9 responses to “Died-in-the-wool engineer”

  1. simjockey

    I agree with your colleague. Using cheaper equipment might “get the job done”, but it’s often frustrating to use and might cost more in lost productivity. Sure engineering is all about trade-offs but these are trade-offs in the object being engineered, not in the process of engineering itself.

    However, my experience is limited to computer engineering – where somethings cost a lot of money but are basically “must-haves” and the others are rather cheap even when you’re buying expensive things. I recognize that other fields might have to make different decisions about equipment.

  2. Jacob

    Yes, I think that your colleague is basically saying that it will be worth it in the long run, if you choose the highest quality item. I am often inclined to agree, in that the higher cost of the product probably reflects a lot of effort put into improving it, and that effort wouldn’t have been invested without reason. For example, although it’s easy to find a very cheap soldering iron, it might be worth spending extra for one that has closed-loop temperature control, a fume extractor, and which won’t burn out after a month of use.

    There are irons that will burn out quickly due to cheap materials and careless design, and although these will be the least expensive, why purchase something like that? Someone in another company has invested a few years figuring out how to make a better product, and although it will cost more to buy, that research ought to be worth the cost. That is to say, a soldering iron that lasts twice as long should cost less than twice as much as the cheaper variety.

    Of course, if you can’t afford the more expensive tool, you have to make do. And if you need to buy two tools with the same pool of cash, you might not be able to afford both. And there’s always wasteful ways to spend money on excessive features you don’t need and will never use.

    But it’s generally a bad idea to opt for a lower-quality tool out of concern for cost, because it will cost more in the long run.

  3. Dave Vandenbout

    I agree with Cherish that this is an optimization problem. Just buying the most expensive tool deprives you of two things:

    1) Money to buy another tool: The expensive tools can be several times the price of their cheaper counterparts but offer only a 10%-20% increase in functionality. (Usually they offer some specialized features that only 20% of the customers need.) I would rather get the most needed (by me) functionality per dollar and use any savings to buy additional equipment using the same metric.

    2) Deep knowledge about the system you’re working on: Someone once said “a good engineer is a good tool-builder”. If you’re forced to be creative with your tools when building a system, then you often gain a deeper, more instinctive understanding of your system. This can pay off in new insights that you would not have had if you had used the “perfect” equipment that did just what you thought you needed at the time.

    I realize there are engineers who work in an environment where “time is money” is the most important criteria and they have unlimited equipment budgets. If you are in that situation, then buy the best equipment you can! But I’ve never personally seen or heard about anyone with an unlimited budget, so some optimization has always been necessary.

  4. Hudson

    I strongly believe that Cherish’s mindset is correct in “balancing” the unknowns. It’s tempting for engineers to qualify the need for the best and most expensive equipment after the fact that they have bought it, but self-justification is circular reasoning. I think its important to think of opportunity costs when you have the “general use fund” setup.

    Also, the key to quality is the quality of the final product (not necessarily quality of all equipment needed). Optimization is key, and I think many people (including myself) fall into the trap of equating equipment and material “quality” and “longevity” with “optimization” and “quality”.

    Finally, naturally, various projects and disciplines have different standards for quality and optimization. Using common sense and intuition is key to making sound and practical judgement.

    Interesting post and reply. Thanks for all the insight.

  5. gasstationwithoutpumps

    I just had to do this in buying a new computer. Our old one at home was failing (it overheated and couldn’t play DVDs any more, its fan ran all the time, and it kept getting slower and slower).

    I was getting an iMac (despite the nasty glossy screen), but which model? Basically, it came down to a choice of getting a top-of-the-line one and replacing in 6 years, or getting a slightly slower one for 2/3 the price and replacing in 4 years. I went with the cheaper one.

    Buying quality tools is a worthwhile investment if you will use the tools often enough to justify the cost. Buying fancy tools just for the brand name sitting unused in your toolbox is stupid.

  6. FrauTech

    I agree with Cherish on this one as well. We have a lot of young sparkies who make design decisions based on what’s easy and end up designing what we call “cadillac” boxes. Yes we probably *could* sell many of these to the customer, but many of us take pride in optimizing design, balancing options, learning what your application really needs and making something affordable and perfect for the application. Sometimes less is more.

  7. An old engineer

    There are times when you need a specific tool for just one application. Then for me, it’s the cheapest thing I can find that will do the job without any frustration.

    If the tools is to be used constantly, then you buy a good reliable piece of equipment. That doesn’t mean the most expensive. It means that you buy value. You get the best bang for the buck.

    I’ve never known a time when there is leftover funds in the budget that didn’t get spent for something. If you overspend for something, that only takes away any opportunity to get another needed tool.

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    […] Of course, there’s a lot going on at EngineerBlogs.  I wrote a post recently titled Died-in-the-wool Engineer. […]

  9. Online Wool Store

    I think our job is a balancing act among several constraints