Saturday, March 10, 2012

Brain leak: Price, Product, Promotion and Place : Engineering Services

This week Read this:

Which led me to write this brain leak:

One of the first places I worked, the state manager had the view that engineers sold time: I disagree with that view point. My view has generally been that engineers sell solutions, provide risk management and a share in their insurance. I disagree however that engineers, are necessary to maintain the health, safety and welfare of society, and that engineers face grave liabilities. The latter however can be considered a matter of semantics. As I keep harping on about, the currently practicing engineers have failed to understand the defined capabilities of the members of the modern engineering team. Engineers may have originated our modern civilisation, but they are most certainly not necessary to maintaining it. It is a gross exaggeration and the height of arrogance to suggest that if we got rid of all engineers, our civilisation would collapse. It would not: modern professional engineers, did not invent, originate nor build our civilisation.

When Telford built the Conwy Suspension Bridge, he didn't know when scaled up to the Menai Suspension Bridge that it would not collapse. Similarly when Navier did his calculations for his first bridges, he didn't know they were going to collapse. Strangely as a society we have adopted Naviers approach: over reliance on theory and code compliance and lack of prototypes and lack of empirical evidence. Prototypes are important. They not only confirm theory regarding performance of the end-product, but also permit testing the fabrication and construction process, and help train the supervisors for the real project. However, for large structures like buildings and bridges it is not altogether practical to build prototypes. No that cannot be right, that is what Telford and Stephenson did.

The buildings and bridges of the past represent heritage, statistical evidence that the forms of construction are fit-for-function and something against which to calibrate theory. So if all of our available knowledge is put to use then, we expect failure under defined circumstances and with the rare and unpredictable causes being beyond our current knowledge. Society therefore has expectations of success. This is typically represented in the cost of professional indemnity insurance, which is relatively low, and which otherwise increases in proportion to value of projects contributed to and the risk for the type of work.

Insurance and Geotechnical Engineering
So for example a few years back, during the construction of the Lane Cove Tunnel, when the roof of the tunnel collapsed and the corner of an apartment block above collapsed, the cost of insurance for geotechnical projects skyrocketed. This occurred to the extent that many consulting engineers contended they could no longer afford to work, and there was something of an up roar in the engineering community. Insurance costs settled down. In South Australia, the main work of civil engineers has largely been residential footing construction reports (FCR's), basically sizing slabs and footings located on highly reactive soils. In the past a large amount of cracking of brick work, led to some City Councils being sued: since then the development act 1993, removed the councils ability to give advice. There is now a requirement for independent technical check. Note the council is always there, consultants and builders come and go, and council grants approval, so they tend to be the first to be questioned over failures. So in the past failure of footings and cracking of brick work something of a problem, today however footings designed to AS2870 have a low risk of failure. To lump such work in with geotechnical engineering, is unreasonable: the risk is no where near the same as mining and tunneling activity. So a need to rationalise the insurance, if going to have people available to do the work: and the right people to do the work. Noting that in most other Australian states, where do not have the same level of reactive soils as South Australia (SA), footings can be sized directly from AS2870 and no engineer is required: just need soils people who take bore logs to classify the site to AS2870. Even in SA, some 80% of footings can be taken directly from AS2870, without need of blackbox software like Chord and Slog. Such work should be in the capabilities of 2 year qualified civil/structural engineering associates (they are not drafters or technicians), and such is covered in their academic programmes. Problem is getting the opportunity to put their studies to work, they mostly get put on a drawing board, and never get opportunity to progress, except may be with stormwater drainage design: which is heavily biased towards technical drawing.

Workshop Detailers and Detailing.
Considering another situation, that of work shop detailers. I'm not sure when, but around 1990, most of the contract drafters I met, previously were fulltime employees of fabrication and engineering workshops. There was massive decline in the industry and many people were laid off. I did my work experience at an engineering fabrication company in the late 1980's, all the companies clients I met, described how in the hey day the place was overflowing with activity. This is whilst we were hidden in the dark, deep inside the workshop buildings, with a simple lamp at the workers workstation: during the day time. The workshops were basically kept in the dark, with spots of light here and there where people were working. The skylight windows not providing all that much light. So there was this decline in the industry, and fabricators shifted to employing workshop detailers on an as needs basis, rather than having on staff. Problem is if talk to these workshop detailers, the works not worth the effort. Miss a simple cleat off the drawings, and get hit with the bill for going to site, cutting off incorrect cleat and welding on correct cleat in right place: can end up costing more than got paid for producing the workshop drawings. Workshop detailing is something really need to work on, one project at a time without interruption. Since that time a lot of work shop detailers have retired, and very few people interested in taking up the work. This in turn is increasing the reliance on 3D CADD software and building information models (BIM). If talk to work shop detailers however this software is ok for routine stuff, and also in cases where can generate CNC code for suitable machines, but otherwise produces appalling drawings where parts have to be made by hand. But that is also another problem, many of the people using such software have poor knowledge of technical drawing, engineering graphics and production processes. Its all very well being able to view things in 3D, if know what to look at in the first place. Similarly all very well being able to connect members together in 3D, but it doesn't really help design a connection that is feasible to fabricate. Consequently we have a skill base that has not been sustained, at the same time the educational institutions are teaching how to use the software before teaching the fundamentals of engineering graphics. Being able to use a compass and set square is still important: there are no object snaps on the work shop floor or on a construction site in the Australian outback. The tools and techniques traditionally used on a drawing board were and are the same as those used on workshop floor and the construction site.

