Feedback - your letters

This issue's bursting inbox has seen you venting your disappointment with high-def tv; the innovation vs engineering debate rages; the glass ceiling for electric cars; and how wasteful are your pipes?

High-def disappointment

Jonathan Wilson's report on digital rights management in the music industry ('It's just not rock'n'roll', Vol 4 #5), reminded me of a problem I have encountered that I'm sure must have been met by many readers of E&T.

In January 2006 I bought a top of the range flat-screen LCD TV for around £1,000. I have enjoyed watching standard-definition digital transmissions via Freeview since then. I bought an 'HD Ready' TV since I expected some HD service to be available in the years to come.

With the advent of Freesat with HD transmissions, I decided it was time to buy the necessary personal video recorder and satellite dish and to start to realise the potential of my display.

While searching for details of receiving transmissions from the Astra 28E satellite, I came across articles about the problems of digital rights management in relation to HDTV. It seems that big business wanted a foolproof copy-protection system since they expected it to be the platform for future blockbuster movies. Unfortunately, they didn't do it until some years after 'HD Ready' receivers were on the market.

The industry created a copy protection system via the HDMI interface and called it HDCP. This meant that, at a stroke, all those people who had already bought 'HD Ready' TVs had TVs only capable of receiving standard definition. I'm not sure how many of us there are but I would be surprised if it's less than a million. The industry solution to my problem is to throw the display away and buy another one. Even by today's standards, throwing away an expensive piece of electronic equipment after just three years of use is totally unacceptable. Why shouldn't this consortium compensate me for the loss of functionality I have suffered as a result of them protecting their businesses.

Perhaps the most subtle aspect is that if I select the BBC HD channel on a Freesat receiver, it down-samples the image to SD before sending it to my display device since my display device doesn't contain the right copy-protection key. How many viewers who have upgraded to HD via Freesat are watching an SDTV picture and thinking that HD isn't much better than SD?

The problem is further compounded by the fact that the BBC seems to copy protect all of its HD content because of the uncertainty over what should and shouldn't be copy protected. Thus, I am not allowed to see even the BBC HD test card in HD!

While I can buy a device that circumvents this protection, this business consortium has only to declare the software key in that invalid to reduce it to a useless piece of junk. Has anyone found a way of resolving this issue?

John Middleton CEng FIET, Welwyn, Herts.

Men work part-time too

As a male who has worked part-time for several years, I was concerned to see the challenge of part-time work being seen as an issue exclusively for women in the workplace (Vol 4 #9).

Female colleagues say that my part-time employment stops it being a female or legal issue, but a change in general working practice. The challenge is delivering to customers while providing sufficient time for childcare.

Here are three tips that might help others in a similar situation. First, treat your non-company time as if it was a customer meeting or another project. You're flexible but not always available. I block out my charity/childcare days as 'non-Hitachi Consulting days', rather than 'non-working' days in my diary and let colleagues know so that they can book around it.

Second, stay outcome focused, even if your deadlines are a little longer. "I will try, but I must leave at 4pm" is heard differently to "you'll get this at noon tomorrow". For me it often means leaving early, but finishing emails when my child has gone to bed and still driving to meet customer deadlines.

Finally, set your annual goals to be pro-rated compared to colleagues - financial targets will be lower, and time targets longer. I remind and share these goals as a fact, not an excuse.

At other companies I've worked with, asking people to work part-time is preferable to staff reductions, but this requires a cultural shift of better staff and meeting scheduling, and an increased focus on outcomes rather than assuming staff availability.

Peter Bricknell CEng MIET, Ealing, London.

Innovation vs engineering

After receiving the latest issue of E&T (Vol 4 #9) I was soon choking on my cornflakes over the letter from Don Leech headed 'Is Innovation Overrated?'.

Mr Leech appears to inhabit a world where you can either be an 'innovator' or an 'engineer'. In this world, innovators are wacky, creative types who are incapable of creating saleable products, single-handedly bring down fine British institutions such as British Leyland and de Havilland, clearly don't understand the serious world of engineering, but are great at claiming the credit for all things new. Engineers, on the other hand, are salt of the earth types who possess knowledge, experience, wit, discipline, an understanding of physics, and have the ability to anticipate and solve problems through design excellence.

This polarised view is just plain wrong. Innovation and engineering are complementary, not mutually exclusive. We need engineers who are also innovators, and innovators who possess engineering skills. Innovation does not start and finish with idea generation, it progresses through development and implementation phases, and always has both eyes firmly focused on market and commercial realities. The day we stop worrying about innovation and creativity, is the day that we give up developing the technologies that we require to address issues such as climate change and alternative energy sources.

Dr Mike Kennard CEng MIET, Derby.

Don Leech's comment about experienced engineers spotting potential problems not foreseen by 'innovators' highlights the value of experience and lateral thinking as essential adjuncts to engineering design. I have seen cases where mechanical designs by theoreticians using CAD have been intercepted and modified by experienced production engineers where for instance the structure would be unstable or non-rigid without modification.

