Blog - Steve Mackay

Dear Colleagues,

Your engineering career is likely to contain a major component of troubleshooting and then fixing. Perhaps mainly remedying someone else’s mistakes? The trick, I believe, is to keep your mind completely open when troubleshooting - to avoid pre-conceived ideas which can throw you completely off track. And to work through all the phases below systematically.

A few suggested steps below when confronted by the next problem:

1. Identify and define the real issue
When someone...

Dear Colleagues,

Are you like me – overwhelmed with your email traffic? Do you answer your emails quickly enough and do you get rapid responses to your messages ? Probably not.

Email is insidious – it is everywhere and it affects (infects?)  most of us. Although I must say, there is a mining prospector who lives in his truck at the parking lot near our local beach and who doesn’t have any phone, computer or even post box – and definitely no email. He is totally mobile. And only corresponds...

Dear Colleagues,

Many of your applications such as in the industrial, military and aerospace area are in exceptionally demanding environments with extreme levels of vibration, high humidity, dust, severe voltage variations and of course, that good old chestnut – extended temperature variations.

When manufacturers of computing hardware (particularly single board computers) provide their products for integration in these environments, they will often quote ‘extended temperature’ ranges. This...

Dear Colleagues,

Psychologists call it the anchoring effect - the tendency of humans to adopt a familiar yardstick (such as the familiar electric light bulb) in using as a benchmark in predicting savings. As a result most people tend to underestimate energy savings. Well, according to the latest research.

When looking at energy savings, we tend to focus on upgrading light bulbs (to LED types) and twiddling thermostats. Most people grasp basic issues about energy savings; but they are...

Dear Colleagues,

You've probably heard of Google Glasses which displays text messages right next to your eyes. There are a range of wearable devices offering all sorts of features on the market. These include wearable devices that measure heart rates, how many calories we are burning or how many steps we have walked.

Now this is moving into the brutal world of work where there are huge opportunities to apply these nifty technologies to your job or indeed next engineering design to improve...

Dear Colleagues,

You all know about fiddly power cables and the proliferation of different power supplies and plugs with the myriad number of different electronic gadgets in our busy lives. A veritable nightmare. The USB (Universal Serial Bus) has definitely simplified my life by simplifying my connections here. Today most phones, cameras, 3G modems and other devices (including my wife’s Kindle) can charge from a simple USB cable plugged into a computer (or adaptor).

The only challenge is...

Dear Colleagues,

On a regular basis, you will often be confronted with requests for a quick summary of some lengthy meeting or series of documents. You will have to provide the key ideas in simple easy-to-read English with no jargon. Seemingly an intractable task.

Herewith a few tips on achieving this task:

  • Identify what you want to achieve with the summary
  • Consider who your audience is, what they already know and what they want from your summary?
  • Initially do a brain dump on everything...

Dear Colleagues,

Although this note sounds like it is about high flying IT strategy; you can be assured that it is down-to-earth and impacts on everyone (and is thus relevant to you) – no matter whether you are an electrician in a process plant, a designer contemplating a mechanical system, a civil engineer or indeed director of Chevron sitting in a boardroom.

1. New Technology
One thing that is a given is the rapidly developing world of IT. The goals of your organization tend to remain...

Dear Colleagues,

Ranging from the plumbing blocking up, an intermittent electrical fault to the bungled design of an exotic process plant, we get confronted with problems on a daily basis.

Some of us get hugely remunerated for solving problems – an airline pilot for solving a problem which involves 45 seconds in his entire career as he wrestles a plane safely to ground, or Red Adair putting out oil fires. Some not so, such as the astronauts bringing Apollo 13 back. At the end of the day, as...

Dear Colleagues,

Many years ago, in an isolated part of the outback on the inevitable mine site in hot and dry conditions, one of our guys inserted a communications board into the PLC rack and inadvertently destroyed one of the key memory chips by electrostatic discharge (ESD). Fortunately, we had one backup board left. But it was a salutary lesson in being vigilant about the effects of ESD. No back up board could have meant significant down time while we waited for a replacement to be shipped...