With the skills no longer held in house by the fabricators, large national detailing companies have emerged. But it is questionable as to whether they can be called workshop detailers, more like part detailers. The difference is that they no longer know what materials are in stock, what tools available in the workshop, and what labour skills available. Workshop details are meant to be produced for a specific workshop and its capabilities: they are not meant to be simply part drawings. For example engineering details may specify a fabricated angle folded from a flat bar, the steel fabricator may have a preference for welding up from flat plate. If specify welded angle, fabricator likely to complain about expense of complete penetration butt welds (CPBW). The workshop detailer is supposed to resolve such differences and detail for the workshop. Similarly the workshop may have offcuts and steel in stock which is not otherwise readily available, this may be employed on the project at lower cost and get project completed faster. The engineer typically cannot make these decisions, because the fabricator is not known until the project is put out to tender, and a general builder is awarded the contract and the builder appoints a fabricator.

Cost of Workshop Drawings
Now this process works fine for large projects, but poses unwarranted expense for smaller projects. The builders and owners want to know why they have to pay for additional drawings. All that they see is the need for more detailed dimensions on the development approval drawings. In the era of CADD if everything has been drawn correctly to dimension and geometry, adding some extra dimensions not a major problem. But at development approval stage, drawings are not necessarily dimensionally and geometrically correct. The pressures of limited time, result in some last minute changes simply being noted on drawings, and not being fully developed. So the hallway in the building may be dimensioned 1200mm wide, but still drawn its orginal dimension of 1000mm. As a consequence many workshop detailers, generally do not request the CADD drawings for a project. They prefer to work from the printed paper drawings, and build a detailing model from scratch. This becomes a final check on bringing all drawing data together: architectural, civil, structural, mechanical and electrical. Which then becomes a common complaint of workshop detailers, that not all problems have been resolved before they get the drawings, and design still taking place as workshop details being produced. Thus reinforcing the situation that few people want to take up workshop detailing. The workshop detailer is at the end of the line for documentation: from there fabrication takes place.

When engineers check workshop details they usually disclaim responsibility for dimension and geometry, they only check member sizes, materials and connection details. That all is inaccordance with the design intent. It is thus workshop detailers and fabricators who experience the defects in design from project to project rather than engineers.

The activity of structural engineers is mostly concerned with strength, and stability for some rare and extreme event: consequently some period of 50 years or more may pass before defects in an engineers assessment and calculations becomes apparent. Though serviceability isues may arise in the day to use of the structure. For example a floor in a house having too much bounce.

Once had a client who turned up and wanted a floor  designed, and wanted it in timber because steel has too much bounce. Strange situation. It is the Australian institute of steel construction (AISC) or now the Australian Steel Institute (ASI) which produces the guideline publication for floor vibration, not the timber development association (TDA). However the timber framing code AS1684, has span tables which consider stiffness and floor vibration. Hence a timber floor selected from the timber framing code typically does not have too much bounce. But if engineering calculations are required then the floor is outside the scope of the timber framing code, possibly beyond the capabilities of timber. Since manufacturers of glulams and LVL's produce span tables similar to the timber framing code, no engineer is required for a timber floor. Thus a timber floor is likely to have superior performance to that custom designed by an engineer, because the span tables are produced by engineers who in the main know what they are doing. The custom designed steel floor has too much bounce because it has not been fully designed: just assessed for compliance with the codes of practice. There is no mandatory constraint on deflections, there is a requirement for checking serviceability, but no specific performance criteria: codes of practice are not design manuals.There is more to engineering than simply checking code compliance, and more to know than simply the content of codes. It does not require an engineer to get this right. It requires someone highly familar with the technology being considered. A structural engineer highly conversant in the design of concrete water tanks is not necessarily competent enough to design the components of buildings. Similarly someone highly conversant in concrete design not highly familiar with steel design. Whilst they may have the foundational knowledge to understand, their projects do not necessarily permit the time to become adequately proficient, and exercise the desired duty-of-care.

