Sunday, September 02, 2012

Problem of reducing Dependence on Consultants, and other meanderings...

Generally speaking I don't like consultants, though that is what I work as. I advise many of my clients to employ engineers on staff, they typically opose the idea on basis of too expensive. Then I suggest engineering associates, but problem there is finding ones with the experience.

I'd say it was around the 1980's that lots of businesses laid technical personnel off, and started outsourcing. So for example steel fabricators who once employed workshop detailers on staff, started employing them on contract. Problem with that approach however is that the cost of a minor mistake could end up costing the workshop detailer more than they were paid for the job. Result little future uptake of the occupation. More over isolated from the main employers as a multitude of sole practitioners: who would know the occupation existed. In recent years there have been some national businesses setup providing workshop detailing services, and some engineering consultancies have started employing detailers on staff to reduce problems later in the project. But such practice isn't good. Workshop details are not part details, they are not simply details of components to be fabricated. Workshop details are meant to relate specifically to the capabilties of the fabricators workshop and available resources. Such can only really be achieved if the workshop detailer works for the fabricator. For example I have shown folded brackets on structural drawings and fabricator has come back and wanted to use a bracket welded up from plates. I show welded up from plates and they want to fold it. When producing structural drawings, the fabricator is not known, they will be selected later. Anycase the workshop detailers generally no longer work for the fabricators, but none the less need to be familiar with the fabricator and their needs and capabilities. So how to build technical competence into businesses which have either never had technical personnel or previously decided to outsource?

Both sole practitioners and larger consultancies have been unable to sustain technical competence in the workforce. Sole practitioners typically don't have an issue with future needs: their businesses don't continue once they retire, other businesses simply pick up the work or the work disappears. Employing consultancies and manufacturers however, tend to span many generations, and need to sustain technical competence to stay in business. But there is the problem of design once and build many times. My clients are of the build many times type, therefore seemingly don't need technical personnel on staff, and rely on consultants on an as needs basis. The as needs basis being when they encounter problems with regulating authorities.

{{ break for tea }}

Some 20 years ago, I met both drafters and engineers with 30 plus years experience, 10 years later I was the experienced one. Sure those with 30 years experience would have reached 40 years and be close to retirement if not already retired, but where were those who previously had 20 years experience, who should by then have achieved 30 years experience? The engineers I have met have typically been experienced and never reported problems of being confused with train drivers or plumbers. When I complain about the competence of engineers it is not with repect to those I have met or worked for, it is relative to the work that flows through my office, the clients and builders I meet who are unhappy with some engineer, and otherwise the irritating letters and articles in Engineers Australia magazine.

It seems that many of the sole practitioner consultancies never had the comptence in the first place to then expand and pass real competence on to the next generation. It is not a matter of formal education, it is a matter of culture and attitude. We seem to have developed a culture where self-learning is looked down on, and real learning only occurs when taught by a teacher. Which is a crazy perspective, especially when it comes to engineering. With that apporach we would still be stuck up trees eating banana's: because there would be no teachers to show how to climb down the tree and stand and walk upright. No? We sprung into the environment walking upright? In which case I guess we don't need to be taught anything. we already know everything.

Thats the problem a cultural attitude that the B.Eng contains all that need to know to do the job: the result is that real world design problems are treated as trite tutorial problems. Few researching the literature, aware of industry manuals, or putting such knowledge to work. One client turned up declared wanted a floor beam designing, wanted timber, didn't want steel because had steel in previous house and had too much bounce. Crazy!. It was the Australian Institute of Steel Construction (AISC/ASI) that published guidelines for floor vibration. The span tables for timber framing are determined taking vibration into consideration, and all manufacturers of Glulams and LVL's produce similar tables. Basically no engineer is required to size a timber floor beam for a house. But chances are whether steel or timber if designed by the average engineer, it will have too much bounce, because they won't consider floor vibration. There are thus established industry practices which are not being passed on, have not been passed on, and consequently resulting in disatisfied individuals. Individuals who do not have a collective voice to complain about the quality of engineering services they receive. Though if they did have a collective voice the main compliant would probably be about the amount of time it takes to achieve something they take to be relatively simple. For another issue is city councils requesting certificates and/or caluclations. There is this other cultural attitude that people can do what ever they want and all that is required is an engineer to do some calculations and approval will be granted and demolition will be averted.

