Blog - Steve Mackay

Last week's announcement by HP that it would stop making tablet computers – not particularly long after it had launched them - was a shock for many of us. In their early days, HP were always a company strongly focussed on engineering professionals. In the past year, mainly in response to the overwhelming success of the iPad launched by Apple led by the inimitable Steve Jobs, HP and a few others had launched Tablets based on the WebOS and Google's Android operating system.
 
Apple has over...

Conflict is a key part of our lives as engineering professionals. Especially these days with so much change occurring. Conflict is a verbal (or indeed non-verbal) expressed disagreement between individuals or groups. It may occur, for example, between an engineering supervisor and employee, or manager and supervisor. And, as you all know, conflict can even exist within an individual – for example, when one part of you wants to stay at home and rest while another part of you knows you...

Thanks for the great response last week on basic skills for engineering professionals - many of the responses listed at the end.

Virtual Engineering Groups
In varying degrees, most of us are working virtually in groups undertaking our engineering work. From use of email to skype and sometimes, web and video conferencing; we are all moving to working together with colleagues and friends at far flung locations connected only over the internet. You might be working in a virtual group building a...

There is a technology that touches all of us – no matter what area of engineering you are active in and that is of course – good old Ethernet. And one of the biggest and dare, I say useful changes has been Power over Ethernet (PoE) and this note is to clarify what it is and to show you how you can take advantage of it. Being engineering, there is inevitably a twist in the tale of using PoE though, as discussed later.

One of the big frustrations today is having to provide a deluge of...

Dear Colleagues

One of the best investments I ever made in my basic skills
was learning to touch type thirty years ago (yes - on a typewriter). Admittedly,
being the only (geeky) boy in the class, I was somewhat intimidated by the dozen
girls in the class; but a mere 20 hours investment, has been worth tens of
thousands in terms of a real payback. There are many other basic skills which
we tend to neglect but are critical to our engineering careers and personal
lives. Obviously, you do need...

Dear Colleagues

I used to jo-ke (mistakenly) that the only secure way of protection of your control system from cyber att-acks is having an ‘airgap’ (i.e. your industrial control system has no connection to the internet or the ‘outside world’).

As we all know, one of the enduring myths of control systems has been that the highest level of se-curity is in ensuring no physical connection between the industrial automation network and the firm’s business network (and thence probably the...

As far as I am concerned, the 'Cloud' everyone is talking about these days, is potentially some used car operator next door to your premises offering you rental of his computer system so that he can make a quick buck. Perhaps an unfair accusation.

No matter whether you are a fitter or technical director of a multinational company you will be touched by cloud computing. With many new openings and threats arising from the movement of your computing requirements to the cloud.

What exactly...

Dear colleagues

Are we reaching the end of the road with the relentless continuous drop in computer prices and surge in performance? There are some interesting changes lurching into view. Intel has been the forerunner in CPU chip design (with 80% of the market for PC CPUs) but the ending of Moore’s Law and incredible growth in mobile devices such as smart phones and tablet computers are going to have an impact on your life shortly.

Why do you need to bother about this stuff? Well –...

Dear Colleagues

 

Many of us have the natural impulse to acquire ‘new stuff’. Whether it be a state-of-the-art computer / mobile phone / programmable logic controller or indeed, circuit breaker. However, older technologies are often better.

 

No where better to illustrate this, than a big problem in bioengineering currently playing out in the USA for tens of thousands of people (some estimates are up to half a million in the USA alone) who received metal-on-metal artificial hips which have...

Dear Colleagues

Even as long ago as the 1970's, our engineering school saw massively declining enrolments in power systems engineering. Everyone wanted to undertake the high tech type electronics courses. Students were unexcited by power engineering as they perceived it to be old, inflexible and industrial ‘smoke stack’ type engineering. As students we were rather daunted by working with gigantic pieces of switchgear and generating sets (can anyone remember ‘Ward Leonard’ generation ?)...

As we know – engineering professionals hugely underestimate their contribution and role in industry and the community. An interesting commentary from Albert (‘Al’) Koenig, past-statutory head of the Office of EnergySafety Western Australia (who now mixes diverse consulting interests with time on his beloved Bertram35). He feels strongly about safety in the workplace and the public domain, especially when it comes to electricity. An extract on the age old topic of earthing/ground practice...

Dear Colleagues

Why do some engineering professionals rise rapidly to the top of their organisations? Admittedly some of you will remark grimly that it is due to their superior politicking abilities. Probably very true on occasion. But for engineers and technicians to be successful, you do need something more. And sadly for the traditional engineer and technician - technical skills are not enough today. Probably somewhat distressing for a new engineering graduate to hear this. As we have all...