The engineer as defined by WFEO, is more concerned with the frontiers of technology than the established, their formal education is meant to be more directed towards the sciences than established technologies, and technologies viewed in a more abstract and generic sense: highly fluid and adaptable to new circumstances. It is the role of engineering technicians, engineering associates and engineering technologists to deal with the established technologies and adapt them to familiar circumstances. So cranes, storage tanks, silo's, chimneys, buildings, and bridges are all familar technolgies and well established. Graduate engineers are not suitably educated for being job ready to design such things: they are not meant to be, for designing such things is not there job. It is the job of the other members of the engineering team to design these things, and for their education to be specifically directed at such task. The problem with the WFEO definitions is the assumption that an engineer can be educated straight out off school: crazy notion. To be a competent engineer, a person really needs to have spent considerable time in the role of other members of the engineering team before tackling a project at the frontiers of science and technology. Telford and Stephenson could more readily trackle projects at the frontier because so little was known and community expectations of success lower than they are today. We do not tolerate inferior versions of the wheel being released into the market: new products have to exceed the performance of existing. Today it is necessary to be highly familiar with a technology and get it right first time, every time: not altogether practical, but that is the expectation.

In the modern world the majority of people we call professional engineer are not operating in the WFEO role of engineer, they are actually operating in the roles of the other members of the engineering team. They are not push any frontiers, they are not stepping into the unknown, they are not taking major risks. Well actually they are taking a major risk.

That major risk is that they are pushed for time, operating in a competitive business environment, product has to be released to market and buildings and bridges have to get built, and money flow into organisation to cover research, design and development costs. Being pushed for time, the persons involved in a project are not necessarily highly conversant with the technology they are dealing with. Thus a structural engineer, sizes some mechanical anchors for an aluminimum balustrade and specifies welding to a base plate, without reference to the aluminium structures code, and with inadequate knowledge of metals. {eg. they should have stuck with dirt and concrete.}

On Consultants
So have a problem has industry becomes increasingly reliant on outsourcing and using the services of consultants. An aluminium fabricator, knows they need designers of aluminium products, most likely a specofic aluminium product. So such fabricator can take on so many graduates of engineering, across the full engineering team and train them relative to their product and the materials used. Thus they develop expertise in the required area.

Consulting civil/structural engineers spend most of their time dealing with concrete and steel, and designing buildings and bridges and other large structures one at a time. So when a manufacturer comes along and wants their product design updated, the consultants are not up to speed, with either the material or the technology, nor methodology. The approach required for a structural building system or the components of, is different than that for buidlings. It is totally inappropriate to describe the project as multiple one-off projects.

For example one contract engineer described a case he about, regarding a consultant who after a year of work issued a shed manufactured with a bill for $50,000, the case went to court. The contract engineer thought the fee was unreasonable, since one-off shed designs for such manufacturers typically of the order of $550 at the time, I didn't think it unreasonable as a total fee. I thought the fee is unreasonable for what they actually get: a collection of individual shed designs. My preferred approach is more along the lines of industrial product design, and the design of a structural building system: this would take a year or more to do, and cost considerably more than $50 thousand. Such system would simplify selection of components when customising the product to the end-users needs: and so eliminate or at least significantly reduce the number of designs rejected by the regulating authority. My general view is that most of the companies would be better off replacing one of their relatively unskilled sales people of estimators with an engineer or at least engineering associate. Its not likely to happen however: the owners of the business likely to come into conflict with qualified technical personnel.

The other issue is that most of the businesses are small family businesses, and cannot afford large scale up front investment in design, nor can the small consultancy businesses afford to carry the cost of RD&D for them. Hence, they generally get a one-off design, which becomes an envelope for what they do sell, they then get other one-off designs on an as needs basis. The problem of doing this, is that there is no rationale to the designs, the designs do not determine the limitations of structural sections: one design is not necessarily enveloped by another. Consequently their guesstimation based on the standard designs held can be flawed, and way out. They thus look to consultants who can assist them to make estimates of member sizes for quotations. These estimates are needed any where between the next 5 minutes, the next 30 minutes to the next 48 hours. It is something better provided in house rather than by consultants. By relying on consultants they experience delays, not to mention lack of interest. Due to the nature of these manufacturers consultants tend to reach a point where they no longer wish to speak to the manufacturer. So the manufacturer is left with the problem of which consultant will talk to them this week. When talking cold-formed steel that doesn't leave many consultants.

