Monday, February 21, 2011

Engineers Week 2011

It's that time of year again.  When all the engineers gather around their favorite Irish Pub and drink green beer in honor of their patron saint.  Oh wait, that's not for another few weeks yet.  That's right, IT'S ENGINEERS WEEK!

I am interested in hearing all the ways that YOU are celebrating Engineers Week.  Yours truly was inspired by another social media friend to answer a few Q&A for her regarding engineering.  You can read the start of my interview here (and get a great snapshot of my mug, too).

And my heart goes out to all my soon to be fellow alumni who are enjoying finals week this week instead of partying like an Irishman.  Oh wait, they are because IT'S FINALS WEEK.

Be sure to check out all the eweek events in your area and let us know what's going on your neck of the woods.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Concurrent CFD

An article by Dr. Keith Hanna of Mentor Graphics Corp. appearing in Defense Tech Briefs and repeated in other publications describes a method of performing concurrent Computation Fluid Dynamic (CFD) in conventional MCAD tools.

Last year I wrote a post on how the design process needs to be turned upside down.  In it, I made some recommendations on how the integration of analysis tools into MCAD packages may not be the right way to move forward.  Although Dr. Hanna makes a good argument for streamlining the analysis process and saving countless hours of development time, in my opinion it fails to solve the problem and in fact, may make it worse.
"Concurrent CFD automates tedious/intimidating steps such as configuring  solid representations of hollow spaces, designing meshes, and more." 
That's great, for an analyst.  But what this is in fact doing to taking the analyst out of the loop.  Now that the part of the solution that requires expertise has been dumbed down simplified to the point where anyone can set up a model for analysis, the unqualified designer is going to do it.  Why? Because it is a quicker and cheaper process than involving the analyst.  This is simply wrong!  What I foresee happening is that the experienced structural engineer who is very good at designing hardware and designing for manufacturability will now feel compelled to also perform fluid analysis.  As engineers, we have a duty to only perform within our area of expertise, and taking two fluid dynamics classes in college does not exactly qualify us as experts.  Yet, the tools are so easy to use and are built right into the software I'm proficient at, why not give it a try?  What could be the harm?

If you are a fluids expert and happen to also be proficient at MCAD, integrated tools like these are a godsend.  They save time and money on development programs.  They turn tedious manual chores into automated solutions while adding a level of accuracy that may be missed during manual setup.  I can see how it is easy to be enticed by these benefits of integrated solutions.  But it is the job of the engineer to look past the shiny marketing and THINK about the details.  What is it you are really buying and is it the right tool for the job?  Think about it, and while you're at it, check out Mentor Graphics.  It may just be the tool you have been looking for.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Have Engineers Lost Decision Making Abilities?

Speaking of skimming, I recently sorted through my stack of trade journals throwing out ones so old that the time sensitive information would no longer be of value, and thumbing through the middle aged magazines skimming the contents.

During this skimming I glanced at an article about the use of nanomaterials in construction.  Reading only a sentence or two from each paragraph, I quickly started getting a message from the article that I'm sure the author did not mean to give.  Skimming caused me to take the passages out of context, and therefore apply a new meaning.  Here's what I read.
As engineers incorporate more nanomaterials into contruction blocks, cement, and paint, regulators must begin controlling these materials.
They also discuss the possible hazards and lack of regulation.
This lack of oversight means more research is necessary to avoid unintended consequences.
The key is to understand the specific risks and implications of the product before it is widely used.
Was this author seriously stating that engineers are incapable of running their own studies and determining the cost/benefit analysis of utilizing new materials without interceding regulations?  Was the author really stating that the use of these materials should not be continued until they have been regulated?  I was astounded.  Reading the entire article instead of just skimming it, the purpose of the article becomes more clear.  The author states that the entire life cycle of the new materials needs to be considered before using it in construction.  The best way to do so, so everyone is not required to run their own analysis, is by creating codes and standards which inevitably means regulating their use.

But then I turn the page and there is an article about green construction code.  In it, the author states the benefits of being forced into aligning to a universal standard instead of allowing engineers and architects to use their own senses to design the most economical and environmentally-friendly buildings.  Throw away all the work done by LEED and ASHRAE.   Don't allow engineers to use their critical thinking skills to develop eloquent solutions to problems.  No!  Force engineers to design to code.  Remove all traces of free thinking.  And regulate the life out of a new industry before it even has a chance to mature and take shape.

I haven't read the code.  It may be as beneficial to the industry and the well-being of the general public as the author states.  But from skimming the article, I see yet another means to remove engineers from their jobs and replace them with a cookie cutter method of design that anyone with a 6th grade reading level can perform.  Do engineers really want to become nothing more than code consumers?  Maybe I should stop skimming.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


I have been enjoying the luxury of sitting in training seminars lately.  I love learning, and the fact that the topics are aligned with my current job description allows me to apply my new found knowledge immediately.  It's not that I don't enjoy sitting in an uncomfortable chair in a hotel conference room for eight hours a day.  No!  It's that the instructors try to teach more than the curriculum.  One particular instructor, in an attempt to sell us on taking other courses from this training group, kept advertising his ability to speed read and how taking this other course will HELP YOU TOO.

As an engineer, there is a specific time to skim and a specific time to read every word.  For example, the difference between "shall" and "may" in a specification or statement of work could cost you millions of dollars through failure to understand the requirements.  Sure, you skimmed them, and got the gist of the idea, but you failed to realize the difference between a recommendation from a requirement, and that's what cost you.  (This particular instructor was not too fond of me stealing his sales potential by questioning that point publicly.)

None the less, skimming is a great time saver when used properly and we are cognizant when it can fail.  Taking the time to do the job right should be every engineer's motto.  Increasing your reading skills is great, but don't take shortcuts when public safety and well-being is on the line.