While talking about “analogies” may remind you of your grade school English class, it's the ability to make analogies which often gives engineers the ability to solve problems.
Analogies (just like your teacher taught you) are comparisons between two things, and looking at their similarities. As Dave Palmer points out in Design News, engineers might make analogies between thermal systems and electrical circuits: thermal resistance and thermal capacitance (heat capacity) follow essentially the same rules as electrical resistance and capacitance do for the flow of electric current. We might think of capacitators as masses, inductors as springs.
How do analogies help design problems? First of all, understanding or explaining a tricky concept to someone is often easier if you relate it to a familiar concept. Creating analogies, however could help come up with innovate concepts. A recent paper by Joel Chan and Christian Shunn in Cognitive Science looked at the way that engineers think.
In the study, the psychologists recorded a series of design meetings with a team of 10 engineers. In the study, they were tasked with developing a thermal printing pen as a toy for children, and the researchers counted each time the engineers used an analogy in their design discussions. They discovered that no matter how far-out the analogy, they increased the number of concepts generated.
Want to keep the problem solving conversation going? Think like an engineer – look for analogies between what you have in front of you, and what you already know.