Friday, February 15, 2019

Engineering is not becoming a Commodity, You Just Don't Know What Engineering Is

In recent years there have been comments and articles suggesting that engineering is becoming a commodity, that is its price can be pushed down and bought and sold like say spuds. Some supermarkets certainly believe they can buy services that way and impose same %20 discount as they do when buying spuds and the likes in bulk: but they don't buy services in bulk, or provide business of any significance.

Nevertheless, those who believe engineering is becoming a commodity are mistaken. The problem is they don't know what engineering is. They think they are engineers. They think they provide engineering services. They think their degree makes them an engineer. They want to use the title engineer, and many want to claim sole use of the title. Unfortunately the service they are providing is not engineering.

In the past people were needed to push numbers through mathematical formula, this may have been significant skill, and it may have been possible to base a career simply crunching numbers. But this is no longer  the case. A brainless, unimaginative block of silicon can crunch the numbers faster and with greater consistency.

Engineering takes place at the frontiers of science and technology.

Engineering is not merely a rational scientific approach to design of systems. As I have mentioned many times before, a rational scientific approach to the design of established technologies and variants off such technology can be taught in a very short time: less than 12 months if needed.

A building is an established technology. We can check that it was designed correctly, we can check that it was constructed properly. The Opal Towers building either wasn't designed and properly assessed as fit-for-function, or it wasn't built to the specifications, or a combination of both.

Will licensing civil engineers prevent the problem on future projects. No it won't! Civil engineers only study structures as part of their education, they do not spend 4 years studying structures. More over the application of structural mechanics to buildings and/or bridges depends on industry experience, and the competence and experience of those supervising graduates. So a supervisor with trite experience, merely begets a graduate with trite experience, it does not produce the required level of competence.

I know writing career episode reports and work practice reports is time consuming and difficult to get right. From an industrial engineering viewpoint, job description is time consuming and difficult. Merely explaining how to make a cup of coffee can be difficult, getting the instruction correct for a robot to follow is even more difficult. So for certain, a person may have gone through a hard and difficult time to become chartered, but that doesn't mean it was in anyway a reliable assessment of required competence for the task for which a person is to profess expertise.

Expertise in the appropriate technology is the requirement. Civil, mechanical and electrical "engineers" do not have adequate knowledge of buildings. As for architects, they seem more like graphic artists than competent building designers: hence apparently more buildings designed by "building designers" than "qualified" architects. In short, these people, are just not competent, for the task for which they profess expertise.

We cannot rely on industry to pass on the required knowledge, we cannot rely on industry to maintain and safeguard a body of knowledge for future generations. Most especially if the knowledge goes out off practical use for a significant period of time. A system can be designed once and built many times, so it is possible for years to pass, before require anyone who can design. But when the need for design arises as a community we have an established expectation for performance: and low tolerance for anything below the desired performance.

This is where modern "engineers" have lost track of their role. These modern "engineers" do not engineer, they are code cruncher's, they assess compliance with national codes: such activity is not engineering.

Sorry Roma The Engineer, but I very much doubt there was any engineering involved with the design of the Shard, sure there was a requirement for structural design: but the structural design would have been based on established body of technical science.

I don't do multistorey buildings, but basically have a stick cantilevered out of the ground. The higher from the ground the higher the wind load, the taller the stick the greater the tendency to buckle under dead and live loading. If taper the building as it goes up, than it reduces the weight as it goes up, it also reduces the surface area exposed to the wind. Tapered building: Blackpool tower, the Eiffel tower. Roma is right that history is interesting: why reinvent the wheel if going to produce something inferior. Need a reference point for what to surpass.

This isn't to diminish the value of the input to the project. It is just to highlight, that if we are going to be picky about who is and is not an engineer (like Engineers Australia, and RPEQ's like to be), then we need to be able to define engineering without reference to the word engineer.

As I mentioned in an earlier post. If technologist can do the work, then not engineering. If an associate technologist can do the work then not engineering.

The architectural engineer is potentially more qualified to design a building than either an architect or a civil engineer. Assuming the architectural engineer studies, structures, electrical and mechanical systems.

