124. Idea – From Design to Function: Bridging the Gap Transcript

Claire: 00:00     

You want a successful project. You want it to be able to function correctly. And you don’t want to be dumping money into the tail end of a project just to get it to work. And you know that takes away a lot of money, a lot of resources that could be used for something that’s really necessary, not just fixing something that should have been right at the first time. But it’s kind of a sense of pride, right? If you can take something. And it gets installed and it works. I mean, that’s just a really great feeling. 

Chris: 00:28     

Welcome to EECO Asks Why a podcast that dives into industrial manufacturing topics, spotlights the heroes that keep America running. I’m your host, Chris Grainger. And on this podcast, we do not cover the latest features and benefits on products that come to market, instead, we focus on advice and insight from the top minds of industry because people and ideas will be how America remains number one in manufacturing in the world. 

Welcome to EECO Asks Why. Today we have an idea conversation, and we’re going to be talking about bridging the gap from designed to function and the have that conversation we have with us, Claire Stevens. And she’s a utility distribution engineer at North Carolina State University. So welcome Claire. 

Claire: 01:14     

Hey, Chris. Thanks for having me. 

Chris: 01:15     

I’m excited to have you too. And I’ve made sure the wardrobe is right for the conversation and got to NC State shirt on go pack. So, my buddy, Justin Shover gave me this shirt, so I had to pull it out of the closet and wear it for you today. So excited to talk to you.

Claire: 01:29     

Yeah. Yeah, no, that’s a good shirt. You know, I’m a little conflicted sometimes because I work at NC State, but I actually went to Duke. I’ve got a little bit of both in my wardrobe these days, no hard feelings either way. 

Chris: 01:41     

That’s right. That’s right. You could be the utility distribution engineer at UNC and that would be pretty awkward, with the Duke background.

Claire: 01:48     

I don’t think I can do that. That’s the wrong shade of blue for me.

Chris:  01:52     

There you go. Well, I mean, so excited to talk to you today and maybe to get a start at Claire, just explain to our listeners out there. What you mean when you’re talking about, when you say there’s a gap between design and function in engineering? 

Claire: 02:06     

Yeah. I think, whenever you design a system or a piece of equipment it’s always done a little bit in a vacuum, right? Like you, you make assumptions and you run your calculations, but realistically there are all of these things out in the real world and out in the field that are just about impossible to account for.

I mean, you just can’t, you can’t think of everything. It’s not possible. So being able to take what’s designed and then fit it into the field or into the area that it’s designed for can sometimes be a bit challenging. So yeah there’s usually a gap, but you know, trying to bridge that gap is a lot of what I do.

Chris: 02:45     

Yeah. I mean, I’m sure there’s a lot of variables out there too, that you run into and that you have to, make those calls. When you think back and with your experience, do you have any examples that jump out to where those, that gap was there and maybe share that with our listeners?

Claire: 03:00     

Yeah. It’s actually one that I did to myself pretty early on in my career. When I was working at the paper mill, they had this sump pump that was trying to capture a black liquor overflow, and it’s, that’s kind of nasty stuff, it’s usually hot and it’s got a lot of fiber content, pretty abrasive and just not a great substance to be pumping. And they’d been putting pumps in and they always died and failed. They’re like, Claire, we need you to put a pump in here. 

So here I am, like straight out of school and I’m like, “Yeah, I can do this just to pump.” Like it’s going to be super chill. Got with the pump manufacturer, like really thought that I had thought of everything to get this thing in. And I mean, it just kicked my butt. It took like six months of you know, we’ve got this pump, okay. Now we’ve got to pull it out and make a modification, do some stuff. Okay. Now the grease port is like below the access. So we’ve got to move that up so that it can get greased so that the bearings don’t fail. And it really took a lot. And it took a lot of trial and error on my part to figure out what would actually function in that situation. And be operable and maintainable.

So yeah, I mean, it’s a difficult thing to think of all of those different situations. And I certainly didn’t and I worked in the field at that time. So yeah we eventually got it running which was good. I think the maintenance shop nicknamed it Claire’s sump pump. And I, so I don’t know if they still call it that to this day, but yeah that one was one that I owned for a while until it got turned over.

Chris: 04:36     

I hear you. We worked on a lot of those sump pumps at EECO back in the day, we had several paper mills in Virginia and that black liquor sump pumps that is a tough application for sure. 

