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The pick of the correspondence from the E&T mailbag and inbox.

The shape of telecoms traffic

I was intrigued by the map of UK telephony traffic in the February 2011 issue of E&T ('Look who's talking', p12). When I was appointed chairman of the South West Telecommunications Board of the then Post Office I inherited cases from area managers in Exeter and Plymouth. Each believed that, because of growth and other factors, it would be more efficient if boundaries were shifted to enlarge their area and take part of the Taunton area.

The Taunton area certainly seemed to straggle over a wide and narrow band without much logic. Having limited previous experience in telephony ' my previous appointment being controller of Post Office factories ' I asked my staff to let me have a map of telephone traffic so that I could establish where calls came from and where they went to. After a couple of weeks my experts came back and told me they were sorry they could not answer my question. They could tell me in detail what the traffic was on every existing route, but not where it came from or went to.

It was not until a couple of years later that I found part of the answer from a long-retired engineer who had come up through the ranks and remembered the old style of working. The shape of the Taunton area had been determined by the railway. Before the availability of cheap motor transport, staff had to put their handcart with tools and materials on the train to reach their work. And of course the demand for telephone service followed the development of trade and business which had also followed the railways, which in turn had to follow the geography of possible routes in difficult terrain.

It is interesting to note ' but possibly not surprising ' that the latest analysis largely confirms the boundaries of existing administrative regions. These in turn derived originally from the geology with industrial developments around natural resources such as wood and coal and the practicality of building transport links such as canals and railways.

Eric Forbes CEng FIET

Torphichen, West Lothian

 

Bonuses and consequences

The 'For & Against' column in the March issue of E&T on the culture of bonuses for bankers (p24, http://bit.ly/bankerbonus) missed the real point. If a bonus culture has been set in place for either an engineer or a banker, with the agreement of the governing body and the full knowledge of all concerned, there is little that can be done.

It is the difference between the way in which an engineer is treated by society and the lawmakers compared to the treatment accorded to the banker when things go wrong.

If an engineer was found to be responsible for constructing an edifice that ultimately collapsed and caused injury, either physical or financial, he and his company would be held to account and he would be named, shamed, potentially face financial and criminal proceedings, and perhaps a prison sentence. He would most certainly lose his job and would not be asked to remain in post to determine the nature of the problem that he had caused.

Contrast this with what has actually happened to senior members of the banking fraternity who had a hand in constructing the edifice that collapsed in 2008 causing misery and hardship to millions. To my knowledge, no one has been prosecuted for what amounted to gross failure to ensure the safety of the system upon which millions depended. No one has been held to account and sent to jail for parcelling up poor investment packages and providing them with a 'triple A' rating.

While this level of inequity persists, it is hard to see how the engineering fraternity can attract young people to the industry when they will earn much more as a banker who is unlikely to face any sanction if something he produces fails catastrophically.

Roger Kirman FIET

By email

 

If I recall, it was Dr W Edwards Deming who once said that no one had achieved a Nobel prize through the use of targets.

The problem with bonuses is that they are based on the achievement of targets. However, the aim of a complex system cannot be fully defined with a limited number of targets, and the result is system sub-optimisation where people focus on achieving those targets that have been set, at the expense of equally important targets that have not been set, or are difficult to measure.

Typically, this then results in the growth of new or refined targets, which increases complexity and which tries to solve what is an insoluble problem. It also results in rising compliance costs aimed at preventing people from taking short cuts to achieve targets.

Longer-term, there is also a danger that people become cynical when they see that the best way of achieving their targets may involve unacceptable risk for the company, or cause damage to the company or its customers in other ways.

Thus the company's mission, vision and values become degraded. Staff may also become dissatisfied with a job that lacks meaning other than money, and hence become more likely to move for money because there is nothing else.

Would someone who wishes to be proud of the company they work for, wish to work for a bank that exploits its loyal customers by reducing interest in old accounts, while increasing interest in new accounts only open to new customers?

Peter B Walker C Eng MIET

By email

 

Range limits of electric vehicles

I'm a real fan of the electric car. It is such a good solution to so many of the problems associated with our current technology. However reading Mark Venables' list in the February issue of some current models ('One2Ten', p82, http://bit.ly/10electric) made me realise that there is still a long way to go before we'll be seeing electric cars here in Exmouth, Western Australia.

