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A lot of science, a little magic

A McKinsey Design colleague says the right engineering solutions can transform a business and move clients in new directions.

Chris Wlezien
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To paraphrase Tupac, Chris Wlezien didn’t choose the engineering life—the engineering life chose him. As a young boy in Chicago, he spent hours watching his father build homes as a general contractor.

"I grew up watching him doing carpentry, tiling, welding, you name it,” says Chris, now a Specialist and Associate Director in Engineering with McKinsey Design. “Watching my dad build things inspired me to think technically. I experimented with woodworking and welding, we built robot kits together, and in high school I started entering competitions. I just loved building things and finding problems to solve."

Chris studied engineering at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, which unleashed him upon a studio full of specialized tools and raw materials. He studied mechanical engineering and experimented with designing composites, constructing molds, using resins, creating vacuum systems, and more. After graduation, he worked at Caterpillar designing sheet-metal machinery components before joining a design firm where he made plastic toys for McDonald’s Happy Meals.

"It was technical and fun, and I was making things that kids loved,” says Chris.

Since coming to the Firm in 2015, Chris has taken on client projects that push him to use numerous problem-solving techniques and cutting-edge tools. Week to week, his design-thinking approach may yield computer simulations, models from 3D printers, and manufactured parts. His creations often look “organic and almost alien” in their shape and appearance, Chris says.

As alien as they may look, though, Chris’s creations fill very human needs. Recently, as part of a team improving colostomy devices, he helped to produce solutions resulting in a more comfortable product for its users and several new patents for the client.

"I love chasing ideas that the client hasn’t considered before,” says Chris. “Novel architectural changes that make a huge difference in the long run. The right engineering solution can transform a business and move clients in new directions."

Nuclear family (and other adventures)

Chris and his wife have a joke that he’s trying to build a nuclear reactor in the garage—at least, people think it’s a joke. His home abounds with his workshop creations, like the robot that opens the windows, the computer case made out of sewing machine parts Chris welded together, and the custom electric-vehicle charger.

His big side project, however, was the “energy-efficient atmospheric water generator” that he and some friends designed and built two years ago for an XPrize Competition, which awards $1.5 million in funding to teams that develop “radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity."

With water scarcity as its 2017 contest theme, XPrize hoped to inspire a revolutionary answer for the more than 780 million people who lack adequate water around the world—though fresh water doesn’t flow readily in many regions, oceans of it float invisibly through the earth’s atmosphere. XPrize contestants were asked to build machines that produce 2,000 liters of water per day for the cost of less than two cents per liter, using 100 percent renewable energy.

Chris Wlezien XPrize
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So, early in 2017, Chris and two engineering friends from outside of the Firm used their free time to develop a system that collects water from air. Their team, named “Skydra,” spent months learning about thermodynamics, how to build solutions quickly, and how to adapt the best parts of failed concepts.

"At the beginning it’s all design thinking,” says Chris. “You come up with 10 options and use a physics lens to find out the best path. Then, with an engineering mindset, you build a case based on research. The only real boundaries are the laws of physics."

Their prototype was ready for first-round testing by late 2017. In March 2018 the contest judges declared the Skydra team one of five finalists, awarding $50,000 to fund a second prototype in late 2018.

"The underlying physics were sound, so we knew we had a winning concept before we started building,” he says, “but there were thousands of details and small challenges we still needed to solve in the process, so we were constantly coming up with new solutions even late into the second round."

Skydra did not win the grand prize, but their final efficiency rating was exactly what their mathematical simulations predicted: $0.005 per liter, four times better than the competition’s goal.

A lot of science, a little magic

As the Firm grows ever more diverse in its capabilities, our impact for clients will depend on accommodating a greater diversity of perspectives and approaches. For people like Chris, the process is less about a hypothesis and more about considering a high number of possibilities.

"In my field, tackling a completely new problem with a hypothesis-driven approach will rarely yield the answer on the first guess,” he says. “We start with tons of ideas, benchmark them, and compare the different outcomes. We encourage as many different approaches and perspectives as we can get, and then we do a lot of research to determine which solution is best."

While this method is effective for Chris and his engineering colleagues, it can be tricky for clients and colleagues without a similar understanding of physics, mechanics, and so on. “Explaining a concept that’s so specialized is difficult when there is nothing similar to compare it with, and understandably, those concepts are often met with skepticism."

The magic happens when Chris can get the client and team to trust in the idea (and his ability to execute it) even if its particulars feel a bit fuzzy. For one client, he designed a pro-grade, hydraulic power tool that electricians use to make sealed connections—after the client declared his initial concept impossible.

"The existing tool had an oil reservoir and a pump, and to my eye it seemed odd to be using hydraulics at all,” says Chris. “I thought it could be done more like a carjack, with a screw mechanism. We came up with a concept and to prove it we built a new computer-aided design model and made a prototype. It didn’t look beautiful, but it worked really well."

In short, the solution was not easily described in the proposal, but its impact as a working prototype is undeniable.

"We helped them reimagine what it could be,” says Chris. “By making it in a different way, we moved the client from dismissing it as impossible to accepting that, if this can be built, who knows what else we can do."