The Craft of Machine Design
I've said that (or maybe something a little less tame) many times in my life. With regular care, a good car gives you faithful service for many years. It is that one cold winter morning when your car decides to take a day off without your permission that prompts you to be irrationally angry at an inanimate object—though calling it names does seem to make you feel a little better!
Machines are a pervasive part of our lives. We take them for granted. They're everywhere, from the very large—a globe-spanning telephone system—to the very intricate—a finely made watch.
When I was 13, we moved into a new house. At the time, the telephone company was on strike, and we could not get a telephone installed for six weeks. There were ways around it—borrow the neighbours' phone in times of need; have the foresight to arrange things ahead of time—but it was quite an inconvenience. Machines are integral to our culture.
When I think about the craft of machine design, I think of words such as quality, excellence, love, detail, elegance, and simplicity—not all words you would at first glance apply to machines. My love for machines has been cultivated since I was a boy. I grew up close to the railroad, often watching the trains go by, those big, loud, wonderful locomotives. Even now, when most people see a train crossing as an inconvenience, I always hope I'm the first in line so that I can get the best view of the passing behemoth.
I love machines. I love to take machines apart, figure out how they work. I also grew up with a love for drawing, painting, and building things. The marriage between my fascination for machines and my penchant for artwork led me to a vocation in design engineering.
It was with great pleasure that I started my first job in the design field, working for a small company that built radio remote controls for industrial applications, one of those applications being locomotives. Here I got my start in the industry, at first drawing with a pencil on a large drafting board (ah, the good old days!).
I owe a lot to my colleagues there, my mentors in the art of technical drawing, and in the beginnings of design. These days I can be found designing machines for moving bulk material, such as dry cement, talc, lime, chocolate chips, or dry pet food, at PROMAT Engineering Sales Inc., a firm that specializes in designing for this industry.
Machine design has changed significantly from 10 years ago. First we moved to drawing on computers instead of boards, and now we have software where we can build 3D models of the design—a virtual machine—before we have to take the leap of commitment to manufacture. Sadly, the art of handmade manufacturing drawings has been mostly lost in our computer age, and my original creative outlet, that of drawing, has been replaced by the creativity found in machine design.
People who design machines make a lot of decisions in anticipation of users' needs. They juggle a wide array of factors to try and come up with the best possible design—including how the machine will be manufactured, how much it must cost, how it will be serviced, what the user interface must be, in what environment the machine will operate, and what space will be available for the machine. No design is ever perfect in this world, but a good designer strives to take into account as many contingencies as possible, balancing the many design elements to come to a good solution.
As I seek to find the proper balance among the many design elements, I feel the creative act of designing machines to be as much a gift of worship before God as is singing a hymn, constructing a piece of furniture, or painting a landscape.