So businesses do not necessarily have the right mix of people. So one thing graduates and consultants could look at is the needs of existing businesses which may benefit from having engineering services more readily available.

On Calculations
Engineers are typically seen as the ones who do the numbers. This is a problem, and an important one to take note off. Engineering is not about calculations, it is about understanding the relationship between the varying characteristics of a system, and using that to design a solution to a problem. A brainless unimaginative block of silicon can crunch numbers but it cannot solve problems. However it has to be noted that it is people who solve problems. The traditional training of many people was dependent on their ability to evaluate mathematical expressions: and a primary part of their careers involved doing so. With the emergence of electronic calculators, the time spent on such calculations reduced, and with electronic digital computers the time reduced further. Hence the fallacy of engineers sell time.

When I started with cold-formed steel design, my view was: there was no way could be done for such fee. But after a few projects, and progressively building spreadsheets in Quattro Pro, I had reduced the time from a week, I no longer had to study and learn cold-formed structures code since done that, and the hand calculations progressively automated. Thus getting closer and closer to getting the answers the client wanted in 5 minutes. Whilst otherwise pushing the standard calculation fee up from $550 to $990. Not only were the calculations done faster, but some 5 times more calculations were carried out to provide significantly more detailed assessment of connections. Not particularly valued, because seems everyone knew some issue with the connections, but not wanting to change. Still an issue trying to resolve. I've had more testing done at the University of South Australia (UniSA) as a student project, but still got to bring about change. The problem is that the available connection design manuals are not readily available (little from the ASI is: commonly out off print very rapidly.), further more such manuals for hotrolled steel and not a national standard. Result an apparently common attitude don't need to use, and not relevant for cold-formed steel. May be so, but the mechanics of the connection is similar: and making some assessment is better than no assessment.

So not just a matter of doing calculations, but the right calculations for the system, and in the right time frame. If can provide calculations faster that has a premium. Calculations which identify problem with current design, and problem that everyone is ignoring, are not wanted. If only skill contributing to a project is calculation, then can be readily replaced by software.

I am aware of one engineer who apparently day after day, hand writes out calculations that a 250 PFC is several times stronger than required. Not once showing that a C25024 cold-formed c-section is also several times stronger than required: for to do so would require considerably greater calculation effort. The physical problem requires something 250mm deep, and something the shape of a channel: so 250 PFC is the off-the-shelf solution. The development act requires evidence-of-suitability, so calculations are churned out. The said engineer is close to retirement, and I suspect provides significantly more to his clients than such calculations. It is just most likely that direct payment is for printed documents, not for conversations with the builder. So the calculation effort can be significantly automated, and more economical solutions possibly sought. But it is a matter of whether the alternative solutions are actually sought, and whether anyone wants to implement. It is also a matter of whether the builder recognises the full service that they actually get from a member of the engineering team.

Consider another situation. A plan drafter or builder draws up plans for a house, draws a big black line and points to it with a note: beam by engineer. They submit to regulating authority and get request to supply calculations for beam-by-engineer. They then seek services of an engineer and get calculations, approval is granted and some weeks later the builder who contracts to build, turns up at engineers office complaining beam is over sized. Argument breaks out and dispute not resolved. The builder then goes else where for engineering: my office for example. They come through office door cursing and swearing, council idiots for approving stuff that's wrong, engineers that don't know what they are doing etc ...

A problem. In all probability the engineers calculations are most likely correct. The problem is the deep beam doesn't fit below ceiling in the available 300mm space, and further more it cannot be man handled through the front door of existing house. If have to take roof off house to crane the beam in there is no point. Its not that the calculations are wrong, it is that the incorrect design problem was solved. The plan drafter wanted a beam, they got a beam. Council wants a code compliant beam, they got a code compliant beam, approval was granted. No real design was carried out. Usually the builder turns up, dumps the drawings down and wants to nick-off. Got to grab the builder back, and explain they are part of the solution process: they have to be willing and able to implement the design-solution: otherwise its not a design-solution. As with the workshop detailers, have to choose between willingness to weld the steel bracket up, or to fold it. This case what is the builder willing to do. As long as engineer only seen as doing the numbers their service is low value.

But consider aside from the numbers, there are many other people who can do what an engineer does, and do it much better. It is the mathematics, and the numbers primarily why people approach engineers in the first place. An engineer is thus something of a hindrance and delay to the whole process: especially if the technology is highly established.

On Retired Engineers and Regulations
The South Australian development act requires independent technical check. Independence requires no involvement with design. The building code of Australia (BCA) requires evidence-of-suitability. So whilst the development act permits building surveyors, private certifiers and councils to request calculations, there is no actual requirement for.

