Column: The Case for "Good Enough"

I’m a pretty good fabricator.

Notice I didn’t say I’m a great fabricator. That’s because I understand, and possibly even embrace, my limitations when it comes to the creation of things from nothingness.

My dad used to work as a power plant fire and safety inspector. He basically had the same job as Homer Simpson, though he didn’t share that character’s less-than-exceptional approach to project management. After amassing a pretty decent career, he quit and decided to go into business for himself as a building contractor. Through summers of assisting him in that industry, as well as a lifetime of being around his love of craftsmanship, I picked up just enough knowledge about making stuff from scratch to be truly dangerous.

Looking back, I probably should have given the attention to the planning phases of jobs than I did the actual construction phases. I love the building: seeing a form arise from the nothingness, feeling structure take root from otherwise flimsy materials. But the planning part–you know, the part where you figure out what exactly you want to build and how it will look–did not sink in the way it should have.

Case in point: I recently constructed a new aviary for the five parrots my wife and I share a home with (yes, I’m one of THOSE people). My mind could easily conjure a view of the finished product and the various fancy features that would enhance the lives of my avian pals. But no matter how many times I sat down to make sketches and come up with an accurate supply list, I just couldn’t wrap my head around the project.

Once I actually started construction, though, I could easily fill in those blanks. There’s probably a fancy science word for it, but I guess I just needed to see the aviary taking shape in physical space–to actually feel how the various tubes and connectors mated together–to be able to properly finish the job in my head.

And despite the lack of any drawn plans, my creation turned out quite lovely–if I may be so bold as to speak for my tropical friends. Despite my intellectual inability to properly plan a project, I take no less joy in seeing a job well done. There’s really no satisfaction like the satisfaction of creation, even if the first few steps consist of trial, error and repeat.

If anything, being a poor planner has taught me to overbuild most of my fabrication projects. When you’re armed with only a rudimentary knowledge of construction technique, you tend to just keep applying reinforcements–no matter how many trips you have to make to the hardware store for more self-tapping screws–until your project no longer moves, bends, flexes or sways.

And I know I’m not the only one who approaches a fabrication project with a “build-to-fit” spirit. If everyone out there is so good at planning projects, why does Home Depot sell trim in more than one width? Do you really think expanding foam was made with the “Pocket Ref” crowd in mind?

I’ve learned to pick my battles, too. No way would I ever build a roll cage from scratch. I’d feel comfortable welding up someone else’s work–my welds may not always be beautiful, but damn it, they stick–but no way am I going to be in charge of measuring, cutting and bending. I have no doubt that if I built a roll cage, the car would be safe, but it would also weigh 6000 pounds and you wouldn’t be able to get in or out without deploying the jaws of life.

So please let my bad example be an inspiration to all of you. Go out to the garage and build something, no matter how small and insignificant. If it doesn’t work, keep putting self-tapping screws into it until it does, or at least until it becomes too pointy to hold. You learn a lot about yourself when you’re making something out of nothing. For example, I’ve learned that my best weld beads always occur when I’m welding the Vise-Grips to my work piece. But when I see that beautiful, symmetrical bead being laid down through my darkened visor, I’m not stopping for anything.

If you see me at an event this summer, stop by and share some of your fabrication tales. I love to see what other people create with their bare hands and skill. I’ll even let you sit in the fancy new Momo race seat I just installed in the 350Z project. Just please, God, do not look at the seat bracket. The guy who fabbed it up–well, I’m not so sure about him.

 

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te72
te72 Reader
4/23/18 11:10 p.m.

Enjoyed the article Tim. Was talking to my fiance the other day, and she happened to say that I could have been an engineer. Apparently I have the right mindset for it. This made me think... I've always had a knack for structurally sound design, even going back to a kid with legos.

 

Wish I had realized this at a much younger age and applied myself toward such a goal, but in my youth, I had no idea what I wanted out of life! It's only been in recent years that I've discovered a love of working with metal, both for artistic and functional pieces. Started with fabricating a duct for the heat exchangers on the Supra project. Sure, it may look like a bbq lid, but it works quite well!

