Monday, June 16, 2014

More on Engineering, and Engineers in History

As indicated else where across my blog, I hold an idealistic view of engineering. That idealistic view states that engineering only takes place at the frontiers of science and technology. I believe that this view is held out by history, and this started to be seriously distorted by the middle of the 1900's when the focus became on engineer as a licensed profession. Still I consider the WFEO Washington Accord, defining the engineer in terms of education, to support my view that engineering is at the frontier rather than concerned with established technologies. Most people with a B.Eng don't put the intent of  their education to use, and instead become guardians of safety assessing suitability of proposed adaptations and implementations of the established generic technologies: technicians with an abstract and esoteric box of tools and techniques.

I believe that people have grabbed the wrong end of the stick when they consider Telford, Navier and Stephenson to be engineer's simply because they designed  and built bridges. People were designing and building bridges long before they arrived on the scene, and people without the title engineer were designing and building bridges during their time.

The important factor is that they were operating at the limits of human knowledge and past experience, they were stepping into the unknown and the potential success of their endeavours was uncertain to them: however they weren't making wild guesses, they were progressing in a disciplined and learned manner. The past experience coming from the works of Vitruvius and the means of moving forward coming from Desaguliers Experimental Philosophy.

Telford was making use of materials and structural forms not previously used, He tested the materials and otherwise built smaller prototype versions of his bridges. These prototypes provided practice in the construction process, tested the concept and provided something with which to communicate the objective to workers on the larger projects.

Navier made use of untested mathematical theory which turned out to be a big mistake. But once he had validated the theory and calibrated it against reality it became a useful and productive theory for the design of all manner of beams.

Robert Stephenson along with William Fairbairn built prototype segments of a tubular bridge in a workshop and tested, and otherwise through trial and error resolved problems concerned with buckling of plates. With the services of Eaton Hodgkinson providing a mathematical assessment of the proposed bridge based on the then developing structural theories. Still a prototype bridge was built first before tackling the main project.

Today the technical science for establishing the suitability of a proposed bridge is well established. Whilst fitness-for-function is a matter of subjective judgement, technical science is available to assess whether the desired performance can be achieved from a given proposal. The uncertainty and risk of failure are low: but only so long as persons highly conversant in the technical science and the technical characteristics of the proposed variant of a generic technology are responsible for assessing and approving the proposed design.

When at the frontier, there is no expert to turn to, no literature with the answer, the answer has to be extracted from nature itself, and that requires trial and error experimentation. But experiments themselves can be dangerous. So a disciplined, rational and controlled approach needs to be taken to the experimentation. The trials and errors are not a result of wild guesses, but thoughtful consideration.

The ingenious contriver of civilisation asks questions and goes in search of answers. They do not sit on the authority of their formal education and approved license, for such is trite and inadequate for their role as pioneer pushing forward the frontier.

Society however is not asking for any frontiers of science and technology to be pushed forward. In the main they simply seek the proper implementation of the established technologies. With respect to these established technologies people have certain expectations, some reasonable others unreasonable and impractical. In terms of the reasonable, people do not expect: the wheels to fall off cars, they don't expect to fall through the floor of their house, they don't expect bridges to collapse when they drive over them, they don't expect ships to sink, or planes to fall out off the sky. These are established technologies and we can take reasonable steps to ensure they perform as expected.

Engineering science and Engineering made these technologies feasible in the first instance, they defined the generic class of technologies from which variants can be developed. The engineering is for all intents and purposes is over. Sure there are still frontiers associated with these technologies, but its a long journey through extensive literature before bump into the current frontier. Civil, industrial, mechanical, electrical, chemical these are all technologies not disciplines of engineering. Engineering is at a frontier, it is not yet classified, and when it is, then the engineering's over: that's the point of science and engineering. Mechatronics is not a new engineering discipline, it is a new area of technology.

