-do-check-act-iterate like an engineer along the way.

"Live and act within the limit of your knowledge and keep expanding it to the limit of your life." Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged.
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RE: Is tinkering/getting hands dirty the next best thing to experience?

A machining and fabrication course was SOP for the British mechanical engineers, in fact it was compulsory at my university AND at my first job. So that's a good idea. I built a steam engine at home before I left school, so the machining side of things was nothing new to me, although it was nice to be using industrial stuff rather than a hobbyist lathe. I hate the word tinker by the way. Design and build things,don't fiddle about.


Greg Locock

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RE: Is tinkering/getting hands dirty the next best thing to experience?

Next best thing to experience? It IS experience! It's invaluable knowledge.

RE: Is tinkering/getting hands dirty the next best thing to experience?

My first suggestion is to lose the attitude that tradesmen hate engineers and vice versa... it may be true, there's plenty of time to prove that old adage out, and in the meantime you'll be missing out on some good camaraderie and life lessons.

Second, I doubt a CAD class will help you to the degree you think it will while working a manual lathe or whatnot. It will help you read a drawing, sure, but a lot of manual machining work is from experience and feel, neither of which you were taught in a CAD class. Getting to know how speed/feed works for a specific material, how complex objects are held down, proper and accurate measurements, multiple origins, etc. Experience is your friend here.

Arduinos aren't really the way to learn electronics OR programming, particularly if the board is running an OS. You can follow a script on how to toggle some I/O pins, but that doesn't teach electronics, only how to turn something on/off.

You may read the above as me being overly harsh, but that's not the intent. I applaud anyone who wishes to continue their education, but your expectations are somewhat out of whack from reality... perhaps the experience of getting that education will revise those expectations (which is what happens to most students, soooo...)

Dan - Owner

RE: Is tinkering/getting hands dirty the next best thing to experience?

I think you are being a bit harsh on Arduino, I built some nice stuff for my home solar PV lashup based on Arduino. Basically the system is 48V but I have a legacy 12V system. With the Arduino I detected when the 12V system was charged and then ran it for 10 minutes into the main system via a buck/boost DC-DC converter. It's also pretty good for robotics but I haven't got far into that yet.


Greg Locock

New here? Try reading these, they might help FAQ731-376: Eng-Tips.com Forum Policies http://eng-tips.com/market.cfm?

RE: Is tinkering/getting hands dirty the next best thing to experience?

Innocent Bystander: you are absolutely doing the right thing.

I interview at least 30 students a year for our internship program. Very few of them know the key secret: a good engineer doesn't just have a resume or CV (good ones have both- one brief, to get your foot in the door for an interview, the other very detailed, to convince the interviewer that they were right to decide you were a top candidate), they also have a PORTFOLIO. Show and tell works- it's worth 10,000 words you will never otherwise get a chance to speak. The kids who show up for interviews with a portfolio of past projects almost always blow the others away in the interview process. The portfolio becomes less important than your contacts network as you gain more work experience, but you should still have one. It uses human nature to your advantage.

I'm curious about the rest of your background. Many of us were already engineering stuff in high school- going into engineering in university was a way to turn that informal hands-on education and early experience into a career (with a solid theoretical underpinning behind it, so we not only know how to do things the right way, but also WHY). Were you already doing things like that before you decided to start an engineering undergrad at 28, or what were your motivations?

In my case, I grew up in a house with a lathe and a milling machine and a gifted but uneducated father to teach me to use them, and I did chemical photography and electronics as hobbies. In high school I designed and built an automated colour print processor, using a Radio Shack Colour Computer (a contemporary of the Apple 2 and Commodore Pet) to automate it (and yes, I'm that old...) and scrounged or surplus store parts for every other component. I took that project to (minor) awards at the national science fair- and I took that project book as my "portfolio" into my first interviews, which got me my first couple of co-op jobs, which directly resulted in my 1st job out of school during a terrible job market.

So yes, by all means- don't just "tinker", but design and build things- crossing disciplines, using that Arduino. Document the design process and generate 1st rate work product and photographs to go with it. Seek out project team competitions and participate in them. Use that maker space and learn how to use all the tools there properly. You'll soon have a portfolio which will help you land an excellent PAID internship (don't accept unpaid ones even if you can afford it- by doing that you're de-valuing the services of all the paid engineering interns out there, including the ones I hire every term). The internships will lead to work- and eventually you will be able to build a career in the areas of engineering which really turn your crank.