Not only have government departments contracted back to adimistration and maintenance, and otherwise become reliant on external consultants for engineering services, but they also keep changing their names and much inspection has been lost. For example the department of labour and industry (DLI) was reponsible for certification of cranes and other mechanical plant., now its part of some occupational health and safety department. At the beginning of this year Planning SA website shutdown, and state planning department disappeared into some infrastructure department: the website for being good if want a drivers license. The planning SA information now lost amongst the chaos of the .gov website. None of which helps in making sure equipment is properly approved. Is that crane or pressure vessel properly certified? What changes are on the agenda for the development act and regulations?

Several years back there was this idea of decentralising government. This did not result in more local community based access to government departments rather, it put everything at the end of a telephone line. How can we expect individuals or business to comply with regulations, when they don't know who is regulating an activity? When the government seems to be deliberatly hiding. The department changes it name so can deny responsibility for some previous government stuff up. It seems chaos but most likely isn't. It just that the order is not clear and apparent to the community.

Now the most fundamental law of society is that goods need to be fit for function. Most businesses supply on the assumption that their product is fit-for-for-function, until they are questioned on the matter: either by dissatisfied customers or regulatory authorities. It is at this point that they then seek the assistance of techno-scientific types to provide assistance.

This is where the problem then arrises. The consultants have not been taking an interest in their clients product, and further more they see no particular reason to expend great effort learning about the product to answer some current issue with a regulating authority, for the client to then disappear until they hit another problem. Relying on consultants doesn't really benefit the manufacturer or builder. The work from such is also of limited value to the consultants. If there was a regular flow of work from the manufacturer/builder then it might be of value to the consultant to study up on the clients product.

So with respect to this sector of the industry we have a problem. Technical people can gain the fundamental experience they need working for a consultant, but not the specific experience they need for the manufacturer. But working for the manufacturer they won't gain the fundamental experience they need to tackle the specific product. Further more the large consultancies where likely to gain the required technical experience, is not the typical employer someone would leave. Engineers with required experience unlikely to leave their employers and leave behind large prestigious projects to go work on relatively mundane projects. Engineering associates could do the work, but most modern consultancies will just dump them on the drawing board and never provide them with opportunity to put their education to work: consequently they don't have the experience required to go work for the manufacturers. New graduate engineering associates also lack the experience to go work for the manufacturers.

Whilst the manufacturers/builders have indicated cost of engineers to be a factor, I don't believe it is. From industrial awards the wage differences are small, and relativities are based on expected contribution to the enterprise. Admittedly at present wages are significantly higher than minimum in industrial awards, due to proclaimed shortages. However whilst shortages are proclaimed, there are a lot of people complaining about difficulty of getting employment: and its not just lack of experience. Several major mining and infrastructure projects have failed to take-off, this is unlikely to be due to lack of just one person. So maybe a potential job for an engineer, but not if cannot find the rest of the required engineering team. And not if the project keeps being a go, and then a no-go every few weeks. So bi salaries maybe on offer, but doesn't mean anyone is right for the job offered. So the businesses I am referring to shouldn't have a problem simply offering the minimum award rate of pay. Why pay anyone on staff substantially more than anyone else?

