I was recently discussing the feasibility and cost of different engineering projects with some colleagues, such as suborbital rockets and the like. We came to a point where I asked my friends what it would cost to create a suborbital launch system, for 10 pounds of payload, in six months. They immediately answered that would be at the very least greater than 10 million dollars to perform this task. Immediately an argument broke out about the cost of such a system, because our estimates were factors of 10 apart. Well, we could have researched what current launch systems cost to disprove each other, but we decided to create a thought experiment instead. It goes like this:
What would it cost to, as cheaply as possible, send a hamster to the bottom of the Marianas Trench and bring him back alive?
My friend said $100,000 to create such a submarine. I said, at most, $10,000.
The reason we went in the opposite direction from where the conversation started was because this questioned exemplified any number of different engineering concepts that most people have some knowledge of. There is pressure from the water. The hamster may need life support systems. Are we including the rental of a boat? What about labor costs?
This question is very open ended. People will answer in any number of ways. But that is what makes it interesting. People answer in so many ways, and have different reasoning for their estimate.
By how a person answers this question one can see how they think and perceive the world. Do they have a broad outlook on the project? Are they detailed oriented? Do they just like to get stuff done? Are they an optimist or a pessimist? Do they just think this is dumb? Do they accept the challenge? Do they have hands-on experience? Are they going to run any of your projects over budget?
This question is definitely has a factual answer. None of us have bothered to do the math to find out what it is. But, with this question, it is not the answer that counts but how one tried to create the solution.
If I ever interview someone for a job, the first thing I ask them will be this question. As silly as the presentation is, this question can give you a full personality profile on a person just by how they attempt to answer it. The fact is that it is also a decently in-depth engineering problem that would make it a fun assignment for students in classes like EGR 101. Engineers are only good if they can approach the ludicrous, ridiculous, or impossible and find a way to make it practical.
At the end of the discussion with my friend, we still both stubbornly clung to our initial estimates. I am not going to share our design ideas because that would affect your answer.
It’s great to see the look on friends’ faces when they hear this question. Go have some fun with it.