Saturday, February 16, 2019

The Need or Not For Engineers

Back around 2010/2011 during the  Queensland floods I was relatively active on twitter, involved following: the flood, farmers (#agchatoz), teachers concerned about the purpose of education (#purposedu), and various humanitarian aid agencies especially engineers without borders (EWB). In particular one EWB from imperial college who went to a rural part of Udaipur working with Seva Mandir, in the process I learnt about stepwells. Not long afterwards there was news that India graduated around 1 million engineers each year. Which begs the question what was an engineering graduate from the UK doing with EWB in India, why not send Indian EWB's to London to help the homeless?

As I understand it, the project was concerned with assessing different power supplies for water pumps. Pipes had been put down into the wells, some being stepwells, and then pumps used to draw the water up. As I understood most of the water was for domestic use, but there was some consideration being given to irrigation. Basically the consideration was whether diesel engines, windmills or solar panels was the most suitable power source.

Here in Australia, at the time, there was an article about our traditional windmill pumps being replaced by solar powered pumps and how this was a bad idea.The problem being that manufacturers of the mechanical components being long gone: and spare parts have to be custom fabricated and that was expensive. The argument however is that the solar panels and the submerged pumps, would have even shorter lifespans than the windmills, and more cumbersome to maintain.

Anycase I don't know what the EWB's conclusion for the pumps in India was, as she never posted the conclusion as she indicated she would. Such doesn't really matter though, as the issue here is: did she really need to go, and was an engineer really needed for the project? For example when she arrived she discovered she needed to do some surveying, she got hold of an auto level and took some levels. I learnt what an Abney Level was, as it was something she mentioned she ought to get for her travel kit.

Now if surveyors without borders had sent a surveyor and produced contour plans then it is likely that no EWB needed to visit Udaipur: dull maybe, but concerned with efficiency not interesting, nor experience of EWB's. All really need is a topographic map, a more detailed local survey plan, and some photo's, along with some reports on the needs and desires of the local communities. A civil engineering technician could have done a survey and taken photos, and other measurements. A mechanical engineering technician could have taken photos and assisted to repair any existing hand operated pumps and petrol/diesel engine pumps: not just an exploratory visit but improvements. Whilst someone in logistics or industrial management could have given consideration to supply problems concerning spare parts and people to service equipment, and potentially get supplies moving. In short there was potential to collect information on the ground, and most likely using locals, and forward such information to persons who could pull all the information together and determine the most suitable action to take: thus saving the humanitarian organisations the cost of flying people around the world. Really do not want to send an engineer unless really need an engineer.

Whatever the outcome of the feasibility study, whether go with hand operated, diesel/petrol, wind, solar power, the full solution requires supporting infrastructure not just dumping technology on the ground. But with 1 million "engineer" things produced, there should be supporting infrastructure. {Another project of interest at the time was the plywood hexayurt, the EWB's constructing it looked like a keystone cops comedy group. Admittedly it was a training exercise, but really needed someone with more experience to supervise and guide how it should be done. They were lucky nobody got hurt.}

In previous articles I have divided the world into 5 km diameter cells: such cells are convenient as limited of view at ground level is approximately 5 km and average walking speed is also 5 km/h. If the world land area was to be divided, then the current population could supply around 1000 people to each cell.

Furthermore if take a square 1 km in size, and create a central hub 500m x 500m, then in the surrounding ring can fit over 5000 single storey dwellings suitable for 1 person. A dwelling suitable for one person, is also suitable for a couple, and a baby. If increase the dwellings to 2 storey, then can increase the population to 20,000 persons. With multistorey dwellings and changes to block sizes can achieve the maximum densities of 100,000 persons per square kilometre. However sticking with the single storey dwellings (5m x 5m), on blocks 9m x 9m, with roads 9m wide. The dwelling can be reduced to the size of a caravan with two vehicles either side.

So looking at India, there are approximately 167,418 cells, 5 km in diameter, compared to Australia with 391,752 cells. India can place around 8419 persons per cell, whilst Australia could place 62 persons per cell. In either case the population can be concentrated at the centre of the cell in a space no more than 1km x 1km.

