SNV Story No. 10: When design engineers tackle beaver fur

Is the cover picture of the story a bit confusing for you? We recommend simply reading on and finding out the solution to the mystery. Let us start at the beginning. For this story, we spoke to vocational trainer René Gabriel from the Technical College in Bern. He trains future design engineers who wish to complete a federal diploma of vocational education and training (VET). Many of the young people entering the profession only realize when they start their training how loaded with standards their chosen profession really is. But it would be wrong to conclude from this that the transfer of knowledge must be boring. We illustrate the relationship between theory and practice using the example of a «beaver fur trap».

A good imagination makes for an ideal companion
Having a good imagination is indispensable for design engineers. For example, they can look at a 2D drawing to imagine a finished element, or they can use a question to imagine a solution. When it comes to standardization knowledge, this ability also needs to be developed. Initially, it is still difficult to see the connections and, above all, the scope of the standards in the forest of standards. Yet that is precisely the point. «I have a volume of standards that I use as an introduction to the subject. I ask the students what topic they would like to know about. It does not matter whether someone wants something about the hairdressing profession, a children’s playground or sunglasses. This book contains different standards for all kinds of things. This is a first eye-opener and the prospective design engineers begin to understand how comprehensive the world of standardization is,» explains René Gabriel, «even in the first 14 days of the training, we then dive into the standards compendium together.»

Nothing exists without standards
The more thoroughly students explore construction, the more standards come into play. The focus of the training is primarily on ensuring that the design engineers know where they can look up what and how they have to read standards. «Standards are similar to mental arithmetic. You do not have to know the content of the standards by heart, but it helps in everyday life if you do. At least the most important ones.» The physical standards compendium of the Swiss Association for Standardization (SNV) plays a key role every day. It has been optimized for basic knowledge and helps with recognizing correlations. In addition, it can be personalized with notes or marks and is always within reach. «The current standards compendium has around 90 pages more than the previous edition and challenges me as a vocational trainer to do a balancing act between which standards I teach and which ones I simply do not have the time for.» The more vividly we present the diversity of standards, the better the users will understand them. To show his students how many standards are involved in a simple drawing, René Gabriel has labelled and counted them in one such drawing. The students apply a total of 40 standards when creating the production drawing of the enclosure shown. A diagram that undoubtedly will make an impression on the students in their first year of training.

As many as around 40 standards are applied in this simpler «older» drawing of an enclosure, without taking into account the ISO GPS standards.

As many as around 40 standards are applied in this simpler «older» drawing of an enclosure, without taking into account the ISO GPS standards.

Making standards come alive
«It is just standardized» is not an answer one would hear René Gabriel say. For him, it is important that the students understand the standard and become increasingly better at assessing the implications behind it. Those who expect a traditional school with teachers and a lot of lecture-style teaching behind the «Technical College» are wrong. The Technical College is, in a simplified way, a host company and the vocational trainers are what used to be the master teachers. What is unique is the 3-1 model as it is taught here. In the first three years, students complete their practical and theoretical training. In the fourth year, they are full-time students in a course preparing them for the federal vocational baccalaureate examination. René Gabriel supervises three trainees per year. A colourful mix of people with different levels of knowledge, nationalities and genders. For each cohort, he has set up a separate office that bears his personal signature. «It is important to me that the students feel comfortable here and experience an inspiring environment,» stresses René Gabriel. Since the Technical College does not manufacture its own products, it has to rely on external customer orders. Numerous tricky and exciting enquiries arrive in Bern, because companies in the free economy often lack the free space in their hectic everyday lives to allow innovative and creative ideas to emerge.

One fur sample, please
Thus, one day, a call came from the University of Neuchâtel, or more precisely from the beaver specialist unit of the Federal Office for the Environment. It had conducted a study on the genetic diversity of the beaver. Tissue samples from dead beavers – mostly from roadkill – had been used for this purpose. In order to be able to obtain samples from living animals in a targeted manner in the future, the beaver specialist unit was looking for a way to obtain cells without having to capture the animals. Such analyses are carried out on the DNA that is present in every cell of the body, including the hair roots. In order for the laboratory results to be of any value, the beaver’s fur has to be pulled out together with the root. Up until then, all research groups around the world had used barbed wire, against which the beaver brushed itself as it slipped through. However, if several beavers leave their fur samples on the barbed wire, the DNA samples become mixed and the laboratory analyses are useless – at a cost of around CHF 500.00 per analysis. The Technical College was now called upon to find a solution to this problem. A construction that, in connection with camera surveillance, guarantees that the plucked fur can be assigned unambiguously to a beaver. So, they had to come up with a beaver fur trap.

