A Day In the Life of an RV Design Engineer

This is a blog about how RVs work (and sometimes why they don’t). I don’t get into company insider stuff, industry politics, etc. I keep my day job separate. The closest I’ll get is a guide like What’s Up With That RVIA Sticker and Should You Care? 

Because I love working in this industry, you see. And I work for (and with) some wonderful companies that just want to produce the best products they possibly can. And while I have nothing to hide, I would rather this blog focus on RVs as a whole, not on my particular job.

But I’ve been getting a lot of curious questions recently about what I do, what my job entails, and what goes on behind the curtain. So let’s look at … a day in the life of an RV engineer!

A Day In the Life of an RV Engineer

I call myself an “RV Engineer.” That’s really shorthand for “RV design engineer.”

I’m a product designer. Impressed by how much storage you found under your hide-a-bed? That was me! Wondering who decided how much cargo capacity you have? That’s me, too. I’m the guy who invents RVs. Sounds kinda cool, doesn’t it?

Job Responsibilities

Smaller RV manufacturers may not have a design engineer at all. Larger RV manufacturers might have an entire team! I work for a medium-sized manufacturer, and therefore I wear many hats.

As the saying goes: “An engineer is someone who does precision guesswork based on unreliable data provided by those of questionable knowledge.”

An RV design engineer’s responsibilities might include:

  • Designing a chassis frame and suspension (the running gear).
  • Specifying air conditioner(s) and the ducting system.
  • Drawing a wire harness, gas manifold, or DWV piping run.
  • Creating furniture, cabinets, storage built-ins, etc.
  • Releasing assembly drawings or CAM computer programs.
  • Inventing a new floorplan layout.

Thankfully, I share several of these responsibilities with a larger team.

The role requires intimate knowledge of RV design standards, such as NFPA 1192, NEC 2020 551, ANSI LV, and other codes and standards. Our drawings and models must confirm to accepted standards.

It’s primarily an office job.

  • Lots of 3D modeling, engineering analysis, CAM programming, and CAD drawings. It’s very software-intensive.
  • Lots of phone calls and emails to manage the supply chain for prototyping and new production. 
  • Not as much free coffee and office snacks as I would like, but if anyone’s listening … !

Design Knowledge

My position requires a wide breadth of technical knowledge. It’s a classic jack-of-all-trades position. For instance, I work with electricity, plumbing, chassis, and furniture – but I don’t require the sum knowledge of an Electrical Engineer, Master Plumber, Structural Engineer,  and heirloom furniture designer!

Manufacturing Processes

RVs use all kinds of materials: solid wood, engineered wood, textiles, steel and aluminum, plastics, fiberglass, etc. An RV design engineer needs a working knowledge of many manufacturing methods. For instance, should a part be made with open-molded fiberglass or plastic thermoforming? Waterjet cutting or 3D printing? This job requires a working knowledge of many manufacturing processes.

Human Ergonomics

It also requires a fair bit of knowledge of ergonomics. I have to imagine how people will move through the space. I have to design floorplans for 5’4” petite people and 6’4” NBA retirees. I think about circulation space, toe kicks, proper seat height, windows at eye elevation, and a bunch of other things to keep you comfortable. If I do my job right – well, you probably won’t notice. But if I do my job wrong, then you’ll feel uncomfortable, like the space just wasn’t designed for a person your size and shape.

What an RV Design Engineer Is NOT

Here’s what I’m not.

Not an Interior Designer

Many large-scale RV manufacturers have their own Studio Design team that specializes in mobile and small-space design. They’ll create floor plans, choose upholstery, pick cabinet styles, select faucets and hinges, that sort of thing. They focus on cosmetics, ergonomics, comfort, and use of space.

In companies without a dedicated Design Studio, the Design Engineers (like me) will often pick up the slack. I’m pretty good at designing floor plan layouts, but my Instagram-worthy decor skills are shaky at best! Every once in a while, I’ll brush up own my design skills, and I’ll re-remember the difference between tufting, welting, and quilting.

