Are Mechanical solutions better than Electronic ones? Yes and No

Vivek G
Nerd For Tech
Published in
4 min readApr 4, 2021

--

Photo by Wilhelm Gunkel on Unsplash

First of all, this article is not a war between Mechanical Engineering and Computers/Electronics Engineering 😛 It is just a realistic representation of two different approach to solving engineering problems 😄

Let’s start with an example to get context.

You might have noticed that your bike (or if you prefer, bicycle) does not move backward if you crank it reverse.

Have you ever wondered how this unusual way of operation is actually achieved? In bicycles, the solution is a pure mechanical one. There is an internal arrangement that allows to lock the pedal and the wheels while cranking forward, but allows free rotation in reverse. To know more about the details, you can refer this page.

Bicycle wheel pawl and ratchet mechanism

This could have been solved in an electronic way. One of the ways is to attach a sensor to the crank and monitor if the pedal is cranked in reverse. This input could be used to decouple the drive to the wheels, much like how a clutch functions in automobiles. Based on the sensor input, forward crank would engage the drive and reverse would disengage it, thus achieving the purpose.

If we see these implementations, we can clearly see that the mechanical solution is very straight forward. It is so simple that it’s presence goes unnoticed to anyone using the bicycle! However, the electronic solution would require quite a number of parts starting from a power source, to wiring and sensors and a controller. It would also require a lot more effort to setup and maintain it during active use.

Let us take a look at how these two approaches differ fundamentally in various aspects of product development.

Ease of comprehension

Source: http://www.quickmeme.com/meme/36dji9

If you have to understand a mechanical system created by someone, it essentially boils down to understanding the laws of nature that the system is based on. Other than the natural laws, only thing that is left to understand is how well that person has exploited them!

However, in an electronic system, there are no natural laws that everyone uses. It is mostly human logic that forms the solution which essentially means there are infinite possibilities, which differ from every person to person. So, if you have to understand the code written by someone, you need to know the programming language and also understand why a particular logic or thought process was used.

Ease of maintenance

As seen in above examples, well designed pure mechanical solutions would only require periodic maintenance and are can be made robust easily. Electronic solutions, on the other hand, would require more protection and also active maintenance, depending upon the design. However, pure electronic systems such as software products would be far easier to maintain than mechanical systems.

Progressive failures

Source: https://line.17qq.com/articles/gifjdbfdz.html

I just used a program which would give warning that it will crash in 2 minutes! Of course I was kidding!

Since electronic solutions are based on logic and live in an abstract space, it makes it quite hard to to know when and how the spaghetti is going to contradict itself and fall apart.

However, since mechanical solutions are based on the same laws of nature, failure situations are more predictable as there are lot lesser possibilities, compared to the electronic spaghetti. In addition, mechanical failures are usually progressive and show warnings, if you know to recognise them! Yes, when the blower or engine makes a different noise than normal 😛

Ease of development, updating and shipping

Agile is more seen in the software industry than manufacturing or civil engineering industries. Electronic solutions are flexible for changes on the fly and can be improved. It is also very easy to update features to an existing system, to great extents. Shipping these systems is also very easy, especially if they were fully electronic. All it would take is a download.

This is more hard to do in the case of mechanical solutions. They require substantial effort to develop prototypes, manufacture and ship them physically. Quite often, updates to products amounts to recalling units and reworking the fix on each of them.

These were some ways where each approach has it’s own elegance in offering a solution to a specific problem. There is no clear winner and we need both!

Thanks for reading! Find me on LinkedIn.

--

--