The Engineer’s Gambit

Article by Tommy Isaac CEng MIChemE

We need to think more like chess players, says Tommy Isaac

SECOND to the King, the Queen is the most important piece within a chess player’s arsenal, and therefore must be preserved. However, all chess players will be familiar with the Queen’s Sacrifice. This move involves knowingly losing one’s Queen to achieve a tactical advantage. Given the importance of the Queen, only a certain checkmate is normally worth this prize. There is a parallel between the importance of the Queen on a chess board and the importance of efficiency within a process; however, many engineering assessments don’t recognise the equivalent “Efficiency Sacrifice”, leading to both suboptimal analysis and overall outcomes.


The pursuit of efficiency within process designs is a fundamental driving force behind innovation and technological development. Since Watt’s first steam engines in the 18th Century, engineers have been fascinated with maximising the efficiency of processes to minimise losses and achieve technical perfection. This is a laudable and intellectually stimulating pursuit that has led to technological evolution from Victorian steam engines through to the modern fuel cells. However, the truth of the world is that decisions are driven primarily by economics, not technical perfection. The focused pursuit of efficiency can lead to distorted analysis where efficiency is seen as an end in itself, and not a means to inform decision-making. 

There is a parallel between the importance of the Queen on a chess board and the importance of efficiency within a process

Whenever process design decisions are taken, one must keep in mind what the overall purpose of the process is. There is the functional intent of the process, which often yields a physical product that is either directly sold to consumers or forms part of a supply chain for consumer products. However, the conceptual purpose of all processes is to create value. The creation of this value comes from the transformation from raw materials to products, where society places a differential of value between the two. It is this differential that is the driving force behind capital investment. Therefore, all information used to inform design decisions only has relevance as it relates to the overall purpose of the process, ie the creation of value. In other words, it is not efficiency that matters, it is the impact of efficiency on a process’ economics that matter. This perspective is independent of any political leaning. Given that all supply chains ultimately end with the general public paying for items deemed necessary or desirable, therefore any unnecessary additional cost within a supply chain simply passes through to the consumer. It is therefore in the interest of society at large to ensure that all process decisions and comparative analyses are ultimately conducted through the lens of economics, not technical engineering perfection. This perspective does not degrade the importance of considered technical analysis or engineering assessment, but puts it within the context of how commercial decisions are made in the real world.

Article by Tommy Isaac CEng MIChemE

Principal Engineer at Progressive Energy

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