Dear Colleagues,

In some of my more desperate moments, I sometimes think the universe is a malevolent force. Tough and unforgiving. Admittedly, I am at that age (mid fifties) when friends and colleagues are ‘falling off their perches’ or getting sicker than usual. The so-called global financial disaster also pushed a lot of very good engineering businesses into a death spiral making people quite sad. And added to this; the rapid change due to technology (i.e. mainly the internet and IT...

Dear Colleagues,

I am always rather cautious about politicians’ speeches as they are often self-serving or meaningless. However, one can modify President Kennedy’s powerful speech in 1960 with my words italicized:
…..ask not what your country can do for you as far as a job—ask what you can do for your country.

There is an Expectation
There is an expectation that when you graduate with an engineering degree or diploma that you then need to seek out employment and a good job (preferably with a...

Dear Colleagues,

I know many of you will think I have lost the plot when discussing the KISS principle but it is a vital engineering philosophy. Most of you will know it means: Keep it Simple, Stupid (other variations are Keep it Short and Simple). This should be a key goal in all engineering design. Of course, there is no suggestion that the design engineer or the user of the equipment is stupid. It is just that this is a very effective principle.

In passing, I often say that we should make...

Dear Colleagues,

I am not suggesting that, as an engineering professional, you get put to death through negligence in your design or maintenance. But the old Code of Hammurabi stated 5000 years ago, that ‘If a builder builds a house and the house collapses and causes the death of the owner, that builder shall be put to death’.

Certainly, the Romans were also quite ruthless with execution of engineers who failed in the adequate construction of viaducts and bridges. Penalties are perhaps less...

Dear Colleagues,

Despite the depressed economy, up skilling is still very much alive and well. Although, who pays for it has changed dramatically over the past few years. An interesting recent report by Kelly Global Workforce Index, shows that more and more engineering professionals (amongst others) are proactively grabbing training opportunities themselves without relying on employers to provide them.

This is different to only five years ago, when companies used to budget for training of...

Dear Colleagues,

There is no way I can give you a silver bullet to writing well. As you can probably guess - I struggle enough as it is. My wife (an ex English teacher) reckons I am too convoluted and verbose. But one sure-fire way to improve your writing skills is to read more good books from outstanding authors. Unfortunately, this generally excludes often poorly written web copy, blogs and technical journals (with a few notable exceptions).

Why Bother about Writing Well?
It is vital to...

Dear Colleagues,

Diverging and dreaming outside the engineering box is a key attribute of innovation and creativity. A critical part of the creative process is to diverge from the initial concept – moving out from the initial point and examining the problem from many different directions (many probably hopelessly ludicrous and foolish as Steve Jobs remarked); branching out, discovering new ideas and then refining these different approaches.

Converge Creatively
Once you have a whole heap of...

Dear Colleagues,

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

There are incredible opportunities opening up in engineering and industry to apply these technologies and data to your work. When formerly inanimate objects can sense the environment and communicate, they become tools for...

Dear Colleagues,

Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.

(Attributed to Benjamin Franklin) is the basis of good mentoring for engineering professionals. Mentoring ranges from someone who wants to share his or her know-how and experiences (the mentor) with someone younger and less experienced. This ranges from helping kids and students to understand what engineering is about to counselling young engineering technicians and engineers of a firm (who are often...

Dear Colleagues,

Are you as frustrated as I am with the bewildering collection of communication and power cables between electronic equipment and computers around your office and home? Something we engineering professionals have to contend with as computer-based technology is a key part of our lives. Although I notice now that my 15yo teenage son has dispensed with all cables with his wireless headset (after breaking the cables for the umpteenth time).

A solution to this issue of eliminating...