On a few forums I have read complaints about retired engineers in various parts of the world, rubber stamping, and accused of under cutting fees. I don't see any such thing. Once again, there is no need for calculations, or the crunching out off numbers. Engineers approaching retirement or in retirement, have crunched the numbers many times before. Sure codes have changed, but the solutions seldom change, for codes are typically calibrated against previous codes to get similar answers. Codes are not typically revised to make changes to the traditional 80%, but for the 20% of cases which is becoming increasingly common and for which the code is no longer adequate. So for the traditional the engineers can simply look at and based on past experience and understanding of relationships know whether additional calculations are required to confirm compliance with current codes, or whether it is ok by inspection. So yes they can just rubber stamp. Their experience, knowing the answer has a premium, and so does supplying an answer rapidly. Who needs the answer, the builder, and building surveyor, who also already know the answer. But there is a regulatory system and ritual to go through. So just because you has an individual haven't had the repetition and the experience to know, and you don't fully understand what you are doing, and simply crunch numbers as a ritual without understanding, doesn't mean others have the same deficiency. However the requirement is for evidence-of-suitability, and anything that approaches ESP to concluding a structure is adequate is not acceptable. That being said it is not necessary to keep generating the evidence on each and every project. Hence we have such things as the timber framing code.

Since my formal education is in industrial, manufacturing and mechanical engineering I seldom solve problems project wise, and seldom design structures project wise. I typically view with respect to future projects and industry wide solutions. Whilst I solve the project specific problem, I also develop design tools to assist with future projects. This may cause delays in getting the first solution, but becomes increasingly faster on future solutions. As a business we do not charge the client directly for the cost of such development, it is distributed across many future clients. I read a statisticians website the other day, he said he didn't charge by the hour because he did the work much faster than everyone else: he charged a fixed fee. As a consulting engineering business we do similarly.

Our fees are something of an intuitive feel for the market: not altogether mathematically worked out. We can check industrial awards for minimum hourly rates for occupational classes, various published statistics indicate whether the market is paying over award wages, and various clients also provide feedback of the fees in the market. Businesses we work closely with, typically suggest we can charge more, they will pass on to their client, private individuals on the other hand typically want lower fees. If people phone up and suggest they can get for lower, we typically recommend they take the offer. For the most part we are not looking for work, dealing with enquires occupies far too much time: limiting our ability to actually do the work. People always wanting to push to the front of the queue: need answer in next week, next 48 hours, by the end off the day. These are not projects we are working on, these are new enquiries, people with problems. They don't want to talk to a receptionist, they want to talk to someone who knows the answer, who can help solve the problem. That is why retired and semi-retired engineers get the work. This is not work pushing the frontiers of technology, it is all estbalished technology, with solutions implemented already, the industry wants to know what those prior solutions are: they want the services of someone who knows.

It is another reason I view problems as industry problems. I can wait until someone asks me to design a 21m clear span cold-formed steel portal frame, or I can detemine the limitations of cold-formed sections and know the solution already. I can use the computer, to gain the knowledge I would otherwise need an entire career to acquire.

Whilst I don't have the required qualifications to act as an independent technical expert and issue certifcate as such, I can act in accordance with the BCA, and issue a certificate of adequacy on basis of suitably qualified. That certificate can be checked by an independent technical expert and approval granted. Whilst the independent technical expert doesn't have calculations to check, it shouldn't matter because they are meant to check compliance of the proposed structure with the BCA. They have a certificate which contends that it is compliant with the structural provisions and gives some simple parameters and outputs which can be validated (eg. maximum moment in structure given, and little else). Do not want the technical expert checking arithmetic, want them checking the specification. If they cannot do a quick check then they probably shouldn't be checking that type of structure. The issue is not mere technical competence but proficiency. I reiterate it is established technology: in mos instances the builder has selected on past experience: they want someone else to confirm and provide required evidence of suitability to get approval. Hence the retired engineer is the one they want. So 50 years ago could have spent and justified the time to calculate the answer on the project, because then no one knew the answer, now many people do: and there is ritual to provide required evidence.

So whilst there is a premium on knowing the answer and supplying the answer quickly. The answer itself has low value, because everyone knows the answer, what is required is rapid supply of evidence-of-suitability. That is where computer software comes in, and online engineering services.

Online Engineering Services.
When engineering is reduced to simply providing required evidence-of-suitability in the form of engineering calculations, then that service has low value. Clearly such is not sustainable as a business year after year, fees are going to decline as the value diminishes. The value diminishes as the design-solutions become a matter of routine applied on a regular basis by everyone and know by everyone.

