Will registration of engineers prevent failures like the Opal Towers in Sydney?

Happy Australia Day!

Happy India Republic Day!

Engineers Australia is pushing for mandatory registration of engineers and other key professionals in the Australian construction industry, following recommendations from a report by Peter Shergold and Bronwyn Weir prepared for the Building Minister’s Forum.

Despite welcome recommendations in the report to improve the standard of documentation and formal checking, our research showed that engineers are disinclined to perform rigorous checking of design documents, even when they are required to in the context of strict quality assurance systems for hazardous installations.

Our research has revealed a fairly consistent pattern in which engineers delegate checking to juniors, or skip it altogether.  In one instance we encountered, design checking that would normally be the job of senior engineers was delegated to a part-time vacation student, the least knowledgeable and least experienced person in the office, apparently because “the senior engineers did not have time”.

In our research we were shown documents that had passed through apparently rigorous checking by several engineers (all of whom had signed to confirm they had checked the documents).  Yet even a casual inspection revealed obvious mistakes such as missing diagrams, diagrams with text that was impossible to read, missing pages, even missing chapters.

In a seminar a few years ago provided to engineers interested in sub-sea oil and gas installations, a senior quality assurance engineer from the head office of a major international petroleum corporation explained how they had discovered that their engineers where choosing not to perform “recommended, but optional checking” for hazardous installations.  Therefore they had modified their procedures to make the checking mandatory.  I thought to myself at the time…. “h’mmm, that won’t work, the engineers will sign to say they have done the checking when they have not done it.”  A couple of years later, the company suffered a catastrophic failure which cost several lives and billions of dollars, almost resulting in bankruptcy for the corporation.  Was that a direct consequence?  Probably not in that instance, but the culture continued.  Even after the disaster, the chief operating officer was recorded in a public interview saying “you can never have perfect safety: you always have to compromise safety to achieve commercially viable production!”.

Our research findings on checking engineering design documents were extremely embarrassing for all concerned.  But the interesting question was “why is this such a consistent pattern of behaviour?”  Could it be related to value perceptions by engineers?  After all, psychological theories on motivation often link motivation to value perceptions.

Recently Bill Williams and I published a paper and a book chapter on engineering value creation.  Before this work was published, as far as we could determine, there was no theory formally linking engineering with economic value creation.  In the absence of a theory, engineering students don’t have the chance to learn how to create economic value from their work: its difficult or impossible to teach something without theoretical foundations.

If you doubt this, think what it would be like to learn arithmetic in primary school. Children only need to learn up to 10 times tables to be able to multiply or divide any number by another.  This would not be possible without number theory: without that multiplication would only be possible by memorizing the result of multiplying or dividing every possible combination of numbers.

In the intellectual vacuum that has been sustained by the absence of understanding engineering value creation, engineers develop their own ideas on what creates value: certainty, precision, innovation, design, challenging problem solving…. and humanitarian engineering too.  Many engineers see checking and inspection work as tedious, boring, time-consuming, and something that gets in the way of “productive engineering”.  The result…. many errors that could have been detected and corrected at the design stage only become evident at construction (e.g. parts won’t fit) or worse, after construction when fixing the mistakes is extremely costly.  Even if no lives are lost.

From a commercial standpoint, there are many reasons why rigorous checking adds value, or protects existing value in engineering infrastructure.  However, few if any engineers, we found, have more than a superficial understanding of value creation, mostly framed in terms of saving direct costs.  With no rigorous theoretical foundation to learn from, that’s not surprising.

It took several years to identify (tentatively) the underlying psychological factors, the motivations to prioritize other work over checking and inspections.  Without understanding how checking work creates value, it is tempting for engineers to prioritize other work that, subconsciously, they think adds more value.

Well, now there is a published theory and it is beginning to attract some interest in research, education and industry circles.  Importantly, it provides several explanations on how checking and inspection work contributes to commercial value, either value creation or value protection.

In November I was invited to China for the APEC Small and Medium Enterprise Business Forum in Shenzhen in November to talk about these ideas.

However, for many engineers, even to talk about value creation provokes more than one yawn.  “It’s a fuzzy concept, hard to get your head around….”  is typical of many responses.  Yet it is THE reason why companies employ engineers.

Perhaps you can suggest ways I can explain these ideas better, in a way that more quickly grabs the attention of young engineers…. by all means write some comments if you have some ideas.

In the meantime, registration for engineers is overdue, and a positive step for all industries where there are huge consequences for failures that affect safety, health or the environment.  However, compulsion and disciplinary consequences are probably not enough by themselves.  A better understanding on engineering value creation could be very helpful as well.

Close Comfort can disrupt the air conditioning industry and help save the planet

Richard Branson has helped publicize the recently announced Global Cooling Prize on his blog, calling for disruption of the air conditioning industry. It’s nice to have forward thinking confirmed by others because Close Comfort already meets or exceeds most of the prize requirements!

