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Tuesday, 17 December 2019

The joy of Engineering

One of my friends here is an engineering graduate of the prestigious TU Wien - the technical university. It markets itself as the European centre of technical excellence. Academic standards and demands on students there really are extremely high. It's a joy to talk in the language of Newtons - or Pascals, as they both quantify the same 9.81 - with someone whose face doesn't cloud over in blank incomprehension. But there's a gulf between us. A month or so ago in my workshop, in answer to a question, I said "about three eighths". Being British of a certain age I have no problem seamlessly moving between metric and imperial. He reached for his mobile phone calculator and tried to recall the complex equation he'd been taught for such conversions. "Twenty five point four divided by eight times three" I threw out. "No!" he was genuinely upset "You're ... mixing them! You can't mix them!". "Sorry" I apologised "I learned my engineering in Doncaster, not Wien". This is the same friend who answered, when I asked what the German was for 'over-engineered', and after he had solemnly consulted google, that there was no such term in the German language.

It confirmed what I'd long known - that I'd learned my engineering from the finest teachers in the world, the mechanical and electrical engineers who had been nurtured themselves by the National Coal Board from apprentices to graduates and post-graduates to Chartered Engineers. They had spent their time underground amidst the heat and piss and muck as well as their time in the lecture rooms. Neither did we soft would-be young quarry engineers pose them any challenge. "My name is Gerald Alass" announced one mech. eng. lecturer  on his first day "Some call me all-arse. I don't mind that. It takes a big 'ammer to drive a big nail."  I pray today please, please, let these people still exist - we need them now more than ever.

William Hague in the Telegraph - whom I think it's now safe to read again,if he's been purged of his Remainerism by Boris' victory, writes today
Alongside investing capital in infrastructure, we need the growth of human capital. Your problem, if you’re sitting in Rotherham, is not just that you can’t travel quickly to an international business based in Manchester. It is also that you probably don’t have the right expertise when you get there.
Universities have done much to bring more dynamism to many northern cities, but we all know by now that we are not short of graduates. British industry complains continually of shortages of technical and digital skills. And if we are going to build so much infrastructure, tens of thousand of additional people with construction skills will be needed. A decisive change in our woeful record of promoting vocational skills, both for young people and adults who need retraining, is the vital ingredient for rescuing millions of people from being left behind by technological change.

This is where ministers need to be more ambitious than their manifesto. Many laudable commitments were in there – 20 institutes of technology, a new National Skills Fund, and a requirement to use UK apprentices on infrastructure projects. But in the forthcoming reorganisation of government departments, and any reshuffle of ministers, this ought to be a prime focus. The country needs a revolution in the esteem accorded to technical studies, the ease with which anyone can move between skills training and higher education, and the ability of current workers to use the same system.
A voice on the radio yesterday whose name I can't recall suggested we need also a prestigious and world-class institution of our own of the sort that TU-Wien aspires to be - an MIT, a Manchester Institute of Technology. I fully support that. We already have either 4 or 5 universities in the global top 20 - whilst the entire EU27 has exactly none. While the US has both the original MIT and CalTech in the global top 10, our contenders are Oxford and Cambridge - institutions that may produce competent civil servants, but won't win the UK the international tech race.

And at the risk of sounding Northist, this human capital formation will best take place north of a line drawn from Bristol to the Wash. Sorry, but it just will.

24 comments:

Bloke in North Dorset said...

One of my lecturers when asked what is an an engineer:

"Anyone can build a bridge that stays up, an engineer is someone who builds a bridge that just stay up".

I suppose that also answers the over-engineering question.

Scrobs. said...

"Being British of a certain age I have no problem seamlessly moving between metric and imperial."

With you there Raeders...

The Hammersmith version of an MIT meant week-day evenings with two Standard Methods of Measurement, Imperial and Metric, and, in line with your engineering friend, a real engineer tutor with a respected day-job in the industry, whose teaching inspired at the start, but deflated after about an hour, when he would revert to the way 'Paddy would sort out all the reinforcement in a suspended slab with his bare hands...'

Shouldn't we mention the skills of Scottish engineers as well at this stage?

JPM said...

It's a pity that the professional openings for so many engineers of all flavours in manufacturing look likely to be adversely affected by the UK's exit from the European Union.

