Blog - Steve Mackay

Dear Colleagues,

You may be one of the many engineering professionals not particularly enthused with the idea of making presentations. The reasons may be that one gets nervous; the audience shows obvious boredom and the poor presentations reflect badly on one. It is thus not a particularly pleasant experience for both the audience or the presenter. You’re unlikely to ever hear from someone, who has to attend an engineering presentation, that they are looking forward to it.

However, doing a...

Dear Colleagues,

Many of you are probably nervously contemplating the wreckage of engineering employment with the rather too rapid crash of mining and oil and gas over the past few months (I am; but am always optimistic thinking of it as yet another business cycle). What intrigues me though is the ongoing search for talented people for smaller companies is as hard as ever. Many will retort that a reason why smaller companies are always searching for staff is that they pay peanuts. Not...

Dear Colleagues,

When you read this, I will be standing on the beaches of Normandy peering through the sea mists visualising the landing craft approaching in 1944 as the beginning of the end started for World War II. Probably driven by a desperate shortage of materials and labour, everything then was designed to be absolutely functional – over-engineering wasn’t exactly encouraged. Today, it is dramatically different.
Today we have Moore’s Law
You are probably familiar with Moore’s Law. It...

Dear Colleagues,

Murphy’s Law is especially quoted in engineering and as most of you would well know says: “If anything can go wrong, it will”. Often, we add on: “and at the worst possible time, in the worst possible way”.


Origin of Murphy’s Law
The Law’s (supposed) origin was in engineering where Captain Ed Murphy, an engineer at Edwards Air Force Base, was dealing with a technician who incorrectly wired  a strain gauge bridge (wired backwards) for doing gravity tests which as a result...

Dear Colleagues,

The art of negotiation can be a thorny topic. The wise words from a guru ring in my ear: “You don’t get what you deserve; you get what you negotiate”.

We don’t negotiate enough
I believe most of us engineering professionals don’t negotiate enough. We accept the status quo when purchasing or selling something. In our numerical and trusting minds, we accept that the price must be right as it is generally set by others “who know better”. Or we believe it is unprofessional and...

Dear Colleagues,

Ten million British jobs could be taken over by computers and robots over the next 20 years, wiping out more than one in three roles. Thus says The Telegraph newspaper. Naturally, using the usual inflammatory rhetoric to excite comment.

One can clearly see low-paid repetitive jobs disappearing at a rapid lick. According to this article, jobs for those earning less than £30,000 are at higher risk of being automated by machines or software. Some figures put the job losses as...

Dear Colleagues,

We often hear of the client from hell who is to be avoided. We all have different clients – some whom you have had for years. Some are new ones. Some are internal clients within your firm. Some are pleasant and accommodating – others are unreasonable and a nightmare to deal with.

But overall they are critical to your engineering career. And their first impression of you sets up the relationship. No matter whether you are supplying rocket launch system to NASA or are the...

Dear Colleagues,

With the rapid change in technology, it is incredible that a keyboard layout designed in 1873 for one of the first mechanical typewriters – the QWERTY keyboard – is still the basis of all our keyboards (esp. the virtual ones) today.

The name QWERTY comes from the first six keys on the top left letter row of your keyboard. It is still the standard today as no replacement is believed to offer any significant advantage.

The QWERTY Layout

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 - =
Q W E R T Y U I...

Dear Colleagues,

There is nothing quite like spending time in the African bush for one of life’s truly enjoyable experiences – watching animals thrive in their native habitat -  such as rhinos, giraffes, elephants and gemsbok ambling around. Early morning with sunrise and late evening are particularly special times. However, there is a growing danger that for future generations this will no longer be around because of poaching’s rapid growth.

Poaching is Destroying African Wildlife

Dear Colleagues,

When we have a moment to reflect, I suspect we sometimes wonder whether our sign offs on our emails are appropriate or a little bit tired. Perhaps not? Naturally at the end of your email message, you should avoid lengthy quotes, massive corporate logos and a brief signature.

