Blog - Steve Mackay

Dear Colleagues,

A topic I often avoid discussing is quality. Mainly because it conjures up ideas of masses of paper work and enormous costs with no discernible increase in the quality of a product or service.

However, someone for whom I have the greatest admiration is a fine electrical engineer, Edwards Deming, who as many of you will recall is often referred to as the father of modern quality control (and was single-handedly responsible for a massively positive impact on the quality of...

Dear Colleague,

A few years ago, I was somewhat surprised when we (and indeed others) launched an extensive range of renewable energy courses focussing on solar and wind power and found that the Interest wasn’t particularly high. In reading the newspapers and government rhetoric, one thought that everyone was ‘doing renewable energy’. The truth is obviously that most of us aren’t directly involved in building some exotic wind and solar energy installation. We continue to work in our...

Dear Colleagues

Often you have to write a short summary (referred to as an Executive Summary) for your managers or executives. These fellows (and gals) can be an impatient lot wanting the core ideas imparted with the minimal of technical jargon in action oriented prose. So that they can quickly act on the points you make with minimal cross fire from any one else. Thus you need to be hyper-efficient in your writing.

A few other issues you need to consider

  • What do you want to achieve with...

Dear Colleagues

We all experience setbacks and bad things particularly in our engineering work and our personal lives. I do often. Here are some great strategies to work through these times quickly and effectively. The key is to work through these to increase your likelihood of success in the future.

If you haven’t had a bad moment; you may not be trying hard enough in your job and are stuck in some comfort zone.

Bad things Vary
Often referred to as failures, perhaps you had a bad project...

Dear Colleagues

An interesting little (simple) brain teaser for you – no matter whether what discipline or type of engineering professional you are.

The Challenge
A tank at atmospheric pressure contains 1 kg of air. The tank is then pressurized with an additional 3 kgs of air. What is the resultant gauge pressure (in bars) in the tank after this 3kgs of air has been added? Absolute pressure = gauge pressure + atmospheric pressure

A. 1 bar
B. 3 bar
C. 4 bar

You could use the Universal Gas Law...

Dear Colleagues

As we all know, most electronic-based equipment and instruments generally contain some form of circuit board and bits of wire to tie the individual parts together. However, the assembly and manufacturing process in tying these individual wires and circuit boards together and then squeezing them into a tiny space can take considerable effort and consume a huge amount of space.

As we have discussed in earlier blogs, it is now possible to undertake 3-d printing of items ranging...

Dear Colleagues

If you have ever been involved with building a start-up firm you will probably realize that a lot of the stuff from business school is next to useless. Start-ups are not simply smaller versions of a standard business but something completely different. Universities have had a mixed record in transferring technology to the market.

It is my sincere belief that driving the creation of start-up firms – particularly in engineering are a critical part of our lives to create new...

Dear Colleagues,

A few weeks ago, I stupidly broke my right wrist (on a beach!) and a few years ago my ankle. Fortunately, after a few plates and screws all is well with no actual loss of a limb.

The purpose of this note is decidedly not to look for sympathy but to talk about the exploding opportunities for engineering professionals working in the field of prosthetics where loss of a limb is the focus.

What is a prosthesis?
A prosthesis, prosthetic, or prosthetic limb is a device that...

Dear Colleagues,

The art of negotiation can be a thorny topic. I always remember the comment from a guru who (sadly) remarked: “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 quantitative minds, we accept that the price must be right as it is generally set by others “who know better”. Or we believe it is...

Dear Colleagues,

Every successful engineering career involves troubleshooting and fixing at some time. Perhaps mainly remedying your colleague’s mistakes? The trick, I believe, is to keep your mind completely open when tackling the problem - to avoid pre-conceived ideas, as these can throw you off track.

The suggested steps for general engineering troubleshooting are as follows:

1. Identify the exact issue
When someone reports a problem to you; you can bet your bottom dollar this may not be...

Dear Colleagues,

Something most of us intuitively grasp; but which is worthwhile mentioning is the inverse relationship between costs of products and services and experience.

In essence, the more experience a firm has in producing a particular product or service, the lower its costs are. Fairly obvious one would think, but something we often don’t consider when planning a large project or job (especially one which has a degree of repetition in it). The Boston Consulting Group noticed that a...

Dear Colleagues

I was lucky to participate in a recent graduation of eleven electrical engineering students from a major power utility engaged in one of our three year diploma programs (easily equivalent to the first two or three years of an engineering degree and in some respects superior as there was an strong hands-on job-related component).

My speech went as follows….

You (and indeed your partners) have worked exceptionally hard on this qualification over at least three years and we...