According to the Leave campaign's beloved Patrick Minford, writing for The Sun tabloid newspaper, in 2016, “if we left the EU, it seems likely that we would mostly eliminate manufacturing, leaving mainly industries such as design, marketing and hi-tech. But this shouldn’t scare us.”

9.81 is the acceleration due to Earth's gravity, in metres per second per second. The Newton is a unit of force, a kilogram-metre per second per second. The Pascal is one of pressure, a Newton per metre squared.

Yes, they are dimensionally related, but g is not defined by them. It is measured observationally. Perhaps you meant that.

In did my engineering at UCL in the 1970s, before broadening out.

DeeDee99 said...

I can't see any of our existing universities turning themselves into a vocational "MIT." We need a new one.

James Dyson (Brexiteer, natch) has already identified the need and created the Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology. Located in Malmsbury, it just about qualifies for the location in Raedwald's "vision."

Dave_G said...


I thought we were meant to take our new engineers from the multitude of immigrants flooding Europe - rocket and brain scientists to a man....

Whilst I have no issue moving between imperial/metric my dear wife has difficulty between millimeters and centimeters or even identifying the two scales on a tape measure.


terence patrick hewett said...

As professional engineer I can assure that UK unis are still producing innovative engineers and scientists in significant quantities. As far as conversions go - just log on to Engnet and convert anything to anything. Today's engineers are as good or better than they ever were.

Mark said...

Hmmmm

Engineering at UCL?

You didn't have much of a clue about Planck's law as I recall.

Your trolling can at time be amusing. However, there are threads that do not really lend themselves to it, this being one.

JPM said...

It's the climate science ignorers, well science ignorers, who don't grasp Planck's Law, nor absorption spectrums, nor much else, Mark.

John in Cheshire said...

A minor point perhaps: I don't want the government to invest my money, I can do that myself. I want them to spend it on the things they have been elected to spend it on.

When I go to the opticians for example I don't invest in a pair of spectacles, I spend my money to buy them.

Government isn't there to invest, which implies there is a profit to be made. It is there to spend my money wisely on minimum necessary infrastructure and services that meet my needs.

DiscoveredJoys said...

Yes, an engineering University of Excellence would be a good idea as long as the strategy goes beyond producing highly skilled degree level engineers. We also need a pool of 'engineering practioners' for the day to day engineering works. Otherwise we might hit the problems we have with our nurses... many excellent people but most are degree qualified, at great expense, when sometimes what we really need is 'just' a team of dedicated people that care for patients and can clean them cheerfully.

We need a mix of clever people and those that are willing to get stuck in. It's not one set of people but two partially overlapping sets.

Mark said...

You didn't have a clue. Admit it!

Dave_G said...


@ John 09:01

Investment (true investment) must be matched by efficiencies in that there are a lot more areas where cutbacks can be made that will be of equal if not greater importance.

HS2, foreign aid, climate subsidies (if JPM believes in science can he claim 'the science is settled' over CC?) etc.

We're talking up to a £trillion on those three items alone.

Science (STEM) subjects should be made fee-free at Uni imho - let the social studies and fluff subjects pick up the tab.



David said...

Agreed, Britain really ought to get back to its engineering roots from which most of the rest of the world benefited.
However it should once again teach the far more accurate Imperial system rather than the - close enough, that’ll do - metric nonsense.
See how those foreign Jonnies would get on with this below, seen a while back at LegIron’s blog.



Metrication is helping destroy the richness of our language, 2.54cm by 2.54cm, and I will go the extra 1,609m to stop this – fighting 0.914m by 0.914m and 0.305m by 0.305m, I will defend every 0.405 hectares, every 5.03m, 5.03m and 5.03m of this rich terrain. I will 0.454kg on their doors, and use every 28.3g of my strength to impede their efforts. I’m off now, but not 201m!

Nigel Sedgwick said...

Harking back to Bloke in North Dorset's comment at 17 December 2019 at 06:17, the way I was 'taught' it follows: one which I find more to the point and more simply expressed.

An engineer can make for sixpence, what any fool can make for a shilling.

And, of course, that also throws up a different experience of metrication.

Best regards

Nigel Sedgwick said...

