Hands-on engineers (for UK) (Dec. 1986)


A plea for a return to basic thinking and to career engineering in the UK.


Anyone following the depressing reports and comments on the British economy, specifically as seen in British engineering as a whole, might well be forgiven for thinking that the country had moved out of modern technology altogether.

Thus in an article with a strong software bias it is suggested that British industry is so far behind its competitors in the application of robotics and computer-based techniques generally that it has very little real future left.

Even R&D is not immune. The United Kingdom is quoted as having "...just about the worst performance (record) in research and development compared with out competitors in the Western world."* [* Lord Gregson, president of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee. Daily Telegraph, July 5, 1986. ]

Clearly, these are extreme views and do not represent the full picture but, equally clearly, there is some foundation for them (one has only to look at the trade figures to see something of this). Also, it has to be admitted that it is only recently that counter arguments have started to appear in print, while a further admission is that much of the information has to be inferred (is indirect). Nevertheless, it is in these recent utterances that a major element in the rebuttal lies, viz. education, where 'education' is used in its widest sense, extending from primary schooling to high-level apprenticeship and beyond. It is in this connection that the term 'hands-on experience' takes on a special significance in being used, in effect, as the subject heading for examination of the ways in which suitable candidates could be attracted into engineering as a profession.

The consequent implication is that there is a requirement for more engineers to be brought into the profession which, in turn, means that there are organizations in the UK who continue to see a future for engineering in this country, and furthermore would appear to be carrying out future planning on this basis. Much the same conclusions are reached in an article 'A scarcity of young talent stunts hi-tech expansion' (Edward Fennell, Daily Telegraph, June 17, 1986). Taken in the light of the opening examples, the climate has indeed changed; and the stage has been reached where 'next steps' should be considered.

Briefly, the introduction of the term 'hand-on' means that, contrary to the conventional management approach, the thinking now is that engineers should have had lengthy shop-floor experience with working plant and equipment. To gauge the extent of this requirement for experience, it is not out of place to consider the procedure adopted by the medical profession, where an initial 'bedside' period of seven years is undertaken by everybody, including those intending to become specialists, and for the latter is followed by a further seven year's training.

There is a parallel here and the salient point emerges that the building-up of a managing engineer's career demands that at least the classical seven years should be spent under apprenticeship conditions; and that this should be made completely clear in the process of attracting engineers into the profession.

This leads to the question of the image of engineering presented to the outside world.

It has become apparent that there is a need for the presentation of the case for British Engineering, with its image having virtually disappeared as the result largely of the emergence of the generic term high technology. This disappearance can be seen to have been inevitable, and coincided with the spread of the computer. It all forms part of a general picture where it is accepted by many (quite understandably) that technical life has become so complicated that no single individual, or even group, can possibly comprehend or manage a modern large-scale technological project. This is, in effect, the acceptance of the principle of subordination to the specialist; and, in practical terms, to the establishment of watertight-compartment-type organizations with all their attendant disadvantages.

Not everybody will agree with this reading of the position, but with all deference, it is suggested that much of the air can be cleared by defining 'high-technology' as 'advanced engineering permeated by electronics' which in relation to the British case means that the UK has been 'in' high technology from the beginning and does not have to catch up from an impossible starting point. Extending the definition to 'advanced system engineering permeated by electronics' shows that Britain has not only had a high-technology presence for so long but has been in the lead in many of the major system advances such as in computer-based process, power generation and control.

Thus, even from this brief outline, it becomes apparent that the experience and technical ability available in the United Kingdom are still more than sufficient for an international-scale contribution to be made.

This view can be reinforced by pointing out that the British power to invent is still regarded as unequalled. The importance of this power of invention lies in two main areas in the present context: the strength offered to project work by the adaptability and flexibility of thinking that comes with invention, and the ability to produce sub- and minor inventions which are so vital to development in an R&D program. That this represents only one element in such a program highlights the need for understanding (in the full sense of the word) coordination and direction of the whole project, that is, it brings out the magnitude of the task awaiting the managing engineer concerned.

This can be given form by using illustrations expressed in working language of some of the key principles involved. One outstanding issue arises with the need to make the maximum use of past experience in a new project and its conflict with the unknowns of the new. With a sufficient spread of experience and knowledge it is possible to decide when to analogize and when to start up new research; but this does demand informed technical judgment of a high order. In much the same vein, but at a somewhat different level, comes the need to determine when to go to the computer and when to use a pencil and the back of an envelope. (This is not original; although stemming from experience, it has appeared in print in serious discussion.) Another aspect which should be brought in here is that references are beginning to return to "The computer being only as good as the information fed into it"--computer cognoscenti have a less elegant way of putting it.

The magnitude of the task awaiting the managing engineer at the head of a project has already been stressed. This can be taken further in stating that one of his main concerns is to ensure that the masses of data which come in are split into orderly streams which can be analyzed and interpreted and put into practical engineering form (data marshalling). This process is far from being as simple as it looks, and whether it is, for example, for a far-reaching R&D project or for the complete design of a large scale control system, the need for the widest possible hands-on experience cannot be over-emphasized.

The final conclusion is that the need for staff of the highest caliber to be used applies even for minor fault investigation. This principle is so often obscured by the fact that the solution to a difficult fault turns out to be simple in the extreme --as with a good invention --and in retrospect it is not easy to see how the expenditure of so much effort was required. In response it may be added that one of the indirect objectives of working in this way is to ensure as far as possible that vital information is not missed, something which has to be borne in mind throughout the whole duration of a project.

This, then, is the final picture seen from the point of view of someone wishing to establish that there has been a return to a management attitude (virtually a change in way of thinking) which recognizes the importance of putting 'staff engineers' on work containing any form of unknown, even if it does seem beneath them. In parenthesis, it should be added that the world has been made fully aware that a single, isolated, elementary fault can cause the complete breakdown of the biggest installation both on Earth and in space.

The term 'staff engineer' has been chosen for what has become a somewhat indeterminate classification which, as already implied, is needed to cover those who provide the modern equivalent of "...designing works of public utility (given in the context of bridges, canals, gas works etc.)" as well as continuing to meet these original requirements of providing ultimate service to humanity. This is not the purely academic issue which it may seem --as many will know, this question of name, and all that goes with it, have exercised the minds of representative bodies over the years; and it is becoming increasingly clear that, on the grounds of defining responsibility alone, a satisfactory title has to be found for this vital section of the community.

This whole matter has been ventilated, perhaps slightly indirectly, by the writer in a Wireless World article (March 1985). The problem to be met here is that of relating educational qualifications to the name Chartered Engineer --an obvious choice. In the discussion given in the Wireless World article, apart from commending the HNC route, (particularly suited to 'generally' hands-on engineers) it is suggested that a return to giving recognition to the three R's would be more than desirable; and it is of interest that such a return in now being put forward as near-mandatory, literally at government level.

Also see: "If you want to know the time..."


(adapted from: Wireless World , Dec. 1986)

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