I become quite motivated and energised when I meet people passionate about their work. I have always believed one of the main keys to success in engineering is simply being passionate about what you do. Whether it is in business or your personal life; passion is the driving force. This is undoubtedly challenging with the shifting demands made on an engineering professional today.

An ex U-boat commander was passionate

I have come across many engineering professionals who are absolutely...

I am currently on a roadshow presenting on a variety of subjects from industrial data comms and process control to electrical arc flash protection, which makes me think faintly of ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ but there you go. Thanks for the hundreds of participants for rocking up. Bela Farbas of Australia made some comments on one of my earlier notes and these brought a wry smile. He has gracefully allowed me to reproduce all his comments below.

Bela Farbas says: I would like to...

If you are a true engineering professional, never let your age be of the slightest interest to you. It is completely irrelevant. You only need to look at the vast army of older highly experienced engineering professionals adding enormous value to seek inspiration.

Physically fit and lean, Vernon is one of our 'youngest' engineering instructors (but aged 68yo), constantly studying new technologies and presenting a superb course on Gas Turbines. In this respect, he has solid experience ranging...

In the late seventies, medical electronics was a pretty tough business. I remember doubtfully fingering a huge rather primitive heart pacemaker for some (presumably) live patient, designed at our engineering school, while Christiaan Barnard, the heart surgeon, gave a brief (we were but mere engineering students) but passionate lecture on the importance of medicine and technology in improving the quality of life (but not prolonging it unnecessarily).

The number one growth job
The New York...

We are almost half way through the year. Hopefully you are one of the 14% who keep your New Year's resolutions especially in terms of your engineering career ? Some suggestions below from those who have achieved success in their career. Peter Drucker, the famous management guru, remarked that first of all one has to set one's vision of one’s career to higher sights and then commit to achieving this.

Some suggestions to boost your engineering career today:

  • Make sure you have a business...

Dear Colleagues,

Electrical and mechanical engineering professionals often lose track of important issues in each other’s field. Mechatronics is an excellent example of multidisciplinary engineering often combining state-of-the-art mechanical and electrical engineering with control and instrumentation thrown in.

Some tips follow for the mechanical guys in creating the best design taking consideration of the electrical issues (adjusted from Dan Throne’s note). This will help optimise the...

Dear Colleagues

The process of capturing and retaining the attention of other people has such simple rules but is nevertheless often ignored by engineering professionals. I freely admit that I am not a particularly good presenter; but these rules help me enormously in getting good results in my presentations.

Naturally, before you do your actual presentation, a golden rule is to practise practise till you are blue in the face until you have it flawlessly executed. Preferably present to...

'Until the first electrician picks up a screwdriver to implement your clever engineering design, all your theory is meaningless, my lad' was a remark my dad used to not infrequently make to me.

When I was a young engineer, I trained under a number of cra-ftsmen – who taught me all about fitting and turning, boilermaking, cabinet making, welding and electrical work (and it was surely an exasperating experience for them). A team of engineering technicians in a nearby electronics workshop...

Dear Colleagues

One of the workhorses in industry – no matter whether you are in industrial automation, electrical or mechanical engineering, you are likely to be confronted with one of these little fellahs - a Programmable Logic Controller or PLC (or indeed, Programmable Automation Controller – PAC).  A critical cheap building block for all automated systems. Effectively, an industrially hardened digital electronic device in which a sequence of instructions are stored, which enable the...

Dear Colleagues

Perhaps like you, I tend to get somewhat peevish when confronted with yet another ghastly software package or computer interface which is unusable without considerable (indeed mind altering) training. And yet, surely usability is one of our most vital missions or requirements when designing and building a product (or indeed in delivering a service).

I always suggest in our software projects, much to amusement of our programmers, that you should design the (often...

Dear Colleagues,

I constantly feel bankrupt for good engineering ideas or in solving thorny problems. A colleague gave me a few good suggestions as per below. And a great 30p. chapter on pH measurement from our analytical instrumentation manual at the end of this note.

Engineering professionals have to be rational, sensible and regimented in their thinking with the critical work they are doing. You can’t go around being irrational when working on a high voltage system or designing a...

Dear Colleagues,

Unconventional Wisdom about Management and Power - why some people have it and others don't by Jeffrey Pfeffer (professor of management at Stanford) has some useful tips for engineering professionals. As we have discussed extensively in the past, to ahead in your company and career, it is sadly not enough to be technical competent and sharp. Jeffrey reckons the following elements are critical to career success:

Ambition - you must believe in yourself and where you want...

Dear Colleagues,

When NASA lost an expensive Mars orbiter (which burnt out descending too quickly) because a Lockheed Martin engineering deparment mistakenly used English units of measurement while NASA used the metric system for a key spacecraft operation, many of us probably sighed and thought of incorrectly configured software and data once again. According to yet another report (Standish), only 32% of software projects are successful with 24% outright failures.