So I believe they should be able to attract engineering associates in the first instance. One experienced engineering associate should be able to achieve more for the enterprise than the current array of sales people and estimators, the odd trades person, and otherwise multitude of unskilled labour. The businesses I refer to supply:

1) Cold-formed steel sheds
2) Pergola's, Verandahs Carports (Steel & Timber)
3) Decking
4) Scaffolding
5) Balustrades
6) Glazing
7) Fences and Retaining walls
8) Industrial racking
9) Water storage tanks
10) And a multitude of other products requiring structural/mechanical design

These businesses just hold standard calculations produced by consultants, they vary which consultants they use on a regular basis. Mostly because the consultants reach a point where they don't want to talk to the manufacturer/builder anymore. The manufacturers turn up only when they have a problem, and at the last minute. For example city council may give them 3 months to respond to request for further informaation, they only seek an engineer, during the last week. They exert pressure to provide answers now, because apparently only a simple matter, and on top of which they pay low fees. The fee for design of a cold-formed steel shed is less than custom design of an equivalent hot rolled steel shed, but they dump a 1000 or so in the built environment every year. There are more automation tools and design aids available for hot rolled steel compared to cold-formed steel. So the design of the cold-formed steel shed should have a higher fee, but doesn't because the small consultants who provide have less clout than the manufacturers and the big consultants. The big consultants also not interested in such work. The manufacturers also not interested in real product design. Their lack of interest however is an irritation to the consultants who are willing to supply.

Part of the problem is the frequency of the work. May study up on aluminium code for say a balustrade design. It may take a few days of study for 1 day of actual work. The study of benefit to future projects so place it into overhead expenses, and attempt to distribute and recover from future projects rather than hit current client for full cost. But then 10 years may pass before end up with another aluminium project, unless decide to actively pursue aluminium design projects. But that would require freedom from the influx of emergencies that everybody contends their project is: because they left to the last minute: seemingly deliberately.

Now a material code may apply to a multitude of different products, but product specific codes and practices become even more wasteful and problematic. Time passes, some 5 or 10 years between the client needing anything for their product and they expect consultants to be conversant with their product: a product for which they have no real documentation: just a random collection of calc's-for-council. They just want consultants to contribute to this chaos. Such chaos is apparently an effective form of management in the building industry, and consequently often deliberate. They thus don't want order, nor disclosure. If the government does such things why wouldn't business follow suite?

Chaos is good for them, lack of quality doesn't appear to bother them, and pay consultants a low fee for some low quality calcs'-for-council every 5 years or so to keep regulators happy. What need do they have for engineers or engineering associates on staff? Further more such person, is equivalent to a sole practitioner so how to get them proper experience?

Well to start with the manufacturers hold standard calculations, therefore there is something for the engineering associates to use as a reference. Whilst I may contend that the calculations are deficient and do not represent a complete and adequate assessment of the product, the calculations will get approval from the majority of the councils the suppliers seek approval from. The issue is the future. Like the timber truss manufacturers: estimaters stuffing numbers through trashy software doesn't constitute adequate design of the trusses, and otherwise hindering councils in getting adequate information, simply leads to increasing levels of regulation being imposed. This can have follow on effects. For example increased inspections of roof's has now placed more demands on suppliers of attached carports and verandahs. It wouldn't be more if they were doing the right thing in the first place. That is one of the principal benefits of having technical personnel on staff: being prepared for the future, and otherwise proactively creating the future.

The carport/verandah company which employs engineering/technical personnel on staff can direct the market. There is a difference between stating that the competition don't do the job properly and proving the deficiency of the competitions product. Not common in the verandah industry, but common amongst aluminium balustrade manufacturers, each declaring everyone else has ignored the issues of welding, but none demonstrating that they have considered it adequately, or that their alternatives to welding are adequate. None of the industries mentioned provide decent technical information to clients, they see some need to keep secret, lest the competition will copy. Crazy, when relying on consultants. Further more the vast majority of the product is there for everybody else to see. Which gives problems, consultants who cannot see how the thing works, and manufacturers who want similar designs and run around until they can get.

