on April 13th, 2011

'Until the first electrician picks up a screwdriver to implement your clever engineering design, all your theory is meaningless, my lad' was a remark my dad used to not infrequently make to me.

When I was a young engineer, I trained under a number of cra-ftsmen – who taught me all about fitting and turning, boilermaking, cabinet making, welding and electrical work (and it was surely an exasperating experience for them). A team of engineering technicians in a nearby electronics workshop also demonstrated a bewildering level of manual skill and dexterity with intricate cabling, wiring harnesses, soldering and circuit board construction. They all demonstrated enormous passion and pride in their cra-ft. Despite considerable effort, many of us, junior engineers, never managed to gain even a fraction of their skills. Much to these cra-ftsmen’s faint amusement and puzzlement.

We lose sight in the daily haze
I think in the daily haze of software, theory, paperwork, standards, regulations, procedures, policies and systems we operate in; we tend to forget this as engineering professionals. Despite all the changes in engineering today, the engineering cra-ftswoman and cra-ftsman is still a key contributor in the engineering team and should always be accorded enormous respect.

The original description of a cra-ftsman or artisan referred only to manual occupations such as glassblower, blacksmith, cabinetmaker – many of who still exist. The output of such masters of the craft were almost always unique, one-off objects of value, all of indubitable excellence.

Nowadays, the cra-ftsman is often referred to as someone with outstanding manual dexterity and skill who takes enormous pride in what he or she does. In our engineering experience, this obviously ranges from tradesmen or artisans such as mechanical fitter, machinist, electrician, welder, builder, cabinet maker to electronics technician. The true cra-ftswoman today uses the new tools and technology at her disposal to refine her craft to produce physical objects impossible or very difficult to make by hand. And similarly impossible to replicate entirely by machine.

But how does this all help you in your work?
Remember the times, as an engineering professional, you have been enormously frustrated by having someone on your team who has delivered less than perfect cra-ftsmanship and thus….

  • Ensure you only work with outstanding cra-fts(wo)men in undertaking your projects
  • If you are still young, flexible and full of energy, work on gaining some of these artisan skills
  • Build enormous value into your future projects/products/services, by only using these outstanding cra-fts(wo)men.

As Robert L. Kruse points out (Data Structures and Program Design), even outstanding programmers can be referred to as cra-ftsmen: ‘An apprentice carpenter may want only a hammer and saw, but a master craftsman employs many precision tools. Computer programming likewise requires sophisticated tools to cope with the complexity of real applications, and only practice with these tools will build skill in their use’.

Yours in engineering learning


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