Best of luck to you- it sounds like you're definitely on the right track.

RE: Is tinkering/getting hands dirty the next best thing to experience?

I grew up in several family trades businesses then spent a decade as a mechanic and fabricator before fast-tracking up through the research side of the engineering ranks so take this with a grain of salt but....

I often have folks in the trades who know me state their belief that my background is why I'm a better engineer than most of my experience level, and I usually semi-agree bc realistically 99% of it isnt applicable to design engineering. On the trade side you spend a lot of time mastering a few very specific skills. A good engineer needs a much wider but not as in-depth knowledge base. IMHO developing skill on the trades side isnt important, its getting the shop exposure to the other trades, learning the basics of what they do, how they do it, and how to communicate with them that is. That being said, a good engineering program requires at least a few trades classes and some very useful/practical design skills' classes. Mine required a class each on manual and cnc machine operations, print reading including GD&T, and at least one solid modeler. I took those plus five(?) welding courses including certification and two solid modelers (Solidworks and Pro/E). If you have opportunity for hands-on material science courses take them, casting and forging design are great niches to be in and not many engineers have hands-on experience with them.

I took the required electronics/electrical course but honestly wouldnt recommend focusing too much time/effort on electronics or mechatronic design unless you dual ME/EE, most mechatronic design in industry is handled by EEs as its easier for them to cross-train to gain a few ME skills than it is for a ME to get the many EE development skills. Programming for me was C and JAVA, wish I'd taken Visual Basic as its VERY useful for automating excel, but honestly programming is much the same - you will want some basic skill for your own use but anything important to others will be handled by an actual programmer.

Many of the older fellas here have a dim view of learning software like solid modeling, FEA, and CFD in college or even design skills classes like advanced print reading/creation/stackups/GD&T vs more basic engineering classes but IMHO the former two are a necessity to getting ahead today. I believe anyone getting into mechanical design today should be comfortable at some basic level in creating 3d models, running both paper and computerized FEA/CFD, and drafting/reading prints. You may never need to be an expert at aspects of those, but you should be comfortable doing them as a huge chunk of the job revolves around them.

RE: Is tinkering/getting hands dirty the next best thing to experience?

(further to xnuke's comments)
While you're digging deep into the details of CAD, machining and electronics, don't forget to come up for air once in a while and take stock of the bigger picture of what you're working on. I find a lot of new grads like to focus on the details on the type of CAD they can use, or the flavour of microcontroller that they have experience using. The best engineers I work with are the ones who recognize that these tools are no different than a hammer, and no one really cares what brand of hammer you're using, provided that you know what to do with it when you're holding it (and that you're not mangling that nice deadblow on a set of letter punches like a co-op did here last week). Same goes for CAD tools - I'm of the opinion that if you can learn one of the major packages, we can train you up on what we use, maybe not to expert levels right away but enough to get the work we need done.

Ask yourself the following about your projects:

-What are the requirements of my design?
-What are the constraints imposed on it? Which of these are hard limits, which are just nice to haves?
-How does my proposed design meet the requirements and constraints?
-What are the failure modes of the proposed design?
-How will it be tested ? (verification, aka am I doing the thing right?)
-Do the tests truly confirm that the design meets the requirements? (validation, aka am I doing the right thing?)

When you start asking these questions about the work that you do at school and in your makerspace projects, you'll help to condition yourself to look for what really matters when you join the workforce. They spent a lot of time in uni teaching us differential equations, but not enough time teaching the concepts listed above.

And don't be surprised that if you start answering the questions above, you realize your design is not viable and you need to start again. Another skill I find that a lot of new grads need to develop is the ability to let go of something they've invested time and effort towards when it isn't the right solution.

RE: Is tinkering/getting hands dirty the next best thing to experience?

Quote (OP)

I am aware of the sometimes hostile Tradesmen<--->Engineer relationship
I am lucky in the way that there is never any bad friction when working with technicians and drafters. I trust them to perform most excellently. They in turn would trust me to listen to them, do my part, and share credit for successful projects. We have as much fun as we can working together. Engineers can't be expected to know-it-all or do-it-all. Incompetence is a separate matter...