{Sorry! It is extremely rare that someone graduates in Structural Engineering: structural engineering is a specialisation after graduating in either civil engineering or mechanical engineering. A machine is a structure which moves. A non-machine structure is a mechanism which is locked.}

An architectural engineer, is thus something of a variant to a naval architect, which begs the question why are garden variety architects not more competent at design of structural, mechanical and electrical systems. Why do we need a team of architects, civil, structural, mechanical and electrical engineers to design a building? And more importantly, where is the engineering? The building comprises of an assembly of established technologies.

Electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, in each instance we are defining technology. If the technology exists then the engineering is over. We can educate and train people to design these technologies in the first instance not rely on professional cults and industry to pass on the required knowledge. Knowledge itself requires better organising and managing.

Looking at another situation, Elon Musk, seems like an engineer, when considering Tesla Inc. But electric vehicles are an established technology, as are diesel electric vehicles. Diesel electric vehicles comprise of trains, ships and heavy industrial, construction and mining equipment. Electric vehicles comprise of milk floats, industrial tugger and lifting vehicles, and scooters.

Tesla electric vehicles are not at the frontiers of science they are pushing at the frontiers of practical technology. The technical science is there to design and build an electric vehicle. The problem is the weight of the vehicle and especially the weight of the power source. So need improved battery technology. We have had batteries for a long time, so expect that there is an established body of technical science to allow design of a battery, using established technology, for a specific purpose.

So the technology is a variant of established technologies based on established science. The engineering starts when seek an alternative power source: generate electricity by means other than the traditional chemistry of batteries. Not seek by blind mindless experiments, but by controlled experiments. This is the scientific knowledge we have, therefore: what new technology can be developed to generate a power source? Once got an answer to that question, and found a practical method of generating power and a scientific basis to design a system to be fit-for-purpose, then the engineering is over. Then we can train technologists to design and further develop the technology.

It is not the engineering which is the commodity, it is the technology which is the commodity. Furthermore when it comes to buildings, engineers have been inserted into the process of design, where they were not previously required.

The result is that engineers having been an unwanted insertion into the building design process, they are a  bottleneck to be removed. They hinder rapid supply of buildings: there is a shortage of housing, schools, and hospitals. There is certainly not a shortage of this rubbish {What's the expected radial reach of such building, as it is this kind of building which generates urban sprawl not the car.}.

Take sheds, carports and verandahs as an example. When I started in structural design around 1996, most manufacturers had standard calculations. If a clients proposed building was enveloped by a standard design, then the standard design was taken as suitable for that building. The typical supplier consistently indicated that 90% of the time they could get approval without something they called "engineering". Now in 2019 many suppliers have product configurator software which can do the structural calculations at the point of sale, operated by salespeople. The next stage would be to shift this online, and have the configurator operated by the buyer.

That something they called "engineering", wasn't "engineering" in 1996, and it certainly isn't "engineering" now. But regulators haven't kept pace they send people off to get "engineering" or an "engineers" report.

But there is no engineering involved and I'm certain most people don't want to be involved with an engineering project, certainly don't want to pay for one, rather they want reliable established technologies.

So have a choice:

  1. Either continue calling this stuff engineering and accept that a person can be educated to design such technology in a 2 year academic programme.
  2. Or Stop calling this stuff engineering, give it a new name, such as technical design, and accept that a person can be educated in a 2 year academic programme.
The fundamental requirement no matter what other options may consider, is accepting that a 2 year academic programme can provide the necessary knowledge and capability to design established technologies. The architectural engineering programme maybe 3 to 4 years duration, but that is because it contains breadth of technology, not depth in understanding a specific technology.

Though for certain can most likely create a 3 year programme in structural mechanics or applied mechanics. Likewise a 2 year programme should cover the static design of building structures, whilst a 3 year programme could expand to structural dynamics. No need to waste time with 4 year B.Eng in civil followed by a M.Eng in structures (with focus on structural dynamics).

In short we can educate and train people in technology and the associated technical science, but that doesn't make them engineers and neither does the work they do.

We are wasting national resources training people in 4 year B.Eng programmes, if they never get the opportunity to "engineer" and they are not otherwise competent in the technologies for which they are assigned responsibility.

So really do need to define engineering.

Related Posts

[15/02/2019] : Original
[25/03/2019] : Minor Edits and Formatting