Now looking at this widget thing called an "engineer", Australia neither has enough to assign to all the cells nor produces enough to assign someone anytime soon. But India in 1 year produces enough to assign approximately 5 of these "engineer" things to each cell. For that matter India produces enough to assign 1 to all the cells in India and Australia.

For India these 5 engineers could be:

  1. Agricultural
  2. Environmental
  3. Civil
  4. Mechanical
  5. Electrical
But do they need to be engineers. What happened to the barefoot technicians of the 1980's? Doubly important given that many articles now indicate that the vast majority of the engineering graduates are not employable. Though that may have to do with studying computing related disciplines and expectations of work outsourced from overseas to India: rather than focus on more local needs. Though there are indications that many seek government jobs, but that begs the question: where is the government in the rural villages and what is it doing about water resources?

Note the 5km diameter cells are just a planning device to split the whole into more manageable chunks. There is no expectation that they should be produced on the ground. For example large numbers of the cells in Australia would be uninhabited wilderness, or wilderness part of a sheep or cattle station. Australia is basically an undeveloped country with the population concentrated in coastal cities.

Now India I know even less about than Australia, however I assume India has mountainous wilderness, and lots of rural communities. That some of these rural communities are extremely remote and isolated, but that most are within reasonable distance of local towns and from there they can get to any city within India. That is city populations wouldn't be growing due to migration of people from rural communities if the people in the rural communities had no practical means of travelling to the cities. With walking and train taken as being the most common means of travel.

So if have a rural community it seems reasonable that the local government authority (LGA), whatever more specific name such are given, should have an agricultural engineer or technologist on staff. If have a mining region, then a mining engineer or technologist, and geologist on staff. With an environmental engineer in both rural and mining communities to keep track of the impact of the farming or mining activity.

All the communities need roads, and stormwater drainage, and water resources management. However locally this is mostly an implementation and management requirement, with design being a national activity. Design should be national as it includes rivers and flow of water to the oceans: this flow is either increased or restricted affecting downstream communities: it therefore has to be coordinated nationally, but otherwise require some local technical input.

With over 8000 people per cell, each person can be responsible for a square segment 48.3 m in size. Assuming strips 600 mm, and walking speed of 80 m/min, it would take 48.6 minutes to travel around. So they can walk around the site several times a day and explore it.

Whilst if assume the cell is a 5 km x 5 km square, with farming machine 5m wide, and operating speed 10km/h, it would take 500 hours to work the land. Assuming 8 h/day (though may operate 24 hours), it would take 62.5 days, assuming a season is no more than 91 days: it thus takes less than 1 season to work the land. Machines can be wider than 5m, and maybe able to function at speeds greater than 10km/hr (most machines seem to have maximum speed between 25 km/hr and 40 km/h: these are for moving along roads between fields. The actual function of the machine, ploughing, harvesting require lower operating speeds.)

So there is potential for one person to farm the land with appropriate machine, whilst a large population of people can explore every inch of the land or otherwise work the land. Since one machine can work the land in less than a season, the total number of machines required matches the number of cells. Though not all cells would be used for agriculture the number provides a starting point for production output of manufacturing facility. The number can be refined as agricultural and environmental scientists classify the function of each cell.

Note that the cells can be set out from anywhere, so that each state can start the cells centred on  the capital or most populous city. Such cells will collide and form a mess at state boundaries and require more people to be assigned.

Now what are the engineers going to do? According to their professional cults, they built civilization, and without them we wouldn't have anything. Now I have a problem with that declaration as these mass produced "engineer" widgets weren't around when civilisation was conceived, and they certainly didn't build anything.

So here's a nation with wide spread poverty, producing widget "engineers" by the million, and whilst it has advanced technology it isn't raising the population out of poverty. So why waste national resources producing irrelevant widgets, when could be better spending resources on more useful widgets?

