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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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

Why am I stuck in a job with so little real engineering?

Like so many of the engineers we interviewed for our research, you may think that your job does not really challenge your technical abilities.

This could be because the technical work that you’re involved with seems to be very simple and does not demand the kind of abilities that you were able to demonstrate in your university studies. Another reason could be that the technical aspects are challenging but you have so many other things to do that you don’t get enough time to resolve them properly. All the other parts of your job seem to get in the way.

Well, you’re not alone. Even engineers in full-time research and development make similar remarks.

When you see the research evidence in the book, especially chapter 3, you will find that almost all engineers spend most of their time on collaboration activities, working with other people and communicating with them. That’s normal in engineering.

Engineers tend to think that this is “non-technical” or “administrative” work. Yet, in our research, when we asked engineers whether the non-technical aspects of their work could be delegated to clerical staff or handled by management, almost invariably they told us that this would not be feasible. Although it seems to be non-technical, this work still requires technical knowledge and understanding. Much of it involves monitoring the work of other people like following-up suppliers, contractors, and accounts staff involved in procurement, even following-up on other engineers to make sure that other work will be ready on time.

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