I also wonder about the significance of these overly lengthy legal disclaimers that are often included at the bottom of email messages. Who has ever relied on this and why would you include it (apart from...

Dear Colleagues,

I often think I am like my Labrador dog when it comes to communicating. Inundated by a thousand messages – most of which are absolutely unintelligible to me (apart from a good sniff of meaty food).

As you are told repeatedly, we are bombarded with messages every day. Some suggest up to 3000 per day. You only need to glance around you – from the adverts/jingles on the radio/email/mail/T-shirts/phone calls/urgent messages/pop ups/web pages and so forth to see that this number...

Dear Colleagues,

Whether you like or not – we are all in a feverish state of learning new things. Whether it is to learn how to use a new process at work or how to use the Windows operating system or how to handle a new automated torque wrench – we are all learning. Particularly in engineering there are a ferocious number of new technologies and approaches hitting us almost every day – all which we need to learn if we want to keep up to date in our career.


The tragedy is that most people...

Dear Colleagues,

The various engineering companies’ recruiting practices never cease to amaze me in how varied and often random they appear to be. This applies to all situations – no matter whether one is recruiting a plumber to chief engineer and from a one-man to a multinational company.

Apart from the usual travails of attracting a good candidate (who if often giving up a good job) and then finding out the company that was hiring her was systematically going bust, to the usual one of...

Dear Colleagues,

Whenever, one thinks of protecting intellectual property (IP) such as engineering designs and inventions, one tends to think of patents. After all, some firms file a ferocious number of patents every year to protect their IP. Think of IBM who received an unbelievable 6,809 patents last year. There are three categories of intellectual property – patents (for inventions); trademarks and copyright (for creative work such as plans, videos and films).

What – why bother to protect...

Dear Colleagues,

We all get annoyed on occasion. One would think that working in an engineering environment means that everyone is super rational, objective and left brain-oriented. However irritations are quite normal and people can get quite emotional – as you have no doubt experienced.

Dog Fights are Normal
Disagreements and fights are quite normal in an engineering workplace. People are often under stress to deliver to tight deadlines with limited budgets. Staff are often poorly trained...

Dear Colleagues,

It is the nightmare scenario for any major engineering infrastructure investment – the arrival of something smaller, better and considerably cheaper which rapidly makes the original investment worthless. We see this happening all the time in a range of items ranging from phones to books.

This is what is perhaps going to happen with satellites with the recent launch of high altitude pseudo satellites.

This is a great example of leveraging engineering opportunities and...

Dear Colleagues,

Various neuroscientists are proposing that the internet and computers are rapidly destroying our brains. Smartphones, video games and social networks provide a poor reproduction of reality and are corrupting our lives (and brains). But there is not too much convincing evidence (as yet) to justify these concerns.

Your Brain is Plastic
As you know - your brain adapts to stimuli (such as from computers) and thus the brain changes from moment to moment. Every experience...

Dear Colleagues,

When an innovation ends up in a mobile phone, you can be sure of fairly wide exposure and it being invariably affordable.

And in this case; there was a recent announcement of a new version of the Apple iPhone with thermal imager built into it providing another opportunity to look at the world around you with new eyes. As is usual, there have been a few other established players in the market providing similar low cost solutions either connected to a phone or as part of a...

Dear Colleagues,

As you well know – everyone is jumping onto the 3-d printing bandwagon. We purchased one in kit form a month or so ago. My two colleagues, Steve Steyn and Kim Li specified and assembled the printer together after some pain.

As we have discussed in earlier blogs, it is now possible to undertake 3-d printing of items ranging from phones to instrument cases – printing one layer at a time. This is possibly the prelude to a personal manufacturing revolution where everything is...