Claire: 04:49     

Yeah. It’s not desirable. 

Chris: 04:52     

Right. I think even tore up a few pair of boots, you know, in those areas in the past, because that stuff is very abrasive. As you mentioned. 

Claire: 04:59     


Chris: 05:00     

Well, when that happened, maybe we can stick with that story that you had right there, who are you communicating with to move forward and to get past some of those hurdles that you’re running into? 

Claire: 05:10     

Yeah, so I think the big thing is, you know, I’ll very quickly get feedback, especially if it’s something that I’ve put in, I’ll get feedback from the maintenance people, the operations people who are in the field having to deal with my mistake.

They’re like, “Claire, this isn’t working,” like the thing you put in, it’s really not helping us at all, but you know, being able to pass that information back up to whoever’s installed the piece of equipment that designer you know, and hopefully get it rectified, ideally, you know, like with those types of experiences you learn from them, and then you can catch them in design, right? 

I do a lot of drawing review, design review now. So anything that I can catch on the front end during design obviously saves a lot of heartache. A lot of time, a lot of money for what’s going in. And so that’s the ideal time to catch it. Do your design review, put some comments in, “Hey, like I see a problem with this. How can we address this in the design phase?” 

That’s what we shoot for, but that’s not always what happens. And if it’s out in the field, then you’re looking at change orders, working with the project team to try and get it addressed. What can we live with? What can we not live with? At that point you start having to make some compromises, really, you know, somebody is going to have to give at that point. So anything you can catch on the front end that’s ideal, right? 

Chris: 06:29     

No doubt. I mean, because in that, like you said, that design phase is so much easier to fix it, then, when it’s on paper versus it’s actually out there and you’ve got to deal with it.

Claire: 06:37     

That’s right. It’s really easier to fix it in CAD, then reroute some piping.

Chris: 06:41     

That’s right. For sure. It does get that point. You have to investigate those issues. When do you just let it roll versus trying to go back and know that it’s going to make some changes in the design that’s required. 

Claire: 06:55     

Yeah. If it’s in the design phase, I’m pretty adamant about, this really isn’t going to work. We need to re-look at this because at that point that’s kind of the designer’s job, is to come up with something that is designed that can be operated and maintained well in the field. So like at that point, you know, there’s not really a whole lot of reasoning why you should not make a change.

You know, every now and then there might be something where it’s especially working on a college campus. No no we’ve got to do it this way because it’s more aesthetically pleasing or something like that. Yeah. That we didn’t have to deal with that at the paper mill. They didn’t care what it looked like. So that’s been a new one for me.

 You know, even with that, making some modifications on the front end that’s pretty simple. And we can be pretty adamant about getting those changes out in the field. It becomes a lot more difficult. Then you’re having to figure out, talk with the project manager. If it’s going to require a change order and you have money in the budget to accommodate this change. Is this something that we need to look at doing at a separate project later on? And then it’s more of a chatting with our shop who’s going to be operating and maintaining that equipment. Can we live with this for a period of time until we can fix it and get it how we want it? Or is this just not acceptable at all? 

Chris: 08:06     

And, it sounds like you have to be a pretty good communicator. 

Claire: 08:10     

Yeah. There’s a lot of communicating that goes on. And being able to communicate with, you know, a design team versus people who are going to be working on the equipment. It’s a whole different type of discussion, everybody communicates differently. So being able to have both of those conversations it takes a little learning to figure out your people and how to deal with different people in a different way that’s most effective for them.

Chris: 08:35     

That’s right because not everybody communicates or listens to the same way. So I mean, 

Claire: 08:39     

Design teams love emails, you know, shoot me an email. I could send an email to some of my shop guys and there’s no guarantee if they’re going to see it because they’re out in the field doing work. Gotta go hunt them down, ask them some questions, stuff like that. It’s just different. 

Chris: 08:54     

Now you mentioned you worked at a paper mill and now you’re working at NC State and I’m sure both have operations and maintenance side of it, and when I’m thinking about projects and from design to actually project completion, you have to have both there is included. So how do you give both of those teams, a voice during a project, you know what’s important to you? 

Claire: 09:12     

I think the most important thing is letting the people who are going to operate and maintain the equipment, be a part of the process. You know, however, that looks when I was at the paper mill, I actually was a capital projects engineer.