Quote (OP)

I'm just wondering what anybody else recommends
I would recommend you look into participating in your school's SAE Collegiate Design Series (or start a team if none exist). The experience there is closer to engineering compared to maker-space. You'll be part of the team solving problems and weighing trade offs. You are guaranteed to get your hands dirty while learning other soft skills.

Good luck,

RE: Is tinkering/getting hands dirty the next best thing to experience?

No bad ideas precede this, but just want to add an idea: after you take a basic metallurgy or materials class, take some time to learn to TIG weld (take a class or just do it by feel and Youtube video instructions like I did). I've picked it up recently (30 years since graduation) and am enjoying it immensely.

RE: Is tinkering/getting hands dirty the next best thing to experience?

Whether it's renovating your kitchen or tinkering with cars and motorcycles or whatever you fancy. Get real. There is no substitute for real world experience. Swing a hammer. Fabricate. Machine. Weld. (Or whatever else is appropriate to what interests you.)

My father was a machinist and we had a workshop in the garage. When the tractor broke (rural property) he fixed it and I watched and learned. We played with bicycles and motorcycles. Broke stuff ... fixed stuff. Designed and built new stuff, too. Still do.

I installed new lights and drywalled my workshop, welded together the frame for my workbench. There are 2 vehicles in the driveway and 5 motorcycles in the shop, and I don't own a vehicle that is not modified. All but one of the bikes has been apart and rebuilt (the one exception is a 2015 model).

Computers, not so much. I sit in front of them and type at them.

RE: Is tinkering/getting hands dirty the next best thing to experience?

...tinkering/getting hands dirty IS experience...
Cannot agree more with TheTick.

RE: Is tinkering/getting hands dirty the next best thing to experience?

Stupid interview trick: Make sure you have an indelible grease smudge on the back of your writing hand. The right people will notice. Knuckle bandages are good, too.

RE: Is tinkering/getting hands dirty the next best thing to experience?

Innocent Bystander
When I used to hire people, a person with your aspirations and the fact that you are prepared to " Tinker " will get a lot more attention from me than a person who describes in 4 pages how he carried the trash out at McDonalds whilst working on his degree.
Do not even mention hostilities between engineers and tradesmen, it is a husband and wife thing, each cannot get along without the other

Whilst xnuke used the word "tinkering" in a bit of a derogatory sense . It is actually an honorable trade , I served my apprenticeship as a tinker ( Tinsmith ), a trade that goes back to the middle ages, before I moved on to other things. Tinkers were travelling tinsmiths/whitesmiths, who wandered the country side very often in a horse drawn wagon making, and repairing pots and pans for customers. The Tinkers very often were lumped in with the gypsies, who were not considered to be as honorable because the gypsies also used horse drawn wagons, so the name came to be a derogatory term.

You are judged not by what you know, but by what you can do.

RE: Is tinkering/getting hands dirty the next best thing to experience?

Great advice and fun feedback, IB. Do what you love doing.
In my previous job, tinkering was part of the company culture. If you didn't have some hobbies on the side you didn't fit in.


RE: Is tinkering/getting hands dirty the next best thing to experience?

I love fixing stuff. So I go to customer site fix a bunch of stuff and it works at end with no alarms.
I was in military and got to fix stuff there too.
I think this is true of electrical engineering. If i had a management position i would go nuts.

RE: Is tinkering/getting hands dirty the next best thing to experience?

^ Same here. Field service position beats management position any day.

RE: Is tinkering/getting hands dirty the next best thing to experience?

These days I spend too much time on the wrong side of the divide. I feel like I've lost a lot of skills in recent years, although in reality I think they're still there - they're just not as immediate as they once were. I think that's part of the reason why I spend some of my spare time doing practical stuff, even if half the time it is helping friends with their stuff!

RE: Is tinkering/getting hands dirty the next best thing to experience?

Rereading the original post along with the responses I thought it pertinent to mention that while yes, tinkering with hobbies can do great things to teach practical engineering and looks good on resumes, while you're in college you really do need to do as many internships as possible. I've had interns start during their first year of college and some that worked every semester since.

RE: Is tinkering/getting hands dirty the next best thing to experience?

Scotty, that's the (main) reason I left my prior job... I felt the engineering skillset was simply getting too rusty for comfort. Cookie-cutter designs don't stretch the mind as much as I would like.

Dan - Owner

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