The Creative Inventor: The Grasshopper and the Ant

In a field one summer's day a Grasshopper was hopping about, chirping and singing to its heart's content. An Ant passed by, bearing along with great toil an ear of grain he was taking to the nest.

"Why not come and chat with me," said the Grasshopper, "instead of toiling so hard in that way?"

"I am helping to lay up food for the winter," said the Ant, "and recommend you do the same."

"Why bother about winter?" said the Grasshopper. "We have got plenty of food at present." But the Ant went on its way and continued its toil.

When the winter came, the Grasshopper had no food, and found itself dying of hunger, while it saw the ants distributing every day corn and grain from the stores they had collected in the summer. Then the Grasshopper knew:

"It is best to prepare for the days of necessity."

This story, attributed to Aesop from the sixth century B.C., is a great lead-in to my article for this month. For years, I have been preaching that companies be prepared for bad times by improving their productivity. On the manufacturing side, we have "lean manufacturing," where companies do everything possible to improve the manufacturing processes, reduce waste, and improve quality.

On the engineering side, however, many if not most engineering departments have their feet set in concrete. They just won't change the way they engineer and design products. Many companies have been following the same nonproductive policies for generations. If you are not in one of these companies, and if you believe that your engineering department is doing everything right that it can, please stop reading now - no need to waste any more of your time.

All across the United States, and possibly around the world, the engineers and designers that are still employed are rowing that boat just as fast as they can, knocking out designs in much the same way that they have for years. For those of you who are underemployed or unemployed, it's time for you to take the ant's advice. Before you get mad at me, please read on. Winter is coming.

The Effect

During the last three months of this current recession, I have been flooded with e-mail from friends and readers, either uncertain about their jobs or actively looking for employment. The quality of the underemployed and unemployed is incredible. There is a lot of very industrious, creative talent out there being wasted on under/unemployment.

The Cause.

Or, more correctly, the causes of this current state of the economy are myriad. There is no one place to point a finger. There is the "Lion's Share" syndrome (another one of ol' Aesop's parables) where the financial market and many large corporations took advantage of the last economic boom. There's also the history of cyclical adjustments within the economy. In my lifetime, there have been at least five recessions, averaging approximately every 10 years. But there is a lot more to the issue than that.

During this last economic boom, we have all been Grasshoppers. We have been complacent, maintaining the status quo, spending every dime we make, purchasing ridiculous modes of transportation, opulent homes to keep up with the Joneses (apologies to those with that name) and generally fiddling while winter approaches. For many, winter is already here.

Complacency is what has placed many manufacturing firms in dire straits. Specifically, those companies that have not changed the way they do engineering since the days of Henry Ford (1908). While we have replaced paper and pen and the drawing board with computers, adopted some form of lean manufacturing, our engineering mindset is still pretty much the same. Let's take a test:

  1. Does your company use international standards in their drawings, or do you have your own company standard?
  2. Do you have an effective data management process in place?
  3. Are you or your employees fully trained in all of the software that you use?
  4. Do you currently take advantage of every aspect of Autodesk Inventor that applies to your company's needs?
  5. Do you spend more than four hours a week troubleshooting design problems?
  6. Do you have a need for better design support?
  7. Are you creating "as built" documentation?
  8. Do you have 100 percent effective communication with manufacturing?
  9. Do you struggle with engineering change orders?
  10. Is the number of engineering change orders excessive?
  11. Do you ever hear the comment: "That's the way we've always done things"?
  12. Does it take way too long to produce a new design?
  13. Are you losing out to the competition?

The Cure

Correcting the problems is neither easy or quick fix. It has taken years of malaise in manufacturing to get our industry to the point where it is today. It will take some time to correct our errors, and learn to behave like ants.

If you've ever studied an ant colony, you could learn a lot. Ants are amazing creatures! They never quit, they never give up. If you've ever had ants in your house, you know that simple truth. You can kill them off, you can chase them away, but, like the Terminator, "They'll Be Back." They are also incredible engineers.

When I was young, I studied how they could navigate a stream by collecting debris to create a bridge. I noticed that they also worked very well together as a team, not competing, but collaborating to solve a problem. If they found a bit of food too large to carry, they mustered enough help to bear the load. I also noticed that if you presented an obstacle in their path, they did not waste time trying to get over the obstacle, but instead developed a method to get around the obstacle.

Current practice in many engineering companies is to not buck tradition. In other words, stop at the obstacle and not try to improve a situation. After all "it has always been done this way." It's understandable that employees are not eager to question authority, quite often out of fear of losing their jobs. But isn't that what is happening anyway when the company ends up laying off employees?

Smart companies today understand the need to bring in manufacturing engineers to improve their manufacturing processes. They spend tons of money on lean technology and lean manufacturing processes, but somehow ignore the engineering departments. Hire a consultant to improve the way things are engineered and designed? Why? After all, they are engineers. They should be able to figure it out.

However, company management is always nervous about change. Top level has their finger on sales and cash flow. The IT department focuses on control of data, not how efficiently the engineering department could function with higher-speed hardware and better software management. The manufacturing department concerns itself with getting stuff out the door. Engineering departments consider their job done when the design is submitted to manufacturing. The engineering department is usually so hard pressed to churn out designs, they allow very little budget and time to training not only the engineers and designers, but the people in manufacturing who need to understand and follow the engineering department's direction.

So, Mr./Ms. Engineer or Designer, are you ready for a change? What can you do about these issues?

If you're still employed

  • Read my article in the July issue of AUGI HotNews and learn to "believe nothing - question everything."
  • Start writing down everything that could be improved within your department.
  • Push for change with a well-oiled plan and reasons for change. Do it! (You might just help save your company - and your job.)

Expand your horizons by getting trained (even if you have to pay for it yourself). There are free tutorials available on the Internet, free live training available at and other sites, payment plans for training, scholarships, and other means of obtaining quality training to improve your skills and productivity.

Join a local manufacturing user group affiliated with AUGI. Participate on discussion groups located at and

If you are unemployed

Be an ant - never give up! Get up in the morning, shower, and get to work building your new career. Your new job is preparing to get a new job.

If necessary, change your career choice. Personally, I've done this successfully four times in my life. Be flexible - if you're smart enough to do engineering then you're smart enough to do other things as well.

Don't diminish yourself because of age (I'm going on 63).

Unless you have experience in marketing and selling yourself, and are willing to deal with a long payback, don't consider going into consulting or contract design. You need to put food on the table. There are many consultants and contractors out there who are starving right now.

If you've never properly been trained in Autodesk Inventor or other products, do it now. Don't have the money? There are scholarships and free training available for those in need. Autodesk will provide free seats of Inventor software to unemployed persons looking to improve their skills.

Follow the aforementioned advice for the currently employed and take advantage of the free tutorials available on the Internet, join a local AUGI manufacturing group, and participate in online discussion groups.

Don't stand by the wayside, and let the world pass you by. And remember, don't be a grasshopper!

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