How to formulate a focused problem statement in engineering projects

Monday, 15 June 2020

Engineering projects design solutions to problems. Perhaps the most important component in any project is the problem statement that spells out to the reader which problem the project addresses. The problem statement must be clear and focused. The nature of a focused problem is continuously debated in institutions of higher learning. Which student hasn’t heard their supervisor ask for a narrower focus? “Dear students, remember the three Fs – focus, focus, focus!”

Luckily, for engineering projects in particular, formulating a focused problem statement is really not as difficult as it sounds. By and large, all engineering projects concern improving something which already exists or developing something new. The term ‘problem’ covers one of the following two issues:

  1. That an existing entity is underperforming or simply has potential for improvement (e.g. a product with low durability, an app with a slow launch speed, or a chemical process with low effectiveness)
  2. That an entity that someone wants or needs, does not exist (e.g. a building, a product, an algorithm, or stretch of road)

When formulating the problem statement, students should be aware of which problem type their project addresses. The choice of problem has immense effects on methodology, analysis, and the nature of the solution that the project designs.

If the project concerns improving an existing entity, the project analyzes the problem’s causes and designs a solution that either eliminates these causes or reduces their effect on the problem. For example, if the problem is low product durability, then possible solutions are redesign, changing materials, clearer maintenance instructions, or a combination of these elements. Depending on a causal analysis, one, two or all three elements could contribute to higher product durability. If the project develops a new entity, then the problem is not that an entity needs improvement, but rather that an entity that someone wants or needs does not exist. This could be anything from a new lamp, building, logistical system, tunnel, app, or medical device. The project designs the solution, so that is does exist.

Focus in engineering projects

When constructing a problem statement for a project that improves an existing entity, the key to focus is to address only one variable in a limited space. Here is an example of a focused problem statement:

”How can Johnson & Wick PLC reduce the scrap rate of product AB1280 on production line 12?”

The one variable is the scrap rate and the space is limited to product AB1280 on production line 12. Although the student team may address numerous subjects, technical disciplines, a variety of tasks, and encounter all manner of challenges, the problem is focused and clear to the reader, because only one variable is addressed.

In a problem statement, the enemy no. 1 of a clear focus is the word ‘and’. Every time you allow ‘and’ to sneak its way into your problem statement, the focus of your project is reduced because the project then addresses two things simultaneously. Two or more variables is not focused and this lack of focus reduces the student teams’ ability to conduct (and communicate) a coherent and high-quality project. Dealing with several issues simultaneously makes it harder to limit the search for relevant literature, identify the right data types and sources, conduct a coherent analysis, and communicate findings and the solution clearly.

This article was written by Samuel Brüning Larsen, author of Doing Projects and Reports in Engineering. You can learn more about problem statements, methodology, analysis, solution design and implementation in the book.