Dear Colleagues

One of the concerns I always have when interviewing a stream of people for a job is the impact each of them have on the final decision you make. Or in deciding on the best project when confronted by a list of potential candidates.

Two psychologists, Uri Simonsohn and Francesca Gino, have noted that we are rather poor in using background information in coming to an individual decision. A good example is that of a judge concerned about appearing soft on crime; she would be more...

Dear Colleagues

I know you will recoil at yet another ‘good time’ story but surely James Dyson – the inveterate inventor (remember those bagless vacuum cleaners) - is an inspirational engineer. After I travelled through the UK recently and saw the gloom and damage bought on by the economic downturn; I have to admire this fellow for what he has accomplished in what is generally considered a tough time.

And from a financial point of view, he must surely be one of the most successful engineers...

Dear Colleagues

Even in today’s tough economic times, engineering professionals who are top of their game, are sought after and not easily made redundant. However, companies do morph and change with astonishing rapidity and you may not always feel comfortable with changes in your current firm, and look to alternative opportunities and employment. Sometimes; personal things happen that cause you to decide to move on (something unpleasant at work / death of a close friend /unexpected windfall or...

Dear Colleagues

The 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 harsh today; but consequences of negligence can be far more deadly due to the greater number of people using engineered facilities. Simply...

Dear Colleagues

As engineering professionals, most of you will be somewhat surprised to realize that you have a considerable amount tied up in your intellectual property (IP). “What intellectual property?” you may think, with some exasperation. But you will be surprised at how often the simple ideas that you have developed over many years become intensely valuable property. IP represents the property of your mind or intellect.

Surely, Apple – with its plethora of computers, iPads, iPhones and...

Dear colleagues
 
When I was considering studying electrical engineering (many years ago!); my dear father once reminded me with some prescience (although being a teenager it irritated me): ‘Remember my boy, with all your theory and design skills on paper; these are all nothing until you or one of the techies or craftsmen picks up the first screwdriver or soldering iron to start implementing your design’.
 
In engineering education, we emphasise theory, software and computer design skills to...

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.  So go a step further and drive yourself and your organisation into becoming more indispensable with a few strategies suggested below.

A few suggestions on being more indispensable in your job:

1.  Make sure you are The Expert in your firm on an engineering or technology topic. Pick a “hot useful” topic, learn it inside out and use...

Dear Colleagues

First of all, I would say that this note is not only about getting a better job but also in attracting more work to your firm. Many jobs today are based around a particular project starting up and eventually completing.

Statistically, it is said that up to 80% of new jobs are never advertised. So what you see on the job’s website and in the newspapers is only a poor shadow of the real activity going on below the surface. Similarly, new projects and work, is often not...

Dear Colleagues

A key part of every engineering professional’s job is troubleshooting some problem. In fact, arguably many engineers’ sole function (and the reason some are often paid very well) is troubleshooting and fixing intractable problems. Somewhat irritatingly is that it is often identifying and fixing other people’s errors.

The optimum approach is to keep your mind completely open when tackling the problem - to avoid pre-conceived ideas, as these can throw you off track. Naturally...

Dear Colleagues

I delight in those engineering professionals who have set up incredibly successful businesses (but am saddened by those – the majority – who have failed).  In these tough times, I do believe that for our economies to grow we need far more entrepreneurs providing services and products that improve productivity (including safety). The spin-off will be the employment of more people and more opportunities for engineering professionals to practise their skills. Engineers, being...

Dear Colleagues

We are flooded on a daily basis with too much data and because we are in such a hurry we often don’t verify the truth of an assertion. And then we take action based on these anecdotal assertions.

Some suggestions in your engineering work:
 
1. Assess anecdotal information carefully for facts, otherwise file it away as untested.

2. Trace and audit any data which you suspect is second hand - it may have been copied from another source and contain inaccuracies.

3. Use the ‘common...

Dear Colleagues

I must thank Andrew Brown for bringing this neat story (which many of you may have heard in the past). It reinforces the need to keep all your designs as simple and effective as possible (applying the famous “Keep it Simple Stupid” – KISS principle) and to apply common sense. Although an engineering design friend of mine often wryly remarks: Common sense isn’t so common around here.

The story goes as follows….

A toothpaste factory had a problem: they sometimes shipped empty...

Dear Colleagues

Thanks for all your feedback – I respond to every note within a few days.

The First Industrial Revolution
As wet-nosed kids at school, we all clearly remember hearing about the first industrial revolution in Britain during the 1800’s. Tasks done in a cottage industry basis such as weaving were brought together in large cotton mills in a ghastly factory setting. Similarly, with smelting iron ore – all converted into industrial factories with rigid rules of operation and filthy...

