In his most recent article, Application Consulting Engineer Ryan Nabozniak challenged engineers to widen their perspective by collaborating with professionals not just in different engineering disciplines, but in different fields altogether. This type of collaboration, which harnesses a wide range of expertise and creativity, is the key to true innovation and to creating a better future.
To kickstart this process and encourage everyone to think outside the box, we’ve put together this list of seven non-engineering professionals engineers should collaborate with, along with some examples of the amazing results that can come out of these partnerships.
In his article, Nabozniak gave the example of a civil engineering student who was trying to model the work processes of underground sanitation crews in Edmonton:
“He wanted to determine if he could better motivate these crews and find efficiencies using statistical modeling. I suggested that he talk to an anthropologist. At first, this might sound like a crazy idea, but given some thought and what he was trying to do – influence a diverse group of individuals – it wasn’t so crazy after all.”
Not only is it not crazy, it’s actually a perfect fit.
Anthropology, which the American Anthropological Association defines as “the study of what makes us human,” explores the broad range of human experience. While engineers may take a technical approach to problem-solving, anthropologists take a human approach. Put those two approaches together and you have a solution that works, and also will be accepted by the people it’s intended to help.
For example, anthropology and engineering students from Case Western Reserve University are collaborating with biomedical engineering students from Makerere University to tackle the health issue of medical waste management in Uganda. Currently, medical waste is often thrown into a pile behind the clinic, and then occasionally burned. The goal of the project is to create a safe solution that’s both technically viable and fits with how the health clinic workers do their jobs.
Janet McGrath, the anthropology professor whose students are working on the project, commented:
“When we’re talking about complex issues in global health, the literature in global health is littered with examples of so-called solutions that have been proposed that haven’t succeeded, and they haven’t succeeded for complex reasons. As anthropologists, we aren’t trained to design and test technological solutions to the needs we see. For this reason, a collaboration between social scientists and engineers has a clear benefit to global health.”
Engineering and anthropology fit so well together that “engineering anthropologist” is a role at some companies today. For a good perspective on how these two fields fit together, read Gladys Ndagire: Engineer-anthropologist in the Brown Daily Herald.
Similar to anthropologists, psychologists can help engineers understand the human aspect of their projects. In fact, psychology and engineering are intimately intertwined.
This article from Canada’s Ryerson University explores the strong link between psychology and civil engineering, focusing on ergonomics. The field of ergonomics uses information about how humans interact with products, machines, and systems to optimize the design of those products, machines, and systems. This requires understanding both the humans (psychology) and the technology (engineering). Ergonomics is vital to transportation, construction, and many other areas of civil engineering.
Also, just like with anthropology, the link between engineering and psychology is so important that there’s a whole field devoted to it: engineering psychology.
This one may sound obvious. Especially on civil engineering projects, engineers and architects need to work together all of the time. Architects focus on form, engineers on function, and the end result is a building or other structure.
The problem, which is well recognized in the industry, is that engineers and architects don’t always work together very well. They have a hard time “playing nice.”
Here are some common perceptions that get in the way:
- Architects think engineers don’t care about how something looks, just about how it works.
- Engineers think architects care only about how something looks, rather than about how it works.
Of course, neither of these perceptions is true. It’s just that the two groups approach problems from different perspectives. And they each have difficulty putting themselves in the other’s shoes.
But that’s exactly what they need to do. Research has shown that not understanding other disciplines is a significant stumbling block to effective cross-disciplinary collaboration.
Fortunately, that’s an easy problem to solve through education and communication. If engineers and architects were to sit down and focus on understanding one another, they’d likely discover their common ground. And once engineers and architects are on the same page, the result is structural poetry.
For many years, engineering and biology were close to opposite ends of the spectrum (for the polar opposites, see the section on artists below). But nanotechnology, and in particular, nanomedicine, has changed all of that.
For example, the MIT-Harvard Center for Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence, which is a collaboration among some of the top U.S. medical organizations, brings together engineers, biologists, and medical doctors to with the goal of “developing a diversified portfolio of nanoscale devices for targeted delivery of cancer therapies, diagnostics, non-invasive imaging, and molecular sensing.” Their projects include targeted nanoparticles for treating prostate cancer, magnetic nanoparticles for multimodal, non-invasive tumor imaging, and low-toxicity nanocrystal quantum dots for biomedical sensing.
Hopefully, these types of collaborations will put an end to the idea that “biologists are from Mars, engineers are from Venus” and result in innovative treatments that neither discipline could have achieved on its own.
On the surface of it, artists seem even farther from engineers than do biologists. Artists are driven by creativity and intuition, engineers by logic and data.
Research supports the distinction between these professions. A study by Mark Gridley for the National Career Development Association found that artists and engineers do, indeed, think differently:
- Artists prefer creating their own plans, while engineers prefer executing the plans of others.
- Artists are more “anarchic” than engineers in their thinking, which means they are willing to consider a wider range of solutions.
- Artists prefer to work alone, while engineers don’t mind outside input.
However, both engineers and artists are visionaries in their own right. And, when reading this list, it’s easy to see the benefit of having both perspectives at the table. For example, because of their more “anarchic” thinking, artists may be able to see solutions that engineers don’t. This can result in engineers completely rethinking a problem and creating innovative solutions that they never would have thought possible.
For a fun read on the relationship between the two fields, here’s Kevin Morris’s The Artist and the Engineer (Kevin is an engineer married to an artist, so he has unique insight). And for a great example of an art-engineering collaboration, check out The Creators Project.
In a 2013 editorial for Ecological Engineering, the journal’s editor-in-chief Dr. William J. Mitsch posed the question: “When will ecologists learn engineering and engineers learn ecology?”
This question arose from Mitsch’s evaluation of six major wetland restoration projects, only two of which he views as successful and sustainable. If engineers and ecologists had worked more closely, the results might have been more positive. (The full article requires a subscription, but you can find a wrap-up here.)
Indeed, there is a lot to be gained from a collaboration between these two disciplines. For example, Lisa Palmer has explored research showing how ecological principles can be incorporated into water management products to make them more sustainable. And engineering projects that take ecosystems into account are better at mitigating the effects of natural disasters, like flooding, than either natural or engineered systems alone.
To learn more about the power of partnership between these disciplines, skim through Engineering Within Ecological Constraints, published by the National Academy of Engineering.
Pilots and astronauts
Finally, for any projects related to flight, collaboration between engineers and pilots is absolutely crucial.
Engineers may understand flight dynamics and what aircraft can do in terms of range and efficiency, but pilots know what it’s like to actually fly a plane. In this respect, it’s somewhat like the relationship between engineers and artists — engineers understand the data, pilots understand the feeling.
Both perspectives are important when designing and developing new aircraft. As an example, this article from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics describes how “communication and and collaboration between flight test engineers and test pilots” was integral in the development of hypersonic flight.
What all of these examples show is that working together benefits both the engineers and the outside professionals. And it often leads to solutions that neither discipline would have arrived at on its own.
Of course, these are just some of the myriad opportunities out there. If you have a story or an example of a successful collaboration between engineering and an outside discipline, please share it in the comments. We’d love to hear it!