Its easy to show something works if only complete 1/5th of the relevant calculations required for a full assessment. Also easy if the regulating authority lacks the required competence. Part of the problem is: what is actually required to be submitted to council to get approval? When everything deteriorates to simply producing documentation to keep council happy, what happens to the rest of the technical assessment? Regulators originally primarily concerned with critical issues, thus didn't and don't check everything. But there was otherwise certain assumptions about established industry practice: but such practice not documented and otherwise not sustained. Another problem is regulators identifying that they are being used as checkers when engineering should have been thoroughly checked before being submitted for regulatory approval.

All up there is a need to educate and inform the consumer so that they are more discerning in the goods and services they buy. But there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to do so. The ASI shed group and shedsafe I think is an inappropriate way. Basically the members are responsible for creating the dodgey shed market in the first place. To be declaring the members supply quality sheds and outsiders don't is nonsense. The members have the same inadequate lack of technical information, are still basically populated with sales people and rely on external consultants. They need real technical knowhow to push their products infront of the competition.

For example, it is apparently common across the shed industry selling low cost sheds by selling sheds designed for rural conditions in suburban residential areas. Arguing not a level playing field is nonsense. Its not meant to be a level playing field, we have a market based economy: its a matter of survival. Having techno-scientific personnel on staff when nobody else does, does not make a level playing field: it provides competitive advantage. Further more the internet provides more potential for dissemination of technical information than printed brochures ever did, and more than TV. For example I have a photo which shows a shed which collapsed during construction, and the shed manufacturers vehicles scattered around, it arrived via email from the internet. Thats bad advertising for the manufacturer. Massive cranes falling through floor of building, bad advertising for crane company. I have photo of carport attached to house gutter, the gutter no longer attached to the house, the carport collapsed on the floor. It came via email from council building surveyor, I don't know who built. But it identifies a common problem: copying what others appear to be doing rather than what they actually doing.

Rather than declare the competition has low quality, have and demonstrate real expertise. The shed manufacturers for example could physically test their connections and demonstrate the superiority over other connections in the market. Unlikely to happen, since tests most likely to show defective. But it only requires one to step outside the norm. All they have to do is video the bending and failure of a c-section, and then that same c-section joined in various ways and show that none of the connections achieve the same capacity as the c-section. Its upto other suppliers to argue whether they need to acheive the full capacity of the c-section at their connections, for the suppliers to question the consulting engineers they rely on. Though no need really mostly been told to change their connections already: but failed to do so. Cutting costs, by cutting corners, is the wrong approach to competition.

Techno-scientific assessment of the product provides consistency. Assesed last week and found defective, then it will be found defective next week also, unless the assessment procedure changes. Building technical competence achieves higher levels of consistency. So if these manufacturers want more consistency in their development approvals, they need to build technical competence. Employing sales people won't do that.

It has been noted that some consultants vary what they supply dependent on which council they submit to. They consider some councils are demanding unwarranted requirements. Rather than considering that the requirement is fundamental structural design and that their design is defective, they take it as imposition of belts and braces. None of their other approved buildings have fallen down, so why provide this additional bracing or what ever? But issue isn't whether building is adequate now, but whether it will actually resist the design load at some point in the future.

Build technical competence, these inconsistencies diminish. Problem is at the moment clients simply believe that the city councils are obstructive and always changing the rules, or have hindering building surveyors on staff. The builders, building designers and engineers basically get away with blaming the local government authorities, when it is actually their lack of experience and technical competence that is the real cause of delay, their failure to do the job properly in the first place.

The IEAust manages a graduate development programme, but it is only large engineering consultancies which typically sign up for. There is also a mentors programme. But none of it seems well suited to sole practitioners of technical science, whether a lone consultant or the sole person in a large sales enterprise. Though the mentors programme should be able to assist such people. The problem I have with such systems is the lack of experience in the first place, due to major losses or never actually existing. Its not a simple matter of getting a B.Eng, that provides the science and the engineering practice.,The issue is that the technologies already exist, and no detrioration in the performance is acceptable. How they should be designed and assessed thoroughly is known to society, but by very few people. In some areas of practice this knowledge may fail to be passed on and gets lost to a given society, but not to the global village.

