You are on page 1of 4

Introduction:

This is a report comprising some of my notes and thoughts after reading three articles, in order: a harshly
worded critique of engineering failures titled “How Engineers Lose Touch” by Eugene S. Ferguson. Second,
an impressively comprehensive breakdown of the nuts and bolts of FEA1 titled “The Question of Credibility”
by Jack Thornton. Last but not least, “The Mathematical Disposition of Structural Engineers” by Julie
Gainsburg, who offers a very thorough analytical study of engineers in practice, albeit being an outsider to
engineering herself, her findings are invaluable.

I will try to group my contemplations under headings that express a common theme. I will link the content of
the articles with my personal outlook as a graduate engineering student.

Technicians, Engineers, and Professors:


Ever since my undergraduate years, I have been hearing about the perpetual rivalry/enmity between
technicians and engineers. Professors would mention while commenting on some of our mistakes, how if
such mistakes were made in the workplace, a technician who had no formal engineering education will be able
to spot that mistake, and make a laughing stock of us, armed with nothing but an ambiguous “engineering
sense” and a grudge for their smaller pay check. We were told repeatedly to try to visualize and think about
the results of our calculations before we hand them in, to think about their meaning in real life, and see if they
made any sense.
I cannot help but recall our professors’ warnings when I read Ferguson (a proponent of engineering students
walking around and listening to engineering products in class) saying:
“The magnitude of the errors of judgment in some of the reported failures suggests that engineers of the new breed have
climbed to the tops of many bureaucratic ladders and are now making decisions that should be made by people with
more common sense and experience.”

Since according to him, engineers nowadays should be in a position of suspicion simply for being of “the new
breed”, who are learning things differently. He does not leave his point without evidence, but his attitude is
what is being noted here. This seems more than the usual “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” elders
grunt to the younger generation. He shows more of his position regarding technicians in engineering practices
when he discusses General Electric’s compressors:

“…and the misgivings voiced by the experienced technician who ran the tests were disregarded. This senior
technician—who had worked in the testing lab for thirty years—reported that although the compressors did not
actually fail in the truncated testing program, “they didn’t look right, either”...The experience-based assessment was
discounted because it came from a mere technician.”

The fact remains that technicians do not have enough scientific background to make extrapolations about
new designs. Does that mean their opinion is worthless? Some engineers may think so, as Ferguson thinks
“new breed engineers” are lacking common sense.
Keeping this friction in mind will immensely help graduating engineers get the experience they so acutely
need from technicians in the workplace, by being humble and cautious. Knowing the background and
strengths of technicians will help in putting their opinions/suggestions in context.

Some of that engineering sense, the only kind we knew as students, was the one we get from the context of
the problems presented in the textbook, as you solve more problems; you get a feeling for the orders of

1 FEA: Finite Element Analysis.


magnitude of each value you use in questions. Which are in the thousands and which are in the hundredths.
Which should be bigger than which, and which are about the same, which can’t be above a certain number,
which can’t be negative, etc. If you didn’t solve enough questions you wouldn’t recognize an abnormal result
when you produce one, while other experienced students would.
I’ve witnessed technicians however, use their “sense” to pinpoint engine failures from the engine sound.
Having had a summer internship in an Aviation school in Eskisehir, Turkey. I have worked in a hanger for
three months directly under the supervision of a crew of old technicians. My eagerness and respect to them
during that time paid off, I was told by an English-speaking technician that all engineers are stupid and
arrogant but I was an exception. They also accused me of secretly understanding Turkish, as I was able to
construct most of the functionality of many systems in my head before they finished translating to English. I
have also noticed their disregard to some codes and procedures they are supposed to follow, such as
scrapping burnt rubber seal rings off with metal box cutters, when metal to metal contact is supposed to be
avoided.
As for professors, I’ve had some who have never worked as engineers before, straight to lecturing from being
students, while their recollection and usage of formula and theory is more consistent, the courses they teach
are more dry and linear than courses taught by professors who have worked for a long time as professional
engineers. The latter would usually teach courses more focused on design, whether it be HVAC (our
professor was like Kevin, from Gainsburg’s article2), machine elements or thermal fluid systems. The
problems usually involve the usage of tables and graphs, and the result is usually the selection of a dimension
or fitting from a table of standards. Such that even if you round up some numbers or preform viable
shortcuts and get the same answer or close to it, you still get the mark, as long as your shortcut is justified.
Which made me thinking, if what Gainsburg said that-

“The engineers admired engineering judgment, recognizing it as a commodity hard-won over the years on the job.”
-then how could professors who have no engineering judgment teach students engineering? On the other
hand, perhaps engineering judgment can’t be passed on even by those who have it, but has to be earned by
oneself through personal experience?
One thing I know for sure is, engineers should be taught math by engineers, not mathematicians. Gainsburg
was right in that everyday problems are not mathematical in purpose, which is what mathematicians make
math courses be. In our CAD course I made sense of many things I learned and forgot throughout 6 math
courses in my undergrad. The usage of physical objects to deliver the concepts added to the dimensions I
processed them in, they became “real” so to say, no longer in the realm of imagination.

