Dear Colleagues,

Statistically, when considering airplane accidents, engineering causes are very low on the list. I know this is poor comfort when you are bouncing around on a difficult landing or with severe turbulence, but the causes of airplane accidents are: flight crew (66%); aircraft (7%), maintenance (6%), environmental (4%), air traffic control (2%) and other (2%) and undetermined (13%).

Engineering (Maintenance) is a small part of the overall cause (6%).

There are many examples backing up this claim. You only need to consider maintenance in a plant for a quick justification of this assertion.

Mundane Engineering Maintenance
As a plant engineer for a mineral ore processing plant, I came across many issues which initially appeared to be engineering related but were really fixable in other areas.

This ranged from massive conveyer belt damage which was caused by lack of training in the mining team who should have been more careful about screening out sharp steel fragments from the ore (thus ripping the belt when our tramp iron magnets didn’t pick the steel fragments up). Or the penchant for operators to start and stop pumps repeatedly so that they were eventually damaged. Training of the operators could have reduced this damage to the pumps.

Other typical problems which required engineering repairs were operating equipment over their design limits or simply unacceptable damage by poor operation (mixing incorrect quantities of reagents and thus damaging process equipment such as pipes). Most of this could be rectified by high quality training or use of personnel who are attuned to running a plant properly and avoiding these problems.

The Moral of the Story is ….
Thus, when someone claims that something is an engineering problem requiring an engineering fix; carefully reflect on the real causes and what the long term solution is.

You may find that a long term solution has no engineering involved whatsoever.

Thanks to 101 Things I learned in Engineering School by John Kuprenas with Matthew Frederick.

A positive take on problems comes from John W. Gardner: We are continually faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems.

Yours in engineering learning,

Steve