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The Joy of Engineering, sketching it out, and international opportunities

We’re always willing to help at Engineer Towers, as witnessed this morning when a young man from the BBC called for some quick facts about all things related to the industry.

Questions such as how much is the sector worth (£849bn a year based on figures from 2011), what proportion of engineers are female (around eight per cent), and employment prospects (2.74 million openings in engineering enterprises to 2020) were swiftly dispatched and will hopefully form part of the Jeremy Vine show from midday today.    

We’ve made some enquiries as to the exact nature of Mr Vine’s interest in your profession, with the BBC’s inquisitive employee informing us that the show will address ‘the joy of being an engineer’ whilst questioning youngsters’ reasons for not entering the profession. Listen in at noon or catch up using the BBC iPlayer. Alternatively, recap with The Engineer’s myriad of articles on those very subjects.

Problem solving is a fundamental skill of engineers and many moons ago my father - a water supply engineer - would often talk of working things out ‘on the back of a fag packet’.

These ad hoc, in-the-field sketches (usually in a pocket note book and not, in fact, on a packet of cigarettes) would help him visualise a potential solution, a skill that a certain James Cannam wants to revive.

Cannam says he wants to create a book called ‘Sketching for Engineers’ to help the next generation of engineers to communicate their designs.

He told us: ‘Whilst engineers studying at university are taught to solve problems, develop designs and complete calculations, unless they are lucky they aren’t taught anything more than basic technical drawing methods. Sketching for Engineers would be targeted at solving this problem.’

Cannam has a Kickstarter campaign to fund his venture and anyone wanting to read more about the project - and make it come to life with a donation - should click here.

Meeting another appeal for help, we’ve been given notice of a chance for UK manufacturers to explore business opportunities in China.

The UK Industrial Zone (UKIZ) in Changshu is expected to aggregate the skills of British companies in one place and CEDZ (Changshu Economic Development Zone) says it is committed to offering support to UK companies wishing to link into the Changshu supply chain.

The UKIZ will be adjacent to the new £1.6bn Chery JLR Factory and representatives from British companies will be able to meet dignitaries to discuss tax incentives available for companies hoping to tap into China’s domestic automotive industry.

The delegation will take place on March 23, and interested parties are being asked for a basic expression of interest by February 20. Further details can be found here.

An event taking place in London tomorrow has a similar international flavour, with opportunities at Large Scale Facilities being highlighted by the Royal Academy of Engineering and STFC.

Hosted by Steve Myers, director of Accelerators and Technology at CERN, the event aims to promote engineering opportunities that exist for experienced engineers and technicians in every discipline. This includes placements for undergraduate students, fellowships for early career engineers, and collaborations and supplier contracts for industry.

The event - Engineering and Big Science: Opportunities for the UK - is open from 0945am to 1730 at Prince Philip House, 3 Carlton House Terrace, London. 

Readers' comments (12)

  • "Sketching for Engineers" - isn't this a basic task that trained Industrial Designers have been doing since time began? It's unfortunate that 'Engineers' have ridiculed Industrial Designers for their sketching skills and even in recent years an engineer has called us; "...felt tip fairies..." even though we no longer use magic markers!

    It's good to hear sketching skills are being promoted across all levels of 'engineering' development, it's certain to result in better products that are quicker to market.

    Long may the pencil and the BIC biro reign!

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  • The 'back of a fag-packet', or its equivalent, remains an essential part of both communicating ideas and of developing them. It is not necessary to be an artist to do it - even the simplest sketch can be a massive help and replace the hours of pursuing blind alleys so easy to waste without it.

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  • A very good idea but could go much further.

    I grew up in an arts environment, mother a sculptor, father an architect, one sister a professional violinist. Sketching was siomething we all did but gave little thought to, simply because that is what we did. I still use this skill all the time.

    For an Engineer, sketching goes further than the transmission of ideas and it need not be a literal sketch. Approximate calculation is also a form of sketch and the ability to make reasonable rough estimates is a vital skill. Once, at a conference on light aircraft design I was asked if a retro, Edwardian-style monoplane was viable as a single seat microlight aircraft. This is a very good example:

    Weight: 120kg empty plus 100 kg of pilot plus fuel.

