Tag Archives: Engineering

Engineering correspondents needed

Society’s perception  of scientists and engineers is not well-balanced; scientists tend to get the headlines when they make new discoveries while engineers are only in the headlines when things go wrong.  Even worse, when I was a student, the successes of the NASA’s space shuttle were usually reported as scientific achievements while its problems were engineering failures; when the whole programme was an enormous feat of engineering!  Perhaps this is because news organisations tend to have science correspondents and editors but no engineering correspondents.  When you search for engineering journalism jobs most of the results relate to roles associated with the technology of journalism; whereas a search for science journalism jobs results in dozens of vacancies for science writers, correspondents and editors.  The lack of engineering correspondents has been evident in the UK during the past week in reporting about the potential bursting of the dam at Toddbrock Reservoir and flooding of the town of Whaley Bridge in Derbyshire UK.  A 188 year old dam has been damaged by the turbulent flow of water over its spillway following unprecedented levels of rainfall (e.g. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-derbyshire-49222956). There is little discussion of the significant achievement of the Victorian engineers who designed and built a dam in the 1831 that has lasted 188 years or that climate change is causing shifts in weather patterns which have altered the design specifications for engineering infrastructure including dams, bridges and sea defences.  We need more journalists to write about engineering and preferable more journalists who have been educated as engineers particularly as society starts to face the potential existential threat caused by climate change and over-population.

For more on the nature of engineering, and its relationship to science, see ‘Making things happen‘ on September 26th, 2018; ‘Engineering is all about ingenuity‘ on September 14th, 2016 and ‘Life takes engineering‘ on April 22nd 2015.

And on the communication skills of engineers: ‘Poetasting engineers‘ on March 4th, 2015 and ‘Einstein and public engagement‘ on August 8th, 2018.

Joining the dots

Six months ago, I wrote about ‘Finding DIMES’ as we kicked off a new EU-funded project to develop an integrated measurement system for identifying and tracking damage in aircraft structures.  We are already a quarter of the way through the project and we have a concept design for a modular measurement system based on commercial off-the-shelf components.  We started from the position of wanting our system to provide answers to four of the five questions that Farrar & Worden [1] posed for structural health monitoring systems in 2007; and, in addition to provide information to answer the fifth question.  The five questions are: Is there damage? Where is the damage? What kind of damage is present? How severe is the damage?  And, how much useful life remains?

During the last six months our problem definition has evolved through discussions with our EU Topic Manager, Airbus, to four objectives, namely: to quantify applied loads; to provide condition-led/predictive maintenance; to find indications of damage in composites of 6mm diameter or greater and in metal to detect cracks longer than 1mm; and to provide a digital solution.  At first glance there may not appear to be much connection between the initial problem definition and the current version; but actually, they are not very far apart although the current version is more specific.  This evolution from the idealised vision to the practical goal is normal in engineering projects.

We plan to use point sensors, such as resistance strain gauges or fibre Bragg gratings, to quantify applied loads and track usage history; while imaging sensors will allow us to measure strain fields that will provide information about the changing condition of the structure using the image decomposition techniques developed in previous EU-funded projects: ADVISE, VANESSA (see ‘Setting standards‘ on January 29th, 2014) and INSTRUCTIVE.  We will use these techniques to identify and track cracks in metals [2]; while for composites, we will apply a technique developed through an EPSRC iCASE award from 2012-16 on ‘Full-field strain-based methods for NDT & structural integrity measurement’ [3].

I gave a short briefing on DIMES to a group of Airbus engineers last month and it was good see some excitement in the room about the direction of the project.  And, it felt good to be highlighting how we are building on earlier investments in research by joining the dots to create a deployable measurement system and delivering the complete picture in terms of information about the condition of the structure.

Image: Infra red photograph of DIMES meeting in Ulm.