Dear Colleagues,

I believe we have all had what we considered an excellent resume (cv) rejected at some time or other in our career. While I am not suggesting that you need to leave your current good job; it is good to keep in mind what is required and perhaps, in these uncertain times, to help a buddy who may need some support in writing his or her resume. This skill is vital whether you are an electrician or a chief engineer.

If you do an Internet search for ‘resume or cv writing’, you will...

Dear Colleagues

As you well know – many engineering companies talk about their incredibly innovative products and services; but these are often anything but innovative. Many companies avoid innovation until they are condemned to the scrap heap. And by this time it is too late.

Innovation is one of the key building blocks of a successful company. And perhaps one of the most uncertain and difficult.

Early Exposure Kills Innovation
The challenge when you try and innovate is that often early...

Dear Esteemed Colleagues

Perhaps you are not running a small (or large) business selling products and services; but you are undoubtedly offering some range of services or skills in terms of your job (e.g. electrical or mechanical engineer or technician working in a mine or in a power plant).

The Killing Ground
We all have heard of large companies ‘canning’ or killing off products and services which they believe have become unprofitable. You only need to think of the slew of magazines (and...

Dear Colleagues

No matter what your engineering discipline - you would have learnt about Ohm’s Law at some time or other (even at school). Herewith a simple application question which tests your conceptual knowledge.

Ohm’s Law
As we all (should) know, Ohm’s Law states that the current through a conductor between two points is directly proportional to the potential difference across the two points with the following formula:

I = V/R

where I is the current through the conductor in units of...

Dear Colleagues,

The level of industrial espionage is rocketing with almost daily reports of (often Chinese) hackers actively looking for trade secrets and intellectual property (IP). Although Chinese hackers are often regarded as the number one source of thieves; most trade secret thefts are actually from insiders (e.g. employees taking information out of the company with a USB-memory stick). Chinese companies claim that they have an enormous problem with hackers and IP theft. Most thieves...

Dear Colleagues

An engineering job can suck up all your time and energy and when combined with your daily home and personal life it is often hard to pause and reflect on whether you are happy or not. Many of you will remark that fighting life’s daily battles requires more than enough effort without worrying about issues such as happiness.

However, an interesting measurement of happiness is the rule of thirds for happiness.
This is based around the following principle.

Ask yourself Three...

Dear Colleagues

Most engineering professionals will readily confess that they are not overly enthusiastic about making presentations. Often the reason is that they are nervous, the presentations come across poorly and it is not a particularly pleasant experience for both the audience or the presenter. You’re unlikely to ever hear from someone, who has to attend a presentation, that they are looking forward to it.

However, doing a high quality presentation is a key part of every engineer or...

Dear Colleagues

Copper landlines sometimes referred to as POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service), seem to be reaching the end. The only reason for keeping them has often been for the alarm or emergency calls. However, even this need is being addressed with mobile connections. The main driver for the change to mobile connections is inevitably reducing costs – sometimes up to half the cost. Very few people today (mainly the elderly) only have fixed line phones.

In any event landlines aren’t always...

Dear Colleagues,

Power supplies are critical to most engineering systems. At some time or other; we are all confronted with a power supply design issue – no matter whether you are a mechanical or electronic engineering professional. Even those of us who are non-engineering professionals, will benefit from this concise set of tips which apply to you whether you are installing power supplies for a PLC control system, your pool chlorinator to designing at the electronic circuit board level.

1. ...

Dear Colleagues,

I watched (bemused) yesterday as a car reverse parked itself and considered the possibilities with the rapidly growing field of intelligent transport engineering. My brother-in-law grunted his dubious assent about the growth of the transport field as he had been involved in development of software for smart cards for transportation but the massively fragmented nature of the industry caused him considerably more pain than profit (he has since moved into the more lucrative and...

Dear Colleagues,

You’ve probably heard (with some irritation) the expression: ‘Get a life’. Well; research shows that if you want a longer, healthier and more fulfilled life; you should establish a purpose to your life with clear (achievable) goals. This not only applies to when you are in retirement but as an engineering professional working today.

