Conjure up in your mind a picture of the humble nail cutter (or if you have one handy grab it!). Not only is this device a marvel of modern technology it also proves to be a useful example of what good engineering practices should be. Can you figure them out? The same question was posited to one of my classes when I was still in university, and none of us could come up with a good enough reason to satisfy our lecturer. If you take a step back and look at a nail cutter you notice something, there’s not a lot to them.
The majority of nail cutters are made out of a grand total of about 6 parts (Lever, top cutter, bottom cutter, file, front pin and rear rivet). Whilst the whole thing might appear simple on the surface it is indeed a feat of complex engineering. Each of the pieces serves up more than one function in order to achieve the end result. Our lecturer at the time had us try to imagine a nail cutter that’s design only let each piece perform a single function. The resulting contraption was a monstrosity of dozens of parts and if created would have been more than double the size of a convention nail cutter. This exercise was done to teach us the importance of modularity, and when its gone too far.
One of the very first methods you’re taught as an engineer for problem solving is to take what looks like a large problem and divide it into smaller and smaller sections until it becomes managable. We were first taught this in reverse with our first assignments usually serving as a basis for the rest of the semester. However early in our second year we were given what appeared to be almost impossible projects only to have small clues as to their solution taught to us in the weeks ahead. The problem is however, that when you take the modular design methodology too far you end up with innumerable small components which then changes your problem into one of integration. The nail clipper example showed us that you shouldn’t modularize a problem beyond what will allow you to solve it, for want of introducing complexity rather than removing it.
You can see this methodology applied almost everywhere, for better and for worse. It’s one of those problem solving skills that doesn’t get taught in school and really its one skill that I can’t imagine myself being without. If you take the time to analyze any problem you might have and break it down into its basic components nearly anything just becomes a matter of time, rather than brainpower.
Now, go forth and modularize my minions! 😀