Often times when you speak to people about engineering, you begin to hear about two seemingly different factions: Practical and Theoretical Engineering. Many professors and industry professionals will tell young engineering students that you need experience in both camps. Why is it Practical and Theoretical Engineering can be so different? If you go to college and get a mechanical engineering degree, they will teach you engineering analysis. This is how you make an idealized mathematical model of a situation and here are the equations you need to calculate maximum loading, stress etc. This is what Theoretical Engineering consists of and an engineering degree generally means you are an expert at it.
Practical Engineering is a different story. You don’t improve your skills doing Practical Engineering in a classroom. The only way to get better at Practical Engineering is with hands-on experience building and fixing things. Where Theoretical Engineering is an analysis procedure, Practical Engineering is a creative problem solving process. The more varied types of problems you solve, the better you are at it. The key is have a repertoire of previous solutions to draw from when you are faced with something new. You could even go as far as to say that Practical Engineering draws on the creative side of your brain more so than the analytical side.
Having experience with both sides of engineering is what leads to the best design solutions. Case in point: the Freedom Leverage Chair. Amos Winter, an MIT Mechanical Engineering Student, set out to produce an all-terrain wheelchair for use in developing countries. He says something very important that I think a lot of engineering students don’t understand: The constraints drive the innovation. In order for Winter’s invention to be successful, it had to cost less than $200, be usable on rough roads yet small enough to maneuver in houses and be easily repaired by local resources. His final solution uses mass produced bicycle parts and ended up being 40% more efficient and 80% faster on rough terrain than a traditional wheelchair. It took three prototype iterations to find a working solution with the input of the end users and the technicians who would be servicing the chairs. Designing a product so simple and effective that it actually helps people and changes their lives, that’s real world engineering.
Source: Ted Talks on YouTube