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Engineering misconceptions

"What is an engineer?" was the last question I expected as a new volunteer Faraday Engineer facing 35 ten to twelve year-olds at a Cumbrian secondary school. I had assumed that the term engineer was understood.

The question came after a 45-minute presentation on how engineers and scientists use technology to mitigate and adapt to climate change. The question should concern us all in the engineering profession, and our failure to make an engineer's role in the world clear.

The IET defines an engineer as a person who applies science to solve practical problems, to create or improve high-tech devices, innovative products and sleek processes that let people take control of the places where they live - whether that's a fast-moving city or a remote hot desert. Other more generic definitions can be found on Wikipedia and Wiktionary.

Maybe there is a new perception of an engineer? More likely it is just ignorance or lack of interest. Perhaps our schools are ill able to explain the importance of our profession. Much more likely they assume engineers will just develop later in the science chain.

I recall Sir James Dyson saying that his mother told him that if he failed his exams he would become an engineer and work in a factory. Not becoming an engineer was indeed stimulation then. Has it changed?

In 2007 the Engineering and Technology Board and the Royal Academy of Engineering commissioned a UK-wide survey into public attitudes towards engineers and engineering. The survey found that two in three young people know very little about engineering and almost three in four don't understand what engineers actually do. Such deep misconceptions among young people could impact on their career choice. (The full report can be found at www.raeng.org.uk/news/releases/ [new window])

The message surely is clear. There is not just a shortage of scientists and engineers and a failure to attract young people to our professions. It is compounded in the UK by a serious lack of understanding of what our professions stand for, what they do and their importance.

I cannot think of a higher priority topic for all Faraday Engineers to address as they meet youngsters than to clearly respond to their question.

John Epps CEng FIET, Grange over Sands, Cumbria

Back to EMC basics

Albeit inadvertently, Peter Cook (Feedback, December 2007) and Arthur Moore (Feedback, Vol 3 #1) reveal a fundamental flaw in our profession's approach to the problems of electromagnetic interference.

Moore points out that EMC regulations have been in place for 25 years and wonders why there has been no reduction in electromagnetic interference during that time. Cook explains that electromagnetic interference is "a complex physical phenomenon". The implication is that EMC is too complicated a subject for the average equipment designer.

If the engineer responsible for the design has no idea how to achieve the required level of immunity, then no amount of legislation can ensure that EMC is achieved.

As a profession, we focus on the development of ever more complex regulations and continuously overemphasise the complexity of electromagnetic effects.

We would achieve better results if we returned to basics. Our objective should be to provide every circuit designer and every system designer with the ability to meet the EMC requirements. This is done as a matter of course for requirements such as frequency response, power consumption, size, mass, and cost. So why not for EMC?

When the engineer at the bench understands the mechanisms involved and can assign numerical values to the relevant parameters, they will be able to meet EMC requirements in a cost-effective way. If every designer had this ability, a start could be made in achieving real electromagnetic compatibility.

Ian Darney, Bristol

Blanking plugs

Peter Munro's conclusion about blanking plugs (Feedback, Vol 3 #1) is flawed on two main counts. First, the availability of a plethora of standard plugs with moulded pulling handles attached gives credence to the notion that withdrawing a plug is a more difficult operation than inserting one. The typical toddler has neither the fine motor control to grip at the correct point, nor the span or strength of grip required. Removing a safety blanking plug is considerably more difficult and, I would contend, beyond the ability of almost every toddler.

Secondly, if we are to assume that typical toddlers can remove and reinsert blanking plugs, does it not also follow that they could remove a standard plug and reinsert it inverted into the earth aperture, exposing phase and neutral in the process?

Munro is right to draw attention to a potential problem with the design of the UK three-pin socket, but banning the plastic blanking plug is akin to shooting the messenger. Barring a significant redesign of the socket - say by using a trapezoid cross-section earth pin - would a more logical conclusion not be to modify the standard to ban earth pin opened shutters?