When we are younger we are often overwhelmed with short term goals – getting a career under way; establishing a family; bringing up your kids...

Dear Colleagues

I always believe an engineering workplace should not be a place of anguish and pain but of (reasonable) satisfaction and enjoyment.

One day, however you may decide that the time has come to move on. Your job may have stagnated – growth in the company may have frozen – the company may have hit the wall due to bad decisions or a poor market - or someone may have joined the company and is making your position difficult. So a few suggestions on looking for a job while keeping your...

Dear Colleagues

Undoubtedly Winning is Vital but So is Integrity and Compassion

Over the past few months; we have seen numerous incidents of winning at all costs. Taking drugs, cheating, fraud and even killing competitors.

The pursuit of excellence – of achieving first place is undoubtedly a wonderful goal, whether it is in sport or in engineering. Having the best engineering design – or the most efficient energy design or the fastest machine. Or being promoted to engineering manager or...

Dear Colleagues

With the rapid growth of software in every device conceivable; the demand for software engineers and technologists is going through the roof. Some pundits (the IEEE) suggest that for every software engineer and technologist that is trained; there are probably three positions to fill in the real world. Many employers aren’t waiting for the students to graduate but are grabbing them while they are still in training.

Oddly enough, countries such as China and India although...

Dear Colleagues

Probably one of the most fascinating but critical improvements urgently needed for the new generation of electrically-based devices (from mobile phones to electric cars) with lower emissions is improved battery technology. Certainly there have been enormous amounts of money invested in finding better battery technology but the road has been rather rocky.

There have been attempts at other innovative storage technologies such as fly wheels. However, these are tricky to develop...

Dear Colleagues

I always get a bit twitchy when I write about negative topics – so please forgive me – but I will focus on the positives here. The big positive out of this blog is a humble set of suggestions on extracting every ounce of value out of your training dollars – whether it be you or your company paying.

Some suggestions are as follows:

Investigate the training course thoroughly before commencement. This means that you need to look at the training company’s previous presentations...

Dear Colleagues

Something which is sure to drive you crazy is having someone sitting next to you in an aircraft yammering away into their mobile phone. At this stage, as we all know, mobile phones are banned from use on a plane but there is a strong move to unban them for aircraft usage.

One myth that is prevalent is that mobile phones are banned because they disrupt an aircraft’s sensitive avionic systems because of their electromagnetic radiation. Not so at all. The ban on mobile phones...

Dear Colleagues

We all know that no one is indispensable – companies and people come and go. Even the owner or ‘boss’ of a business is often a fragile commodity. Bearing this in mind you could be cynical and indifferent - or work hard on building your career value to make yourself infinitely more valuable.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Make sure you are The Expert on an engineering or technology topic. Pick a “hot useful” topic, learn it inside out and use this know-how to contribute to your...

Dear Colleagues

Often, one of the most challenging things is to persuade your engineering colleagues to take a particular course of action such as telling them a different way is better, more effective, or just the right thing to do. When change is involved, as we all know, there is always enormous inertia in acting. Reactions range from outright hostility or resistance to indifference (as someone pointed out to me a few years ago – “re-engineering the already re-engineered corporation” –...

Dear Colleagues,

Is your new engineering graduate engineer, technician or technologist ready for the job? Do they find it easy to learn the key elements of their job? Did they get a great education focussed on practical outcomes? The answer to these questions is depressingly, no.

So we have to seize the moment and mentor ‘em.

What are young engineering professionals weak in?
The areas where newbies in the workplace are often weak is in communication skills, working in multidisciplinary teams...

Dear Colleagues,

As we all know – the Internet has made a huge impact on how we view the world. However, what is now happening is that the Internet is increasingly playing a part in the physical world and affecting how you view it especially with the rapid growth of mobile technologies. Think of your mobile phone or tablet. Not only can you access people scattered a few oceans away but you can also have localized information at your finger tips.

An ocean of data
If, like most of us, you live...

