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Give us choices, not just solutions

Interviewed about his book ‘Humans are Underrated’ in the August/September 2015 issue of E&T, Geoff Colvin says that “computers are brilliant at doing lower-order repetitive task-based human functions” and that “we really are at a significant turning point”.

We are, but not with the technology; it’s within us, the engineers. Unless, as professionals, we realise this we will be repeating the mistakes of the Luddites during the Industrial Revolution.

Colvin describes how in the Google workplace the queues in the canteen are long by design, to promote discussion, and the chairs slightly too close to each other, to increase the chance of you bumping into someone and get you talking. If we are to continue to improve our lifestyle we must now do the same with technology, but how?

We must fundamentally change the design of future technological products. In the complex arena of life there is seldom a single right way to do something; there are always options. Wherever possible we must enable future products to present us with these options so that we, humans, can discuss them and select a solution.

We must stop making solution-generators and start making suggestion-?making technology. It is only this paradigm shift in design philosophy that will enable us not only to engineer the future, but also ensure we engineers have a future too.

Andrew WS Ainger FIET
Harpenden, Herts

Monitoring fracking sites isn’t enough

The Editor’s Letter in the test, measurement and monitoring supplement to the July/August 2015 issue of E&T describes the refusal by Lancashire County Council to allow exploration for shale gas at two sites in the county as a win for environmental protesters.

Lancashire is a very small but well populated area compared with other parts of the world where fracking is permitted, so environmental concern is most certainly a key issue. Test drillings made some time ago led to earth tremors, so nature had already announced its own answer.

The editorial then suggests that test, measurement and control techniques will play an important role in shale-gas exploration. While this may be true for large and sparsely populated areas such as the USA, the idea that earth tremors as a result of fracking in Lancashire can be absolutely controlled through monitoring and measurement of earth tremors is belied when even the £12bn Deepwater Horizon disaster could not be averted. What appeared to be a reasonably straightforward monitoring and measurement of oil flow through a controlled outlet tap totally failed. Certainly fracking earth tremors can be monitored, but how can we guarantee them stopping when told to stop?

Ken Owen MIET
By email

Digital radio shortcomings

I had to check that ‘End of the Road for Analogue?’ (August/September 2015) wasn’t a sponsored article. DAB digital radio is based on the 20+ year old MP2 codec standard and so the quality at the bit-rates provided by broadcasters does not even compare to Internet streaming on MP3; if you make a comparison with FM then most DAB transmissions are not even good enough for stereo. As more DAB channels are crammed into the radio bandwidth available the quality continues to plummet and the BBC hopes we won’t notice it on our kitchen radios.

Yes, we appear to have more choice than FM but we have to put up with ever poorer sound quality, whereas in TV digital broadcasting we are moving to higher-quality images. Also the article fails to add that many Norwegian broadcasters transmit DAB+ using the latest codec technology with superior sound quality. Internet streaming services and radio will eventually deliver what DAB has failed to deliver in the UK.

Dr CD Daniel MIET
Tring, Herts

I was an early adopter of DAB radio, having made the switch from digital satellite when I dumped Sky. The love affair was not to last. As the government’s Ministry of Fun drove more ‘choice’ onto the Digital One (commercial) multiplex, many stations were forced to decrease their bit-rate. It was a slippery slope and not long before all but two stations were forced to switch to mono, with many citing the high cost of DAB broadcast imposed by Ofcom and Arqiva.

My DAB radios are now scrap. Rather expensive scrap at that! It is my understanding that the firmware necessary for DAB+ cannot be loaded into early DAB radios, so people will be forced to throw their old radios in the WEEE skip, assuming Ofcom extracts the digit and pushes ahead with the rollout of DAB+ instead of just experimenting. Hardly an incentive to replace Band II VHF when radios from the 1970s can work quite happily with it!

Another glaring omission with the push for ‘everything digital’ is the lack of a replacement for the RDS traffic alerts, which millions of drivers rely on for their daily travels to switch automatically from their music choice to the nearest station with the local traffic reports. We may see a resurgence of citizens’ band radio if drivers cannot obtain the information they need.

Gary Myers MIET
Biggleswade, Bedfordshire

I have been listening on DAB for a number of years and feel that the first thing I should do is issue a warning: digital radio means a whopping bill for batteries. Secondly, you will probably only get poor quality reception if you are in an area of marginal signal coverage. In general there is no need for DAB if you are happy with FM and, of course, AM.

If one insists on going digital, then the only reasonable choice is Digital Radio Mondiale. DRM has made enormous strides since its inception something over ten years ago. In particular our much loved and reliable analogue transmitters can be retained while the DRM signal is supported alongside. There must be many people like me who listen to our wonderful long-wave signals on 198kHz. As I think we are now all realising, constantly chucking out what is good only takes us backwards.

Barrie J Tonkinson
By email

Degrees don’t need so much maths

I am in complete agreement with Derek Newport’s questioning of the large amounts of mathematics in engineering degree syllabuses (Comment, April 2015). I have been teaching for over 50 years. During that time I have covered a wide range of nautical, avionic, HNC/D and undergraduate-level electronic engineering subjects and I have rarely needed to include higher mathematics to make myself understood.

Design, research and similar activities only absorb a relatively small fraction of the engineering graduates qualifying each year. Those who do choose careers in these areas clearly find it necessary to obtain a more thorough knowledge of higher mathematics. This would normally be acquired through a postgraduate qualification.

In the engineering world generally, very few graduate engineers require, or will ever use, the substantial amount of maths that they have studied.

Maybe universities should not include so much mathematics in their undergraduate engineering courses? However, changes will not occur without the active involvement of the various engineering institutions that still require that high levels of mathematical knowledge be included in degree courses.

Alan K Davies FIET
By email

More than one route into engineering

I am in general agreement with Kirsten Bodley of STEMNET regarding the progress being made to inspire secondary-school pupils to take up engineering careers (Comment, July 2015). Visiting schools over the past seven years as a STEM ambassador, I have seen pupils enjoy using laser-cutting tools and recently 3D printing.

However, care is needed to interpret some of the statistics quoted. For instance, the figure of 257,000 vacancies is for all employees in the engineering sector. Of these, 182,000 per year will need engineering skills. These are split between Level 3 (56,000) and Level 4+ (107,000). After deducting the numbers currently expected to fill these vacancies, the shortfall in each case is expected to be 30,000 per year (Level 3) and 25,000 per year (Level 4+). The latter may be classed as graduate engineers. Nevertheless, this still represents a serious problem if we are to capitalise on the revival of UK manufacturing.

As I wrote in my own Comment in the April 2015 issue, STEM is currently nurtured in many schools via the design and technology (D&T) department, where it is delivered as a ‘maths-?less’ subject and pupils do not appear to be advised that if they aspire to a career as a graduate engineer they should study A-level maths and physics.

I recently discovered that a reformed GCSE syllabus for D&T was published for consultation in July, which lays much more emphasis on understanding the maths underlying each branch of engineering, so providing the foundation for pupils aspiring to a career as a craft technician or a graduate engineer.

I would urge more engineers to take part in the STEM programme.

Derek Newport CEng FIET
By email

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