A moratorium on new coal mines: a hypocritical Australian gesture

Recently there has been an Australian move to propose a moratorium on new coal mines.

For several years I have researched energy supplies on the ground in India and Pakistan.  I have also researched how engineers respond to the challenges of energy and water supplies there, and also in Australia.

I strongly disagree with this moratorium proposal.

Why?

First, it will be seen as hypocritical and selfish in countries like India and Pakistan because we Australians, more than many countries, have grown rich and prosperous by burning vast quantities of coal in the past and continue to do so today.

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Volkswagen: The Challenger moment for mechatronics

I am old enough to have practised mechatronics long before the term was invented around 1990. I learned much in the context of 1970s military aerospace, and applied those lessons in developing sheep shearing robots in the 70s, 80s and 90s. (Youtube video)

When I heard about the Volkswagen scandal I personally felt let down and depressed. I was shocked. Not just because it occurred in a German company with an impeccable reputation. It was because engineers in a discipline that I helped nurture and develop through my career have let the rest of us down, displaying a dark side of their humanity.

I immediately thought about the implications for our mechatronics discipline. Here is our “Challenger” moment. The Challenger space shuttle disaster has been the pre-eminent ethics case study used in the engineering community for several decades. From now on, Volkswagen will take its place, at least for mechatronic engineers.

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Time management for engineers

One of the factors most influential in your personal success will you be your time management ability. As an engineer you will have many competing demands on your time. Like many engineers you may feel that most of these are “interruptions” or other demands that impede your “real engineering” work. These notes can help you manage your time better if you feel the need.

Evaluate your own time management. Try this questionnaire first. Next, evaluate your time management practices with this second questionnaire:

time management practices (only for students),

time management practices (if you are no longer a student).

If you scored 40 or more on each questionnaire, your’re doing OK, and will find the rest of this post provides some useful hints. A score of 50 or more on each questionnaire indicates you’re doing fairly well already.  The average combined score for students (so far) is about 85 and for practising engineers, it’s about 90-95.

Here’s how Leslie Perlow, author of the book “Time Famine” described this.

I found that engineers distinguish between “real engineering” and “everything else” that they did. They defined real engineering as analytical thinking, mathematical modelling, and conceptualising solutions. Real engineering was work that required using scientific principles and independent creativity. It was the technical component of engineers’ deliverables that utilise the skills the engineers acquired in school. As one engineer summed it up, “real engineering is what I thought I was hired to do.” In contrast, “everything else” translated mostly into interactive activities.

Engineers describe these interactive activities as disruptions to their real engineering, although research reveals that interactive activities are critical for the completion of an engineer’s tasks. 95% of the time, these social interactions are unplanned, spontaneous so they can seem like interruptions.

This can lead engineers into a vicious work-time cycle. In this cycle, time pressure (to get a product to market/getting the project completed) leads to a crisis mentality which results in individual heroic behaviour causing constant interruptions to others adding to the time pressure and crisis mentality. “Fire Fighting” is the term used by many engineers to describe this, and it’s ever-present for many if not most engineers.

You can learn to break out of this vicious cycle.

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How can engineers help eliminate poverty?

Nobel prizewinning economist Jeffrey Sachs wrote in his 2005 book “The End of Poverty” how extreme poverty can be eliminated by implementing six priority actions (Ch12, p234-5):

1) Agricultural inputs (e.g. fertilizer, water harvesting, irrigation) and produce storage, including roads and transport for people and materials;

2) Investment in basic health: clinics, medicines;

3) Investment in education;

4) Power, transport and communication services;

5) Safe drinking water and sanitation (without which (2) is ineffective).

Although Sachs did not allude to this, we can see that all require effective engineering, either directly, or indirectly by providing productivity improvements that enable spare human capacity to be available for education, healthcare and infrastructure investment.

