Tag Archives: perfection

Certainty is unattainable and near-certainty unaffordable

The economists John Kay and Mervyn King assert in their book ‘Radical Uncertainty – decision-making beyond numbers‘ that ‘economic forecasting is necessarily harder than weather forecasting’ because the world of economics is non-stationary whereas the weather is governed by unchanging laws of nature. Kay and King observe that both central banks and meteorological offices have ‘to convey inescapable uncertainty to people who crave unavailable certainty’. In other words, the necessary assumptions and idealisations combined with the inaccuracies of the input data of both economic and meteorological models produce inevitable uncertainty in the predictions. However, people seeking to make decisions based on the predictions want certainty because it is very difficult to make choices when faced with uncertainty – it raises our psychological entropy [see ‘Psychological entropy increased by ineffective leaders‘ on February 10th, 2021].  Engineers face similar difficulties providing systems with inescapable uncertainties to people desiring unavailable certainty in terms of the reliability.  The second law of thermodynamics ensures that perfection is unattainable [see ‘Impossible perfection‘ on June 5th, 2013] and there will always be flaws of some description present in a system [see ‘Scattering electrons reveal dislocations in material structure‘ on November 11th, 2020].  Of course, we can expend more resources to eliminate flaws and increase the reliability of a system but the second law will always limit our success. Consequently, to finish where I started with a quote from Kay and King, ‘certainty is unattainable and the price of near-certainty unaffordable’ in both economics and engineering.

Finding DIMES

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the ‘INSTRUCTIVE final reckoning’ (see post on January 9th).  INSTRUCTIVE was an EU project, which ended on December 31st, 2018  in which we demonstrated that infra-red cameras could be used to monitor the initiation and propagation of cracks in aircraft structures (see Middleton et al, 2019).  Now, we have seamlessly moved on to a new EU project, called DIMES (Development of Integrated MEasurement Systems), which started on January 1st, 2019.  To quote our EU documentation, the overall aim of DIMES is ‘to develop and demonstrate an automated measurement system that integrates a range of measurement approaches to enable damage and cracks to be detected and monitored as they originate at multi-material interfaces in an aircraft assembly’.  In simpler terms, we are going to take the results from the INSTRUCTIVE project, integrate them with other existing technologies for monitoring the structural health of an aircraft, and produce a system that can be installed in an aircraft fuselage and will provide early warning on the formation of cracks.  We have two years to achieve this target and demonstrate the system in a ground-based test on a real fuselage at an Airbus facility.  This was a scary prospect until we had our kick-off meeting and a follow-up brainstorming session a couple of weeks ago.  Now, it’s a little less scary.  If I have scared you with the prospect of cracks in aircraft, then do not be alarmed; we have been flying aircraft with cracks in them for years.  It is impossible to build an aircraft without cracks appearing, possibly during manufacturing and certainly in service – perfection (i.e. cracklessness) is unattainable and instead the stresses are maintained low enough to ensure undetected cracks will not grow (see ‘Alan Arnold Griffith’ on April 26th, 2017) and that detected ones are repaired before they propagate significantly (see ‘Aircraft inspection’ on October 10th, 2018).

I should explain that the ‘we’ above is the University of Liverpool and Strain Solutions Limited, who were the partners in INSTRUCTIVE, plus EMPA, the Swiss National Materials Laboratory, and Dantec Dynamics GmbH, a producer of scientific instruments in Ulm, Germany.  I am already working with these latter two organisations in the EU project MOTIVATE; so, we are a close-knit team who know and trust each other  – that’s one of the keys to successful collaborations tackling ambitious challenges with game-changing outcomes.

So how might the outcomes of DIMES be game-changing?  Well, at the moment, aircraft are designed using computer models that are comprehensively validated using measurement data from a large number of expensive experiments.  The MOTIVATE project is about reducing the number of experiments and increasing the quality and quantity of information gained from each experiment, i.e. ‘Getting Smarter’ (see post on June 21st 2017).  However, if the measurement system developed in DIMES allowed us to monitor in-flight strain fields in critical locations on-board an aircraft, then we would have high quality data to support future design work, which would allow further reductions in the campaign of experiments required to support new designs; and we would have continuous comprehensive monitoring of the structural integrity of every aircraft in the fleet, which would allow more efficient planning of maintenance as well as increased safety margins, or reductions in structural weight while maintaining safety margins.  This would be a significant step towards digital twins of aircraft (see ‘Fourth industrial revolution’ on July 4th, 2018 and ‘Can you trust your digital twin?’ on November 23rd, 2016).

The INSTRUCTIVE, MOTIVATE 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, No. 754660 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.


Middleton CA, Gaio A, Greene RJ & Patterson EA, Towards automated tracking of initiation and propagation of cracks in Aluminium alloy coupons using thermoelastic stress analysis, J. Non-destructive Testing, 38:18, 2019