This is third in a series of posts reflecting on my path to becoming an engineer. In the previous one, I described how I left the Royal Navy and became a research assistant at the University of Sheffield in the Department of Mechanical Engineering [see ‘Reasons I became an engineer: #2’ on May 3rd, 2023]. My choice of research topic was dictated by the need for a job because I had to buy myself out of the Royal Navy after they had sponsored my undergraduate degree and I needed a salary to allow me to make the monthly payments. So, I accepted the first job that was offered when I went back to the University to talk about my options. I worked on investigating the load and stress distributions in threaded connections with a view to designing bolted joints that would be lighter, stronger and with a longer life. We used a combination of finite element modelling [see ‘Did cubism inspire engineering analysis?’ on January 25th 2017] and three-dimensional photoelasticity, which is an experimental technique that has fallen out of fashion [see ‘Art and Experimental Mechanics’ on July 17th, 2012]. I was fortunate because all of my work as a research assistant went into my PhD thesis which although not ground-breaking resulted in several journal papers [see ’35 years later and still working on a PhD thesis’ on September 16th 2020] and, with the help of personal contacts, a post-doctoral fellowship at the Medical School at the University of Calgary, Canada. In Calgary, I worked on the design of experiments to measure the stress in the pericardium, which is a sac that surrounds the heart – still engineering but a major shift in focus from industrially-focussed mechanical engineering toward biomedical engineering.
Image: Fringe pattern in section of photoelastic model of jet engine showing distribution of stress from Patterson EA, Brailly P & Taroni M, High frequency quantitative photoelasticity applied to jet engine components, Experimental Mechanics, 46(6):661-668, 2006.
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.
This is the first in a series of posts in which I am going to reflect on my route to becoming an engineer. These events happened around forty years ago so inevitably my recollections probably have more in common with folklore than reliable history. Nevertheless, I hope they might be of interest.
I was good at mathematics at school but also geography and when required to specialise at the age of sixteen would have preferred to study mathematics, geography and perhaps economics. However, my parents and my school, had other ideas and decided that partnering chemistry and physics with mathematics would give me more opportunities in terms of university courses and careers. Physics was manageable but Chemistry was a complete mystery to me. I left school shortly before my eighteenth birthday and joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman. I went to Dartmouth Naval College where, as part of my training to become a seaman officer, I was taught to march, navigate, fight fires, sail yachts, drive motor launches and fly helicopters as well as spending time with the Royal Marines. After my basic naval training, which included time at sea on HMS Hermes, I went to University sponsored by the Royal Navy with a free choice of subject to study. So, I chose Mechanical Engineering because I thought as an officer on the bridge of a ship, perhaps eventually in command of a ship, it would be useful to understand what the engineers were talking about when they asked for a change in operations due to technical difficulties. At that stage in my life, I had no intention of becoming an engineer, but with hindsight it was my first step in that direction.
More than a decade ago, when I was a Department Head for Mechanical Engineering, people used to ask me ‘What is Mechanical Engineering?’. My answer was that mechanical engineering is about utilising the material and energy resources available in nature to deliver goods and services demanded by society – that’s a broad definition. And, mechanical engineering is perhaps the broadest engineering discipline, which has enable mechanical engineers to find employment in a wide spectrum areas from aerospace, through agricultural, automotive and biomedical to nuclear and solar energy engineering. Many of these areas of engineering have become very specialised with their proponents believing that they have a unique set of constraints which demand the development of special techniques and accompanying language or terminology. In some ways, these specialisms are like the historic guilds in Europe that jealously guarded their knowledge and skills; indeed there are more than 30 licensed engineering institutions in the UK.
In an age where information is readily available [see my post entitled ‘Wanted: user experience designers‘ on July 5th, 2017], the role of engineers is changing and they ‘are integrators who pull ideas together from multiple streams of knowledge’ [to quote Jim Plummer, former Dean of Engineering at Stanford University in ‘Think like an engineer‘ by Guru Madhaven]. This implies that engineers need to be able work with a wide spectrum of knowledge rather than being embedded in a single specialism; and, since many of the challenges facing our global society involve complex systems combining engineering, environmental and societal components, engineering education needs to include gaining an understanding of ecosystems and the subtleties of human behaviour as well as the fundamentals of engineering. If we can shift our engineering degrees away from specialisms towards this type of systems thinking then engineering is likely to enormously boost its contribution to our society and at the same time the increased relevance of the degree programmes might attract a more diverse student population which will promote a better fit of engineering solutions to the needs of our whole of global society [see also ‘Where science meets society‘ on September 2nd 2015).