Raedwald gripes at the UK's lack of any technical universities along the lines of TU Wien. I am not sure that he is right, as the UK already has the Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine - of which I am a (science) graduate. I remember it as always very strong in engineering. I also note that it features always in the several of the top 20 world university rankings, and quite often in the top 10 of some of the usual rankings.

There is also the University of Cranfield - which (AFAICS) does not appear in any such world rankings - though I believe that it because it provides zero first degree courses (except through its management of the separate Royal Military College of Science). Cranfield itself has a very strong reputation as a postgraduate-only technical university.

That is not to say that there should not be more such (STEM emphasising) higher educational institutions in the UK - but let us at least recognise the ones that do exist, and their reputations.

Best regards

jim said...

Very complex job engineering but in my day not all that well rewarded. As a young engineer the older hands advised 'get out' and their kids were pushed into Law and Bean Counting. Eventually got out into something more profitable. But the wheel doth turn....

As for Boris spaffing our cash oop north, I am a bit concerned. For the past 40 years neither government nor the market has seen much reason to invest up north. What has suddenly made up north so attractive all of a sudden? So sudden the market had been doing the opposite right up to Boris's Damascene moment.

Boris is truly a card and an awful fibber, I think wise investors will trouser his development money (if any) while it lasts and quietly fold their tents and disappear.

Dave_G said...


Jim, the North has significant advantages - cheaper land, property, running costs and employment rates, not to mention a plethora of qualified people looking for work. Cheap housing, lots of scenery (don't tell anyone) but only lacks decent connections. Recent upgrading of the A1/M1 has helped and there are loads of regional airports, rail and sea ports.

There is absolutely 'nothing' that the South/London can offer that the North doesn't (or can't) have.

Shifting Parliament and the Civil Service to UK centrally located premises would spread the wealth more evenly and also help London reduce living costs and crowding.

What's not to like?

Anonymous said...

Raedwald said:

'This is the same friend who answered, when I asked what the German was for 'over-engineered', and after he had solemnly consulted google, that there was no such term in the German language.'

And if you had watched James Holland's four-part series, which ended last night, on More 4 called Nazi War Machines: Secrets Uncovered you'd come away with a full understanding of how 'over-engineered' some of their stuff was. The Tiger I could shoot the turret off any tank of ours out to a mile but due to it's sophistication there was never enough of them.

It can be argued that the Cromwell – and indeed the more numerous Sherman – gave Allied commanders greater operational flexibility than the Germans. The famous Tigers and Panthers may have been judged superior on the battlefield, but they were over-engineered, mechanically fragile and too few in number. Mobility and reliability were more important to the advancing Allied armies.

Steve

Anonymous said...

If you want somewhere central, Teesside is half way between London and Edinburgh; but its communications are poor, so Newcastle is a better choice.

Don Cox

Raedwald said...

Good Point. But they'd probably be better calling it Armstrong Institute of Technology in either if those two events ..

Sebastian Weetabix said...

The original quote behind that definition of an engineer was provided by Neville Shute. “An engineer can do for 5 shillings what any fool can do for a pound”

Anonymous said...

Seeing as I live and have learned in Britain, I'll give you the run down of how a modern British engineering type person thinks

From 0 to 0.001" I use microns
From 0.025mm to 0.1mm I use imperial
From 0.04" to 1" I use metric
and anything above 25.4mm I use imperial

Anonymous said...

It is all well and good having top-10 institutions. Economic heft carries more weight. Check out the size of Germany's manufacturing sector compared to that of the USA.

If you believe that the UK has a manufacturing future (except for unicorn cyborgs!) you are going to waste a lot of educational investment. You also conveniently ignore Prof. Minford on the post-Brexit industrial landscape.

Mark said...

The manufacturing sector of the US is far larger than Germany in terms of output (well over twice the size) and capability which is just a statement of the bleedin obvious.

There are 3 million people in this country employed in manufacturing and the UK is one of the worlds top 10 manufacturing nations.

You can't have top 10 institutions without the infrastructure to support them, another statement of the bleedin obvious. If you are interested in a career in STEM, blighty is one of the places in the world to be.

We do have a large current account deficit, this is true, but it's ALL (near as makes no difference) with the EU. Think about that for a moment.