    Desired cruise speed was about 50 knots, or 25 metres per second. Knowing about typical aircraft performance gives an expected glide angle of about 5:1 for a lump like this, so the vertical speed will be 25/5=5 metres per second. Power is force times velocity so, roughly 5*(220kg)= 11000Nm/sec (very roughly), ie, 11kw cruise power. Double this for a comfortable climb margin and to deal with propellor losses and the aeroplane is viable with a 22kW motor, check the weight of 22kW motors to see if they can get inside the weight budget and its a goer.

    This is an analytical sketch , it can be done in the head, not necessarily on paper and can save all sorts of unecessary wasted effort. This is an example of a skill that really should be taught and there is scope for a really useful book on Engineer's short cuts, approximations and dodges. Could call it "Heathen Engineering".

    Another example was the heated debate regarding the possibility of sailing directly downwind faster than the wind . For anyone who can reduce a problem to the bare essentials it is blindingly obvious that this is perfectly possible (go on, google "DDWFTTW"...and prepare to lose the rest of your day...). The incredible level of ignorance displayed in the debate on this topic, some of it from supposed Engineers, really emphasised for me that this skill is not treated with the respect that it deserves.

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  • Jeremy Vine Show barely got off the ground so to speak, he needed to be educated about "real" Engineers before he set out on his wander.
    Lost opportunity I am afraid, again!.

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  • (too little space to expand on and express this properly this here).

    Listening to the JV Show – I heard the same old arguments being wheeled out – primarily those around status and recognition, ‘get young people interested’ …. etc etc.

    We need to start to consider this problem in new ways. Pleading for recognition based around the pedestal of the near unimpeachable ‘ respected’ expert (as increasingly occurs with scientists) by artificially setting up differentiators between technicians and ‘Engineers’ is daft- if only because some of today’s technicians – could become professional engineers – by for example attending university level course later – in late 20s/early 30s. In fact having a mixture of ‘old lags’ together with young turks on university course can only be a good thing. More to the point its all ‘problem solving’.

    More controversially perhaps – engineers need to get out more – become politicians or at least commentators, argue in public over controversial and tricky subjects (immigration, the environment, abortion etc) and get a name for themselves as ‘Generalists’ – rounded ‘thinkers’ intellectuals even who happen to be engineers. If engineers don’t like or respect politicians – then stop complaining and take the trouble to become better ones themselves and stop trying to just influence society behind the safety of their professional expertise.

    What ever their individual views doesn’t matter – but to get a higher public profile ‘engineers’ need to stop this self flattery and get ‘stuck in’ to wider society on topical subjects. If I were a young person I’d be more likely to be attracted a group of people who were capable of operating in the public gaze rather than being a bunch of whingey ‘back room boffins’.

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  • One picture worth a thousand words, moving pictures (experiments?) worth a hundred stills!

    Perhaps some of those pictures -still and otherwise- are in the mind as well?

    As a practicing 'textile' engineer, with a fully technical education, skill set and series of experiences, I had almost no knowledge of (nor it must be admitted interest in) 'the Arts' until I did one of the OU arts courses. I likened it to going around a stately home (which I knew well, technology) finding a door and opening it to reveal a completely new wing of the house -the artistic side. Music, painting, sculpture, writing, poetry, architecture were all studied.
    I do believe that my 'Engineering' was better after this revelation. I ought to have been ashamed of myself for being so technically insular at the start of my career, because CP Snow -an author, technologist,[he had worked on the Manhattan project] in the 50s propounded the principle of those two cultures, Sciences and Arts, intimately linked in an educated (as opposed to a merely trained) person. And Snow was the Rector of St Andrews Uni when I was there!
    Best Mike B

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  • Well said Paul Reeves! This is indeed the problem and not the solution: "Listening to the JV Show – I heard the same old arguments being wheeled out – primarily those around status and recognition, ‘get young people interested’ …. etc etc."

    I visited the IMechE Dinner. The keynote talks were all about enthusing the tiny tots. Status. Titles. Women in Engineering. Not one comment about entrepreneurship and building new engineering businesses and what the IMechE is doing about it. All the awards handed out were related to enthusing tiny tots or being female and in Engineering.

    I like enthused tiny tots and women in engineering but fully understand why women do not want to go into engineering and why the tiny tots are not enthused. All they here is "This is Great..... Really...... Honestly...... All apart from nobody loves what I do........and the pay is horrible.....". Can we please stop putting this idiotic negative story around?