 

Since then I've taken on some welding. Mostly artistic pieces, as the Supra was more or less done with the fabrication phase, but I did figure out how to recirculate my wastegate. Cured a nasty boost creep situation and built a high level of confidence all at once! :)

 

In short, don't be afraid to try new things guys, just make sure you're being safe about how you do it, and try to think ahead to what happens if your creation breaks. Most importantly, try to have fun with it, no need to let school get in the way of education, as a much wiser man once said...

Ransom
Ransom PowerDork
4/23/18 11:47 p.m.
JG Pasterjak said:

For example, I’ve learned that my best weld beads always occur when I’m welding the Vise-Grips to my work piece. But when I see that beautiful, symmetrical bead being laid down through my darkened visor, I’m not stopping for anything.

That's beautiful.

DjGreggieP
DjGreggieP Reader
4/25/18 10:20 a.m.

I thought I was the only one who could see the finished product and not see the steps required to get there. Again I also need to keep 'adding' pieces because I lack the artistic skill to draw it for others to see.

 

Thankfully my boss who is much more adept at fabrication can understand my explanations of "I wanna put this thing over that thing to do this" tho it still helps greatly if I have the pieces to demonstrate what I 'want' to mean.

SVreX
SVreX MegaDork
4/25/18 10:49 a.m.

I was a design major. 

In my senior year, I looked around at my classmates and realized they were all better than me. I would have a tough time competing against st them in the real world. They were great designers.  I have a love for design, but I don't work well with a blank piece of paper. I am much better at implementing other people's designs  

It took me a lot of years to realize that 99% of people can't understand plans.  Owners pay designers to draw stuff, but don't have any understanding of what it will look like when finished.  When I look at a set of plans, I visualize it in 3D.  I didn't know most people can't do that.

I am excellent at planning a project and implementing it, but I am best when someone else is involved in the design  process.

 

te72
te72 Reader
4/25/18 11:41 p.m.

In reply to SVreX :

I had a revelation along similar lines today, having a discussion with a coworker. It would seem that I have a thing for recognizing patterns in numbers, and extrapolating meaningful data from them. Apparently it's also not something everybody's brain does... Perception is a weird thing sometimes! I take it as a gift though. =)

 

In your case, with design, it makes me wonder how much longer engineers will be needed. Given what programs like Solidworks can achieve, could a good designer effectively replace an engineer these days? Personally, I hope not, as I'm definitely mentally more on the engineer side of things than the design side...

volvoclearinghouse
volvoclearinghouse UberDork
4/26/18 6:51 a.m.
te72 said:

In reply to SVreX :

I had a revelation along similar lines today, having a discussion with a coworker. It would seem that I have a thing for recognizing patterns in numbers, and extrapolating meaningful data from them. Apparently it's also not something everybody's brain does... Perception is a weird thing sometimes! I take it as a gift though. =)

 

In your case, with design, it makes me wonder how much longer engineers will be needed. Given what programs like Solidworks can achieve, could a good designer effectively replace an engineer these days? Personally, I hope not, as I'm definitely mentally more on the engineer side of things than the design side...

Considering that most people who call themselves "engineers" these day's can't even engineer...I doubt very much a designer would be able to.  

(And yes, I am an engineer.  And yes, I have had my share of stupid moments, too.)

If one doesn't have a good foundation in core engineering, no amount of Solidworks sorcery will make up for that.  The computer will happily let you design something that looks pretty and might work, but costs 3x as much as more elegant solution and isn't serviceable and causes the production guys to take your name in vain when they try to put it together.  

SVreX
SVreX MegaDork
4/26/18 7:19 p.m.