The fundamental problems lie at least equally with the modern culture, beloved of the bean counters, that development time represents waste and incompetence and that a successful design flows forward only, in accordance with the theories of design and production. Much more often, the reality of a successful complex design involves considerable back-tracking, revision, and even possibly partial redesign, as both technical expertise and engineering experience are brought to bear on the situation. Sadly, this often runs counter to the thinking of accountants and others obsessed with the bottom line and delivery time whatever the ultimate long-term cost of design, manufacture and field support.

HC Burford CEng MIET, Ryde, Isle of Wight.

Don Leech is correct to imply that the words 'innovative' and 'innovation' are misused. However, he over-simplifies the meaning of innovation. In the context of technology management, innovation is about the introduction of products, processes or services. Successful innovation is improving profitability by lowering costs, improving desirability of products and services and creating new markets. Companies that do not innovate in this context will eventually be doomed.

Robert Miles IEng MIET, Runcorn, Cheshire.

Not just for nuclear

I found Nick Spurrier's examination of the causes of ten of history's worst engineering disasters ('Hard lessons', Vol 4 #7) interesting, as most of my professional life was devoted to the avoidance of accidents in nuclear power stations.

I was involved in the International Atomic Energy Agency's development of safety standards and guides for nuclear power stations between 1975 and 1980, which covered all aspects of safety including siting, design, operation, quality assurance, operating organisations and even the regulatory body. Quality assurance was particularly aimed at ensuring compliance with the standards in the other areas mentioned.

Unfortunately, there is a danger that these standards will be assumed to apply only to nuclear power, whereas they form a very good basis for the safety requirements of all activities that can lead to large-scale accidents. I would particularly draw readers' attention to the need for responsibilities to be defined for managers in corporate organisations connected with safety. This has the additional advantage that individuals can be brought to court as well as the organisations that employ them, but the appropriate legislation needs to be introduced.

HE Wright CEng FIET, Vienna, Austria.

Electric car compromise

Ray Osborne is right about the lack of electric vehicle charging points in the UK (Letters, Vol 4 #9). However, that is only part of the story. Sometime in the mid-1970s, E&T's predecessor IEE Review reported that, after 70 years of battery development for electric cars, they had advanced little. Range was asymptotic to 60 miles, and top-speed asymptotic to 60mph. Those figures would still be regarded as good today.

Of course, you can have higher speed, but at much reduced range. Or you can go further; but slowly. Take for example the recently announced Mini. The motor is 150kW, and the battery, which replaces the rear seats, is 35kWh. If run at full power, and assuming 100 per cent efficiency and 100 per cent battery discharge capability (both hopelessly optimistic assumptions), it will last just 14 minutes. Now 150kW is a lot for a relatively small car, albeit a heavy one. Suppose that it is run at half-power - 28 minutes. It would probably do 70mph, so 35 miles range. Energy regeneration may help a little, but mass x acceleration isn't going to change anytime soon.

This example uses lithium-ion technology, where the world supply of lithium will be exhausted long before all present cars are replaced. If we are to have new battery technologies, they must use widely available materials; perhaps an iron-aluminium cell, or indeed lead-acid. At least these are in reasonable supply.

The assumption does seem to be made that we just have to wait for new technology. Instead, I believe that we should accept that some things just cannot be significantly improved over what we have now - fuel cells have had much research without solving the problems - and that, for example, the electric car may never become a reality as mass market long-range transport. Then the electric car, as shopping trolley or a take-the-kids-to-school runabout, may just become a reality, with a petrol or diesel-powered 'full size' car for serious transport needs.

Peter Saul FIET, Towcester, Northants.

What a waste

'War on Waste' (Vol 4 # 8), like many other reports on domestic energy saving, failed to recognise a substantial cause of wasted energy. A few years ago, on raising floorboards to run wiring underneath, I was appalled to note the lack of any insulation on the central heating pipework. I decided to evaluate this mathematically.

Piping of external diameter 14mm has a surface area of 430cm2 per metre run. I estimate the total length of central heating piping in my house to be 60m, giving a surface area of 2.58m2. This is rather more than the surface area of a typical radiator (two sides 1.8m wide by 0.6m high). So this lack of insulation is equivalent to the heat loss of a large radiator.

We hear a lot about appliances on standby but, since nobody seems able to tell me straight how much appliances actually use on standby, I took some measurements myself and found that my TV set used 1W, video cassette recorder 1W, DVD recorder 1W, microwave oven 2W, and telephone/answering machine 2W.

At a conservative estimate, I believe a radiator dissipates energy at the rate of about 1.5kW. Taking a more liberal estimate of 2W per appliance on standby, allowing for older appliances, we can say that the heat loss in my pipes is equivalent to 750 appliances left on standby. Do we have our priorities right?

I am not suggesting we need not worry about appliances on standby; I am suggesting that tackling this issue alone will not achieve much. If we employ contractors to install central heating we need to be aware of energy-efficient standards. Can someone tell me to what standards heating contractors, plumbers and builders work?

Do house energy surveys check pipe lagging? Why is the issue of pipe insulation not more widely publicised?

Denis McMahon, Basingstoke.

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