So when I held meetings and I got into certain points in the project, I made sure to hold various specific meetings and bring in operations personnel or maintenance personnel to get their feedback on some of the changes that we were proposing. You know, here at NC State, I’m the person who initiated taking the information from the designer and giving it to some of the operations and maintenance groups to get their feedback on it.

So that kind of I’m the conduit at NC state, but, when we have project or drawing reviews, I’m constantly on phone call in the shop supervisors like, “Hey what kind of fire hydrants do we like again?” We really don’t like this type of backflow. Right. Or, you know, just really trying to make sure that we understand or I understand what they’re wanting so we can get it in the project documents. Or even just, “Hey, I’ve got these drawings, let’s go walk this out in the field and make sure that this is really what we want.” So just, setting aside some time and pulling them out of their busy day to go look at some of this stuff, because that’s how you get the best feedback, right?

Chris: 10:30     

Yeah. I mean, I guess, because they’re going to influence the scope too. They’re going to be the ones operating it and maintaining it. It’s sounds like it’s a, just a natural opportunity that you’d want to pull their feedback to help make sure you get that scope right. 

Claire: 10:43     

Yeah. Yeah. And it also gives a bit of ownership too, right? Like if somebody requests a change and the designer listens to them and then they get installed with what they want there’s a bit more ownership associated with that project now. And, you know, you’re more likely to think fondly on a project that’s been turned over. If you’ve been able to give input and been listened to, versus if you feel like it’s just been like shoved down your throat and this is what you’re going to get and figure it out.

Chris: 11:13     

That’s right. No doubt. Now you mentioned you were a CapEx. project manager in your past now your distribution manager here, when you think about maybe some of the projects you’ve had in the past and the biggest hurdles that you encounter with anything with those projects, does anything jump out from a project execution standpoint? Because we’re just trying to help our people that are listening to learn from, you know, sometimes you learn from those hurdles and those headwinds. Does anything jump out you like to share? 

Claire: 11:43     

Yeah. I think the biggest thing that I’ve learned is you’ve got to listen to the people who are out in the field because they, they know the field, they know the systems, they understand what it takes to operate and maintain the systems the best. I am never going to have that same level of knowledge as the people who work on it every day, right? I mean, like that’s not my job. I can’t have that level of knowledge and do my jobs functionally at the same time.

So I think really relying on people who are in the field, who are turning wrenches, turning valves, really working on these systems, relying on their feedback and their experience is the easiest way to be successful. That’s just the easiest. And it’s not that hard either, right? You know kind of have to build those relationships up otherwise they won’t tell you what they want, but once you get that communication flowing, I mean, that makes a huge difference and it’s really not, it’s not the most expensive thing in the world to have to do. 

Chris: 12:44    

Yeah. I mean, do you think growing those relationships are easier when they know that you listen?

Claire: 12:50     

Oh, yeah. Yeah. Oh yeah. If you can get a little bit of credibility then all of a sudden the flood gates will open up. And they’ll be telling you everything and you’ll be like, “Did I really want to open this gate?” But it’s good though because once, once you can get a few things and get them a few wins. And usually it’s not a big deal. They’re just like, “Hey, like when we install these valves in this location, it makes it really hard for us to operate them.” Just put it in the specifications that the valve needs to be oriented slightly differently. And now all of a sudden it’s a lot easier to operate this valve and people are really happy and it costs literally zero money to just orient a valve slightly different when you install it in the pipe and everybody’s happy. 

Chris: 13:34     

That’s awesome. That’s a no brainer. But it’s because you’re being intentional about getting their feedback and then you take that feedback. You make those design changes and it’s a, win-win, that’s great advice. That’s wonderful advice. And we’ve talked to a lot of engineers, Claire in the past, and one thing that has come up, I’m curious to get your take on this is the ability to have an understanding of other disciplines. You know, if you’re an electrical engineer, for instance, you want to know a little bit about mechanical, maybe even civil and some, and maybe even computer engineering.

So I’m just curious, how important is that from your standpoint for engineers to be open to those other disciplines, as they’re trying to grow their skill sets and be valuable to their organizations. 

Claire: 14:15     

I think it’s important to know enough to be dangerous and to know when you need help. I think the big thing is you really want to understand the limits and the extent of what’s possible because you don’t want to have this like great idea and think, “Oh, I’m going to do XYZ.” And then you go talk to somebody and they’re like, “That’s going to cost an unbelievable amount of money.”