Additionally it is clear that, end-users typically don't get much involvement in the design process. Engineering services are perceived as expensive, and seldom present options to the right person, or even consider alternatives. So there is a trend for people to be able to make and assess design changes for themselves, relative to what matters to them. Remove a column from a building: how does that affect the size of the beam supported and impact on the cost of the structure? The end-users solution to the problem may be significantly different than that of the structural engineer or builder, but more desirable. But end-users typically do not have the know how to assess the impact of such changes: hence they become dependent on others. This dependency causes delays. The dependency exists because imposed requirements about public safety: if the person was going to build and never sell, and never have guests, and was isolated in a remote location: then probably wouldn't care too much what they did. But that is not the case, and the community wants the built environment regulated. So we are dependent. The desire for self expression and independence acts against this system dependency. Consequently more prescriptive solutions are required, which have already been approved, and more computer based parametric adaptive models are required which permit end-user customisation.

So software like Microstran and Multiframe may meet the needs of structural engineers, but it doesn't meet the needs of end-users who want the structures. End-users are not interested in loading codes and materials codes, they are just interested in their house. Its easy to erase a wall on a piece of paper: but what impact does that have on the structural adequacy of the house? Is it in any way possible for the end-user to assess this change without the services of a structural engineer? The answer is yes. Consider that the products by Sony are all based on the simple concept of timeshift. Cannot attend that once in a life time opera at the end of world war II. But transistor radio brought it into the house without the loss of time to travel, tape recordings made the opera available at a future date.

The same applies to engineering services, they do not need to be provided at the time the end-user needs: that is probably too late any how. The engineering services can be invested at some prior date, as with Sony embodied in the products they manufacture or otherwise supply.

The value of the engineering is not the time spent on a project, that is worthless. The value of the engineering services is the value invested in the product supplied, both goods and services.When it comes to consultants, the real focus by the customer is on the goods supplied: namely the documentation: not really the service. Just as consulting engineers design buildings, they also need to design their business and the product they supply. Instead of complaining about declining fees they need to understand the value of the product they are supplying.

Once again, only members of the engineering team can do the numbers, everything else is typically within the scope of others. Others are no able to do the numbers without the aid of the engineering team. Others will increasingly be empowered to do the numbers with out the aid of members of the engineering team.

So if a person classed as an engineer, has no real creativity, no real problem solving skills, no ingenuity, no talent what so ever which gives them claim to the title engineer: then they will mostly certainly be replaced by a brainless unimaginative block of silicon.

More and more engineering services are going to appear online, and offered for lower and lower fees, permitting end-users to review various design options at a low cost.

Off-Line Engineering Services
Engineering was never about doing the numbers. It is about understanding the nature of the real world, and harnessing this to achieve some objective. This typically resulted in some enterprise being created to produce and supply a physical product. However as indicated the economy changes, and technical personnel of all kinds end up outside the production companies as consultants. Whilst there are benefits to consultants there are also problems.

One of the prime benefits contended of consultants is a certain independence from proposed solution. That is if go to building contractor who specialises in concrete, then building provided will be in concrete. The consultant is supposed to provide a solution from the most appropriate material. This doesn't really occur, engineers become specialised in a particular material, and have biased preferences, so typically for example design concrete structures. A lot of buildings which have collapsed in earthquakes were inappropriately designed in reinforced concrete. This is not because concrete is inappropriate for earthquakes, it is because the method of construction and materials supply was inappropriate for the location of the building. the buildings needed to be designed with far greater consideration of the process of supply. Sure the numbers indicated that reinforced concrete could provide the required performance, but the number crunchings says nothing about the capability of getting the required performance in the location of the building.

So both architects and engineers need to be thinking a lot more about the capability of industry to supply the buildings they have specified. Not just considering the performance of the end-product. Back to workshop detailing example again: welded steel bracket versus folded steel bracket: two different processes which one is available? Further more which process is the more robust and least subject to human error? For a simple angle bracket where should the weld be placed, what form should the weld take? For the folded plate, what radius the bend, and how does that affect its stability? Little things can make a big difference.

Builders replacing multiple nails with a few large bolts: weaken the structure rather than strengthen it. Why? Because they have taken more material out off the member, and placed more force on the individual fasteners. But builders want to make certain changes: one is the large bolts look stronger, the other is it takes less time to install. Once again its not about the numbers but a qualitative appreciation of which way the numbers are going to go, without need to actually evaluate them.

