Selecting an Engineering Firm

A Good Engineer Works for Free

The Principle

Consider the purchase of a service to be delivered in the future. Further consider that this service is critical to your success and that it must be delivered into a changing environment.

For example, you need a heart by-pass operation or you are falsely accused of murder. Clearly, you seek the best doctor or lawyer that you can get. Likewise, professional sports teams don’t seek the lowest paid players. On the contrary, they vie for the highest paid players. Why? They want to win!

These providers of highly skilled services may actually work for free. By that, I mean that the value of their services exceeds their fee, even if their fee is higher than others.

I submit to you that your selection of engineering services is just as important. When you have a critical project, the engineering fee is usually less than 2% of the total life cycle cost of the project. That is 2% of the initial construction cost plus the cost to operate for the life of the endeavor.

If the engineering is done creatively and properly, the project succeeds. Construction and operating costs are minimized. Operating efficiency is maximized. The engineer’s leverage is huge. Suppose the talented engineer charges twice as much as his competitors. All he has to do is save 2% of the project life cycle cost. That’s not very hard to do. One creative idea can easily save this amount. Conversely, the absence of a creative idea can be disastrous and the effect long lasting.

An Example

Acme Coolers (not their real name) tests aircraft heat exchangers after each overhaul. Acme checks the units for leaks, flow rate and pressure drop. Some units require a thermal cycle test. In this test, oil flows through the heat exchanger. Raising and lowering the oil temperature induces thermal stress cycles.

Acme requested a bid on a new heat exchanger test stand. We thought about the problem, came up with a good way to do it and quoted the work. The customer was disappointed with the price. “Way too high!” he said. “We can do it for much less”. Or so he thought.

A year or so later I had the occasion to visit Acme. The person we had dealt with initially was no longer with the company, but his replacement was very helpful. “How did that thermal cycling rig work out?” I asked politely.

“It never worked right and took forever to complete the test schedule. The whole thing is in the scrap heap and another shop took that work from us,” he said sourly. “Wow! That’s too bad! It seemed so simple. All you needed was a pump, hot and cold reservoirs and a couple of three-way valves to flip from heating to cooling,” I observed.

“Holy cow, two reservoirs! Why didn’t we think of that? We just had one reservoir so we had to change the temperature of the whole volume of oil for every thermal cycle. With two, we would have only cycled the part we wanted to test,” he sighed.

“Well, maybe that’s why our initial price was a little higher, but our design would have cycled in a tenth the time and with a tenth the power input. You say you lost the contract for that work and your investment in the test rig?”

“Yeah, and for the lack of one good idea!”

The Conclusion

Next time you need professional services, remember to pick the most qualified, most talented, most creative team you can find… then negotiate a reasonable fee. The right team will work for free but the low bidder may cost a fortune!