Industry needs people who are conversant with the established technologies and who are able to adopt, adapt and apply these technologies to achieve specific objectives. This is not engineering it is technical design. Engineers the likes of Smeaton and Coulomb operated at the frontiers where they had no access to appropriate technical science, they developed the technical science and published papers and presented lecturers to share such knowledge. The published papers could be read by others and the theories contained within put to work. But most importantly such published papers can be referenced by others, they set a benchmark. For example no one should get buried in a trench because we have the technical science to design a technical solution to avoid collapse of the trench walls. If a trench wall collapses we can reference national standards, safety manuals and industry manuals and a variety of textbooks, reference manuals and journal articles. The collapse of a trench wall is largely an avoidable event, and the literature provides the means to avoid. There may be uncertainty in the characteristics of the materials and the quality of the workmanship but such uncertainty can be kept to a minimum. If there is a trench collapse we can identify that the persons involved failed to exercise adequate duty of care.

Information is being consolidated and organised and disseminated faster than ever before. It is important therefore that the available information is used to properly assess new implementations and adaptations of the established technologies.

Unfortunately there is also a problem of information overload which hinders getting anything done. Only the real world physical system is fully informed about itself. Anything else can only contain partial information, the importance of design is to make abstract and give consideration to the critical characteristics: not attempt to simulate a complete virtual reality due to inability to make decisions in the face of uncertainty.

Recommended Reading:
1) J.E.Gordon (1991), Structures, or why things don't fall down.Penguin
2) Jacques Heyman, (1999), The Science of Structural Engineering, Imperial College Press
3) Stephen P Timoshenko (1983), History of the Strength of Materials, Dover
4) S.C.Hollister (1966), Engineer: ingenious contriver of the instruments of civilization, Macmillan career book

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Metamorphs: Origin of the name

Back in 1996 I was getting bored, that was only getting to do structural drafting whilst had interests and capabilities, and qualifications beyond that. I was also opposed to the continuous improvement movement which seemed to be missing the perspective that a business needs to be dynamic and adaptive to respond to the dynamic environment in which it operated. An environment which is transformed by the very presence and action of the business enterprise. A world of chaos and uncertainty. Fluid as the imagination, like swirling paint mixing colours, the opening sequences to both Dr Who and the original The Tomorrow People. Not static: dynamic and moving, evolving. That utopia is static, and unsustainable, and is no where, and if somewhere, it is no where I want to be, and want to have no part in creating. Utopia if it is to be somewhere has to be dynamic: a dynamic utopia {something I started to write about in 1986}. A dynamic utopia is adaptive and evolving: and is built upon appropriate technologies best adapted to the environment in which it has to exist. Dynamic utopia can provide the basis of building habitat in space, and marching across the universe: to boldly go ... That the journey is more important than the destination. If the Sun has something like 6 billion years left (the number seems to vary), then have 2 billion years to find a new planetary home,  2 billion years to return and say, hey we found it, and 2 billion years to return. Just one little problem, if can survive travelling through space for 2 billion years, who needs a planet. {This thought came to mind watching the original Battle Star Galactica. Did they really need to get to their destination, and what then?} It is the exploration, the journey that has value, that is life.

So with this swirling chaos in my mind I wrote down a multitude of names that I dreamed up, one of which was Zhymekt {serious holistic industrial and mechanical technology}. Thus the names involved changes to letters of the alphabet, but main objective was to get reference to industrial and mechanical, to consider appropriate and adaptive technology, with implication of fluid imagination and Morpheus shaper of dreams. With a pocket book full of possible names, I went to the business names registry office to check the availability and register "Adaptive Technology", my preferred choice. At that point in time could only check the names at the registration office and that required a trip to the city {Now can check names on line, and nationally}. Already procrastinated long enough, so it was going to be a day of action, check availability and get it registered. Adaptive Technology, was already taken and so were many variants, and so Metamorphs was checked and became the instant replacement and was registered: for a business or rather enterprise that was going to pursue research and develop parametric generic models of adaptive technologies, and some other idealistic hyperbole.

Metamorphs produces, but it doesn't really trade. I make my living (?) through my fathers business Roy Harrison and Associates, which in 2009/2010 we went to register on the national companies register and found the name was taken, and so came up with MiScion Pty Ltd {which can be interpreted as: me off shoot (1.Scion 2.Scion). Except that the word "me", is pronounced with with the letter "i" having the sound as in the word "pit".}. Locally we still have registration of Roy Harrison and Associates as a business name, just not suitable for national usage.