While I have no doubt that there is a toddler somewhere who could remove a safety blanking plug, as the father of two small boys I am fairly certain that they are much less appealing to the typical toddler than three inviting holes.

Brian Wray MIET, Banbury

I was amazed to read Peter Munro's letter, in which he proposes banning the greatest facilitator of electrical research by children. My early development as a researcher into electrical engineering was thwarted by the design of the 13A socket outlet. However hard I tried, and however widely I searched, I could not find anything strong enough or slim enough to push into the earth pin socket in order to release the shutters on the live and earth pins to advance my research.

I eventually managed to insert a plug sufficiently to open the shutters, but still expose the live and neutral pins enough to insert a wire between them. Not only was my engineering knowledge advanced thereby, but also my vocabulary as my father scurried around for a torch and fuse wire to resolve the resulting blackout!

Although modern 13A plugs have shrouded pins to prevent this type of experiment, the blanking plugs conveniently inserted into sockets in many homes provide a much more suitable tool. Whereas adults are forever breaking their fingernails struggling to remove these blanking plugs, any self-respecting child can remove one in seconds.

As in many instances in our society today, misguided public perceptions have more credibility than the rational analysis of an engineer. But, thanks to BS1363, I live to tell the tale.

Adrian Grilli CEng MIET, Woking

Surely of greater safety significance than blanking plugs is the use of the truly innovative invention of the RCCB. All domestic supplies ought now to be connected through such a device. This would remove all risk of lethal electric shock and, in large degree, obviate the need for earthed supplies, except for static concerns.

Barry M Smith, Aylesbury, Bucks

Spinners not spanners

I was appalled to see an image of two shabby spanners splashed across the front page of the January 2008 issue of Engineering & Technology Careers to illustrate a piece on low-take up of UK engineering apprenticeships. Even those engineers who do not aspire to professional status do not wield spanners and screwdrivers.

The article ends by quoting the Engineering & Technology Board's belief that "industry… [should] ... widen access to engineering training at all levels and for all groups, as well as increasing the capacity in the further education sector to cope with the demand created by current apprenticeship targets".

Providing more places and generating targets will not induce young people to enter the profession. We engineers must realise that we are mere amateurs in the field of public relations and marketing, so why don't we employ a spin doctor of high calibre and a team to go out into the public domain and 'sell' engineering. Also target 11, 12 and 13-year-olds using the giants of the 19th century as role models - Brindley, Rennie, the Stephensons, Telford, Smeaton, Watt and, of course, Brunel.

Denis Brook FIET, Huddersfield

Time for SF6 to bow out

As a young apprentice at GEC HV Switchgear in the early 1980s I was involved in major projects at the City Road 145kV substation in London and Sellindge 420kV substation in Kent that both used sulphur hexafluoride. It's only now that I realise how damaging SF6 is to the atmosphere, as highlighted by your article 'Critical Condition' (Vol 3 #1). Monitoring of any leaks is a necessity, not a 'nice to have'. But in all reality, with all the technology we have at our disposal, it needs to be phased out as the lifespan of individual substations using this medium comes to an end.

Control and monitoring is the key, but more research is needed to find a substitute gas that causes no environmental damage. As a senior engineer I specify MV switchgear for various projects but I'm tied to SF6 products most of the time and I'm conscious of maintaining my company's environmental aspirations and compliance requirements. SF6 has served the UK exceptionally well but we must move forward.

Toni Rivans MIET, by email

Crab starter

Percy Spencer's discovery of microwave heating may indeed be the direct ancestor of today's microwave cooking, as Justin Pollard suggests (The Eccentric Engineer, Vol 3 #1). It was however an independent discovery of existing knowledge and practice. Two years or so earlier, a crab entered a waveguide forming part of the Chain Home Low radar screen on the east coast of England. Technicians investigating the fault found a well cooked crab. Subsequently the fault recurred with suspicious frequency - delicious!

JR Batts, Banbury, Oxon

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