This is the second in a series of posts reflecting on my route to becoming an engineer. In the first one I described how I chose a degree in mechanical engineering so that I would have appreciation of the technical difficulties that engineers might cite when requesting operational changes for a ship that I hoped one day to command [see ‘Reasons I became an engineer: #1’ on April 19th, 2023]. I think I selected mechanical engineering because it provided a broader engineering education than other engineering degrees and I did not know enough to choose any other branch of engineering. I went to the University of Sheffield and during vacations returned to the Royal Navy serving onboard HMS Active and flew out to join her wherever she was in the world, except when I went to the Royal Navy Engineering College at Manadon outside Plymouth to undertake engineering applications training. I cast a brass nameplate, which I still have in my office, and made a toolbox that I also still have at home. After graduation, I returned full-time to the Royal Navy as a sub-lieutenant and started my career as a naval officer in the executive or seaman branch. However, I did not settle and missed engineering so I asked for and was refused a transfer to the Royal Corps of Naval Constructors who work on the design and development of warships. As a result, I resigned my commission in the Royal Navy and got a job as a research assistant in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Sheffield where I registered for a PhD in engineering. I had taken a positive step towards becoming an engineer but perhaps on the premise of what I did not want to do rather than what I did want to do.
Tag Archives: engines
Horsepower driving ambition
Walking across Kensington Gardens in London last week, on my way to attend a conference on Carbon, I came across the sculpture in the picture. It is ‘Physical Energy’ by George Frederick Watts (1817 – 1904), which really confused me because I automatically started thinking about the sort of energy that is associated with horsepower. Horsepower is a unit of power (energy per unit time) developed by James Watt (1736 – 1819) to evaluate the output of his steam engines. The plaque below the sculpture calls it a ‘sculptural masterpiece; a universal embodiment of the dynamic force of ambition’ and states that the artist described it as a ‘symbol of that restless physical impulse to seek the still unachieved in the domain of physical things.’ So, while the connections seemed obvious to me, it would appear that Watts was not inspired by Watt.
The conference was interesting too. There were delegates from all over the world presenting research on a wide range of topics from new designs of batteries to using carbon as an sorbent for toxins, carbon-based composites and self-assembly of metal-organic meso-crystals. Two students that I have supervised were presenting their research on establishing credibility for models of the graphite core in nuclear power plants and on algorithms for identifying the surface morphology in samples of graphite.
Letting the grass grow while learning some engineering
Last month was #NoMowMay during which we were encouraged to let the grass grow and allow bees, butterflies and other wildlife to thrive unmolested by your lawnmower. Our townhouse in the centre of Liverpool does not have enough space for a lawn so I have not mown a lawn since we moved here from the USA nearly a decade ago. In the USA we followed the convention and maintained our front lawn as manicured green carpet by watering daily, mowing weekly and feeding it monthly during the summer. An automatic sprinkler system looked after the watering and a lawn service provided monthly doses of chemicals; however, we walked up and down behind the lawnmower each week. Much to my disappointment, our garden was not really large enough to justify a garden tractor or sit-on mower which has been a dream since I learnt my first self-taught engineering by ‘repairing’ my father’s green ATCO lawnmower when I was about 10 or 12. I was not allowed lift the bonnet or hood of the family car; and so as the only other piece of mechanical engineering in the garage that has an engine, the lawnmower became the focus of my attention. I suspect that old lawnmower did not run any better as a result of my ministrations but I certainly understood how an internal combustion engine worked by the time I went to university. I am an enthusiastic supporter of letting the grass grow, perhaps with a mown pathway so that the lawnmower has to be re-assembled periodically by whichever budding engineer has dismantled your lawnmower.
Source: Joy Lo Dico, How the lawn became a no-mow area, FT Weekend, 29/30 May 2021.
Image: An ATCO 17-inch petrol lawnmower similar to the one mentioned above, from http://www.lawnmowersshop.co.uk/atco-17-inch-self-propelled-petrol-lawnmower-b17.htm
Digital twins that thrive in the real-world
Digital twins are becoming ubiquitous in many areas of engineering [see ‘Can you trust your digital twin?‘ on November 23rd, 2016]. Although at the same time, the terminology is becoming blurred as digital shadows and digital models are treated as if they are synonymous with digital twins. A digital model is a digitised replica of physical entity which lacks any automatic data exchange between the entity and its replica. A digital shadow is the digital representation of a physical object with a one-way flow of information from the object to its representation. But a digital twin is a functional representation with a live feedback loop to its counterpart in the real-world. The feedback loop is based on a continuous update to the digital twin about the condition and performance of the physical entity based on data from sensors and on analysis from the digital twin about the performance of the physical entity. This enables a digital twin to provide a service to many stakeholders. For example, the users of a digital twin of an aircraft engine could include the manufacturer, the operator, the maintenance providers and the insurers. These capabilities imply digital twins are themselves becoming products which exist in a digital context that might connect many digital products thus forming an integrated digital environment. I wrote about integrated digital environments when they were a concept and the primary challenges were technical in nature [see ‘Enabling or disruptive technology for nuclear engineering?‘ on January 28th, 2015]. Many of these technical challenges have been resolved and the next set of challenges are economic and commercial ones associated with launching digital twins into global markets that lack adequate understanding, legislation, security, regulation or governance for digital products. In collaboration with my colleagues at the Virtual Engineering Centre, we have recently published a white paper, entitled ‘Transforming digital twins into digital products that thrive in the real world‘ that reviews these issues and identifies the need to establish digital contexts that embrace the social, economic and technical requirements for the appropriate use of digital twins [see ‘Digital twins could put at risk what it means to be human‘ on November 18th, 2020].