Practicing the art of good research

In a growing digital age, engineers need to ditch the instant-gratification mentality and develop in-depth research skills.

By J. Patrick Banse, PE, Smith Seckman Reid Inc., Houston November 21, 2016

Engineers, by nature, are inquisitive folks. They like to look for things, fix things, and learn things. The advent of the personal computer, digital-information storage, and the Internet, with its easy and constant access, has changed the way information is made available. Online search engines encourage typing in keywords, and thousands of results are instantly revealed. But how do you know which of those items will really provide the information you need or are seeking? This effort might actually take some research to get the best results.

Searching print documents versus online information

One aspect of engineering design is to calculate equipment needs and capacities and then select the equipment. Printed catalogs give complete information on fans and pumps including capacities, operating curves, and dimensional data. They allow a designer to research selection possibilities and multiple manufacturers while considering efficient design, operating point, and future capacity (i.e., can the impeller be changed or the whole pump?) Having the family of pump or fan curves at your fingertips increases the opportunity to allow your mind to wander so that your research will provide the best results. Many manufacturers provide this information online; but in this day of instant gratification (just give me a selection that works), some engineers might take the shortest route and choose the first selection based on their input (search) versus looking at many selections to find the more suitable choice (research).

Gaining in-depth knowledge with research

Many of the online versions of codes and standards have keyword search capabilities that allow a user to enter a keyword to find locations where that word is used in the document. But what does that tell you? Does it tell you the context in which it is used or the context in which you need it? Not always. That takes research and comparison of code editions and referenced codes. Reading and understanding how the code is used and how it applies takes time, and on many occasions that needed time is not actually spent.

Too often, when a code question arises, many engineers have to ask more experienced engineers because the Internet search did not give a clear answer. But where did the "old guy" get his knowledge? Books. Engineers need to learn how to take the time to do the appropriate research to gain the understanding needed to make a good decision. Reading the entire code or standard will give a person the whole picture, not just the relevant word use. That is part of doing research; becoming familiar with all of the story and not just a single answer. A researcher needs to see all sides and find the truth. Wikipedia might be good for birthdays and song lyrics, but not necessarily for sound engineering judgment. Besides, who can say that everything on the Internet is correct?

There is a lot to learn by reading books and articles. Practicing engineering in the design and construction world helps you become a researcher as well as someone to be researched. Engineers must make time to study, to read, to research. A college professor once told his class that finding an answer is good, but citing the source for that answer not only creates a basis for the research that went into finding that answer, but also lends credibility to it. Another way to look at it is to imagine being questioned about the source of information and your only answer is, "I Googled it." Next time something needs to be looked up, consider doing research, not just searching. You will be surprised by how much you can learn. Libraries hold many secrets just waiting to be shared. Technological advances might not be the best tools with which to teach the younger generation (millennials) in the engineering business the art of good research. It is the older generation’s job to reinforce the need and value of doing things right, so future generations can expand their knowledge as much as possible.

J. Patrick Banse has more than 35 years of experience in the consulting engineering field at Smith Seckman Reid. He is a Consulting-Specifying Engineer advisory board member emeritus.