However with the...

Dear colleagues

No doubt, you have all experienced IT and other forms of technical support. Often a highly frustrating experience punctuated by moments of sheer brilliance and genuine caring. A few tips are given below for both the guys providing support and those enduring (IT especially) support in an honest attempt to improve the experience. Computers are an integral part of our lives as engineering professionals and the support should be considerably better than what we tolerate...

Dear Colleagues

Last week, I sighed in horror when I walked into a noisy hot industrial chemical plant and spotted the office-type commercial Ethernet hardware being used (with those weak RJ-45 connectors). Sure – you spend less money and get freely available off-the-shelf components, but you may get more problems than you bargained for. Admittedly this network is apparently still operating happily despite huge vibration, heating, power supply and moisture issues. But the risk is high...

Dear Colleagues

I see in a slew of recent newspaper reports that companies are increasingly hiring those technical specialists who have soft skills. To be quite frank with you, the need for engineering professionals to acquire soft skills often sounds like some sort of bizarre cop-out. As we all know, acquiring hard engineering skills and know-how is a tough and drawn out process – not only from studying but from hard won and often painful experience.

However, there is plenty of other...

Dear Colleagues

When it comes to extensive use of CAD-based drawings, I sometimes wonder whether this comment is true: ‘What we call progress is the exchange of one nuisance for another nuisance’ (Havelock Ellis). My good sparring partner, Dermot Kennedy (CEO of the firm I&E Systems – systems engineers) will perhaps forgive me for perhaps misquoting him below on an area he is passionate about – fixing our broken drawing systems, with some great suggestions, based on his work over the...

Dear Colleagues,

Is your local engineering graduate engineer, technician or technologist ready for the workforce?

According to a recent report* focussing on American graduates – apparently not always. Nothing new, for most of us in the work place, though.

The areas where newbies in the workplace are reportedly weak is in lacking in communication skills, unskilled in working in multidisciplinary teams and practical problem solving in dealing with real work issues are weak. Apparently, current...

Dear Colleagues

The ‘pot’ or potentiometer as it is called, is one of the workhorses of electrical and electronic engineering. I believe we can all still remember working with a pot on some sideline design or in a work related application. They have been around a long time. There are more sold than any other form of position sensor. Simple, cheap and small with no real obsolescence problems. So as Mark Howard asks: Why today does every designer look for a non-contact alternative?

Going...

Dear Colleagues

I always have a surge of guilt and am twitchy about the rows of rubbish bins lining our street early in the morning (presuming drunken teenagers the night before haven't thrown them all on their sides, of course). All off to landfill. And duplicated at millions of other homes throughout the world every week or so. I don't believe we can continue this dumping process much longer. It is simply unsustainable.

There were some peevish comments from some about putting our downloads...

The New Year beckons with some urgency. I am currently lounging around magnificent New Zealand with family but have been inspired by the activities of the engineering professionals here who have done such a brilliant job with design, manufacture and export of everything ranging from dairy products (and other agricultural products), engineering design services, boating, heavy engineering equipment to state-of-the-art broadcast systems.

And I have probably left a lot out. All from a population...

As engineering professionals we are all trained to be logical and rational and rely on proven facts in making decisions. The approach with engineers is to vigorously apply the blowtorch to any concept which is rather nebulous and stick to solid engineering design practice. However as Margot Cairnes, a leadership strategist recently pointed out: ‘This often means being conventional, boring and underperforming (when creating solutions to difficult problems). In a changing world, creativity...

Dear colleagues

First of all - best wishes for a great 2011 and thanks for reading this. The signs are that this is going to be an excellent year for engineering professionals - no matter where you are in the world, the demand for your services is rapidly increasing. As we have the northern hemisphere in the grip of a ferocious winter, a few thoughts on the technology and engineering of skiing and snowboarding and how it reflects on your engineering work.

On the overall physics, there...

Dear Colleagues

I am always filled with some horror when I look at the quality of documents I have put together some time ago. So, an improved version on Myths and Best  Practice with industrial data communications and hazardous areas at the end of this. Forgive my terse dispatch this week, but I am on the road drumming up support for our engineering degree programs from various universities and accreditation authorities.

Here I list some practical guidelines when applying your next...

Dear Colleagues,

As an engineering professional, you have no doubt come across MCCs (or motor control centres) at some time in your life. This is an assembly of one or more enclosed sections having a common power bus, mainly containing motor control units. This can include variable frequency/speed drives, PLCs and metering. Typically, but not exclusively, used for low voltage 230 Vac to 600Vac motors. Each motor controller contains a contactor, overload relays, fuses or circuit breaker...

Dear Colleagues

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 semi-conductor company’s unit cost of manufacturing fell by about 25% for each doubling of the volume produced. Hence the conclusion that costs can decline...