Dear Colleagues,

I think we are all subjected to written reports which are gibberish, unreadable and full of gobbledygook. Perhaps you even are guilty of writing like this? I know that I am.

An example of poor writing in a report on a problem with delivery

Technological problems and input product deficiencies combined to impact on the specified deliverable quality and estimated deadlines of the product. Extensive and unspecified (at this stage – pending further investigation) modifications...

Dear Colleagues,

Approximately a hundred thousand people are killed every month in traffic accidents around the world. If this was happening with aircraft; it is likely they would be all grounded. The number of cars is slated to increase from 1 billion (2010) to over 2 billion in 2020. Almost 90% of accidents are caused by human mistakes. Certainly, when I drive around town (I like to think I am a defensive & cautious driver!), I get alarmed with the quality of driving and the number of...

Dear Colleagues,

As engineers and technicians we tend to focus on the technical issues in the job and salaries are left behind.

Best Paying Engineering Degrees
Maria in our US office located an interesting document on engineering salaries in the USA in 2011 – produced by the respectable US Bureau of Labor and Statistics. Admittedly, if you live in another country or Outer West Waziristan, this would probably be of minimal interest but there are some interesting comments which do apply to you...

Dear Colleagues,

I am sure you are keenly aware of the conflict that often develops between the marketing/sales/business development and engineering functions of your firm.

Selling features which don’t exist
We often hear of marketing selling features of a product or service we haven’t developed yet (and often we had no intention of ever developing). On the other hand, marketing tends to regard engineering professionals as those who insist on high quality technical outcomes with no thought to...

Dear Colleagues,

Over a million robots toil endlessly in (particularly car) factories around the world. However, they are expensive, difficult to maintain and time consuming to program and only have a limited repertoire of activities.

Low Cost Robots equivalent to the PC
What many are calling for is a low cost equivalent to the ubiquitous PC. Obviously, one is after something considerably more reliable than the PC. A recent innovation by Dr Brooks (originally hailing from MIT) is a large...

Dear Colleagues

As former Apple evangelist, Guy Kawasaki, noted recently (in contradiction to the usual hype) – Silicon Valley’s core reason for success is not about venture capital, easy finance, legal structures or marketing but simply the engineering and computer science departments of Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley. A critical mass of engineers and engineering students has created an unprecedented level of ingenuity and innovation. This has resulted in an...

Dear Colleagues,

Over a million robots toil endlessly in (particularly car) factories around the world. However, they are expensive, difficult to maintain and time consuming to program and only have a limited repertoire of activities.

Low Cost Robots equivalent to the PC
What many are calling for is a low cost equivalent to the ubiquitous PC. Obviously, one is after something considerably more reliable than the PC. A recent innovation by Dr Brooks (originally hailing from MIT) is a large...

Dear Colleagues,

I wondered when I would write about this topic. Something which always amuses is the incredible longevity of some computers. In the context of IBM mainframes,as the old Roman sage, Ovid, living a few thousand years ago remarked:All things change; nothing perishes.

Ode to a  Mainframe
Many of you will no doubt remember the (Sperry Univac and IBM) mainframe (and indeed, minicomputers) - computers we worked with either on university campus or at work doing some form of exotic...

Dear Colleagues

Companies today are rapidly reducing tangible assets – buildings, machines and inevitably, people such as high cost engineering staff. And we know that there is a massive amount of outsourcing going on meaning jobs go elsewhere. This is all happening today and will eventually impact on you.

Companies Fail
The days of expecting a job for 30 years, say, from a company are rapidly diminishing. I clearly remember starting out in the diamond mining business as a junior engineer with...

The Engineering Institute of Technology (EIT) is dedicated to ensuring our students receive a world-class education and gain skills they can immediately implement in the workplace upon graduation. Our staff members uphold our ethos of honesty and integrity, and we stand by our word because it is our bond. Our students are also expected to carry this attitude throughout their time at our institute, and into their careers.