Not (Quite) a Manufacturing Engineer

Manufacturing Engineers are the nuts n’ bolts guys. They work with production processes, transforming design ideas into reality. They’ll manage CNC machines like water jets, laser cutters, routers, lathes, shears, and sheet metal brakes. They’ll manage assembly lines, lamination plants, furniture and upholstery shops, welding shops, etc.

Some companies make a hard distinction between their Design and Manufacturing/Process Engineers; some don’t. Because I worked for a medium-sized company, I did a lot of process/manufacturing engineering as well.

I find that the more I know about manufacturing processes, the better of a designer I am! An engineer can never have too much hands-on experience. I’ve set up and programmed CNC machinery like 3-axis routers and sheet metal press brakes, which I feel has made me a better overall designer.

Not a Quality Control Engineer

I’m firmly of the opinion that every manufacturing company needs an independent Quality team, a department that isn’t beholden to Production, or Engineering, or Service, or any other department. Yes, as a design engineer, I’m always thinking about quality, but I miss some things. A skilled Quality Engineer can amalgamate the needs of all departments. Autonomy is critical; if QC says the unit doesn’t ship, it doesn’t ship. Unfortunately, not everyone in the RV industry polices itself this way.

(Was) Not an RV Technician

A certified RV Technician knows how to troubleshoot and repair RV appliances like water heaters, furnaces, air conditioners, etc. They do repair work like replacing windows, replacing roof membranes, patching subfloors, etc.

An RV repair technician has an incredible level of RV knowledge that, quite frankly, I’m jealous of. I can tell you how an RV absorption fridge operates, and I can do basic troubleshooting, but I don’t have the thousands of hands-on hours that a Master RV Tech has!

(Although now, of course, I’m an RV tech myself!)

… Do you see how all these positions are necessary? An RV isn’t “designed” by one person. In fact, the more people that provide feedback, the better the finished product! And that includes you, the end user!

So What’s My Opinion on RV Design Quality?

I’m sure a few of you have cursed me and my brethren. “Can’t believe what a crummy design this is,” you sputter. “What were those engineers thinking?”

There are a dozen answers to that question. Here are a few possibilities:

  • Sometimes, RV manufacturers don’t have design engineers. The floorplans are hacked out by the sales team and a draftsman. This is, unfortunately, rather common.
  • Sometimes, we engineers are wrong. Just wrong. Plain and simple. We thought we designed something that worked, and it didn’t. But I take solace in the words of William M. Kelly: “Man is a slow, sloppy and brilliant thinker; the machine is fast, accurate and stupid.”
  • Sometimes, Accounting says our preferred design costs too much, so they settled on second (or third) best. Not our decision.
  • Sometimes, Manufacturing says we can’t add more than 32 seconds of assembly time to Station G, and so we came up with whatever solution would fit within 32 seconds.
  • Sometimes, Sales Dept. insists that a particular feature is necessary. So that took precedence and your problem didn’t. Again, not our decision.
  • Sometimes, I just don’t have many OEM options. Hate your 3-way fridge? Don’t blame me; I didn’t design that! I don’t like absorption fridges any more than you do, but there are only two major manufacturers – Norcold and Dometic – so my selection is limited. RV manufacturers don’t typically design the appliances within the RV. We purchase parts from literally hundreds of OEMs.
  • Sometimes, you see things that we don’t. It sounds strange, but you’ve used my products hundreds or thousands of hours more than I have! 

Please don’t misunderstand me! I’m not justifying some of the systemic quality shortcomings and substandard designs that have plagued the RV industry. That needs to change. You’ll get no argument from me.

As an engineer, my job is to make everybody happy: you, the stockholders, the assembly line, the vendors, the dealers, and the service center. It’s a game of chess, and sometimes, we sacrifice more than we mean to. No one in a company, not an engineer, not even the owner, has carte blanche to design and sell whatever they want.

As a consumer, you have what all companies dream of: money. So vote with your dollars! Do your research and buy brands that go the extra mile. If you buy cheap crap and just complain loudly about it, I promise you, your dollars are speaking louder than your voices. 

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