The other day, I saw a commercial that bragged that their product was “over-engineered”. They used the term like it was a selling point. Now, as I’ve said far too many times before, I’m an engineer… Well, I WOULD be an engineer, if after I had gotten my degrees I had actually sought out an engineering job. As it is, I’m an IT specialist and phoney baloney journalist with two very expensive pieces of paper hanging on my wall. But it DOES give my opinion a little more weight when I suggest that “over-engineered” is not something you should be necessarily be looking for in a product if you are a consumer.
Let’s look at a car, for example. From a functional standpoint, a car is pretty simple. If it gets you from Point A to Point B, it is doing its job. If you were to hire a bunch of engineers and give them that as a requirement, though, they might hand you a folding chair hooked up to a lawnmower engine and four bicycle tires and charge $80. (We’re funny like that.) This is what we would call minimally engineered. So you hand it back and ask for something better. A few months later they come back with something that gets you there safely, swiftly, comfortably, and efficiently, and costs $10,000. I’d call this well engineered. But you aren’t happy, and you send it back. A year later you get a car with armor plating, a nuclear reactor, rocket boosters, and for some reason, lasers. And it costs $350,000,000. Now, I’ll admit, that does sound pretty awesome, but chances are pretty good that unless you are planning on invading the moon, you don’t need half of that stuff. This is officially over-engineered.
“But Decoychunk,” you say, “Surely that is an extreme example.” Yes, it is an extreme example. That’s what “over-” means, when you stick it at the beginning of a word. If you are overeating, it means that you are eating too much. If you overeat for long enough, you will become overweight. It is a word for describing excessiveness. When the power grid in an area gets overloaded, it doesn’t mean that the load was really good, it means it was melting fuses and causing transformers to explode. When you car engine overheats, sure, your engine may be great at producing heat, but you and your top notch engine are going to be waiting on the side of the road until it stops being such an overachiever. (Don’t get me started on that word.) If the amount of engineering is not clearly too much, then it wasn’t really over-engineered, was it?
“Fine, but there are some things that you WANT to be over-engineered, like safety,” you say. Well, first off, quit interrupting me, I’m in the middle of a rant here. And second, it is a profoundly bizarre statement to say that something is over-engineered for safety. That is sort of like saying, “This car actually saves TOO many lives!” A car that has an extra airbag isn’t over-engineered. You added that airbag because it wasn’t safe enough for you. In all of these cars that tout their safety over-engineering, you never see one that requires a five point harness, a helmet and anti-whiplash strap, and an ignition that won’t start the car until you pass a full tox screen and reaction time test. And why not? It would be safer, wouldn’t it? But it would be so safe that it was interfering with the intended purpose. It would ACTUALLY be over-engineered.
As usual, this is just an opinion of mine. It all boils down to subjectiveness, what YOU consider to be too much. But I think that that’s why it bugs me so much. Engineering isn’t supposed to be subjective. “That bolt isn’t going to fit through that hole.” “Well, that’s a matter of opinion.” No, it isn’t! I got INTO engineering because it is one of the few areas when you can definitively say that something is correct! If someone says, “Build a machine that lifts up to 2000 lbs. of weight” and I give them a machine that lifts up to 2000 lbs. of weight, I have succeeded, and you can’t say that I didn’t. If I give you one that can lift 800,000 lbs., yes, I have still succeeded, but I have a feeling that you aren’t going to congratulate me when you see the size and price tag. Why? Because when you spend money to pay for features that exceed your needs, which means you are paying for things you will never use, then that’s not a bargain, it is a ripoff. And generally it is a bad policy to brag about a ripoff.