Close Comfort can help save the planet by eliminating one of the largest predicted sources of greenhouse emissions, and this could be done soon enough to help avoid a climate catastrophe.

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Has Paul Romer missed something in development economics?

Paul Romer, chief economist at the World Bank until earlier this year, is certainly worthy of the recognition that comes with sharing the Nobel Prize for economics.

But, has he missed something, along with many others?

His famous 1990 paper on endogenous growth theory explained the success of Western economies in leveraging the power of ideas, creating enormous prosperity, and elevating the notion of “technology” as the key for economic growth. For the last decade, much of his effort has been focused on promoting economic development for the world’s poor, most of whom live in less developed countries.

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A great honour…

I was surprised and honoured to learn that I have been selected as a finalist in the professions category for West Australian of the Year: http://www.celebratewa.com.au/2018-finalists/professions-award-finalists/.

I have to say thank you to those who nominated me first and the judging panel.  I also need to thank everyone who has been part of my life and the projects which were cited in the award and so many others too.  Thank you to all the Close Comfort team and so many customers who have bought our products.  Many good people at UWA, particularly in the engineering and mathematical sciences faculty, deserve recognition for all the help and support they have provided.  Thank you to my family and so many other people who have helped and supported me for so long.

Just one thing, since I have your attention.  We in Australia are so fortunate, a vast and richly endowed continent, with so many wonderful energetic people who care about the world.  We can help others build a better future for all.  I feel so fortunate that I have been able to help with ideas and inventions that could improve life for everyone,  especially those suffering from heat and inadequate drinking water.  Our future depends on how we help the least fortunate, everywhere, and at the same time help build a better world for our children and grandchildren.  There are lots of ways to help: please do what you can, either yourself or by supporting people who can make a difference.


Engineers: I need your help

I have taken on the job of editing a short book – 30 Second Engineering being published by Ivy Press.  The aim is to provide non-engineers with a quick introduction to what engineering is all about.

The book is part of a widely published, popular series and is likely to be translated into many languages.

Part of the challenge is to describe everything about engineering a non-engineer might want to know in 50 paragraphs of 220 words, each encapsulating a separate engineering topic!

Here’s a draft for mechatronics, just to give you an idea of the content we are aiming for.

I need your help with suggestions for famous engineers to be featured in the book, particularly engineers from Asian or other countries and not so well known in the English-speaking world.

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Energy Savers Cooling a Warming World

You probably know that I now spend most of my time running our little technology startup company Close Comfort.   We recently passed a significant milestone with over 1000 of our energy-saving air conditioners sold to happy customers.

It all started with my marriage to wonderful wife and partner Samina Yasmeen.  Living with her Pakistan family brought summer reality.

Two billion people South Asia dread the summer. Shimmering heat starts in March and April and stifling sweaty nights last into November.  Listless days follow nights of fitful sleep at 40C under noisy fans. A tiny privileged elite run energy guzzling split air conditioners, crippling electricity grids.

Load shedding, a novelty in Australia, is routine across south Asia and Africa: power is on and off every hour or two.  Batteries keep fans and LED lights on but the unit electricity cost soars.

Sustainable relief from heat and humidity is now in sight thanks to our energy-saving air conditioning technology.   It’s a great thrill that our air conditioners are now in 5 countries, albeit with small-scale marketing campaigns.

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Guide for Value Creation in the Engineering Enterprise (Updated March 4, 2018)

  • Engineers’ remuneration and recognition is strongly related to the value they create – a well-supporting finding in economics.
  • Our research shows that engineers today know little about value creation, and what little they do know does not align well with investors’ ideas.
  • We conclude therefore that engineers will be paid less than they think they are worth (which agrees with survey findings) and second, there is plenty of potential to improve engineers’ remuneration and recognition if they take the time to learn how to create value.

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The Great Artificial Intelligence Scam (Again)

{A longer version of this post appeared in the Australian Financial Review on August 18th under the title “When robots learn to lie, then we worry about AI“.}

Great claims are being made for artificial intelligence these days: AI.

Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s assistant, Apple’s Siri: these are all claimed as examples of AI.  Yet speech recognition is hardly new: we have seen steady improvements in software like Dragon for 20 years.

We have seen claims that AI with new breakthroughs like ‘deep learning’ could displace 2 million or more Australian workers from their jobs by 2030.

I was fortunate to discuss artificial intelligence with a philosopher, Julius Kovesi, in the 1970s as I led the team that eventually developed sheep shearing robots.  With great insight, he argued that robots, in essence, were built on similar principles to common toilet cisterns and were nothing more than simple automatons.  “Show me a robot that deliberately tells you a lie to manipulate your behaviour, and then I will accept you have artificial intelligence!” he exclaimed.

That’s the last thing we wanted in a sheep shearing robot, of course.

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