So yeah. I’m certainly not any sort of electrical engineering expert or controls expert, but over the years, based on conversations with people and seeing things implemented, picked up a little bit here and there to at least understand what is feasible and probably affordable versus this is just not going to be an option. 

So we’ve got to put our heads to the table and figure something else out, and then kind of understanding like, okay, now I need to talk to somebody and get some real numbers, but being able to do a little bit of that on your own and just gut check some stuff. And that’s definitely a really important thing to be able to do to just keep things moving forward in a timely manner. 

Chris: 15:20     

Now am I so far, has gut check on your own or doing that personal research. Are there any resources that you use or, tips that you would recommend for engineers out there that maybe there is an issue that comes up with a project and they want to understand a little bit more about that discipline? Anything that, that you would point people to? 

Claire: 15:39     

So I actually look on YouTube videos and decent amount, and there’s a lot of really great stuff on there. So I’ll check some stuff, but if I see something out in the field or like, I hear the conversation, they’re like, I don’t understand. I might do a little Googling, do a little research. I mean, YouTube is definitely my go-to,    but I mean, the other thing is, I work with electrical engineers. 

I work with controls people like if I see something and they’ve got five minutes, I’m like can you just explain this to me? Like what, what does this even mean? What is a self-healing switch? I don’t understand that. Like, that’s one question that I asked our electrical engineer, it kept getting thrown out and I’m like, what does this mean? What is this? I don’t understand. Just a quick question here and there. You can gain a lot of knowledge. 

Chris: 16:21     

Yeah. Yeah. And being intentional about asking those questions and not being fearful. Sometimes people are afraid to ask a question because it’s may show that they don’t know it. Then you gotta be okay. And just embrace that.

Claire: 16:32     

Yeah. Yeah, no, that’s for sure. There’s a lot of things that I don’t know out there. So, I mean, I want to know, right? That’s why I became an engineer, but yeah, I’ll ask a ton of questions, but YouTube it’s great. 

Chris: 16:42     

YouTube is great. No doubt. I live by particularly around projects around the house too.

Claire: 16:48     

Yeah. Yeah. That’s for sure. 

Chris: 16:50     

Very good. Well, Claire, this has been awesome. Now we call it EECO Asks Why we typically wrap up with the why it’s the heart of the show. So if you were to talk to someone out there and explain why it is important to bridge that gap from design to function, because we ultimately, we want a successful outcome on our projects, what would the why be?

Claire: 17:09     

I think, you know, there’s a lot of whys, but, You said it, you want a successful project. You want it to be able to function correctly. And you don’t want to be dumping money into the tail end of a project just to get it to work. 

There’s been a few projects that I’ve seen. The project gets turned over and then all of a sudden the money starts dumping into it from something else, some other projects to fix the project that was installed because certain things were overlooked. And you know that takes away a lot of money, a lot of resources that could be used for something that’s really necessary, not just fixing something that should have been right at the first time. But it’s kind of a sense of pride, right? If you can take something. And it gets installed and it works. I mean, that’s just a really great feeling. 

You don’t want to have the feeling of, okay, I’ve put this in the ground and it doesn’t function and that’s not a great feeling. I don’t think anybody really wants that. From a personal pride perspective, I’m like, I want it to work. 

Chris: 18:06     

That’s right. Well, that’s a great why, Claire, I mean, this has been a fun conversation, for sure. I think you give a lot of insight here on why it is important to, to take that design and to take the feedback from others in the design portion of a project to really get that ultimate outcome that we’re looking for.

And, also now I know when I go to NC State the next time I’m there, I’m gonna be looking to make sure to no valves are painted Duke blue. Okay. Cause I know who to come to. If that happens. 

Claire: 18:30     

All of our domestic water valves are in fact Duke blue when they get painted, but I guess over the year they might fade a little bit, to Carolina blue, but that’s why we’ve got to repaint them every year so.

Chris: 18:40    

I hear ya. I hear ya. All right. Good stuff. Good stuff, Claire. This has been great. Thank you so much for taking the time with us and sharing with us on EECO Asks Why we hope you have a wonderful day.

Claire: 18:51     

Yeah. Thanks Chris.