If an engineer takes an arrogant stance of being smarter than builders and end-users then in all probability likely to fall flat on their face. It is a matter of perspective. Whilst the engineer is considering that the builder and end-user doesn't understand, they are thinking the same about the engineer. When the engineer thinks they have a great solution, everybody else may think otherwise. No one is really interested in mathematical prowess. People are only interested in the practical solutions which result from the mathematics. As for graduates, well hate to disappoint you, but the answer is in the book over on the office book shelf. No need to spend all day doing algebra we as a society have known the solution for some 50 years already. Some of the more common solutions were part of academic studies, so should have verified the handbook formula already. That is also part of the difference between education of engineering associates and engineers, the engineering associates more likely to have used industry handbooks and be familiar with: engineers have to become familiar with on the job and chances are going to spend all day doing calculus instead of implementing the known solution: chances are they will get the calculus wrong as well.

Consultants need to know what the product is that they have to supply to the market. Get away from those mega infra-structure projects and everything changes. Consultants should not be complaining about the skills of graduate engineers, when graduate engineers are not the people they need for their projects. We seem to have developed a society in which people expect to leave school, get a degree and be at the top. It doesn't work that way. You don't get to the top by only learning and knowing what everybody else knows, you need to know more than that. The title engineer may be the preferred and desired title, but the WFEO engineer is not what industry mostly needs. There is no global shortage of engineers as such.

There are shortages of;

1) Imaginative and ingenious individuals who can come up with innovative products and or solutions to the worlds problems.

2) Technically competent people to assess and evaluate proposed technologies, and take them from concept to implementation.

The innovative solutions sought mostly involve people not physical systems, whilst proposed technologies are variations of established technologies. Buildings are typically variations of established technolgies, no structural engineer required, but competent engineering associates and engineering technologists are required. Instead of wasting 4 to 5 years training a civil engineer, we can train a structural engineering associate in 2 years. Once again I reiterate engineering is not about high end mathematics and crunching numbers. Mathematics and numbers are just a tool, a means to an end,  they are not everything. Some consultants have made the numbers everything and are not really serving their clients. Fancy finite element models take time to make and don't really contribute any real value. Likewise 3D CADD models and BIM do not contribute real value to projects. It is necessary to understand the nature of the projects dealing with.

The custom engineering for a portal frame shed is relatively low value engineering, such as most likely been done a 1000 times already, and can probably go to a supplier who already has a suitable stock standard design. But increase the span of the building, so that there is no longer a single steel section which can be used as a rafter, then it becomes an entirely different problem. The structural form is now no longer known, and some real structural design is starting to take place: it has significantly more value. Further more now starting to move towards experiencing fabrication and construction issues with which the builders are not familiar. The project now starts to move towards being a project in which significant engineering supervision is required throughout the project. But once again still not necessarily requiring an engineer. Note the people currently practicing as engineers, and have been doing so for the past 30 to 50 years have solved many problems which previously had no solution. These solutions can now be passed onto engineering technologists in their education, not engineers. The engineers task is the unsolved problems, not the established solutions hidden in some text some where.

Implementing a solution has lower value than inventing a solution. Inventing an inferior solution to an existing solution available in industry publications, has lower value than the available solution. Consulting engineers are not all that different than engineers working for hitech manufacturers. For example Betamax versus VHS video tape. What matters is what the market wants and what are able to supply. If you've missed the boat then you have missed the boat. Minever Cheevy suffered a terrible fate: born too late. Might like to be an errant knight, and can live in a dream world like Don Quixote, but just going to be lancing at windmills.

So the numbers are going to be increasingly crunched by computers. Manufacturers are going to want this software to allow end-users to customise a relatively generic product to better meet their needs, and this is going to be increasingly done on line. Custom software will need to be written because existing software requires specialists to operate. The availability of manufactured structural product is going to decrease demand for consulting engineers as more of the lower end project work is supplied by the available products. Those manufacturers are likely to employ more engineering personnel on staff to adapt the product to improve manufacturing efficiency: to provide a higher performing product at lower cost and faster.

It should be noted that some consultants already have restrictions in place, they cannot do work for manufacturers similar to their principle client: if they do then they loose future work from that client. To be able to impose such constraint the client has to be able to supply a lot of work.

Also since the 1993 development act came in and brought private certification, some consulting engineers have taken on the role of councils checking development applications for building rules compliance: only the council can grant development approval: but others can do the checking and certification.

One consultancy is not the same as another. Even if they deal with structures each is different. Even if they appear to work in the same market, they should still have noticeable differentiation. I contend that it is wrong to contend that fees were undercut, and jobs bought, just because lost the job due to a lower fee. As technologies become increasingly established the value of the engineering service currently provided diminishes. The fees only rise when the engineering service is in short supply: but there is no real increase in the intrinsic value of the service. People just tolerate paying more until a solution is found to better satisfy the demand.

It is therefore necessary to innovate to increase the value of the service, or otherwise maintain its value.

