Steps of the Engineering Design Cycle

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

Learn about the steps an engineer takes to design, build, and optimize a product, also called the engineering design cycle. See what you've picked up with a quiz.

What is Engineering?

Engineers are problem solvers. They use technology and a methodology called the engineering design cycle to find clever ways to make life better for humans. An engineer is a person who uses our scientific knowledge to invent, design, and create devices and structures that serve practical purposes.

Take a look around you. Almost everything you see was an engineering project at one time or another. If you're sitting on a chair, it was designed by engineers. If you're using a computer, you can thank electrical engineers. If you own anything made of plastic, or polyester, the chemicals that make them up were created by chemical engineers. Car engines, bridges, skyscrapers, and houses: they're all designed by engineers using our scientific knowledge.

Engineers design and build bridges, dams, roads, and buildings
Engineers design and build bridges, dams, roads, and buildings

If you've ever learned how to problem solve, you'll know that the secret is in the process. People who are good at problem solving are good at approaching things step-by-step, and engineers are no different. That's why engineers have something called the engineering design cycle. It's a list of steps that engineers go through for any project. In today's lesson we're going to go through each of those steps and explain how they work - how engineers get from a problem to a working solution.

Steam engines put the engine into engineering
Steam engines put the engine into engineering

The Engineering Design Cycle

There are as many as eight steps in the engineering design cycle:

  • Clarify the problem
  • Research
  • Brainstorm solutions
  • Decide on a solution
  • Develop the solution
  • Build a prototype
  • Test the prototype
  • Redesign as needed

Sometimes the steps are simplified to ask, imagine, plan, create, and improve. But the process is really the same.

Simple version of the design cycle
Simple version of the design cycle

The first step is to clarify or define the problem. This involves really breaking down what the problem is, and what would have to be the case for the problem to be solved. What are the goals? What are the limitations?

The second step is to research the problem, both the nature of the problem and what solutions already exist. Perhaps previous technologies can help solve the problem.

Step three is to brainstorm your own solutions. The goal here is to come up with as many possible answers to the problem as possible. Nothing is too weird.

Step four demonstrates why nothing is too weird, because this step involves deciding which solution to develop. Which idea has the most potential? Answering that question might be rather subjective, but a decision has to be made.

Step five is to develop that solution. This process can be long or short depending on the complexity of the project. If you're designing a chair, it might just be minor improvements to the design. But if you're trying to design a new space shuttle, this could mean years of development.

Step six is to build a prototype of the solution you've chosen, followed by step seven: test the prototype. The goal here is to figure out whether the prototype solves the original problem properly. If it does, you might be done.

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