If you were about to be dropped in the wilderness, to survive on your own, what tools would you bring?

If you were about to be hired into a company, to engineer on your own, what tools would you bring?

If you were given the opportunity to practice with these tools before the event, would you?

If you were watching a professional perform, in their element, with their tools, what would it look like?

Ask any modern practitioner to see their tool kit and you might get a strange look. Not once in my career has a professor showed me their starter tool kit, the tools they keep handy to orchestrate their magic. So, here’s my starter tool kit for engineers – the tools I keep handy for when somebody calls with an engineering problem. The tools that help me start, parse, and solve problems, faster, cheaper, with more feeling, and with more fun.

  1. Introduction – the HYPER moleskin – When the phone rings, or somebody pulls me aside in a meeting, I reach for the HYPER lab moleskin notebook in my pack for three reasons: 1) To make the person in front of me feel like I am listening and believe what they are saying is important. 2) The physical act of writing and drawing connections helps me build a mental map for remembering the discussion later. 3) I can quickly sketch simple concepts, sometimes even with dimensions using a grid, to make sure we are on the same page before closing the exchange, else I can doodle. While I always have a pocket computer for images and video for recording everything, these tools are still not effective for breaking down and analyzing only what matters for a problem. It can take considerably work subtracting all the noise from an image or video. Instead, I add only the essentials using a Pental GraphGear 1000 Automatic Drafting pencil with a 0.7 mm graphite. Thicker (0.7 mm vs 0.5 mm) graphite is 4x less susceptible to buckling and continuously produces fine lines when the pencil is rotated while drawing. I use a Westcott Engineer’s Ruler which doubles as a protractor and bookmark. I also have an antique compass my engineering grandfather used at WSU when he was in school. I do not prep the moleskin aside from titling the page with the date and client contact info. I do not attempt to structure the engagement in any contrived way. I need the client to give me their most unobstructed version of the problem so that I can understand where they are coming from. Once they’ve told their story, sometimes I’ll ask what a solution MUST and SHOULD do. I always follow important engagements with an email summarizing the problem to ensure we’re still on the same page. Paper is still reliably faster at setting up problems than electronic tablets and software. However, every engineering program I’ve visited starts to teach engineering to freshman via CAD software. 4 out of 5 times I give someone a problem they spend an afternoon in CAD, only for me to tell them that’s not what I had in mind at all. Or, they become stuck trying to setup the problems because they’ve only ever had practice solving canned problems, not structuring them from scratch. Luck is the word we invented for the solving of problems we don’t yet understand. The HYPER moleskin, mechanical pencil, and ruler are the tools that most quickly define a problem.
  2. Background – the HYPER File Structure – The phone rings because I may have the best knowledge of cryogenic hydrogen literature out there. This is due primarily to two reviews of the thermophysical properties of hydrogen that initiated my research career. I combed through hundreds of papers and thousands of data points, keeping bins for everything that I came across that was interesting. I don’t have a good enough memory to recall all of these papers, it’s how I binned the information that is important. At the most fundamental level I use base SI units and the derived unit combinations to form the bins: https://www.nist.gov/pml/weights-and-measures/metric-si/si-units. Within each of these bins, if sufficient works exist, I can further break down the different technological concepts by Technology Readiness Level (TRL): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technology_readiness_level. I can generally remember if a bin is full (>8 quality works), medium (2-8), or near empty (<2 quality works) and can use this to quickly say how basic a problem is. To advance a technology I need access to basic material property trends at cryogenic temperatures from REFPROP or Jack Ekin’s book: https://www.researchmeasurements.com/figure-index/. All resources, and our prior work I keep in four folders on my desktop: 1) Research, 2) Teaching/learning, 3) Service, and 4) Family for personal things (note this file structure also mirrors the HYPER lab website). With this I can usually spot the gap in understanding and formulate a hypothesis for filling the gap and solving a problem.
