Letters to the editor: volume 16, issue 9
Image credit: Patrick Tomasso/Unsplash
In the October 2021 issue of E&T, readers discuss the pitfalls of modern car design, risks of biometric security, different approaches to measuring carbon emissions, and more.
The Shame of Wasteful Design
How ironic as the IET celebrates 150 years of engineering expertise that I sit surrounded by expensive electronic devices where changing the battery – or anything else – is something not even a repair specialist would attempt. The device is likely to be destroyed in the process. Note the comments on repairability in the Teardown article on a fitness watch in a recent issue of E&T, for example. I am afraid to say, dear engineers, that you are falling down on the job here.
Take motor vehicle lighting. For many years we had the simple pleasure of changing defective light bulbs. But read your car handbook now and it will tell you: “If your car is fitted with LED lighting you will need to consult your dealer as the unit will need to be replaced.” Manufacturers should add “and screw the environment”, but strangely they don’t.
My neighbour, who has a Jaguar, had a rear indicator failure. The cost of a tail-light unit is in excess of £350, plus fitting. The environmental implications of throwing away large expensive chunks of complex plastic hardly need to be emphasised.
Given that designing a vehicle lighting unit with replaceable LEDs is hardly an engineering challenge, I am led to the conclusion that car manufacturers are wilfully manufacturing expensive lighting units with fully integral LEDs that cannot be replaced. The margin on £350 plus fitting is clearly much more attractive than a plug-in LED bulb or array the owner could fit themselves.
Manufacturers and their engineers who support this widespread design policy should be ashamed; this is not what engineering is about.
EurIng Graham Rowcroft CEng MIET
Questions Over Long-Term Security
In his Comment column in the August 2021 issue of E&T, Andy Barratt says that biometrics are far more secure than passwords. If a password is compromised it can be changed, if a biometric is compromised it cannot, without painful surgery. Biometrics may be convenient, but is it a more secure approach over the length of a human lifetime?
Mr Barratt also talks about the very short support lives of items that we buy like phones. Many expect IoT devices, like fridges and home-automation devices, to run for at least a decade – well beyond the time that a manufacturer will provide security updates. If IoT is taken up as some hope, I fear that crackers will exploit them to gain access to the Wi-Fi network that most of us have in our homes.
Statistics That Let UK Off the Hook
Roy Sach (Letters, July 2021) argues that the UK produces just 1 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions, so whatever we do is too trivial to move the dial. Apart from the fact that such figures exclude the embedded emissions in traded goods, this self-serving argument appears to let us off the hook. The UK, having got a head start in the use of coal, has contributed 6 per cent of all-time CO2 emissions (compared with 29 per cent for the US and 9 per cent for China), so we have a greater obligation to stop making it worse and show that there is a worthwhile life to be lived without causing climate disaster.
National totals, or even per-capita averages, allow the worst offenders to hide behind the rest. The richest 1 per cent of the world’s population are responsible for more than twice as much CO2 emission as the poorer half of humanity. It is this rich minority who can afford frequent long-haul air travel and other forms of over-consumption who are most culpable, not the minimum-wage worker who can’t afford to fly at all. It is the wealthy who are blowing the world’s remaining carbon budget, but the poor who suffer the externalised costs.
Martin Lyster CEng
A True Engineering Hero
I was delighted to see Sir Nevill Mott among the engineering heroes featured in the June 2021 issue of E&T. He has been a hero of mine ever since he took me trespassing on a railway line.
At the time, Britain was at war and he was staying with his aunt, who lived nearby, for a brief holiday away from his hush-hush contributions to the war effort. Visiting my mother one day, he was instructed to take me, then aged four, for a walk before tea. It was a beautiful summer day, sun shining, bees buzzing etc. There were blackberries and wild strawberries to pick and consume. We paused to watch a train go by on what is now known as the Bluebell Line. He asked if I knew why trains always made that clickity-clack noise. I shook my head, whereupon he climbed over the fence and then reached across and hoisted me over. Together, we scrambled down the steep cutting to the mouth of a short tunnel and on to the track.
To this day, I still have vivid memories of my first physics lesson: how metals expand and contract with temperature, the gaps in the rails to stop them buckling, the slots in the fish plates to allow the rails to slide. With that start, how could I have become anything but an engineer?