  1. Farrar & Worden, An introduction to structural health monitoring, Phil. Trans. R Soc A, 365:303-315, 2007
  2. Middleton, C.A., Gaio, A., Greene, R.J. & Patterson, E.A., Towards automated tracking of initiation and propagation of cracks in aluminium alloy coupons using thermoelastic stress analysis, Nondestructive Evaluation, 38:18, 2019.
  3. Christian, W.J.R., DiazDelaO, F.A. & Patterson, E.A., Strain-based damage assessment of accurate residual strength prediction of impacted composite laminates, Composites Structures, 184:1215-1223, 2018.

The INSTRUCTIVE and DIMES projects have received funding from the Clean Sky 2 Joint Undertaking under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreements No. 685777 and No. 820951 respectively.

The opinions expressed in this blog post reflect only the author’s view and the Clean Sky 2 Joint Undertaking is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.

Pareto principle in train travel

The moral of this story is don’t travel with me.  Last week, I wrote about my train being delayed by someone pulling the emergency handle before we got to the end of the platform in Liverpool [see ‘Stopped in Lime Street’ on June 26th, 2019].  Four days later, I was once again on a late afternoon train to London waiting for it to leave Lime Street station.  This time we didn’t even get started before the train manager announced that a road vehicle had hit a bridge between Crewe and Liverpool; and, so we were being held in Liverpool for an unknown period of time.  I sent a message to my family telling them about the delay and one, an engineer, replied that I was ‘hitting the low frequency failure modes on the service quality pareto’.  The Pareto principle is also known as the 80/20 principle.  I first encountered it when I was working at the University of Sheffield and the Vice-Chancellor,  Professor Gareth Roberts, used it to describe the distribution of research output in academic departments, i.e., 80% of research was produced by 20% of the professors.  In service maintenance, it is assumed that 80% of service interruptions are caused by 20% of the possible failure modes.  Hence, if you can address the correct 20% of failure modes then you will prevent 80% of the service interruptions, which is an efficient use of your resources.  The remaining, unaddressed failure modes are likely to occur infrequently and, hence, can be described as low frequency modes; including passengers pulling emergency handles or people driving vehicles into bridges.

How do you drive into a bridge and block the main railway lines between London and the north-west of England?  Perhaps the driver was using their smart phone which was not smart enough to warn them of the impending collision with the bridge.  So, there’s a new product for someone to develop: a smartphone app that connects to dashboard camera in your vehicle and warns you of impending collisions, or better still just drives the vehicle for you.  Yes, I know some vehicles come with all of this installed but not everyone is driving the latest model; so, a retro-fit system should sell well and protect train passengers from unexpected delays caused by road vehicles damaging rail infrastructure.

By the way, the 14:47 to London magically became the 15:47 to London and left on time!

Meta-knowledge: knowledge about knowledge

As engineers, we like to draw simple diagrams of the systems that we are attempting to analyse because most of us are pictorial problem-solvers and recording the key elements of a problem in a sketch helps us to identify the important issues and select an appropriate solution procedure [see ‘Meta-representational competence’ on May 13th, 2015].  Of course, these simple representations can be misleading if we omit parameters or features that dominate the behaviour of the system; so, there is considerable skill in idealising a system so that the analysis is tractable, i.e. can be solved.  Students find it especially difficult to acquire these skills [see ‘Learning problem-solving skills‘ on October 24th, 2018] and many appear to avoid drawing a meaningful sketch even when examinations marks are allocated to it [see ‘Depressed by exams‘ on January 31st, 2018].  Of course, in thermodynamics it is complicated by the entropy of the system being reduced when we omit parameters in order to idealise the system; because with fewer parameters to describe the system there are fewer microstates in which the system can exist and, hence according to Boltzmann, the entropy will be lower [see ‘Entropy on the brain‘ on November 29th, 2017].  Perhaps this is the inverse of realising that we understand less as we know more.  In other words, as our knowledge grows it reveals to us that there is more to know and understand than we can ever hope to comprehend [see ‘Expanding universe‘ on February 7th, 2018]. Is that the second law of thermodynamics at work again, creating more disorder to counter the small amount of order achieved in your brain?

Image: Sketch made during an example class