rube goldberg

Overengineering is when a product is more robust or complicated than necessary for its application, either (charitably) to ensure sufficient factor of safety, sufficient functionality, or due to design errors.

Overengineering is desirable when safety or performance on a particular criterion is critical, or when extremely broad functionality is required, but it is generally criticized from the point of view of value engineering as wasteful. As a design philosophy, such overcomplexity is the opposite of the minimalist school of thought.

Overengineering generally occurs in high-end products or specialized market criteria, and takes various forms. In one form, products are overbuilt, and have performance far in excess of needs (a family sedan that can drive at 300 km/h, or a home video cassette recorder with a projected lifespan of 100 years), and hence are more expensive, bulkier, and heavier than necessary. Alternatively, they may be overcomplicated – the design may be far more complicated than is necessary for its use, such as a modern text editor asking whether files should be saved in ASCII or EBCDIC format. Overcomplexity reduces usability of the product by the end user, and can decrease productivity of the design team due to the need to build and maintain all the features.

Second World War German tanks are typical examples of overengineered vehicles, which made them more expensive, more difficult to produce and heavier than their Soviet and Allied counterparts. A story about very precise engineering is given in the 1858 story ‘The Deacon’s Masterpiece’ by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., which tells of a carriage (one-horse shay): ‘That was built in such a logical way / It ran a hundred years to a day / And then / went to pieces all at once / All at once, and nothing first / Just as bubbles do when they burst.’ Because it had been engineered so that no single piece failed first – no piece was over-engineered relative to the others, and they thus all collapsed at the same time.

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