In reply to te72 :

If we had all designers and no engineers, I'm certain we could expect lots of things like this:

 

(brought to you by Solidworks)

alfadriver
alfadriver MegaDork
4/26/18 7:39 p.m.
volvoclearinghouse said:
te72 said:

In reply to SVreX :

I had a revelation along similar lines today, having a discussion with a coworker. It would seem that I have a thing for recognizing patterns in numbers, and extrapolating meaningful data from them. Apparently it's also not something everybody's brain does... Perception is a weird thing sometimes! I take it as a gift though. =)

 

In your case, with design, it makes me wonder how much longer engineers will be needed. Given what programs like Solidworks can achieve, could a good designer effectively replace an engineer these days? Personally, I hope not, as I'm definitely mentally more on the engineer side of things than the design side...

Considering that most people who call themselves "engineers" these day's can't even engineer...I doubt very much a designer would be able to.  

(And yes, I am an engineer.  And yes, I have had my share of stupid moments, too.)

If one doesn't have a good foundation in core engineering, no amount of Solidworks sorcery will make up for that.  The computer will happily let you design something that looks pretty and might work, but costs 3x as much as more elegant solution and isn't serviceable and causes the production guys to take your name in vain when they try to put it together.  

Lots of engineers don't even use solidworks.  I never really learned CAD in school, and have never used it in the 26 years I've been an engineer.  

Just want to point that out.

volvoclearinghouse
volvoclearinghouse UberDork
4/27/18 5:13 a.m.

In reply to alfadriver :

Good point.  I learned ProE in school, and never touched a CAD terminal after college for about 7 years.  Then I got heavily into Solidworks design - went through the factory training and everything...did that for 5 years or so.  But for the past 5 years now I use it only sporadically- perhaps once or twice a month.  

alfadriver
alfadriver MegaDork
4/27/18 7:32 a.m.

That being said, there's no reason to not be enthused about being able to design stuff.  The big thing is to picture what is required, being able to roughly put it on paper, make the proper measurements so that you can translate that to a CAD program, which should make sure it will fit.

The other things that engineers to is understand the calculations and measurements.  You have an idea of the loads, chemistry, electrical load, etc (depending on what kind of engineer), and can calculate what the outputs should be.  Which really means, today, is that you really understand the outputs of models, so that you can either confirm your ideas or modify them to be better.

All of that can be learned, te72, so if you are really interested in being an engineer, look into those calculations to see if you are interested in learning the process.  Then you have the choice to "know enough to be dangerous" to be a home engineer, or actually pursue a degree to do it for a living.

If you learn enough to be a skilled fabricator, you can have a lot of fun doing more advanced design in this hobby.  Mind you, even a lot of us engineers let previous people to some of the work- like I'd buy my brackets from a circle track store instead of design and cut them myself.  Some things it can be worth the hard work, many others it's worth letting other people do the work a long time ago.

Which is a segway into my favorite advice- when starting out, copy the leader.  Then understand how it work, and do it better.  Even if you think you can do it better out of the box, it's WAY better to not assume you can out design the hundreds of not thousands who came before you.

Dr. Hess
Dr. Hess MegaDork
4/27/18 8:22 p.m.

When I was in high school, there was a girl in my class.  She hung out over at C.I.T.  There was a student club of some kind there that was building a solar powered electricity generator.  The plan was to bring it to Pitcairn island so the people there, descendants of that whole Mutiny on the Bounty thing, would have electricity.  She was talking about the project, and they built this thing with no plans at all.  Just some ideas of where they wanted to go.  She said it was some kind of experiment that way, but it led to a lot of re-doing stuff.  Years later, I saw that they actually finished it and managed to get someone to bring it to Pitcairn.  It was big, like you would need a ship to bring it there. Here's a blurb about it.

Toebra
Toebra HalfDork
4/27/18 9:13 p.m.

In my first surgery class, the instructor said two things that were just brilliant.