If you look at Pakistan, a middle of the road low income country, around half the workforce is needed just to supply enough food and water for everyone. In Australia, less than 2% of the workforce is needed, and they produce a substantial surplus for food exports. It’s engineering, successful engineering, that makes the difference. That of course relies on lots of other things as well – education, effective means to enforce contracts – law and government regulation, health care and so many others. Once engineers have lifted human productivity, there are people available to provide these other support services. That’s what’s missing in low income countries.

I think there’s no better illustration than the real economic cost of safe drinking water. In Pakistan, the cost (including the indirect cost of unpaid female labour) typically ranges between US$50 and $150 per tonne. In Australia it’s about $2 per tonne. I explain why in my book and my 2012 TED talk. In other words, because we have not enabled engineering to work so well in Pakistan, the poorest people have to pay far more for water ( and all the other essentials for life ) than wealthy Australians.  There are many contributing issues here.

There are wonderful social and commercial opportunities for engineers who set out to fix this and help eliminate poverty. They can start by recognising the economic needs and by devising affordable mass-market solutions. The next step is to provide a credible financial case for investors, along with the reputation for delivering on promises. This last aspect is probably the most difficult: engineers currently have an appalling reputation in both government and commercial investment circles. That’s why it’s best to take small steps, one at a time, and gradually build the reputation needed to achieve results on a grand scale.

In the book I explain some of the insights gained by truly expert engineers. You can learn how they think and how they deliver for their organisations. In doing so, they earn 2 – 5 times as much as other engineers because their organisations recognise the value they contribute.

You can do that too and become a real contributor to the Global Citizen Project. As an engineer, you can do much more than adding to the noise.  I hope you take up this challenge. If you do, please write and tell me about what you have been able to achieve.

Back from Pakistan, UAE, Iran and New Zealand

Some of you may have wondered why there has been a little gap in my blog posts.  I have been pre-occupied with visits to several countries.

My other major project, Close Comfort has developed very quickly with keen anticipation particularly in Pakistan where electricity supplies are subject to frequent interruptions due to load shedding.  Pakistan’s electricity grid is struggling to keep up with demand for air conditioning, and I hope to be able to offer a sustainable solution, as explained in Chapter 13 of the book. Continue reading

“A breakthrough in thinking…powerful conclusion”

The book was launched at The University of Western Australia on November 10 by Peter Meurs, Director of Development at Fortescue Metals Group.

Speeches by John Dell, Faculty of Engineering, Computing and Mathematics, Peter Meurs, and the author.


(20 minutes)

Quotes from Peter Meurs

“It really does represent a breakthrough in thinking. It bridges the gap between the academic side, studying engineering, and the real engineering world.” (4:02)

“It presents more than just a set of ideas and concepts.”

It represents interviews with hundreds of real engineers, and is seeking to find those characteristics that make an expert engineer.” (4:26)

“Expert engineers are not necessarily technically brilliant but they’re engineers that work out the complex processes of thinking, communicating, collaborating and challenging that lead to value being added to their organisations and ultimately to the world.” (4:38)

“I think The Making of an Expert Engineer applies to all engineers. I wish I had read it 20 or 30 years ago… it would have made a real difference. Many engineers that feel they’re stuck in a rut, they’re not adding value to their organisations, they’re frustrated, will greatly benefit from reading this book and it will help them progress back to their dream of making a real difference in the world.” (5:49)

“James goes well beyond just presenting concepts and ideas … he backs it up with real case studies and stories that add credibility and colour.” (6:15)

“It presents 17 misconceptions, things like “engineering jobs are always advertised” or “my boss will tell me what to do”. That’s a total misconception. It has 85 practice concepts like “time changes the value of money” and “human emotions influence engineering” and “a project plan is a living document”. There’s lots of engineers that need to learn that if you want to be successful. (6:43)

“The conclusion of the book is powerful. James invites all engineers to step up to recognise the contribution that we do make and can make to society as a whole and through my engineering career, through making many mistakes and also through facing challenges I have really come to understand that concept.” (8:51)