Standards even in the first hand drawing
Such orders are a stroke of luck, as they can be used to show the students the standardized process of developing a product or solution. Initially, they work on the concept, learn how to write interview transcripts and to express themselves in such a way that everyone involved in the project understands the same thing. This is followed by the first hand drawings, in which the first standards come into play. After all, lines of different thickness mean different things. Labels are not written by hand, but in standard lettering. The documentation of the entire process is standardized and fills an entire federal-type folder for the beaver fur trap project. Questions to be answered are: «What kind of brush do I use to pull out the beaver’s fur? A toothbrush? A barbecue brush? Specially developed brushes?» It is important for the design engineer to understand the subsequent function precisely in order to propose the best solution. And this is where standards come in. Only those who understand standardization can apply the standards correctly. René Gabriel deliberately gives his students some freedom at the beginning and accepts that mistakes will be made. These are then analyzed together, and they work out step by step which standards have been forgotten or not applied correctly. This achieves the best learning effect. «Live, implement, explain, show, do,» in René Gabriel’s view, is the best way to familiarize young people with all the standards and show them the meaning behind them.

Even the first hand sketch contains standard elements and is neatly marked with standard lettering.

Even the first hand sketch contains standard elements and is neatly marked with standard lettering.

The polymechanic in the workshop receives the final drawing only when it is flawless in terms of standards.

The polymechanic in the workshop receives the final drawing only when it is flawless in terms of standards.

The interface between theoretical and practical
Thanks to this practical and multifaceted training, it is easier for the design engineers to gain a foothold in a company later on. Even though there are additional internal procedures, rules and behaviour to learn, they are well prepared to put their knowledge to good use. «A gap between theory and practice can arise when the design engineer meets the polymechanic. These two professions occasionally speak different languages. For example, the polymechanic complains about the poor drawing of the design engineer or the design engineer is dissatisfied with the production of the parts by the polymechanic, which is subject to tolerances. In these cases there is only one solution – approach each other and learn to understand the other’s point of view,» as René Gabriel knows from practical experience. As a trained mechanic and now a vocational trainer for design engineers, he knows both sides and how to balance them perfectly.

Knowing what to look for
Today’s trainees have grown up with the Internet. They cannot imagine a world without it. Nevertheless, the training is largely based on analogue tools. René Gabriel has built a construction wall for his students, which contains the most important books, reference works and even illustrative examples. A bit too old-fashioned, perhaps? All these things can be found on the Internet too, right? Yes, most them. But the difficulty for design engineers at the beginning of their careers is that they do not know what to look for. First of all, they have to learn the technical language. For example, if you do not know the word «thread undercut», you will never find the appropriate standard on the Internet. That is why reference works such as the standards compendium are an indispensable part of training. It also helps with learning the basics in one’s own language. If topics become more specific later on in day-to-day work, standards are often available only in English.

Better access to knowledge
Purchased parts that someone somewhere in the world has already designed and developed are also difficult or even impossible to find. It is not necessary to reinvent the wheel. But if you do not know what you do not know, you cannot look for it. René Gabriel hopes that in the future artificial intelligence will help his trainees to open up this wealth of knowledge on the Internet in a user-friendly and intuitive way. A kind of construction wall in the digital age, so to speak. By achieving this goal, René Gabriel believes, the profession of design engineer will be even more viable in the future.

Picture credits
Picture of a beaver – beaver specialist unit of the Federal Office for the Environment
All other pictures provided by René Gabriel, Technical College

René Gabriel

He is a vocational trainer at the Technical College in Bern. It is both a host company and a VET school for a variety of professions. In 2019, the Technical College in Bern was awarded the Swiss Olympic Partner School quality label by Swiss Olympic. It is the first full-time vocational school for trade and industry in Switzerland to receive this label. René Gabriel started his professional career as a mechanic and passed through various stages, such as training as a design engineer (at that time still requiring two and a half years of additional training) and as a mechanical engineering technician (TS; Technical School), before arriving at the Technical College, where he has been training design engineers VET since 2000.

He is a vocational trainer at the Technical College in Bern. It is both a host company and a VET school for a variety of professions.

René Gabriel

He is a vocational trainer at the Technical College in Bern. It is both a host company and a VET school for a variety of professions.

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