 

1. If you want to know what is wrong with your patient, ask them, and they will tell you 

 

2. The opposite of pretty good is perfect.

 

 

If you get it pretty good and mess with it going for perfect, you will be likely to screw it up.

te72
te72 Reader
4/28/18 11:51 p.m.
SVreX said:

In reply to te72 :

If we had all designers and no engineers, I'm certain we could expect lots of things like this:

 

(brought to you by Solidworks)

How do you even..? Did somebody invite Escher to the discussion? Point taken. =)

te72
te72 Reader
4/28/18 11:59 p.m.

In reply to alfadriver :

Appreciate the encouraging words! I'm a bit experienced with CAD, or at least the version of it that I've learned to use, Cardboard Aided Design. Surprisingly, it has worked pretty well for me. I'm usually better at doing things the second time, but so many of my projects over the years, I've not had to do twice, for better or worse.

 

I really enjoy the fabrication process, it feels good to create something from nothing but raw materials (well, prepped anyway, i.e. sheet metal) and have a serviceable design. That said, I tend to look at the business case of almost anything. For my Miatas, there isn't a whole lot in the idea department that I'm likely to come up with that someone else hasn't already fully explored, developed, and produced. Not much point in putting fabrication time into that car. Now, my Supra is an entirely different story. Just about anything beyond the basics, you pretty much have to create for yourself. It's a great teacher, but while I love the car, it has aged me quite a bit in building it over the years. Fortunately it's in a place where I can enjoy it finally.

 

Thanks again for your reply, it's sound advice, and reinforces what I've learned over the years.

earlybroncoguy1
earlybroncoguy1 New Reader
7/23/20 2:01 p.m.

Every "engineer" should be required to, as part of the final pre-production sign-off on a design/feasibility study/prototype, disassemble the equipment to the point a part that has failed can be replaced, replace it, reassemble the equipment, and return it to service.

By themselves. With hand tools. In cramped, dim, loud, un-climate controlled conditions. With the end user hanging over their shoulder offering advice, while their phone rings constantly.  Late on a Friday afternoon before a holiday weekend. 

If, after completing this task, they still think it's a good design, go ahead and put it into production.  

Floating Doc (Forum Supporter)
Floating Doc (Forum Supporter) UberDork
7/23/20 4:20 p.m.
earlybroncoguy1 said:

Every "engineer" should be required to, as part of the final pre-production sign-off on a design/feasibility study/prototype, disassemble the equipment to the point a part that has failed can be replaced, replace it, reassemble the equipment, and return it to service.

By themselves. With hand tools. In cramped, dim, loud, un-climate controlled conditions. With the end user hanging over their shoulder offering advice, while their phone rings constantly.  Late on a Friday afternoon before a holiday weekend. 

If, after completing this task, they still think it's a good design, go ahead and put it into production.  

Oh, come on. Now you're just making sense. Stop now before everybody wants to do it.

Greg Smith (Forum Supporter)
Greg Smith (Forum Supporter) Dork
7/24/20 9:53 p.m.

I think every engineer / designer needs at least a year of servicing the type of hardware they want to build. 

Of course, all that does is design around the issues they personally encountered and creates new and different ones.

WonkoTheSane (Forum Supporter)
WonkoTheSane (Forum Supporter) SuperDork
7/25/20 12:38 a.m.

Great article, JG.   My advice is to get your kids involved if you can! 

Here's my 10 year old making an art project using the plasma cutter & welder:

She made a fish for art class:

Of course the 7 & 4 year olds wanted in, but they only got to make something with the plasma cutter..  Ya know, safety and whatnot :)

They're always thrilled to create something, so get them involved too!

 

Note:  Statement does not apply to feathered children.  Keep all parrots and other household avians away from electrical equipment.  Given the chance, a chicken would plasma cut you and everyone you love.

Randy_Forbes
Randy_Forbes New Reader
7/26/20 8:10 a.m.
earlybroncoguy1 said:

Every "engineer" should be required to, as part of the final pre-production sign-off on a design/feasibility study/prototype, disassemble the equipment to the point a part that has failed can be replaced, replace it, reassemble the equipment, and return it to service.