Perhaps the subject line is a rather frivolous ‘throw away’ line to many of you. However, the focus on engineering these days is keeping within the budget (don’t we know when we overrun on costs or recommend equipment which is too high quality?); maintaining safety margins; unbelievably detailed documentation on everything related to the design and extensive and unrelenting risk management. Engineering has steadily become very conservative with many unwilling to take risks in conceptual design...

I believe we get exposed to challenges to our ethics on a daily basis. Most of the time; we ignore these challenges but occasionally the price is high and we succumb ever so slightly (and silently).

In the nutshell – ethics is about - as the National Society of Professional Engineers indicates: Engineers, in the fulfilment of their professional duties shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public. This applies to all engineering professionals – no matter whether you...

I am sometimes inclined to agree with Thoreau who noted that ‘most people live lives of quiet desperation’ - people who are unhappy personally and in their careers. As far as the engineering or technology field is concerned - for some of us, it is working in technology-intensive environments (design/installation/configuration), but for others, it involves working in maintenance and operations, a less intensive environment.

Great Personal Wealth
And occasionally - for some there is great...

The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence’ can really gnaw at you. How can you make sure that you’re being paid what you’re really worth? Theoretically, your remuneration is based on the contribution you make to the business you work in. Other factors that impact on pay include: education, formal and informal training, type of engineering, technical experience, size of the company, responsibility level and the part of the country or world that you work in, and finally simply –...

Many of us get well rewarded for solving problems. In fact; arguably that is one of the top paying tasks in engineering. A good example - in the field of aviation - is that of Captain ‘Sully’ Sullenberger who saved hundreds of lives by bringing a passenger airliner down safely into the Hudson River after both engines had catastrophically failed - probably involving seconds in his entire career, or Red Adair putting out horrendous oil fires, or the astronauts bringing Apollo 13 back safely...

As I looked down our street and saw the rows of rubbish (or garbage) bins neatly parked with military precision waiting for them to be taken away, I wondered at the millions of other examples of rubbish throughout the world. I am also acutely aware of the massive increase in packaging used from groceries to plastic bottles for everything. In the old days (yes!); we used to use paper bags for groceries. I insist on carrying groceries and items from the local corner side shop (where...

Many of us tolerate unbelievably bad ‘broadband’ in remote locations with so-called DSL. Very high speed fiber-to-the-kerb is only a dream. There is thus much animated discussion about the possibilities with the relatively new Long-Term Evolution (LTE) Wireless standard that is going to be the solution to all our problems. This particular standard promises download speeds of 100 Megabits/second and peak rates of up to 300Megabits/second. It is reckoned that this will challenge copper...

I watch my 14yo son with some bemusement when he expertly uses Google to search for information for school projects or simply to find out about something that intrigues him. He is reluctant to use my favourite source of information – books. There is a massive paradigm shift that is occurring at present where people are using search engines from Google, Yahoo and Microsoft to secure the knowledge, information and data they require by simply typing a request into a search engine. Know-how...

Yesterday I was slumped listening to a highly experienced engineer doing a rather mediocre presentation for motivating the development of a new product. He received a rather cool response although I know his product concept was excellent. He would have got far better results if he had followed some simple rules as far as presentations.

What was wrong?
The presentation which lacked lustre used a plethora of power points and words, often delivered in a monotone and all tightly compressed...

Many of us work in manufacturing and probably wonder where this sector is headed. I am not an economist and I would be the last to confidently predict the future. But a few thoughts here.

As engineering professionals we are all acutely aware of how rapidly changing technology continues to shape how goods are manufactured. Probably, at an increasing rate, change in technology is even more profound with growing influences from previously ‘technology followers’ such as China and India; who...

First of all – best wishes for the Christmas festive break. I hope 2012 is a fearsomely good year for you and the world economy starts to grow strongly again.

Whether you are a brickie, fitter or chief electronics design engineer you will have undoubtedly heard of ‘apps’. There is now a huge growth in demand for app writers. A skill and job that wasn’t around even five years ago. When ever one thinks of an app; one would think of flashy (mobile) games running on a smart phone. However...

Many of us work in manufacturing and probably wonder where this sector is headed. I am not an economist and I would be the last to confidently predict the future. But a few thoughts here.

As engineering professionals we are all acutely aware of how rapidly changing technology continues to shape how goods are manufactured. Probably, at an increasing rate, change in technology is even more profound with growing influences from previously ‘technology followers’ such as China and India; who...

Jay Leno, the ubiquitous and entertaining but abrasive (?) talk-show host uses his ‘Big Dog Garage Team’ to maintain his fleet of very old cars and motorbikes. Recently his team had to fabricate a feedwater heater for his 1907 White Steamer. An innovative approach was done using a 3D scanner to create a detailed digital model of the part; this was then fed to a 3D printer which made an exact copy in plastic (over 30 odd hours) which was then machined from solid metal.