A starting point would therefore to be to identify resources: natural resources of India. From which 56.78% of the land is cultivable, which roughly halves the number of agricultural engineers needed. I am assuming that the cells determine the number of people required as principal person responsible for an area. So the number of cells for example determines the number of agricultural engineers required in a state department. Beyond land for farming India seems to have plenty of other resources, though it seems to be using too much oil and gas, with the need for imports. It otherwise exports agricultural and mining products.

So why inequity, and disparity between incomes of the people? I'm not suggesting everyone should live in the same kind of houses, or be in close proximity to shopping centres, where they can buy junk they don't need. But they should have equitable access to appropriate: shelter, education, health care, potable water, food and clothing, and other basic essentials.

... to be continued ...

So if they are producing and exporting, then it would seem the problem is political not technical.So an agricultural engineer is not likely to provide any benefit to local community. Not the least of which, aggregating land together and working with a few machines, doesn't help the majority of the community it just helps a few largely to exploit the many.

So around the world, have people who walk some five miles (8 km) every day to collect water (9L to 20L) is this something that needs to be eliminated? Apparently 30 minutes of exercise is required each day to keep the heart healthy (Seems in last few years, I lost need to walk anywhere, and therefore spent more time at the computer, eventually resulting in heart attack. I wasn't impressed, I was under the impression I could still walk anywhere I needed when I wanted to. So do everything else right, but make sure disrupt the time spent inactive. Apparently just getting the exercise isn't good enough, need to disrupt large periods of inactivity: like every 20 minutes do something other than sit or stand (Yep! The standing desks aren't going to help.).).

Assuming 5 km/h walking speed, then the trip occupies 1.6 hours, or 3.2 hours round trip everyday: possibly longer if walk back more slowly due to extra weight: so allow 4 hours. With 8 hours work between, thats 12 hours total each day. Whilst may not want to remove the trip, due to the social aspect, may otherwise want to reduce the over all time. A bicycle is typically taken as averaging 4 times faster than walking. So operating at 20 km/hr, the trip is reduced to 24 minutes, or 48 minutes round trip: so allow 1 hour each day. Total active hours reduced to 9 hours per day.

Given that bicycles potentially have longer learning period than tricycles, and tricycles are more stable with cargo, the supply of tricycles could make a significant impact in these regions. More over the rider of a tricycle could transport the load of more than one person, thus reducing the number of people who need to collect water. However people then likely to need some means of paying for such service. Though the concept  reduces the number of tricycles which need be supplied, for example one for every three people, rather than one to every person. The tricycles however will need maintenance. An alternative is to install pipes and have pedal powered pumps: such machines in suitable building, would require less maintenance than wheeled vehicles on rough unsealed roads.

So water and transportation are major issues. As is hygiene and sanitation. Assume clothing is adequate, as is amount of food and water. More food and water maybe better, but in the main need cleaner water not more. Similarly need more hygienic food preparation not necessarily more food: and lack of hygiene in food preparation is mostly related to lack of clean water. Another problem related to food preparation is lack of fuel for cooking.

Can civil engineers help. Well, they'd say they can because they gave us the contrivances of civilisation, such as water supply and sewage treatment. But not quite, because they weren't around when we got such things. The modern "engineer" is an elitist widget mass produced by an industrial highly commercial education system: and largely is a poor fit with the industrial machinery that is modern society. We could waste national/global resources producing these "engineer" things, but maybe we could produce another thing faster and better for the task at hand.

We have a planet and humans just about occupy every inch of it: they would if had towns 5 km diameter with 1000 people to each. However we haven't mapped every inch and we haven't developed every inch. What would happen if we did? To do this we do not need qualified surveyors and cartographers, we just need technicians who can use the appropriate instruments to collect local data: directional compass, dumpy level, abney level, measuring wheel, tape measure, camera, pencil and paper. Basically only need one dumpy level for each cell, though could probably use less than that. Once the data is collected then more qualified persons maybe needed to produce appropriate drawings and maps.