One thing’s for sure, when you take on a big project, things will go wrong and it is simply so easy to say “Oh, unfortunately that went wrong so it’s going to cost more and take longer.” A real engineer will step up and say we can still achieve the cost and schedule and all of the requirements. Great engineers, when they’re faced with adversity and challenges, rally the network, apply their technical coordination skills, draw on the collective experience of vendors, fabricators, consultants and contractors and deliver the original solution or something better. (9:15)

In my family I will need at least 4 copies, one for me, one for two son-in-laws who are engineers and one for my son who is just completing engineering degree, and at Fortescue I’m going to need at least forty copies for our graduate program, so congratulations to James and the whole team at UWA for the many years of research that form the foundation for this book.(10:02)

“I think this book has the potential to change engineering and the way that engineering is taught. (10:31)”

Peter Meurs, Director of Development at Fortescue Metals Group through tripling of production capacity in record time, and also co-founder of WorleyParsons Engineering.

How can I influence significant decisions?

In our research we encountered some frustration among engineers about decisions that affect their work. The frustration often came from a perception that the people making these decisions did not understand engineering issues, and hence made decisions that resulted in less than desirable engineering outcomes. Sometimes this frustration was directed at clients who seemed to make short sighted decisions that resulted in problems that required more money to fix in the longer term. At other times, engineers seemed to blame bad decisions on ‘politics’, or the influence of people with enough power to overturn what the engineers saw as a more logical choice.

In some extreme cases, engineers would say something like “This company is run by f——-g accountants!” (Expletive has been replaced by dashes.)

Many engineers know that part of their role is to prepare a business case for new investment, or proposals with the aim of persuading clients to commission them to take on a new project. Engineers often have to conduct detailed technical analysis for the documents that go to clients, and often are also responsible for forecasting commercial outcomes. Net present value calculations and commercial sensitivity analyses are often part of this work.

It can be disappointing for engineers to put in long hours only to see the results ignored and what seem to be sound proposals passed over for seemingly illogical reasons. Continue reading

How can engineers regain respect?

How can engineers regain the high respect and status they once enjoyed?

In many countries, engineers have lost the respect with which they were once held. Evidence for this comes from our research interviews with senior company and government representatives who displayed only limited respect for the ability of engineers to deliver valuable outcomes.

Here is a selection of quotes:

“Our engineers delivered nothing: we gave them billions and we still don’t have what they promised.” (ex Prime Minister)

“Our engineers don’t understand the business imperative of this organisation. They simply don’t get it and it frustrates me immensely.” (Company CEO)

“I eliminate as many engineers from my organisation as I can: if I need engineering done I hire outside firms to do it.” (Company CEO)

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How can I find an engineering job?

This question is particularly relevant now in many countries where engineering activity is at a lower level than normal and may engineers are looking for work. This happens at times of low economic growth or recession: it could even be the “new normal” for a while.

It can be a very depressing experience to be looking for engineering work in these circumstances, particularly if you don’t understand how the job market works. However, as an engineer, even a novice engineer with little experience, you are one of the most employable people around.  It is easier for you to find a job than for nearly everyone else. Continue reading

Why is engineering invisible?

Why is engineering invisible and so often taken for granted?  (Updated November 28, 2014)

In the preface of the book I explain some reasons why engineering practice has been invisible for so long. A combination of perceptual barriers has diverted attention from the complex socio-technical processes that dominate practice for engineers. These are mostly needed for collaboration and coordination and even in a small venture, they demand most of an engineer’s personal time and effort. According to the best data we can find from research, both our own and that of many others, this effort requires at least 60% of an engineer’s time, often more.

Scrapers-lrEngineers are also invisible in photos, like this one, winner of the 2011 Engineers Australia photo competition “Images of Engineering” by Mark Zvirblis Abi Group Contractors 2010 (with permission)

Part of the problem is complexity. Recruitment advertisements for engineers repeatedly emphasise communication proficiencies but, in reality, communication skills are only the bottom layers of many proficiencies needed for technical collaboration. In the book, I have set out a structured series of collaboration performances that engineers enact for their work, and why they are so often seem to be invisible and taken for granted. Continue reading