Dear Colleagues,

Increasingly job interviews are being conducted over the phone and indeed, Skype, as this allows for a reasonably effective version of video conferencing. Skype is a great way to meet up with people far away and it is also convenient and quick, even for a meeting a few blocks across town. However, undertaking a job interview over skype can add its own level of stress and you should take some care.

A few suggestions follow on making it an effective job interview.


Dear Colleagues,

I was wondering whether our marketing manager has limited faith in my abilities as an engineering professional as she dropped a neat booklet entitled The Pocket Guide to Nuts and Bolts (by Steve Ettlinger) on my desk. She assures me this is not the case.

The booklet is chock full of useful information. Although, I would suggest mainly common sense (although as another friend of mine remarked darkly after a particularly bad design decision for a mineral processing plant...

Dear Colleagues,

Objects around you are increasingly being embedded with a myriad of sensors and actuators – from your road way, body to your industrial process. Data from these sensors is then being transmitted over the Internet using the familiar TCP/IP protocols.

Kevin Ashton (from Proctor & Gamble) used the term: ‘Internet of things’ to refer to everyday objects autonomously communicating with each other.

There are incredible opportunities opening up in engineering and industry to...

Dear Colleagues,

You’re probably tired of being subjected to regular doses of management and leadership advice. There are a ferocious number of coaches and theories out ‘there’ advising you on how to be a better manager or leader. Probably more than - bringing up your kids, improving your love life or career.

Some of the ones, which I would suggest you take with a grain of salt (i.e. probably best to ignore) include:

You need to know more than those who work for you. It is extremely...

Dear Colleagues,

You’ve just won a great contract but have to work in a team. And no matter how outgoing and extroverted you are as an engineer, you don’t necessarily have good team interaction skills. Engineering projects are increasingly complex and need a team to succeed. Especially today.

Often, teams are brought together for a specific project and operate out of different offices and then break up once the project has been completed. Web based collaborative techniques (such as web...

Dear Colleagues,

With a little effort, you can wow your peers, clients and suppliers with absolutely dynamite presentations and change your engineering career for the better. As you know - most people aren’t always that enthusiastic with making presentations.

Often the reasons are that they are nervous, the presentations come across poorly and it is not a particularly pleasant experience for both the audience and the presenter. You’re also unlikely to ever hear from someone, who has to attend...

Dear Colleagues,

Today, as engineering professionals, information technology and software skills are generally a key part of our skill set. Whether it is only using Word and spreadsheets, troubleshooting an errant industrial automation system or specifying the requirements for a new PLC and SCADA system – software is a key part of our daily work.

So the question that is often asked is this: What are the skills (and indeed, personality traits) that make you extraordinarily successful in...

Dear Colleagues,

How many times have you been involved in an engineering meeting and wished you had more influence on the outcome? Often your opinions simply get ignored - even when you (and some of the others) know it is probably the best solution.

Influencing people is part of leadership. However, you don’t suddenly become influential. It takes time and inevitably - work. And a change to your way of thinking if you are not a particularly influential person.

You may ask the usual question...

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...

Dear Colleagues,

As engineering professionals, I believe we all think of inventing the next dream machine which will change human history. However, life is considerably more prosaic than this, isn’t it?

There is the odd exception of a device created which is totally new and takes the world by storm. But even these are often arrived by looking at other similar examples.

Great Inventions Don’t Arise Overnight
Thus it is reasonably safe to generalise that most great inventions are really...

Dear Colleagues,

Unbelievably, inspecting an item considerably more times as against fewer times than required will both result in more errors being identified.

What are the Statistics here?
When inspecting two types of errors to avoid are a type 1 error where an actual part that is not defective is assessed defective (a Type 1 False Positive Error). Or a Part which is actually defective and which is assessed as not defective (a Type 2 False Negative Error).

In other words, in inspecting...

Dear Colleagues,

We often incorrectly figure that equilibrium means a static ‘we-have-arrived-in-a-state-of-peace’ state. Nothing could be further from the truth. Equilibrium represents an active and dynamic balancing act. At all times. This came home to me in a recent study on thermodynamics I did with an object in a heat bath. Although both object and heat bath seem to be in equilibrium at the same temperature, they are nonetheless still exchanging heat with each other.