A Rapid Drop in...

Have you been working for a number of years as an engineering professional and have steadily moved into interdisciplinary practice? Where you examine the total system rather than simply one element of it. Further to this; are you proactive, demonstrate leadership & initiative, can communicate well, think laterally and outside the box and are solutions oriented? If so; perhaps you should consider that you are indeed a systems engineer. Or are rapidly on your way to becoming one.

The...

Recently, there have been some rather twitchy concerns that the current high levels of unemployment in many countries such as the USA and Europe are here to stay. And there has been much discussion that the high levels of automation of tasks (from IT to industrial automation) are the main cause of the collapse in the need for as many workers as in the past.

The Luddites
This is often referred to as the Luddite Fallacy, where improving productivity would mean that we are all out of work...

I must confess that I was always faintly disparaging of motor sport as a ‘real’ sport but driving with forces of more than 4.5g, heart rates exceeding 180 beats per minute, dehydration an ongoing threat and gigantic leaps in blood pressure (~50%) must surely mean that as a rally driver you have to be superbly fit. Coupled with the ongoing threat to your life (remember these horrific crashes over the past few weeks) and the need to be utterly focussed on your driving and the variation...

have always maintained that we don’t sell ourselves enough. And let’s face it; selling yourself isn’t about simply flogging a product or service or trying to schmooze yourself on a disbelieving recipient. But about being adept on promoting ourselves in terms of one’s skills/a pet project or simply one’s abilities to perform a job. Engineering professionals tend to avoid any hint of salesmanship as it is considered demeaning and we think that at the end of the day technical excellence will...

The first patent was granted in Florence in 1421; a few years later King Henry VI of England granted the first modern patent for making coloured glass for cathedral windows.  And recently, one of the most sweeping changes to United States Patent Law was signed into law by Barack Obama on September 16th. But there are huge problems with patents – especially software ones, that as an engineering professional you need to be aware of.

A patent has three main requirements: that it is for a...

A few weeks ago, an al Qaeda operative sitting on his pick-up truck deep in Yemeni desert was taken out by a missile from an American drone. There has been a rapid escalation in the use of drones which are also referred to as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Typically with a support crew of almost 200 people to keep them flying, they each cost millions of dollars apiece and have a virtual pilot located up to ten thousand kms away operating at their controls and another officer reading the...

I never realised how protracted and complex the litigation would be when I was approached by a contractor to support them as an expert witness in securing payment for a massive installation they had done for a so-called 'smart bridge'. The client felt the bridge wasn't smart enough (and was susceptible to undetectable dangerous conditions such as high winds).

Smart bridges (including other smart structures) are where all the different areas in engineering neatly converge – mechanical...

It happened in a flash, a few months ago. A colleague and I were vigorously debating some engineering issue in a little café on the sidewalk, and there was a commotion next to our table. He turned to refer to his laptop computer to and it was gone. Stolen and never to be retrieved. Actually, the computer itself was fairly worthless but the data on it – gathered laboriously over weeks on soil resistivity measurements - was very valuable and was gone forever. There was no one lurking behind...

It is often refreshing to rip out old technology and replace it with a state of the art system when the bean counters (unwittingly, perhaps) sign off on a new project. As we know, it is often a frustratingly slow business interfacing new equipment to an existing system; so starting fresh is often an exhilarating prospect. However there is a significant amount of older automation equipment still around from the 1990’s (and indeed, even earlier when you look at some oil and gas and mining...

Two particularly contentious topics in these economically challenging times are outsourcing and offshoring. There has been a boom in these areas over the past decade but there are signs of significant problems. I am sure we can all think of factories and services which have been moved to countries far away. Most of the outsourcing (subcontracting out the work) and offshoring (to foreign countries) occurs due to the  perceived massive savings. As we know, this is a simplistic view and it is not...

Most of our planet comprises seawater and with a salt content of 3.5% this needs to be reduced to <0.05% (or less) to make it drinkable. Some of the older processes used distillation which requires about 10 kWh of energy per m3 of seawater. The seawater is heated up and the resulting water vapour is condensed into drinkable form.

The other popular approach is reverse osmosis with semi-permeable membranes which sieve out the sodium and chloride ions (constituents of salt) and only pass...

People learn 70% of what they know about their jobs through informal means (US Bureau of Labor Stats – 1996). So stop pouring your money into formal training without pausing to consider these other more powerful options. Not through formal courses. Or training workshops.

Formal training accounts for only 20% of what people learn at work (from Jay Cross). Was it wisely spent? In many cases, I doubt it. Our experience leads us to believe that a two day short course is great. The instructor...

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.