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Does hands-on experience beat a university degree?

By Dennis Keay

I wouldn’t want to receive brain surgery from someone who ONLY had hands-on experience and hadn’t studied the subject, in depth at uni (and passed all their exams).  Similarly, I wouldn’t want someone who had ONLY studied the theory to be wielding a scalpel above my head without having had years of experience operating on less vital organs than my brain!

Thankfully, our medical system would not allow someone with just the theory to be wielding the knife before they’ve demonstrated significant practical competence as well. The risks are obviously just too great!

Yet, when it comes to letting graduate engineers get behind a computer to design parts, most manufacturers, in my experience, don’t seem to understand the inherent risks, and don’t insist on the graduate first getting their hands dirty on the practical side. Just as bad, the graduate engineer is often naïve enough to not know the dangers!

As an example, I was chatting with a graduate mechanical engineer recently who was less than a year out of uni and in the position of ‘Mechanical Design Engineer’. I asked him if he was getting any hands-on experience with manufacturing and assembly, rather than just the design side. His answer was, “No, I’m gaining design related knowledge but not hands on. I prefer being part of a design team rather manufacturing.”

This concerned me enough to write this article, in the hope that it may prompt you to see if this issue exists within your business, then to do something about it.

As I explained to this young engineer, by way of example, “It’s very easy to design a part with a 1mm bend radius, but how do you know if that’s practical or not? What if your equipment is only capable of producing a 4mm bend radius, then what? What would the people on the shop-floor do? Would they:

  • try to modify their equipment or order in new equipment?
  • try to do it by hand because it can’t be done on their machine?
  • insist that the part needs to be outsourced to someone with different equipment?
  • make it with a 4mm radius and cross their fingers that you really don’t care about the radius
  • come back to you and ask if a 1mm bend radius is critical, or would a 4mm radius do?”

No matter which way you look at it, there’s going to be time and money wasted, and probably a lot of people on the shop floor wondering what the hell possessed Management to put a ‘wet behind the ears kid’ in the role of Design Engineer?

I’ve seen this type of scenario play out time and time again in a range of different companies, both small and large, often with the company incurring significant and unnecessary costs as a result.

Now, I’m not trying to be too critical, after all, I’m a mechanical engineer myself, though I am glad I went to a trade school where I got a fair bit of hands-on experience making things, and did further hands-on work during vacation jobs while at uni. I’m not saying this was enough to be an expert at design, but enough for me to know that theory alone just doesn’t cut it!

My strong recommendation to any manufacturing company is to INSIST that their design engineers, regardless of whether they’re recent graduates or not, go down to the shop floor and get to use the tools and equipment, or at least work alongside those who are qualified to use the equipment, to fully understand the capabilities of the manufacturing processes and the manufacturability issues that the people on the shop floor are challenged with.

Not only does this help improve the designs from a manufacturability point of view, importantly, it also helps break down the ‘US and THEM’ silos that often exist between the shop floor and the office.

There’s so much to be learned from the people on the shop floor, and in my experience, they’re only too happy to share their deep knowledge and experience with others who are willing to listen and learn. It makes for much more robust designs and a well-functioning workplace.

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