Drive out of Exmouth and the nearest town is Carnarvon, 350km away. The next major centre of population is Geraldton, 850km, and then no major centres along the main road until Perth, 1300km. Many people will want to drive to Geraldton, and even Perth, in a single day (this is practical, there are only two sets of traffic lights to hold you up in the first 1,250km).

As the 'grid' doesn't start until Geraldton, there is no mains electricity outside the towns and so any attempt at building charging stations along the route would have to include their own generation plant, plus a fleet of fuel tankers to feed them, plus accommodation for the staff who could not be expected to commute the required distances on a daily basis. This begins to sound expensive.

And of course nobody is going to drive for little more than an hour and then stand around waiting for 30 minutes or more for a recharge followed by driving for little more than an hour and then standing. Only the Renault, with its option to swap battery packs would make driving these distances possible, and you still need the service stations every 100 or so miles.

So until the industry works out how to build an electric car that can carry a family of four, with their luggage, and cruise at 110km/h for 1,000km between charges I would discourage any budding entrepreneurs from opening an electric car dealership in my neck of the woods.

By the way, we have some pretty rough roads up here. Could you make it 4WD as well? Possibly tow a caravan?

Kit Wareham-Norfolk IEng MIET

Exmouth, Western Australia

 

I particularly enjoyed the March 2011 issue of E&T since alternative power for cars of the future interests me. But whereas I follow Andrew Lavey's views regarding energy conservation ('Hit the Road', p20), I was dismayed by his conclusion that we should 'step back... rather than go headlong'.

The problem is that for too many years advances in vehicle fuel alternatives have not been implemented. Technologies for electric or hydrogen power have existed for a long time and many major car firms have had development programmes, but commercial progress has been slow. Lack of (or cancelled) government incentives together with general inertia has prevented take up to date, though finally signs of progress are now being seen.

But still, excellent ideas of 'battery swap' technologies which, if universally adopted at a network of charging stations, would address the problem of long charge-times seem to get ignored and 'range anxiety' understandably continues.

Despite the fact that the power has to be generated somewhere, the big plus with electric and hydrogen cars is that the emissions move from our cities, where people currently breathe in fumes at close range, to power stations away from populations. In principle, generating power at major plants should be more efficient, so then the question of how power is generated becomes a separate issue.

Energy conservation is one important aspect, but seeking sources of near 'infinite' power such as solar, geothermal or fusion which do not pollute should be our priority. To me, the worst aspect of fossil fuel use, aside from the pollution and any 'climate change' risks, is that when they are exhausted it will be millions of years before they are possibly replaced.

Hence future generations will be left to realise that such valuable resources have been plundered. We owe it to them therefore to develop and implement renewable energy, leaving a legacy of clean and lasting power rather than an assumption that those that follow will have to make do with less.

Eur Ing Bernard Smart CEng FIET

By email

 

Party engineer

Anybody following the ongoing discussion about the degradation of 'engineer' to mean anything from plumber to general handyman will be interested that Medway Council now has 'engineers' to assess street parties and help people fill in forms.

Reporting the red-tape problems of a planned street party in Rochester, the BBC News website tells us: 'The council said it needed to ensure the parties were safe and engineers were available to help people comply'. Robin Cooper, director of culture and community at Medway Council, is quoted as saying: 'If people have got problems with the form, give us a call and I will get one of our engineers to call round and help them fill it in.'

So, if you thought it was difficult explaining to your next-door neighbour that you don't spend your day carrying spanners and oily rags around, now you have the added problem that in Medway you might have to explain that engineers aren't people who fill in forms about the safety of parties.

Richard Fitzgerald (MIET)

By email

 

CORRECTION

The letter in the March issue of E&T from Engineering Council CEO Jon Pritchard headed 'Recognition' ended: 'If you are a chartered engineer then you may also choose to register with the Fédération Européene d'Associations Nationales d'Ingénieurs through the Engineering Council and be granted the right to adopt the pre-nominal title Eue Ing'. This was a misprint, which should have read 'the pre-nominal title Eur Ing'.

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