Roger Holland CEng MlET
Pickering, North Yorkshire
The Maths of Decarbonisation
Approaching a wicked problem like decarbonisation by picking off heat pumps (I have one and solar PV, and my house is within 10 per cent of being energy-neutral over a year) is bad thinking. The answer is obvious – insulate and draught-proof houses, and decarbonise electricity generation.
A better question to ask is, what is happening on decarbonisation? Since 2010 the UK government has neglected to ensure all new houses are energy-neutral, made a complete mess of its green homes initiative and cancelled it, and is dragging its feet on decarbonising electricity generation and running down fossil fuel exploitation. Covid has given the lie to the assertion that decarbonisation was too costly; the CCC has said it is not only affordable but a good investment. The arithmetic that matters is adding up the costs of not decarbonising.
S Porretta CEng MIET
Prospects for Economic Disarmament
Helena Pozniak’s coverage of the UK’s future Tempest aircraft in the August 2021 issue of E&T evoked recollections of Norman Augustine’s prediction of ‘economic disarmament’. In 1983 the US aerospace executive extrapolated an observed quadrupling in the unit cost of US military aircraft every decade, to predict that: “In the year 2054, the entire defense [sic] budget will purchase just one aircraft. The aircraft will have to be shared by the Air Force and Navy 3½ days each per week except for leap year, when it will be made available to the Marines for the extra day.” The UK’s more modest defence budget generated a slightly earlier prediction of 2052.
The reported disillusionment with the high cost of F-35 aircraft, and the hope that the Tempest project might perform better, perhaps overlooks the point that real-term growth in the cost of military aircraft has been a fact of life since the dawn of aviation. In part this reflects the pursuit of technological advantage in order to gain a performance advantage over platforms fielded by a potential adversary. ‘High-tech’ itself is not necessarily expensive, but the article showed how advancements open up vast technological vistas that encourage manufacturers and sponsors to incorporate more and more capability into military platforms, with associated cost.
Advocates of Tempest argue that more expensive platforms that can only be afforded in lower numbers can be offset by unmanned solutions such as the Loyal Wingman project. This would suggest where the future of military aviation lies, if only on the grounds of affordability. Perhaps Tempest needs to be even bolder in order to avoid economic disarmament.
James Hyde CEng MIET
Putting a Lid on Waste
Regarding the article on plastic waste in the August 2021 issue of E&T, my wife and I favour a particular brand of instant coffee and I recently discovered by accident that the square lid on the jar is detachable, leaving behind a perfectly functional round lid. The only function of the square part of the lid is to make the jar look different. The square lid weighs 25g and the round lid 12g.
I’ve contacted the company pointing out that while it’s good that the lids are made from recyclable plastic it would be even better if they didn’t manufacture the square lid in the first place. They have passed my suggestion on to their marketing team. I await developments with interest.
Denis Sharp CEng MIET
Don’t Ignore the Over-50s
The August 2021 issue of E&T reports a call from the BCS for over-50s to reskill to fill shortages in the UK’s IT workforce.
In my efforts to find work as someone of that age, I have found that generally recruiters immediately write you off. So unless they can change their mindset and stop concentrating on graduates or others, then we of the ‘old and wise’ generation will continue to be ignored or overlooked.
There is no point in going out and learning a new skill if recruiters just ignore your experience and concentrate on your age. In a society where the government expects us to work until we are 70, there is no place for ageism in recruitment.
No Architecture Without Engineering
The celebration of the engineering marvel that is the Sydney Opera House in the August 2021 issue of E&T singularly fails to make any reference to the many engineers who made it possible. Noting that work started on the building before architects decided how the unique shell designs and their supports would be implemented, it fails to acknowledge that it was through the brilliance of engineers that Utzon’s vision was eventually realised.
Having had the privilege to meet, work with and learn from some of the pioneers of engineering analysis and design tools who made this possible, I am disappointed at the betrayal of their legacy. This perpetuation of the myth that only architects design buildings is damaging to the profession and our ability to encourage the next generation to join it. Great buildings benefit from collaboration across diverse groups – and it is imperative that we value and recognise all those contributions.
Graham Bolton CEng
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