Think of...

Dear Colleagues

Conventional traffic intersections with traffic lights (or stop lights) are mainly used in the USA; whereas roundabouts (or traffic circles) are favoured in Europe and indeed, Australia. What baffles me is that roundabouts are clearly simpler, safer and far better and yet traffic light-based ones are still the main choice in the ‘Land of the Free’ – the USA. Quite bizarre.

For some unaccountable reason, the KISS (Keep it Stupid and Simple) principle has obviously not been...

Dear Colleagues,

We all do design engineering at some time or other. Whether you are an electrician undertaking a rework of the wiring for a switchboard or designing a state-of-the-art oil refinery.

Who is a designer today?

In the twenty first century, perhaps someone who wears bright clothes, speaks French, has a gigantic beard, easily rejigs the interior decoration of a home, sports a tattoo and drives a MG sports car to work?

Or designs integrated circuits, diesel locomotives or the...

Dear Colleagues,

As you all know – reliability is a highly sought after (especially in engineering) measure of how long a product or system functions correctly. The ultimate goal is always a reliability of 1 or 100% reliability with no failure over the life of the product. Reliability of 0 refers to immediate failure and should obviously be avoided.

You may recall the old ‘bathtub curve’ of reliability. At the beginning of a product’s life there is a heightened probability of failure...

Dear Colleagues

You have probably heard of the age-old instruction to break step to a squad of soldiers marching across a bridge so as to prevent a collapse. This is because the rhythm of marching can match the natural frequency of the structure – thus causing the bridge to collapse.

Natural frequency is a key part of all our lives and is thus worth briefly considering.

Natural Frequency
The natural (or resonant) frequency of a structure is the time taken to complete one full cycle when...

Dear Colleagues

We suffer a ferocious amount of damage to our equipment when it is transported to various training locations around the world. When I see the damage to the shipping case (and the contents); I often refer to this delicate equipment being subjected to the ‘Airline Drop Test’.

I am always amazed at the massive dent marks in our robust steel cases or what appears to be a pick axe that has been wielded repeatedly (normally very effectively) against the side of the case. Naturally...

Dear Colleagues,

In the past few years; we have seen some spectacular collapses of buildings and bridges. This is quite inexplicable to today’s structural designer and engineer who puts enormous effort into the careful use of materials and huge safety margins.

However, last night when I was watching the causes of the BP Deepwater Horizon catastrophe (with my fascinated non-technical wife, I might add), I realized that when a designer is operating at the limit of their expertise; mistakes...

Dear Colleagues,

We should always try and align our engineering works and activities within the ‘natural order of things’. This is not a difficult undertaking, requiring a little finessing and can be done from tiny projects all the way through to massive undertaking such as the Panama Canal.

The best way of illustrating this principle is with a few (civil) engineering examples.

The first one is the Panama Canal.

Raise a Ship 30m - Naturally
When ships travel between the Atlantic and Pacific...

Dear Colleagues,

Most of us being clever (or believing we are clever); try and get components or parts in a design or installation to have more than one function or purpose. This is to minimise materials used and the time or energy consumed by other manufacturer and user.

Be Wary
However, you have to be wary about the people that are then required to install, commission and then use this system of yours. They may not have the requisite level of skill and care. Or indeed, the ability to...

Dear Colleagues,

When you accelerate or expedite a job such as building a factory or power station or manufacturing widgets; you often believe that savings can be achieved by reducing your indirect costs – equipment rental/rental of buildings/insurance/electrical and water and insurance. Obviously, direct costs such as people and materials will stay the same, as you still have to achieve the same amount of work.

Costs Skyrocket
As those you well versed in these matters know; the truth of...