My contention is that it isn't the engineers where we should be focused but rather with the engineering associates, which I propose we rename Associate Technologists. Engineers are required for that innovative new technology, which doesn't yet exist. Associate Technologists and Technologists are required for the established technologies: like common machines, building structures, and electrical controls. Further its not just a matter of being able to design things, we also need to be able to build the things. So need workshops with the appropriate tools, and people who can work the tools. And once again there is a need to sustain this competence. Part of the problem is a lack of systems design. Too many assumptions of the skills available in the workforce, which don't eventuate. It seems fairly clear that at the dawn of the industrial revolution, the skills required would not have been readily available, that such skills needed to be developed.

Most of our newest technologies are electrical, yet still graduating more civil engineers than anything else. Why? Further electrical don't appear to be complaining about shortages, where as the civil are. Why? I hazard a guess that both electrical and mechanical engineers work with skilled labour, and from the ranks of the skilled labour are pulled the next generation of engineers. Whilst they may not have 30 years experience as an engineer, they have 30 years experience in the industry. There is some sustained competence in the workforce, as they take on school leaver to uni graduates. Civil engineers on the other hand, are typically consultants and isolated from the rest of the industry workforce, and the rest of the workforce is relatively unskilled. The construction industry oscillates up and down like a yoyo, so diffiuclt to sustain competence in the industry. Further more manufacturers are supplying to the building industry, this also reduces the need for consultants. At the same time however experienced engineers are not flowing into regulating authorities, and the manufacturers are not employing engineers on staff.

It is this isolated consultant issue which needs to be tackled. Mechanical engineers designing big machines still tend to work for the manufacturers, technical personnel are important to the entire manufacturing process. Further more buyers tend to be informed, and failures of machines happens fairly soon, or the machine wears out and needs replacing. Buildings and infrastructure are just so defective in so many ways beyond the engineering considerations. The architects and civil/structural engineers are meant to be the safeguard between the contractor and the uniformed buyer. But who is the safeguard with respect to the architects and engineers? Certainly not the regulating authorities who grant ultimate approval for their work. The buyers have already experienced the low quality service long before the regulating authority starts to assess the design proposals. The regulating authority also comprises architects, engineers and building surveyors, so once again who is regulating their competence? Self regulation is not working. Not because of lack of competence, but because the competence could not be sustained and was lost. Self regulating professions require active industry, where the competence is developed. Or a professional body which doesn't have the same profit motive as industry, which has interests beyond making money. For the most part Engineers Australia is not that body, its trying to be, but it keeps fostering the wrong cultural attitude. Its a monopoly, apparently less than 50% of engineers are members, and there is no way that legislation will be written which requires membership. So there is the alternative registration board, but that is a back door to required membership of Engineers Australia. Some real alternative is required which fosters the right cultural attitude, and builds technical competence. Its not neccessary to have a badge, token or symbol of competence or quality, if it is present it is typically clear and apparent.

Associate Technologists can be trained for the industries mentioned if the industries are willing to employ. The issue then remains what education to give them in the first instance. The education needs to be direct coverage of the product and materials. The graduates need backup, that can be provided by the same place which educated them in the first place. Education has become commercial, so maybe return to the older times of paying for apprenticeship? But how can be certain going to get decent training from employer. Already had current affairs programmes covering so called training schemes, where employers just getting cheap labour and otherwise claiming funds from government for such training. Basically systems are implemented, then they get exploited and everything goes down the gurgler, and everyones's motivation is destroyed. Better policing is required of some of these government schemes. Hey! Australia was a penal colony, what you'd expect? Though South Australia wasn't.