    As you stated. Engineers need to sing about the joys and worth of what they do to the wider world. Experienced Engineers should also do more to start engineering businesses, give parents a great engineering career and then the tiny tots will be fully enthused by their parents.

    I also agree that Engineers should engage with the wider activities of society.

    As for differentiating between Engineers and Technicians..... This manages to be simultaneously insecure, insulting, arrogant, demeaning and ignorant. The honest truth is that Engineering is a very wide spectrum of activities, treated properly this means that an individual who starts at lowly level can work and train and move right up the spectrum, making a false split in the middle of the spectrum is demoralising and pointless.

    Plenty of "Professional Engineers" are nothing more than managers. By the current definition, George Stephenson, the founder of IMechE, is "merely" a technician. And before anyone tells me that the "world is different now", there are plenty of examples of recent great Engineers who the institutions would insist on calling "Technicians" under their current rules, to pick an easy target try James Dyson. He may not be universally popular but he has done far more for the profile of engineering in the UK than most of the institutions. Another sky-high example was Robert T Jones, the NASA wing design guru, almost entirely self taught, self teaching is less impressive than going to a University? Really?

    This is very depressing, Engineers making a simple problem much more complicated than it actually is.

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  • Taking Mike Blamey's theme to its logical conclusion . . . One fully-functioning proof-of-concept model is worth a thousand moving images. After all, many illusions can be created with CGIs!!

    What do the BBC and the 'Engineer' have in common?

    They both cultivate a PR image of celebrating British engineering, but at the same time deny British innovation the oxygen of publicity by suppressing new ideas. The motivation for this strange behaviour remains a mystery - they refuse to give a reason.

    The BBC Top Gear team did it on 29/6/09 and the Engineer imposed the same censorship on 14/2/14.

    "always willing to help"? OK - prove it. Evaluate my proof of concept model of Stable Suspension for yourselves.

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  • David, if you believe you have a technology story that it is worth The Engineer investigating then please get in touch through conventional channels (phone/email). But please bear in mind we are not a contract PR service. All stories are evaluated on the basis of engineering merit AND interest to readers.

  • How can a sketch be more useful than a technical drawing?

    In the summer of 2001, I pencilled in a full-scale GA to prove Stable Suspension. I took it into the workshop and machined four billets of scrap aluminium to create the proof-of-concept model that I hold in my hand right now. No need for a second prototype, never mind 5,000.

    I doubt anyone would understand its function from a m/m accurate engineering drawing, let alone a sketch. Many choose to deny the evidence of their own eyes, when they've seen Stable Suspension in action. Many more, the BBC and the Engineer to name but two, don't even have the curiosity (of childhood) to WANT to see it. I despair.

    At what point during their years of education was their imagination impaired?

    Creative engineering in Britain is worse than joyless - it's a depressing experience, when the 'establishment' routinely treats inventors as lepers.

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  • @Jonathan Howes – thank you for your appreciative comments – (please feel free to contact me at paul.reeves@outlook .com or PaulReevesAgain on twitter – as I’m keen to question the ‘established’ thoughts on these matters and explore new approaches and get a debate going. Perhaps the Engineer can have a session on this subject at their public conference?)

    It is quite odd that on one hand we have ‘industry/business’ demanding that universities produce trained/skilled graduates/ ‘graduates with the skills’ to do jobs – which invariably will produce individuals with narrow(ish) skills and arguably outlooks – ironically modern day ‘technicians’ in fact – albeit with CAD/Simulation /6-sigma/’problem solving’/ tribology or what ever ‘skills’ are deemed required commercially. The danger with this is that a generation of ‘Engineers’ will (have?) be produced – driven by narrow commercial interests – who have not been ‘educated’ in the wider – non ‘Instrumental’ ways of many of the ‘higher’ status professions – lawyers for example and the public school educated politicians, media influencers etc. who DO have status and influence. Entrepreneurs are also generalists (and in their own way ‘intellectual’ in a broad sense) and this goes beyond old school tie connections to the fact that many Public Schools (and some high level Liberal Arts/Humanities depts) do produce (some) more rounded ‘thinkers’ who have or can gain 'status' and influence based on their general intellect, beyond a technical/practical education. So lets have more 'Public Intellectuals' - who happen to be engineers.

    So I guess that (broadly ) what I am saying is that it may be that the commercial pressures of business to produce (hi-tech) job fodder is ironically one of the primary reasons for ‘Engineers/ing’ having little influence and (relatively ) poor status.

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