Dear Colleagues

The splatter of body parts and guts in the nightly feast of crime and police shows has made forensics a household name. And the emphasis today has shifted to high tech forensic methods which make the scientist and engineer a key individual in solving some dastardly crime. A few engineering colleagues are involved in forensics and I have always been fascinated by their painstaking and meticulous work (and indeed hourly rates which are similar to that of our wealthier...

Dear Colleagues

Imagine scanning a broken part that is no longer available (for your vintage car) into your computer and then printing out (in 3-dimensions) a replacement in plastic in 60 minutes. A few further adjustments and then you print out the finished version (which you may also give to a machinist to make a metal copy of). This is what is happening today throughout the world – a good example being Mr Jay Leno (the well known hated and loved celebrity) who has his own 3-d printing...

Dear Colleagues

I think we all agree. Batteries are critical to the development of portable (electrical) devices. And lithium-ion batteries have been up there in driving the portability revolution. Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries hold more charge in a lighter package (as lithium is the lightest metal – hydrogen is not a metal) and have dramatically improved the performance of phones to small electric aircraft. But they do have one drawback – they charge and discharge too rapidly (and the...

Dear Colleagues

‘You see things; and you say Why? But I dream things that never were; and I say Why not? (George Bernard Shaw). I believe that one of the great signs of leadership is in questioning what you do, in identifying new ways of doing things and taking your co-workers or organisation to innovative and new territory.

Leadership is something that all great engineering professionals should work on achieving. Business and life is extraordinarily turbulent at present. And I believe...

Dear Colleagues

Please forgive me dear (engineering) reader (and perhaps, gardener) but surely there is nothing more irritating than the strident noise of lawnmowers or mulching machines with their staccato crackling sound on a quiet Saturday afternoon ? In my book, silence is often more desirable than privacy. This short note is on noise and why and how we deal with it.

The decibel

The decibel was created in the 1920’s by the Bell Telephone Labs and is widely used in audio...

Dear Colleagues

‘A sheet of graphene (a form of carbon that appears as hexagonal shapes arranged in a flat layer) the same thickness as plastic refrigerator wrap, stretched over a coffee cup, can support the weight of a truck bearing down on a pencil point’ (New York Times).

Besides being incredibly strong, it is an unimaginably thin material, stiff and yet stretchable, a super conductor of electricity and the best known conductor of heat. And it is chemically inert. Although only...

Dear Colleagues

Recently a motorist had his finger chopped off so that thieves could steal his expensive car. He was using biometric based fingerprint identification for the car. In applying biosecurity technologies, my concern and experience has been the slowness of the technology in identifying an individual. Not so much how reliable the technology is. But indeed, this reliability issue is perhaps its greatest weakness in terms of identifying all humans uniquely.

Why bother to read...

Dear Colleagues

‘The explosive nature of a pipeline,is not far away from the force of a military explosion.’  So remarked Jim Hall, former (American) NTSB chairman. As recently as 2008, a natural gas explosion in Sacramento, killed one and injured two others. And in San Bruno, California on the Sept 2010, a high pressure natural gas line exploded killing seven people and injuring more than 50 others. As an aside, the San Bruno pipeline’s design was such that ‘smart pigs’ couldn’t be used...

Dear Colleagues,

It is all quite frustrating - the more you learn about a particular technology, the less you feel you know – esp. in the context of measuring flow rates. The story of engineering, I guess. Flowmeters touch us in every engineering discipline; hence it is definitely worthwhile pondering the latest and numerous developments in flowmeter technology and how you can take advantage of them. Obviously, the main improvements in all flowmeters have been in the electronics...

Dear Colleagues

Imagine deriving the entire power for a country from hot rocks a few kms below the earth’s surface. Read on about a clever (but very difficult) technology to extract energy from a virtually inexhaustible pollution free source, which as engineering professionals you need to be aware of, as you may be called to comment on.  However, as experts have pointed out, drilling into fractured granite is technically very challenging with no power produced commercially as...

Dear Colleagues

Most people tend to underestimate or misunderstand energy savings – according to the latest research that is. We tend to focus on insignificant savings such as upgrading light bulbs and twiddling thermostats. Most people grasp the broad and basic issues about energy savings; but they are decidedly unsure about the details, especially when estimating. Apparently participants in the research underestimated both energy use and savings by almost a factor of 3. They also...

Dear Colleagues

Windpower is shaping up as the main source of renewable power and the key competitor to fossil fuels; although apparently 85% of wind projects overestimated their production. As we all know with the uncertainty of wind, there are problems with getting the power at the right time. And storage of power generated when the wind is really pumping is still a tricky area. So this is where an entirely new field of statistics is developing – this is a vital part of generating wind power...

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