vol 4 issue 21

Feedback: your letters

30 November 2009
By Readers' letters
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The last word from you this year includes a blueprint for engineering respect, perhaps a New Years resolution suggestion for many.

To get respect, demand quality

Ian Darney's letter about electric shock therapy (Vol 4 #17) brings to the fore all of the issues regarding ethics raised by recent articles and letters in E&T.

The engineering profession must set itself high standards. This is the only way that engineers will be seen in higher esteem and valued more. Engineering must be seen as a profession rather than a trade. You would not select your cardiac surgeon based on his charge rate per hour, because when buying a professional service it is the quality that counts. But to arrive at that status, the professional engineer must work to ethical standards which should be policed by the profession.

Engineers have a duty to demand construction of good quality roads, high-standard consumer goods, efficient buildings, robust communications, efficient power systems, which will safely bring benefit to mankind. We are trained to know what is right; we need to forcibly make our qualified opinions known. Yet often we see how engineers have let the standards slip - recalls on products not fully tested before sale, patch updates for software not market ready, reconstruction of roads just after they have been built.

These are indicators that the original design was either not fully worked through, or the original engineering design was simply not implemented. A surgeon, for example, will not implant a second-rate medical device, as he stands by his professional ethics. For this standard, the surgeon is well respected. Engineers can only be respected if they stand by what they are trained to know is right. This will mean refusing to sign-off on inefficient design, unsafe design, or shoddy short-term, low-cost solutions. And, as Ian Darney suggests, refusing to sign-off on design which the engineer knows might cause harm to society.

Our predecessors left us quality engineering which forms the basis of our world: solid rail and road networks, good water supplies, sewage and power infrastructure, forming the core upon which we are still building. Were they over-engineered? Very little of what was built is now redundant, indeed most has been added to and still forms the core of our daily life. Therefore, it was well engineered design. In retrospect, the engineers simply demanded high quality in any of their projects, and did not bow to demands from other vested interests.

Today's engineers will be respected when they design quality and safety into their work. This is more critical as the financial crisis seeks short-term savings. Engineers must only sign off well engineered solutions, and for this you will receive respect.

Charles Dunn MIET, Dublin, Ireland

Missing horsepower

I read the article on the design for a new London Bus (Vol 4 #16) with interest. However, when I got to the characteristics of the old Routemasters I recalled the Flanders and Swann song which includes the line: "The big six-wheeler scarlet-painted London transport diesel-engined 97-horsepower omnibus."

Is there an explanation for the discrepancy between this and the 115 horsepower claimed in your article? It certainly would not scan so well!

Brian McGlinchy FIET, Wellington, New Zealand

Not so smart?

I have a few questions regarding the smart meters described in 'Power to the People' (Vol 4 #18). First, what happens in a power cut? Smart meters will rely on electronic circuits that will be disabled if the mains supply fails. Computers have back-up batteries but these are for low-power integrated circuits. About two years ago my meter was changed to a slimline unit that needed electricity to function. A few months later it was changed back to a mechanical one. Will smart gas meters still be mechanically driven?

When I told my gas and electricity supplier that I could send meter readings by email, the adviser told me that a person had to check for malfunctions of the meters. One of the big selling points of smart meters is that reading meters and inaccurate billing will be a thing of the past.

It is supposed that all homes will have a broadband connection for smart metering to work. But we don't have a digital UK so how can we have a smart UK? Who will pay for the meters? There will be a lot of work involved in taking out the old meters and installing new ones. Say a supplier carries out this work and then a switch is made to another energy provider - will the new provider compensate them? I think everyone knows - the cost will be hidden in our energy bills.

Will our readings be secure? Will we get next door's bill? Smart metering will involve radio links and these are not totally secure. When the fraudster element manages to intercept this radio link we are likely to be ripped off on a big scale as well as experiencing huge energy price rises.

Finally, will smart meters save energy ? As I describe in the article 'Metering Our Homes' in the September 2009 issue of the IET magazine E&Te, this is something I can do by recording readings from present meters.

Frank Thompson CEng MIEE, By email

Berlin memories

I was interested to read 'Technology of Escapes' (Vol 4 #19) as I used to make frequent visits to East Germany via Checkpoint Charlie during the 1980s.

I particularly remembered the uncompromising guards, and the museum of escapees' devices. When I saw the Isetta car in which people hid in the space where the heating system and batteries were housed; my reaction was that it was impossible, but a number of people managed it. There was also a basket attached to HV power lines that ran across the border and the escapee powered himself along the lines and jumped out in the West.

There were the underground trains in the West that would snake into the East but not stop at the stations, which were dark and appeared frozen in time through the train windows.

When the Sun shone on the radio tower in East Berlin in a particular way the sign of the cross was depicted in the glass of the dome at the top. The dome contained a revolving restaurant and I still remember the day I was taken there by the company I visited. We just walked past the longest queue you can imagine and my guides spoke to the guards in a manner that made them step aside and let us in. This was one of the many sides of East Berlin I saw that saddened me.