Dear Colleagues,

As those of you in the industrial automation business would know – in a negative feedback loop, the system responds in the opposite direction to a stimulus, thus providing overall stability or equilibrium. Positive feedback on the other hand isn’t always so useful and creates instability and one thus has to be careful about applying it.

A Flow Loop
For example, in a flow loop, the controller is set for a target flow rate. If the flow rate is detected to be above this target...

Dear Colleagues,

No matter how simple your design is – whether it is a simple adjustment to a wiring layout of a switchboard or a complex bridge over the Hudson, it is always beneficial to communicate the reasons for your design when passing it to a colleague to work further on it. These reasons vary from technical, ergonomic, cost or (dare, I say) even a subjective personal decision.

Reasons for Decisions
As soon as you provide the reasons for your decisions made; you immediately make it...

Dear Colleagues,

You probably know the trick to stop a crack on your car windscreen (windshield to you, North Americans) from spreading. Simply, drill a hole near the tip (or end) of the crack. This makes the crack less sharp and distributes the stresses over a larger area and in more directions. This reduced stress stops the crack from spreading. A great solution.

The Same Principle Applies
The same principle applies to rounded corners in a range of objects from tables to machine parts. A...

Dear Colleagues,

I believe the well known Rolling Stones rock group had a song with a lyric along the lines of: I can’t get no satisfaction. Judging by the regular complaints I get from engineering colleagues, this is a problem endemic in the engineering world – a lack of satisfaction with their jobs.

So what is job satisfaction in the engineering world?
It is unusual for anyone to have a 100% satisfaction in any job. However, everyone seems to believe that in changing one’s current job or...

Dear Colleagues,

I am not a teacher, but an awakener, is a particularly relevant remark from Robert Frost for mentoring. You are probably bulging with experience and knowledge won over many hard years.

I urge you (once again!) to share this know-how with your less experienced colleagues in your office or on the shop floor or on-the-job at some remote location. Many people hate sharing their know-how as they feel it makes them less valuable. This can hardly be further from the truth. It makes...

Dear Colleagues,

Digital engineering touches every aspect of our lives. Every device today seemingly has a computer on board – whether it be your phone/RTU/PLC/Tablet or even TV and washing machine. And these devices are based on the work of a digital design engineer and technician.

Customers are continuing to expect considerably more from their systems in terms of lower power, lower cost, reliability, wireless operation, sensitivity and speed. And naturally, more user-friendly interfaces...

Dear Colleagues,

A key member of your engineering team has just quit. She could range from a senior electrical power engineer with enormous experience. To a plant electrician who knows your marine electrical systems intimately and can troubleshoot a problem in a jiffy. Or a SCADA technician who knows the configuration details and intricacies of all your plants’ control systems. Generally, people leave for a myriad of reasons – more money, boredom with the same work, irritated by the local...

Dear Colleagues,

I hope 2014 is a wonderful year for you and yours.

I writhed in my seat with embarrassment last week when an esteemed engineer did a presentation on fixing the local electrical distribution network problems to a mainly lay audience comprising families, local businesspeople and civic councillor types. I had been looking forward to the presentation as it had great importance in the area in improving the electrical supply.

The presentation was disastrous – full of acronyms and...

Dear Colleagues,

Firstly, a happy festive season for you over the next few weeks. Seeing the economic engines of the world economies gradually ramping up, I think at least from an engineering perspective, 2014 looks promising.

Have you ever noticed that often most of your challenges in engineering are found at ‘the interface’? By interface, I mean where two elements meet each other – the boundary between two different systems.

Often you find examples of poor design and failures at the...

Dear Colleagues

I often get questions about the practical differences between watts (W) and volt-amperes (VA); mainly from our civil and mechanical engineering fraternity; but surprisingly also from some electrical types.

As you would know, electrical products generally indicate both to show how much energy and current they draw.

So herewith a quick summary of the differences with some interesting alternative calculations to work out total VA (I am waiting for the deluge of critiques from my...

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