By themselves. With hand tools. In cramped, dim, loud, un-climate controlled conditions. With the end user hanging over their shoulder offering advice, while their phone rings constantly.  Late on a Friday afternoon before a holiday weekend. 

If, after completing this task, they still think it's a good design, go ahead and put it into production.  

I agree 100%
In my former career as an industrial instrumentation & controls technician (fancy name for an electrician that keeps processes processing) I used to say that the electrical engineer (and/or designer, sometimes one in the same) should have a voltage/current device connected to their chair.  That way when they unintentionally design a short circuit, they get a little jolt themselves.  A sort of quality control measure, as they go.

J.G., a very good article!  

For the past decade and a half, I stay at home and play with cars.  I'm not retired despite being old enough to qualify.  Around 2004, the BMW M Rdstr my wife and I were autocrossing broke a spot-weld where the trunk floor and xmbr supporting the rearmost differential mount attach, spawning an engineering solution that I continue to produce to this day.  My fabrication talent isn't the ability to imagine something that doesn't exist, as much as it is to see something that doesn't work and make corrections to someone else's design (as stated above, follow the leader).

When I come across something I need to complete a task, like some obscure tool to get something apart, or put back together, twenty minutes (or multiples thereof) with a lathe, mill and/or welder, to keep the project on track, THAT is a real joy!  I've got a drawer full of essentially one-purpose tools, like this little modified socket to tighten up loose door handles on BMWs...

Or the fixtures I made to check alignment of M Rdstr/Coupe suspension carriers and trailing arms.  The need here was to make a determination IF installing adjustable toe & camber kits could correct a misalignment issue, or if the (intentionally "soft") components had to be replaced.  A good thing to know BEFORE wasting the time and materials (that someone else would be paying for...)!

LH shown, I also made a RH side (using brand new trailing arms and subframe for test & fabrication)

After fabrication and testing, coated with some leftover Brooklands Green MGB paint

 

 

 

frenchyd
frenchyd PowerDork
7/26/20 8:59 a.m.

In reply to JG Pasterjak :

I'm perhaps the worst example in the world  of pre planning and drawing plans out. 
 

When  I built my  my home I'd been fighting with the city planner for 14 years trying to get a building permit.  He and I were both bidders on a foreclosed property  and I wound up getting it.  A week later with professionally drawn plans in my hand I wound up meeting him needing his permission to proceed 

To cut things short I wound up running for Mayor with absolutely no prior experience  and coming reasonably close  winning. To keep me busy  they gave me a permit. Yep, on a sheet of yellow legal  paper I spent 2 minutes sketching the outside lines of the house's dimensions.  He stamped them, I paid the fee and was good to go. 

I went to a farmer who was selling off his virgin wood lot with more than 100 acres of old growth trees.  We walked it and I sprayed an X on those I wanted. Some were well over 250 years old.  All in I wound up with  55,000 bd ft  for $25,000. 
I'm  nearly finished with the house and still have nearly 10,000 bd ft extra. 

Building it I'd think about what came next  as I fell asleep  and figure things out as I built it.  I added a dormer  here and a door there.  

 

Streetwiseguy
Streetwiseguy MegaDork
7/26/20 10:57 a.m.

If someone asks me what a thing I need to build will look like, it is faster for me to weld it up than it is to draw or describe it 

And in addition, if I were to draw it, it would look like Homer Simpsons car.

Kreb (Forum Supporter)
Kreb (Forum Supporter) UberDork
7/26/20 12:47 p.m.
SVreX said:

It took me a lot of years to realize that 99% of people can't understand plans.  Owners pay designers to draw stuff, but don't have any understanding of what it will look like when finished.  When I look at a set of plans, I visualize it in 3D.  I didn't know most people can't do that.

 

I run a sheet metal shop, and it's amazing how many seasoned contractors can't draw their way out of a paper bag. I call my office staff and I "translators". But instead of translating spanish to english, it's chicken scratch to something that can be made.

 

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