During the summer between my junior and senior years of college, I was lucky enough to intern at Sigma Deisgn, a product design and engineering consulting firm located in Vancouver WA. During my time as an intern I gained a new appreciation for what working on engineering projects in industry is like by assisting on a variety of client projects, leading an internal project and experience life at a vibrant and thriving firm. Below I will try to describe a few of the projects I worked on and what I learned from the experience:
One of the great things I discovered about working at a consulting firm is that there are new and exciting projects every day. Sigma consults for major companies that design everything ranging from sportswear to roof-racks to printers to medical devices. Also they are flexible in the types of services they offer. The company includes experts in industrial design, mechanical engineering and electrical engineering in addition to an in-house model shop for small scale manufacture and an assembly lab for small scale assembly and trouble shooting. Because of this, during my time at Sigma, I sampled many different types of engineering work. One project that I particularly enjoyed was designing a mechanism to grab a twist a motor. The mechanism is part of a tool that will be put on the manufacturing line in China to assemble millions of printers for a major manufacturer. In contrast, another project that I helped with was assembling a device to sort out faulty medical staples from good ones. In this case the project was completely designed but needed to by assembled and tested. This was my first experience with automated electronic systems and this project was a great way to dive in.
My managers at Sigma were insistent that I get the experience of working on a project from start to finish, so they assigned me an internal project. The company had just moved to a new building which was designed to be a space that truly represented who they are. As part of the facility, conference rooms with sliding double-doors were built for small group meetings. My task seemed straight-forward, design a mechanism such that when one door is pushed open, the other opens simultaneously and vis versa. Simple, right? Well, that’s what I thought at first and having finished the project, I can say that I’m extremely grateful for my managers for insisting that I do a project from start to finish. Through this project, I learned a lot about compromise in the design world. First there is the conflict between analysis and execution. With not enough analysis, your design will fail. With too much analysis you will never have a product (and in the consulting world this usually means you never get paid). I found myself airing too much on the analysis side and almost didn’t complete the project in time! Fortunately, everything came together in time (see picture below). Another difficulty I ran into was balancing opinions. In this situation, the company was my client and I quickly discovered that everyone had an opinion and opinions frequently didn’t match. For instance, I remember during one of my design review, two of the mechanical engineers disagreeing as to whether the device would function. At the end of the day, I just had to sort through the data and make the best decision I could and fix problems as they came up.
Finally, one of the most important skills that I practiced was how to work collaboratively in a company with a defined company culture and with different personality types. The change from school to work was at first very shocking. I had never before appreciated how exhausting working an 8 or 9 hour day was and how different the schedule was from school. It was also a bit of shock to suddenly be working as an adult with adults, REAL adults, with lives and families and experience. Everyone was very welcoming towards me but everyone else seemed to know so much more than I did and that was intimidating. Additionally, although I had done group projects at school, I wasn’t prepared to interface with my co-workers in the same way I did at work. I couldn’t choose my group in this case and I would have to work continually with the same people for a prolonged period of time. This is what made me realize how inter-personal communication skills are in the workplace. To be able to communicate in way that could convey respect while in some cases still demanding respect and authority was difficult. Throughout the course of the summer I practiced the skill and by the end I think I developed some basic strategies that improved my navigation of the system.
Overall, my internship was so much more than improving my CAD skills or making money. It was a chance to experience and struggle with the everyday challenges faced by engineers and everyone in the work place. Although I’m certainly not an expert on anything, I believe that I learned new strategies by working through engineering and workplace problems. I want to give a special thanks to Sigma Design, my managers and mentors there, and all my co-workers who helped make this learning possible.