For the most part an army of civil engineering technicians could construct unsealed roads, dig stormwater drainage channels, catchment ponds, and otherwise modify the local landscape. However the systems they implement need to be documented and coordinated nationally or internationally. In Africa for example, international agreements would be needed between neighbouring nations: as may cause flooding in a neighbouring country or cut off its water supply.

Consider that the bulk of the technology of civilisation was implemented qualitatively, and has it origins in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. So we can put a hold on graduating more people with bachelor degrees and instead produce an army of appropriately qualified technicians. Ahhh! The world will fall apart. No it won't. A bachelor degree is a meaningless piece of scrap paper if the graduates have no ability to put knowledge to work, and no curiosity to ask questions and generate new knowledge. The people reaching that height need to be better.

So the shutdown isn't direct, it's just making it harder to get higher, by making the lower levels more demanding: and making sure that have to pass through the lower levels to get to the higher levels. That is, there will be no leaving school and studying for a bachelor degree: can only start studying for a certificate. If pass then can move up, if don't pass then stay at that level. There is no need to drop out unqualified, and no need to do extra studies to get qualified. As I proposed in the earlier posts, you start out risking a fifth of a year, if get through the first year and complete Certificate V, then start risking a whole year. We make sure we have properly articulated programmes, which ensure mobility between work. Primary concern of people is being able to do work, not belong to an occupational or professional cult. The primary concern of the employer is whether or not a person is suitably qualified to perform the work.

And cannot properly determine the suitability of  a person for a task, if cannot properly define the task, and the necessary characteristics to complete the task. Civil engineering is not a valid description of a task: thats a declaration have no idea what the task is, hope can get someone who can figure it out. We want to stop local flooding is a better description of the task at hand. We propose to dig storm water drainage ditches, but need to know the best place to dig them: is getting a more refined description of the task. Drainage ditches maybe to refined, and inappropriate, but that is what we want to do, because it is what we can do, and afford. Someone may offer an alternative option, if they think it is better: but they can only do this because we gave them something to assess to criticise. If we identify we want to stop local flooding during the monsoon season, then we are getting still more refined: we also get some idea of the time during which we can implement a solution.

As the saying goes 2/3rd's of the answer lies in putting the question clearly. The same goes for work descriptions and job descriptions. Defining a job by occupation rather than the work that needs doing, maybe fast, but it is unlikely to find the person best suited to the task.

So there are basic qualitative approaches to getting things done, without expending excessive amount of time on crunching numbers and drawing pictures. If we want drainage we can wait till it rains and follow the water. We could get a dumpy level and measure levels. Or we could just release a ball and watch where it rolls. Where it stops is the natural low point. We can make it lower. We can shift soil around and relocate the high points and the low points. We can dig ditches and dig sumps. And all the time we can just watch where the ball rolls. Of course the rain can come and erode everything away, and then none of it works. So we need to be able to test our materials and our construction. What ever these refinements are, there is an expectation that it doesn't take too long to train someone in the required knowledge. So expect that relatively easy to train someone to either hold water back or drain from a 50m x 50m block: and that can do so with little more than a spade and the available soil.

The engineer things are useful, if they can actually do engineering and there is engineering to be done.

"To define it rudely but not inaptly, engineering is the art of doing that well with one dollar which any bungler can do with two after a fashion." [Arthur M Wellington :The Economic Theory of Railway Location]
There is no value to the "engineer" if they do for $5, and create a dependence, and ongoing operating expenses which cannot be sustained. For example you have coal and they come along and design/construct an oil fired power station. They spawn agriculture in a region where water doesn't naturally reach, and create dependence on power supply for pumped water, all the time whilst population increases due to increased food supply, whilst fuel supply to pump the water diminishes.

So to put it rudely but not inaptly, it is the modern "engineers" who are becoming the bunglers. Too lost in abstract esoteric mathematical models, to look out the window and see what is actually happening.


  1. Now if I had any skill in writing and expressing the ideas flowing around my head, I might be able to produce something that was half readable.

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[16/02/2019] : Original