How to find the engineering truth
For Ken Frankel (BSME ’77), the best way to solve a problem is to know what the question is before attempting to answer it.
“I would offer that most people don’t spend enough time properly framing the problem,” Frankel said. “Often, people spend a lot of energy trying to solve something that wasn’t really asked to start with.”
This spring, the president of Three Sigma Manufacturing, which supplies precision machined products, spoke to ME 390 students about engineering lessons he learned throughout his career. Most notably, he offered guidance on finding solutions.
“All of you, whether you are conscious of it or not, have signed up to spend a life solving problems,” Frankel told the class of MechSE undergrads. He signed up to work on manufacturing problems after founding his manufacturing company in 1981.
After determining what the problem is and what questions they need to answer, Frankel suggests that students assign negative information the same importance as positive information. Although engineers may go unpaid for trials that did not work, those failures may provide useful information that leads them to a solution.
Once engineers find a result, he warned: Don’t stop at the first one.
“If you were good enough to come up with one solution to the problem, you are probably good enough to come up with others,” Frankel said. “The best engineers I’ve known are just as ambitious in their pursuits of second, third, and fourth iterations as they are of the first.”
Another piece of advice that Frankel believes applied to his work was noting that an individual’s research or solution may only be a part of the whole “engineering truth.”
“Often times, you are going to be faced with a circumstance where you really don’t know the surrounding information,” Frankel said. “That can lead you to some very bizarre conclusions, when you don’t know what percentage of the whole your data comprises.”
The MechSE graduate is familiar with the feeling of not knowing how much information he has of the whole. Eight years after he started working in manufacturing, Frankel became interested in building propellers for high-speed boats—those that travel at over 125 miles per hour.
When he wanted to find out what made a good propeller, he had a difficult time finding which experts to consult and determining when he had enough information to continue his project. But after speaking with numerous people about propellers, Frankel arrived at a conclusion of his own.
“I didn’t know how to design a propeller,” Frankel said. “But I started to suspect that nobody else did either. Additionally, people couldn’t machine them very accurately, so they spent a lot of time hand-finishing these, using grinders and polishing devices to make the propeller look like (the finished product).”
At that point, he decided to begin from scratch and develop his designs as he progressed. Frankel used computer models and CNC machines to make propeller prototypes and tweak the models as the design progressed. With this method, he and his peers were able to make all three blades the same size, which is critical to making a high-performance propeller. Consequently, high-speed boats using Frankel’s propellers reached record speeds.
“We were fortunate enough that the first (model) we did seemed to work pretty well,” Frankel said. “Since then, we’ve made subtle improvements to it.”
When Frankel realized that his work designing propellers for high-speed boats made little to no income, he became invested in the offshore boating business in 2005.
His goal with offshore boats was to decrease the amount of heat the boat generated by creating new, smaller gears with the help of an experienced engineer in the Russian aerospace industry. Improved gears could decrease stress by 30 percent and reduce the heat generated by the boat. Frankel just needed to find out how to wire the gear. Unfortunately, there seemed to be no expert on the topic.
“There was nothing in the literature indicating that anyone else was making gears this way,” Frankel said.
He estimates that finding a solution took him about 100 hours. After two billion tooth engagements, the gear has not failed once, he added.
“The point here is that you need to keep trying and look at a lot of these things and do some original work yourself to come up with a solution that’s really going to get you out of trouble,” Frankel said.
Today, Three Sigma Manufacturing creates precision components for the aerospace industry using metal removal processes in computer-controlled machine tools.