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Driver's seat of a cadillac major

Every year, I am surprised to meet people who have never set foot inside the E-Quad. I bemoan each one's loss, for the E-Quad is a truly wondrous place. Of course, all the rumors you have heard are true. There are showers in the walls (I recommend the ones in the J-Wing for both water pressure and temperature regulation), bells that sound every once in a while to remind you to leave, and even a front door that speaks to you for free after 7 p.m. on weeknights and all day Saturday and Sunday.

However, I don't believe that the rumors about the building itself keep people away, but rather apprehension about who one might encounter within. I usually like to discount all theories suggesting that engineers are anything but well adjusted, groovy individuals, since I do count myself among their number. However, some recent discoveries have disturbed me.

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A good example is a clipping from The Daily Princetonian which has been posted in the MAE Department. Explaining that team morale helped their win, a member of the men's swimming team is quoted saying, "I think we got caught in a positive-feedback loop," under which someone has added handwritten editorial comments assuring us all that such a loop would be electronically unstable.

I will have to divide engineers into three groups: theorists, builders and designers. Unfortunately, theorists are confined by spasmodic arm muscles to write down silly equations all day; while builders are confined to machine shops all day to search for their lost digits. Designers, by contrast, are interesting, engaging folks who desire to take a leading role in the advancement of society. I am a designer, so any further references to theorists or builders will not be necessary.

For the designer, engineering is a personality-forming experience. I mean this quite literally. Suppose the engineer is designing a Cadillac from scratch. He's got ten million engineering problems to solve, from engine to chassis to interior accessories. If he does his job correctly, the behavior of every component in the car will be consistent. The engine will be quiet and refined; the ride, supple and luxurious; the power windows, gentle and unobtrusive.

If every part of the car behaves in a way that is consistent with the behavior of every other part, then the car will take on a kind of personality. If the driver comes to trust and enjoy this personality, then he will enjoy his Cadillac. However, if one component is inconsistent – a tinny sound when the door is slammed, poor handling or rough engine noises – then this persona will be lost and the car will amount merely to the sum of its parts, not worthy of the premium paid for it.

This creative pursuit of building a personality is probably the most rewarding part of being a designer. It requires us to understand the most subtle things about people. It is not unlike the work of a filmmaker, a novelist, or an advertiser, who work creatively and subtly to evoke feelings within people and communicate a message. A person interacts with a machine in a more immediate and direct way, though, than he or she does with a movie, novel or advertisement. In addition, the interaction is controlled completely by the user, to whom the machine must always react directly and immediately.

Of course, anything as complicated as an automobile cannot be designed by a single person. Thousands of people make contributions, some of whom want to preserve quality and others who want to keep costs down. It puts an extra challenge on the creativity of design engineers to preserve the personality of the car in the midst of a chaos of competing interests. In Mary Walton's book "Car: A Drama of the American Workplace," the author chronicles the development of the current-generation Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable from early 1991 to their introduction in 1995. Today, cars are designed by platform teams comprised of diverse individuals. The spirit of teamwork is supposed to replace competing interests and keep the design focused. In fact, not all of these team members are engineers. Sadly, the word engineer has even become a derogatory term around Detroit boardrooms.

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Now how did that happen? My suspicion is that they let some of those spasmodic theorists in by mistake.

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