I was lucky enough to be there on the day the wall started to be torn down. I still felt intimidated by the guards but got the impression they did not really know what to do. On my return some six months later, the first Western type facility I saw was a McDonald's restaurant - I knew then the West had arrived.

Unfortunately I have never seen some of the Germans I used to visit that had become good acquaintances, some of whom
I think were high ranking in the Communist party and maybe had to disappear.

Michael Taylor FIET, By email

Turbine noise

With reference to the article on noise from wind turbines ('A Quiet Revolution', Vol 4 #17), I was involved in attempts to reduce the hum from small transformers. The most annoying sound is a continuous sinusoidal one, heard mainly at night in rural areas. In one location the sound of running water solved the problem by locating an artificial sound inside the transformer enclosure. Bigger transformers have been surrounded by solid high walls.

Perhaps the wind turbines would be more acceptable in more noisy locations, alongside main roads for example.

We would need much more information to be able to comment on the sites mentioned in the article. The blades and the columns look pretty fragile so there may be flutter of the blades as well as synchronous motion of the supports.

There must be wind tunnel tests on these components; if not the cheaper solution would be to move the turbines to more suitable sites such as out at sea.

DW Ramsden, Keswick

 

With reference to the amplitude modulation described in the article on wind farms, could this be a beat frequency phenomenon between turbines, similar to that experienced in a car when passing a lorry?

Dennis Roddy, Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Right first time

According to your brilliant article on Les Paul's contribution to engineering, ('The Original Circuit bender', Vol 4 #15), "Not until the early 1950s did Gibson take another look at a solid-body instrument - after Fender had launched the Stratocaster". As all electric guitar anoraks will tell you, the first commercially marketed solid body electric guitar by Fender was the Telecaster, albeit originally the Broadcaster, in 1951. The first Gibson Les Pauls came out in 1952 and Fender released the Stratocaster in 1954. Electric guitars have changed very little since then. And to quote Andy Summers of the Police, "Les Paul and Leo Fender got it right first time".

Dr Bobby James, Manchester

Legal conflict

Reid Thomas's criticism of the 2004 film 'I, Robot,' ('Robophobia is Alive and Well', Letters, Vol 4 # 19) cannot be allowed to go unchallenged, since it was that film which drew attention to the appalling deficiency of Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics.

The second law - 'robot must obey' - is subservient to the first - 'A robot may not… through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm'. Only by forcibly keeping humans in the equivalent of cotton wool can a robot be true to its first law of robotics. Asimov got it wrong!

Dave Neale, Truro, Cornwall

Estonia

There are undoubtedly times in winter when there are "just eight miles across the gulf" from Tallinn to Finland ('Snapshots of E-stonia' ,Vol 4, #19), but I suspect your correspondent Vitali Vitaliev was there in summer .

My son did his military service on the Finnish coast and during an exercise on the frozen sea he was shown the 'towers of the enemy' breaking the horizon. However, the journey takes over two hours by boat.

There was a 20-minute helicopter service until an accident in 2005, when all 14 on board a Sikorski 76C+ were drowned. A tunnel is under consideration.

John Chambers FIET, Tadworth, Surrey

Cost of videoconferencing

Your profile on Guy Welty of WR Grace & Co (Vol 4 #18) amazed me by describing how much time and money, even in a recession, a large multi-national company has been willing to spend on developing a bespoke IP video conferencing system. I also have a need for video conferencing, but I just use Skype!

Colin Seftel MIET, Bloubergrant, South Africa

Improving lift safety

I have read recent letters in E&T on lift safety with interest and a little exasperation. As someone who has worked in the lift industry for more than 25 years, I know that we despair of the horror stories about passengers being stuck in lifts for days, gory accidents, severed limbs etc. These often bear little relation to what actually happened, but can cause worry and anxiety for some lift users.

My main concern is the preoccupation with lift passengers trapped if a fire occurs in a building. This is not a common occurrence, but we are not unaware of the possibility. Peter Lorton is quite right to mention control system response in the event of a fire alarm - this is just one aspect of harmonised European standard BS EN 81-73, which covers behaviour of lifts in the event of a fire. As far as I am aware, this standard was developed pre-emptively, not as a result of 'the next big tragedy'. The lift industry is constantly looking for ways to improve and refine safety standards.

I must also mention the rather alarming reference to the drowning of a woman in a lift. I had not come across anything like this before, so I made enquiries. It happened in America, where a very unusual set of circumstances combined when tropical storm Allison hit Texas in 2001. According to USA Today, one person drowned while attempting to use the elevator to access an underground parking garage. The victim was alone in the elevator as it descended to the third floor level where it began filling with flood water. This is very, very rare.

I would like to reassure all readers of E&T that they should continue to use lifts with confidence. Those of us in the industry strive to make sure they are safe and reliable. And they do not have minds of their own - we are still a way from Douglas Adams' 'Sirius Cybernetics Corporation Happy Vertical People Transporter' with the capacity to see into the future, which features in 'The Restaurant at the End of the Universe'.

Pat Gordon CEng MIET, Weston-super-Mare
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