  3. Theory the HYPER way – Not exact, not better, but faster. The quickest you can get yourself in the ballpark with estimates from simple maths, the faster you’ll know to what level of precision and accuracy an analysis requires. What do I mean by simple maths? Not calculus, not differential equations, not finite element analysis. Each base unit system and derived unit combinations from the prior section have a set of simple algebraic equations and dimensionless parameters that can function well for fast estimates. Examples: energy and entropy balances, Ohm’s law, Fourier’s law, diffusive time constants, etc. Each of these simple equations help you quickly determine the relative significance of parameters for a problem. Once I know the relative energies involved, what the key parameters are, and how well we know those parameters (sensitivity analysis), we start to know whether we need an advanced simulation technique or a measurement to proceed. If more sophistication is required I reach for Greg Nellis’ Heat Transfer textbook to begin breaking down the more complex math. If it’s multi-dimensional with multi-physics I’ll then need to go for a finite element analysis system or experiment. Many just jump ahead to a sophisticated tool or experiment and waste considerable resources before determining what matters, based on the simple maths. Most of these maths can be done in my head, or with a calculator app on any computer (graphing calculators are antiquated, simple maths are not). Engineering Equation Solve (EES) is a great tool for doing the simple maths and checking units before a one click sensitivity analysis. When I teach the fundamentals of hydrogen I tend to focus on the fundamental equations that show the simple physical trends that will never change. And with these simple maths, I can play. I know the limits of what we can do with an experiment, before beginning the experiment.
  4. Experiment the most ____ tools in the laboratory – The most overlooked tool in the lab is a safety and corresponding test plan. But how can you have a plan with research? Isn’t it considered research when nobody has ever done it before? All of the instruments, all of the tools, all have been used before, you are simply doing it differently. Get your items assembled, plan the connections via a plumbing and instrumentation diagram (P&ID), know that they work, know how they should not work (HAZOP), then have your action plan ready to execute. Then begin. The most overlooked tool in the lab is a good plan. The most useful/flexible/hackable tool in the lab when executing a plan may be the digital voltmeter with thermocouple option. All of our recorded sensor readings are electronic, all of these sensor readings require connectivity of wires, all of our systems involve temperature. A circuit can help the voltmeter to measure or check all measurements. The most useful tool in the lab is a digital voltmeter with thermocouple. The most abused tool in the laboratory is a pressure regulator. The amount of fluid power in a standard k-size gas cylinder is orders of magnitude larger than any handgun and has the potential to go through walls. Most lab pressure regulators are kept in messy drawers and applied without training or history logs. They should be kept in foam and sealed boxes, with an accompanying use log. And they should be regularly worshipped for keeping us safe. The most abused tool in the laboratory is a pressure regulator. The most under-rated tool in the lab is the cleaning cart. Cleaning carts directly counter the destruction of useful work: entropy. A clean canvas is an invitation. We must never run out of invitations to begin. The most under-rated tool in the lab is the cleaning cart. This section was cyclic, starting with the plan, working towards finish and clean up. We continuously improve these processes with every attempt. The more we practice, the full cycle, the better we get.
  5. Results – or how to fold a piece of paper – The point of this post is to show that good engineering starts very simply, with simple tools, and quickly, much like folding a sheet of paper. You don’t need to be an engineer or know any magic to fold a sheet of paper. You just do it. But, ask an engineer how they fold a sheet of paper and you’ll likely return a stack overflow error. Engineers are trained to be analytical and, as a result, force simple acts like folding a sheet of paper into unnecessarily sophisticated analytical frameworks. All we needed to hear was that one end of the paper is brought towards another, then force is applied to the seam. That’s how anyone folds a sheet of paper. What makes engineers special though, is that we see the arcs the machines will move, the slider zipping along the crease, the limits on servo machinery speeds, the jigging for perfection, and the parallel paths to do this faster and easier while making someone’s life a little bit better. An engineer sees the above steps and tools as a process to fold paper better than it has ever been folded before. The result is so simple, fast, efficient, and elegant to appear magical… and likely will be worshipped as magical to someone who had to do it previously by hand and is covered in papercuts. That is how an engineer folds a piece of paper.

We lose the ability to work on and service complex machines not through malevolence or obfuscation, but through the natural evolution of things, and trades. Our senses are evolved for entropy – from tactile touch to audible acoustics, tasty treats to simple sights. The less efficient something is, the more entropy it generates, and the more we tend to notice it. So as systems increase in sophistication and efficiency, it’s only natural for our senses and understanding to diminish. The cars, smartphones, and devices we use daily have become so technologically sophisticated and efficient to be indistinguishable from magic. As we lose these abilities it’s easy to forget the simple steps, tricks, and tools that we practice in order to confidently and efficiently proceed into the sophisticated.

So go get yourself some decent tools, watch closely, and practice in as undisciplined and fun way as you can. You may find yourself doing the magic sooner than you think.