2018-08-31

Simplify, then add Lightness

Colin Chapman, founder of Lotus Cars, was one of my earliest heroes. His clear thinking, his engineering talent, and his drive for exactly the goal of victory and no more had him at the cutting edge of automobile racing for decades.

He nearly single-handedly redefined the sport of racing multiple times, being among the first to introduce mid-engined cars, downforce wings, monocoque chassis, ground effect underbodies, load-bearing powertrains, etc. Every other year they would have to change the rules to ban or regulate whatever Chapman had come up with the previous year, so that everyone else could keep up with Chapman’s aggressive and sometimes reckless pace of innovation.

Besides his single minded focus on victory at the expense of all other considerations, one of Chapman’s most important overall philosophical concepts was “simplify, then add lightness”.

Basically, he would boil everything down to the absolute minimum necessary components and moving parts, having parts do double duty if necessary. For example the famous “Chapman strut” suspension, or the more commonly used load-bearing powertrain. Then he would make every part as light as possible, drill holes in things, and make the walls thinner, to the point where it would ideally fail exactly at the finish line, and not much later.

This ethos applies well outside of race car design, though perhaps with more emphasis on reliability, to any kind serious engineering where you are targeting performance, and not just getting some semblance of the desired product out the door as fast as possible. In other domains, “lightness” can be substituted for other performance metrics.

Simplification is a heuristic for optimizing system-level designs. Boil it down to the minimum of parts, subsystems, and critical features. This has proven to be effective for improving cost, weight, reliability, understandability, and often performance.

Only once the system level design is worked out can you worry about the performance and optimization of individual parts. And once you know what each part has to do, you can optimize it in relative isolation.

So stated generally: Simplify, then optimize the parts.

In any case, the life and works of Colin Chapman are worth studying for anyone who aspires to technological competence. He was not just an engineer, but a philosopher of engineering.