As I indicated earlier people want to talk to someone who can provide the solution to their problems, not a receptionist. This takes consultants away from the design and documentation task. On mega projects can afford a design team, with people dealing with project enquiries other preparing tenders for new projects, others visting sites and still others doing design and documentation. For small scale projects and small businesses, cannot afford such teams. Employing someone, to start with, does not increase productivity but decreases it, as spend more time supervising and training the new recruit. Put bluntly programming a computer is a more productive exercise: and shows gains a lot more immediately.

The problem with employing people on low end work is that the work does not have high value, but there is a lot of it and it needs to be done quickly. Priorities for the work can change by the minute: the unfortunate few may not get their job for 12 months, even though only a few hours work involved. So the problem is managing the waiting line.  So have a problem: proving that have developed the technology to supply faster and to be able to do so consistently, and therefore charge a higher price. Technology is required because it increases the value whilst additional personnel simply increases the cost beyond the recoverable value. Its a matter of emergent behaviour, or synergy. The value is less than the sum of the costs, therefore sale price cannot recover the cost. Price is not cost plus profit: price is what the market is willing to pay. Get your product wrong then you make a loss.

So can work project fees out on the basis of time taken and hourly labour rate, but for small projects chances are the fee is going to be seen as extortionate by the market: more over beyond their capacity to pay. If the fee is beyond the capacity of the market to pay then do not have a business. A given market will support a given lifestyle with a given approach to that market. Change the approach and can change the lifestyle it can support. So if there is a market for the MacDonalds of engineering or then someone, somewhere will eventually provide it. That someone is unlikely to have traditional engineering skills: could be a drafter, a computer scientist, or steel fabricator: who saw a need and filled it. As I have said before business is a real world experiment: you try something and then respond accordingly to feedback.

So identified a market: know what they want, what price willing to pay, and how fast they want it. The big question is can you design a business and product that meets that need, and then supply it?

Whilst consulting engineers may know a great deal about bridges and buildings that they assist to design and build: they don't necessarily know enough about the product they actually supply: their engineering services. Most who have implemented quality assurance systems have no real idea about quality, simply converted document control systems for contract management into ISO9000 quality accredited system: but they have no real quality system with respect to the product they supply. They have missed the point. Every revised drawing represents defect in design and documentation: defeciency which should not exist, defeciency which should be removed. Some consultants have revision number systems which confuse real revisions with document issues. Either way more effort is required in the design of the design and documentation process. That engineer didn't have adequate knowledge of aluminium design at the start of the project, and still doesn't at the end of the project. Are more projects in aluminium coming this way? That engineer really doesn't have adequate knowledge of storage tank design. That engineer lacks knowledge of bridge design. Does the consultancy tender for projects, or does the work just flow in? Does the consultancy supervise construction or just produce design documents? What is it that the client wants rather than what the consultant wants to supply? The owner of a building may want the architect and engineer to supervise construction and the contract. But the builder client doesn't need or want such supervision: they just want the design documents, they have others to ensure compliance with their specifications.

Supermarket chains for example impose discounts on engineers just like they do on spud farmers: they treat all suppliers the same. Government and large corporate clients get small projects that big city engineers not interested in, or otherwise charge too high a fee for. So they seek out small business, no tendering, they ask for submission of a a fee. But then they start getting into requirements for this and that: like ISO9000 accredited QA systems, evidence of insurance, copies of this document and that document., fill in this form and that form, and comply with this contract. Up shot, hey we are not interested in your work, we do engineering, if you want to keep your administrative staff employed go else where. All of this other stuff is superfluous to the task: fees only cover the actual task not this irrelevant stuff. If really want all this other stuff then go to some consultant that also has administrative staff to keep employed. These businesses don't want what they get for the lower price: they want gift wrapping and a fancy bow to tie it up. They want something more than the generic product. Once again important to know where your market is: not just as supplier but also as buyer. As a buyer you don't go into a used car yard and start demanding features only available on new cars. You go to the right place in the first instance. With service providers its more difficult to select the right supplier because cannot see what you are going to get.

A few years back I criticised Engineers Australia engineering excellence awards: because there was no real evidence of excellence in engineering. For all I know the building contractors could have fixed a multitude of errors in the engineering constribution, and the engineers could have been bumbling about in the dark until they fell over a solution, and produced documentation in constant need of revision. In short the engineering contribution to an otherwise excellent project was rubbish. It is thus difficult to tell as an outsider whether a project turned out well despite the presence of a useless consultant on the project, or because of an excellent consultant.

Its getting beyond the numbers and finding out what the real contribution is. Many consultants talk about supplying more: but don't really walk the talk.

I'm thinking sleep would good: Sat 2012-Mar-10  03:36

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