So Metamorphs is where I pursue everything beyond structures: and doesn't have anything to do with MiScion Pty Ltd or Roy Harrison and Associates: though all the structural software I create and we use in the business has the name Metamorphs on it.

Any case the following are the two original descriptions for the name:

Version 1:

Meta : Transcending above and beyond
Morph : Form and structure

=> Transcending above and beyond structure


•The meanings of words are unclear and imprecise.
•The definition of an object can either be fixed and refer to a clearly defined instance of that object.
•Or the definition can be unclear and refer to multiple variations of a generic form.
•Some people have open minds and can see the generic nature of objects, others cannot

•Services not restricted to Structural Engineering Drafting & Design
•Structure is an abstract concept and can apply to objects other than buildings
•From an Industrial Engineering viewpoint Organisation structure is not fixed and can be changed

•Analytical Computer models are dependent initially on structured view of an object. But these models should be parametric, flexible,adaptable, and amorphous.
•The Language of Object Oriented Programming (OOP) provides the terminology for discussing an object oriented universe.
•Defining a specific instance of an object, or a generic object that is a description of a collection of like objects, is a never ending task of refinement.
•Language itself is dynamic, and the meanings of words change with time
•Objects do not have to be physical material things. They can be abstract ideas.

Laws of thermodynamics suggest that mass and energy can neither be created nor destroyed just transformed from one form to another.
•The Gaia hypothesis suggests multiple levels of organisation structure and the emergence of higher forms of life. Cells congregate into multicellular lifeforms. These multi-cellular lifeforms congregate into societies, villages, cities, states, nations.
•The Gaia hypothesis suggests that there is a two way interaction between life form and environment. The mere presence of a Life form in an environment changes the environment. The life form needs to be continuously adapting to the constantly changing environment

Most of the form and structure that we perceive in the universe does not exist in reality, and is imposed by our own imaginations. If it does exist then it is transient, and exists for a short time frame. Even our perceptions and understanding change with time. So that patterns that were perfectly clear and obvious yesterday become a complete mystery to us today.

Metamorphs seeks out abstract generic definitions of objects. With such generic definitions perceptions of need can be transformed, undergo metamorphosis, and give birth to radically new objects.


 Change one thing and you change everything ! 

Version 2:

Transcending above and beyond Structures.

Just as carbon, under extremes of temperature and pressure, deep within the earth can be transformed into diamond, and caterpillars emerge from their cocoons as butterflies. So too, it is possible, for engineers to transform the dust of the earth into valuable live sustaining resources. To an Engineer the Physical World is as Fluid as the Imagination.

Metamorphs seeks out abstract generic definitions of objects. With such generic definitions perceptions of need can be transformed, undergo metamorphosis, and give birth to radically new objects.

A bicycle becomes a rickshaw, becomes electrified railway, becomes telegraph, becomes internet. The need for transportation is transformed and displaced by the need for communication.

Confucius stated that "learning starts with the precise meaning of words". However the ancient Greek metaphysics philosopher Cratylus  considered that change was so complete and total that he believed that the meanings of words change the very instant that you uttered them.

The word Broadcast is an example of a word where our common perceptions of its meaning has changed with time. In the 1880's the common frame of reference was farming, and it meant to scatter seed widely with the hand. Today the frame of reference is information cast broadly by electronic mass media in the form of radio and television, and now the internet.

The meanings of words change through analogy and metaphor. With time the origin of the meaning becomes lost, and the metaphor reflects the common understanding of a word.

What is this ? If you say pencil, then you know its name, what we call it, but not what it is.

It is : The existential brain cell of a Cray supercomputer. An instrument for communication through visual symbols. A graphite based electrical resistor. A craft tool for sculpting clay. It is raw material.

What it is, is determined by the environment in which it is found. The needs, imagination's , and adaptive capabilities of those who find it available as raw material.

Once a product, whether it be a goods or service, hits the market place, the public arena, its purpose and function changes. The original design specification and intent become obsolete. And a need arises to redesign the product to match its actual usage, but once released, the process repeats itself, in a never ending cycle.

[08/06/2014] : Original Post
[11/07/2015] : Minor Formatting changes, and links added.