It IS Rocket Science
While the classification of top-down design vs. bottom-up design is new and fascinating to me, it is apparent
that although the latter is safer and offers more certainty, it will simply consume too much time and money to
design and test each component separately. These drawbacks were maybe tolerable under the danger of the
ignorance shrouding the top down design, but after the introduction of computers, an iterative trial and error
top-down design may be more successful than a convergent systematic step by step bottom-up design. With
some tool to quickly validate a design, it may be easier to guesstimate a design and check it until it is
acceptable, rather than design step by step to converge to it.

2 “(According to Vick[2002], Kevin’s ability to jump to an obvious solution and use formal analysis later to confirm it is a hallmark of
engineering expertise)”
Computers, CAD3 and FEM are the tools that brought the top-down design approach to the forefront of
engineering. They save time and money at the expense of not knowing exactly the performance of individual
components. With CAD, troubleshooting a failure in a system is not as easy as in the bottom-up design,
where the capabilities and limitations of each component is known independently, and guessing their
performance in a system is easier.
Considering the rigidity of top-down designs, it would be suitable to expand on sensitivity tests mentioned by
Thornton. As I understand it; due to how the CAD approach “jumps” in a plane of design variables to land
on a set of values, then see if they hold or not. Sensitivity tests basically fidget the design’s footing in the
plane of variables to see if it will collapse upon a simple variation in values. If so, then the CAD is too lucky
and unstable to be reliable, since the physical world and computer calculations -among others- are sources of
uncertainty, which would collapse the design.

Engineering History
History is invaluable to humans to better their future by learning from their past, engineering is no exception.
Some problems should be avoided once you know they happened before, Boeing should have learned from
GE in trying new technologies with insufficient testing, I sure have. However, I do not have the engineering
judgment to decide -in the absence of engineering codes and procedures- when is testing not enough. When
lacking the direct experience, reading about the failures would provide invaluable guidance –if not a final
decision- as to what to expect, what to be aware of, and what to relax with if it has proved viable.
The handouts of our course were definitely the foundation I am laying for my engineering judgment or
experience, tagging along a tour guide will not teach you a landscape as actually navigating it and deciding the
turns. Similarly, reading about the mistakes and their circumstances is not the same as weighing the options
yourself and making the decision then finding out it was wrong or there was a better one. Still, reading
passively about the mistakes is an excellent first introductory step to the world of engineering mistakes.
Another experience during many if not all projects of this course, is frustration upon realizing the
fruitlessness of an elaborate venture attempted for the first time, and the hard choice of whether to let it go
or continue trying to make it work. Such situation of hesitation is well described by Gainsburg when she says:
“This offended Ray’s sense of the process as a systematic way to discover specific building behavior—that if they followed a
sensible procedure, they were compelled to trust the results.”
While a plan to reach an answer to an engineering problem may be systematic and theoretically sound, the
results may have small irregular details that make the whole thing not sit right with you. An example of that is
from my pulley project, I rejected (overrode) a displayed failure of the SolidWorks Simulation. A high stress
reading and local mesh divergence occurred on the line boundary of my bearing fixture on the shaft’s end. I
knew -rather felt- that considering the loading conditions on the pulley, that area should not be under high
stress. Also when viewing the mesh, it shows that the mesher is forced to split the elements on that line
because of different boundary conditions, which caused elements of bad quality to always be there, which
might cause divergence. Hence, the extreme readings from that area were ignored, and attention shifted to the
other area of (reasonable) max stress; the corner between the pulley’s face and shaft surface.
Was my decision the right one? I have not found out for sure yet. But it was a judgment call and I made it.
Customers of engineers, specifically those using FEA, are aware of the engineers’ history and might be
keeping failure folders of their own, why else would they be requiring engineers to prove their competency

3CAD: Computer Aided Design, meant here to encompass the whole process of designing with computers, including
FEA, Computer Aided Drafting, Computer Aided Manufacturing, etc...
before taking their results seriously?. Validation, which Thornton introduces as a new requirement customers
are insisting on (I didn’t even hear of it before), is a demonstration of compatibility between the engineer’s
computerized realm and a real life object. Proof that the person in front of the screen is capable of doing the
hardest thing in FEA; to transfer the physical interactions of a system to loads and boundary conditions in
the software correctly. Once the engineer proves their skill with an existing design, then what they foretell
about objects yet to be created will be taken seriously.

Engineering Judgment: Conclusion


The fact that engineering judgment is not a well-defined phenomenon with clear boundaries of usage or
framework, as a matter of fact, it being the rule of breaking rules, makes it hard to coin or express. When
should it be used? An analogous question would be when should one break the law? Although the obvious
answer to those questions is “never”, as it is to “when should we disregard what we’re studying”. Real life
later on displays interesting scenarios where the rules ought to be followed are pitched against each other.
Individuals make judgments based on their experience, Engineering judgment is the same.
Known methods of design verification include hand calculations, experimental testing, codes and standards,
CAD and FEA, those are pushed by science to perfect the design. On the other side you have the traditional
constraints demanded by businesses; time, money and safety. Which methods to capitalize on to satisfy which
constraints, is decided with engineering judgment.
Not all calculations done in an engineer’s mind are done consciously; engineering judgment is based off the
unconscious -but equally valid- part. That part is the extract of uncountable trails and errors, details absorbed
and dealt with through multiple senses over several years, theories and sciences collected from many fields.
To get more of those is to have a richer blend for a stronger understanding of science in real life, that is called
engineering.