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How Engineering Has Truly Shaped All Aspects Of My Life

I’m one of those “engineer” people and it has been a subtle, (and at times, not so subtle), undercurrent to my entire life. From moments of self analysis, (a risky proposition even when encouraged with margaritas or an excellent single malt scotch) I’ve decided that I was born with an engineering bent. That is, I’ve always had an “engineer outlook” that has shaped itself and shaped me over seven decades.

By the way, just to clarify things – I’m not the kind of engineer that drives the train. I’ve never commanded any rail vehicle bigger than an HO scale model – at least not yet.

So what is that “engineering bent?”

Settle yourself into a desk in the 1960’s for a two semester hour class called Introduction to Engineering GE201 as taught by John J. McKetta, Dean of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. The class has no tests and no homework. You pass by attending and listening – and learning – and getting scared out of your wits by examining some of the failures that led to the collapse of bridges, dams, buildings, and other epic disasters. By the way, Dean McKetta lived to the ripe old age of 103, despite numerous assaults upon his sanity by certain students.

A Physicist, Mathematician And Engineer Walk Into A Bar…

He told an old joke/story/line/whatever that the instant knowledge of the internet has antiquated, but it’ll still give you insight into the engineering mind at work.

There are three students in a graduate technical project management class. One was a physics major, the second was a math major, and the third was an engineering major. The professor gave them a homework assignment to develop a management program to determine the best way to cook a five pound roast.

The Physics Major

“My project team will purchase 198 roasts and carefully trim them as necessary to exactly five pounds. We’ll calibrate 198 ovens so that they will accurately heat to exactly the required temperature. We’ll similarly calibrate all our timing devices. When everything is ready, we’ll start with the first 18 roasts and cook one of them at 200°F for 10 minutes, the second roast for 20 minutes, and so on at increasing 10 minute intervals up to 180 minutes. The second 18 roast will be cooked for the same time distribution but at 225°F. 

We’ll continue increasing the temperature by 25°F for each set of 18 roasts until the final 18 will be cooked at 450°F. Next we’ll hire a panel of twenty renowned five star chefs to evaluate each roast. Based upon their unbiased professional opinions, the perfect time and temperature for cooking a five pound roast can be determined with five sigma accuracy.”

The Math Major

“My team will model the roast and calculate the necessary time and temperature required to cook the roast to perfection. As animal flesh is mostly water, we’ll consider a five pound mass of water and to simplify the calculations we’ll assume the roast (the water) is exactly spherical and suspended weightless in the center of a spherical oven.

To be properly cooked, the exact center of the roast, and thus the sphere of water, needs to reach a temperature of 150°F while the exterior of the roast, and accordingly the sphere of water, needs to remain below 180°F to avoid drying out and scorching. Since the water in animal flesh can’t move around and thus cannot transfer heat by convection, we’ll only need to consider the heat transfer rate of water by conduction.

We’ll set up a simulation on the university’s new CDC 6600 computer (first of the “supercomputers”) and model the heat flowing into the roast (the water) on a molecule by molecule basis based upon an extrapolation of Maxwell kinetic heat theories as generalized in the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution equations. This will provide us with a definitive means for determining the required temperature and time for perfectly cooking the roast.”

The Engineering Major

“Well – I thought it over, then bought a five pound roast, called my mom and she said to cook it at 350 degrees for an hour and forty minutes.  By the way – it was delicious.”

This isn’t a dig at scientists and mathematicians – particularly since I’ve worn those hats at times myself – but at the different approaches to problem solving.

Engineering: Balancing Time And Money

Engineers live with the inflexible constraints of scope, budget, and time. We’ve got to construct the “whatever,” we’ve got to construct it with the available money, and we’ve got to construct it in a fixed time period.  We never have enough money, never enough time, and we can’t build what we want, but have to build the minimum whatever that will accomplish the stated goal.

Here’s an example of the “engineer me” at work just in the last week.

My books had overflowed yet again and were covering every available horizontal surface. (I suspect they’ve been breeding in the dark.) I did a quick survey and found that all the available wall space was covered with book cases – except the hallway. Okay, I need yet another “book storage rack.” I’ve got the tools, knowledge, and experience to build a master class bookcase that in three hundred years would be a prized antique to someone. In my spare time I could have it ready to go in a few weeks.

My Engineering Mind At Work

I took some measurements, drove over to IKEA, spent $69 plus tax, and hauled home a hefty box containing particle board and wood laminate.  I spent 15 minutes assembling it and it looked okay but would never grace the cover of Art and Antiques. I looked over the cheesy nylon strap and drywall anchor that was included to anchor it to the wall – and the engineer mentality of watching the “real disaster films” so long ago kicked in again.

I got out the stud finder, rummaged through the “odds and ends” collected over many years, and anchored it to the wall with a pair of steel angles and some three inch furniture screws. Even if King Kong climbed up it, it wouldn’t tip over. I loaded up the book clutter and checked the time – two hours start to finish including the IKEA travel time.

One of my computers is an old Windows XP box that I use to run legacy software that can’t run on a newer operating system. When I flipped the switch, the panel LED’s seemed to indicate it was booting up, but I never got any video. Hmmm – bad video card, motherboard problem, maybe even one of the power supply rails, or what? I’ve been living with computers since 1959 and again have the tools, knowledge, and experience to take it apart, find the problem and replace the whatever. Instead I loaded the tower up and drove over to the local computer geek shop. Ten minutes and $45 later, a new power supply was installed and I was out the door.

My truck developed a miss that persisted for a few minutes until the engine warmed up. Same song, second verse. I could drag out my tools and spend the time tracking down the problem. Instead I drove over to a mechanic friend’s shop who said before he even looked at my truck, “That engine model has a bad habit of fouling the number 8 plug.” He spun out the spark plug, which was indeed fouled, cleaned it up, regapped it, and spun it back in. Problem solved. My expenditure was an hour of time and a couple of cold beers.

After I parked at the grocery store, I saw a distraught young lady on the phone to her mom. Someone had backed into her car and crushed the rear quarter panel down onto a rear tire. She and mom were discussing getting a tow truck. I stopped and looked it over, then said “Hold off calling for a tow.” I got a tire iron from my truck, wedged it between the tire and panel, and bent the panel up and away from the tire. “You’ll still need to replace the quarter panel, but at least you can drive home.” A couple of minutes saved her a couple of hundred on the tow.

Practicality Matters

Engineers above all else need to be “practical.”  They need to realize early what can be done – and what can not. I find myself continuously torn between seeking perfection and taking the “practical” way out. I’d like to have had an heirloom bookcase, but I needed it now and didn’t have the time to devote to seeking a perfect bookcase. I could have replaced computer parts until I fixed the problem – and likely ended up buying and replacing some perfectly good components before I found the real culprit. I could have done the same repairing my truck. And, I could have just walked on by in the parking lot.

We all have a tendency to make mountains out of molehills. How many “projects” in life escalate to the point where they cost tens times the money and time that we anticipated? And when that happens, how often do they get abandoned? How often are our goals unrealistic – and unreachable? We all need to develop a bit of the “engineer” mentality.

P.S. The reason I was at the grocery store was to buy a five pound roast – which I cooked for an hour and forty minutes at 350 degrees. And yes, it was delicious!

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Reeves Motal
Reeves Motal
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