So a system with independent checking is required to minimise exploitation. Also due to loss of expertise and/or lack of in first instance an external independent check is required. A global system is required and that is more likely to achieve some international agreement at the Associate Technologist level than the engineer level. We can easily exam in structural design, but really what is it that anyone expects from an engineer. Clearly in the USA the NCEES expects little from engineers, restricted to a specific area of practice their examinations are within the scope of engineering associates. Whilst American engineers may have to demonstrate breadth when they take their PE exam, in actual practice they don't have such breadth. I find it some what silly that engineers are required to design chunks of wood in housing. However it contributes to sustaining technical competence in the industry. So the WFEO could adopt the NCEES exams on an international basis, but adapt for specific areas of practice and assessment of Associate Technologists not engineers.

Can then start to publish and strengthen the body of knowledge for Associate Technologists. I reiterate despite the signing of the WFEO accords by Engineers Australia, Australia's engineering associates/officers, which I am proposing are renamed Associate Technologists are not WFEO engineering technicians. Australia's engineering technicians have advanced trade certificates, not advanced diploma's nor associate degrees. Engineering associates are not advanced trades people, they plan, design, analyse and manage. The WFEO engineering technicians on the other hand appear to be advanced trades people, under the supervision of engineers. Engineering Associates do not require supervision by an engineer, except when working on large projects as part of a team. The WFEO and Engineers Australia are assuming the existence of a team, designing the existence of a team, and attempting to impose an engineering team on industry. For the most part that hierarchal team only exists in consultants offices. Elsewhere the team tends to consist of a single level, or of only two of the 3 levels.

Education is now expensive, and so is reviewing for professional exams. So I suggest cut the initial education to better serve the needs of the individual getting into industry, and serve the direct needs of industry. This can then be followed up by individuals pursuing a broader education (eg. scrap the B.Eng and replace by 3 year B.Tech and 3 year B.EngSc.). The traditional degree was 3 years and that is what the Bologna process has recommended, followed by 2 year Masters: the purpose achieve mobility in education and academic circles. These 4 year occupational qualifications as I have previously stated are more breadth than depth, more like two associate degrees than any real depth. The scheduling needs changing.

By working with industry the colleges and institutes of technical and further education (TAFE) can develop 1and 2 year programmes, which directly attack the knowledge required now, rather than that which may be useful. As stated before, the education of engineers is aimed at tackling the frontiers, the NCEES PE exam is about no such thing, its concerned with the established. The PE license is a poor example for defining engineers. People want the title engineer, but not doing what we expect from engineers. Graduating engineers and then treating established technology as a frontier, because its new to the graduate is not acceptable. We need to graduate more people competent in the established technologies and established systems, for this is where the majority will be employed. Hitting the frontiers is a rare and something of a privileged opportunity, and something which should be prepared for, but at the right time.

It is another reason why proper articulation is required in the Australian Qualification Framework (AQF). If properly arcticulated then those studying the lower level qualifications can be put on the right path in the first place. For example to pursue the B.Tech or the B.EngSc first. This is possible because properly articulated both start with the same certificate I programmes and step upwards. At any point the individual is directed either along the technology path, the science path or the mathematics path, or even management.

But still whilst TAFE can be used to build the competence required by industry, something else is still required to sustain. If manufacturing goes up and down like a yoyo, because government wants to boost manufacturing, then it says we should concentrate on primary industry (mining and agriculture), the competence cannot be sustained. Some other academy or society is required to pursue the study of technology and science irrespective of the current activity of industry. I'm not so sure how the French system works, but there seems a close connect between government and education and their academies, so something along similar lines maybe beneficial.

Note my concern is to build a solid foundation, an army of Associate Technologists, from the ranks of which a true elite core of engineers can be drawn. As opposed to current world approach of churning out army of persons who believe they are engineers, complain about their status, and otherwise fail to contribute anything worthy of giving them the title engineer. (eg. They size thousands of chunks of wood in houses.)

Sun 2012-Sep-02  03:02

I should have gone to sleep. Will do now.