Finding extraordinary engineers for exceptional clients

Engineering in Action: The Man Who Made Flying Safer

February 23rd, 2012

You’ve never met Don Bateman. But he might have saved your life.

More than 40 years ago, Bateman invented the “ground proximity warning” system that prevents pilots in poor visibility from flying a functioning airplane into a mountain or other obstacle.

Bateman’s technology eliminated “the number one killer in aviation for decades,” according to Bill Voss, chief executive of the Flight Safety Foundation.  “It’s accepted within the industry that Don Bateman has probably saved more lives than any single person in the history of aviation.”

How He’s Done It

Motivated by an airplane disaster he witnessed as a boy, Bateman has tracked air disasters for 40 years to devise ways of preventing them.

He developed his first system by taking data from the technology that was already on airplanes—the radar altimeter, the airspeed indicator—and synthesize the information to create a warning system. Twenty years later, he integrated GPS technology with ever-improving terrain data to upgrade his system and what it can do.

After 50+ years at Honeywell, Bateman is still working, still fine-tuning his technology. His constantly updated digital charting of terrain around the globe, which includes data derived from detailed maps compiled for the Soviet-era military, has created a priceless database used to keep fliers safe.

Bateman’s Technology Becomes the Law

Bateman devised his original ground-proximity-warning system (GPWS) in the early 1970s, using an airplane’s radar altimeter to detect rapid altitude changes as a plane approached terrain. A warning sounded if a plane was too low without the landing gear deployed or if the descent was too fast.

After a TWA 727 crashed into a Virginia mountainside in December 1974, the FAA ordered that Bateman’s technology be installed on all large airliners. That rule was later extended to all airplanes carrying more than six passengers.

Since 1994, when Bateman integrated GPS technology into his system, most airlines have installed  the enhanced system on their entire fleets.  Today, it is installed on about 55,000 airplanes worldwide. And Bateman studies each new aviation accident for even further enhancements.

Well-Deserved Honors

It’s impossible to quantify precisely how many lives Bateman’s technology has saved.

Since the FAA certified the enhanced system in 1994, Honeywell has identified about 80 incidents where pilots reported that the warnings averted disaster. Overall, Bateman’s technology has reduced the likelihood of a once-common type of airplane crash by 99.9 percent.

In September 2011, President Obama awarded Bateman the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. He had already earned induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2005.  All of this for an electrical engineer who started off working at a telephone equipment company.

Engineering in Action: Woman Power!

February 16th, 2012

Q. What do bulletproof vests, fire escapes and windshield wipers have in common?

 A. All were invented by, or refined by, women.

Bulletproof Vest

Credit for the first commercially available bulletproof vest goes to a man, but it was a woman who invented Kevlar, the material used in most modern bulletproof vests.

Stephanie Kwolek, working at DuPont, created the first of a family of synthetic fibers of exceptional strength and stiffness, including Kevlar.

Kwolek graduated from the women’s college of Carnegie-Mellon University and applied for a position as a chemist with the DuPont Company in 1946. She worked on several projects, including a search for new polymers as well as a new condensation process that takes place at lower temperatures. In 1965, she was asked to scout for the next generation of high-performance fibers and invented Kevlar.

Kwolek has received many awards for her invention, including induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1994 as only the fourth woman member of 113. In 1996 she received the National Medal of Technology, and in 1997 the Perkin Medal, presented by the American Section of the Society of Chemical Industry—both honors rarely awarded to women.

Fire Escape

Supposedly, the first fire escape was patented in 1766. That system was rudimentary and involved a pulley attached to a wicker basket. In 1887, an American inventor named Anna Connelly registered a patent for the exterior steel staircase that would serve as the prototype for the modern metal fire escape. Connelly’s invention introduced a cost-effective way to add safety to both existing buildings and new construction in the 1900s. It became mandatory under the building codes that cities began to adopt at the turn of the century.

Windshield Wipers

In 1902, on a New York City streetcar on a snowy day, Mary Anderson watched the driver struggle to see through the front window and wondered why no one had ever done something to improve visibility in inclement weather. Upon being told it had been tried and couldn’t be done, Anderson began drawing diagrams for what would later become windshield wipers.

Her windshield wipers were made of wood and rubber and were removable so that the streetcar appearance would not be compromised in good weather. She added a counterweight to maintain an even pressure on the windshield, and effectively wipe off snow and rain. She was awarded a patent in 1903 for a “window-cleaning device,” or windshield wipers.

On her patent application, she stated, “My invention relates to an improvement in window-cleaning devices in which a radially-swinging arm is actuated by a handle from inside of a car-vestibule.”

As soon as Anderson’s windshield wipers were patented, she wrote to a large company in Canada offering them the rights. The company was not interested, stating that her invention had little, if any, commercial value and would not sell. Anderson’s patent was put away and eventually expired. Although Anderson never profited from her invention, it was re-examined soon after, and by 1913 mechanical windshield wipers were standard on domestic cars, including the Ford Model T.

In 1917, windshield wipers evolved when the “Electric Storm Windshield Cleaner,” was patented by Charlotte Bridgewood – another woman.

Greatest Engineering Achievements of the 21st Century?

February 9th, 2012

The National Academy of Engineering, in 2003, published A Century of Innovation: Twenty Engineering Achievements that Transformed our Lives, which showcased the greatest engineering achievements of the 20th century.

Here are the top 20:

1.         Electrification
2.         Automobile
3.         Airplane
4.         Water Supply and Distribution
5.         Electronics
6.         Radio and Television
7.         Agricultural Mechanization
8.         Computers
9.         Telephone
10.       Air Conditioning and Refrigeration
11.       Highways
12.       Spacecraft
13.       Internet
14.       Imaging
15.       Household Appliances
16.       Health Technologies
17.       Petroleum and Petrochemical Technologies
18.       Laser and Fiber Optics
19.       Nuclear Technologies
20.       High-performance Materials

You’ll see that the benefits were largely universal, affecting people across the globe and at all economic levels. The technologies were diverse and depended on timely parallel accomplishments in science, mathematics and medicine.  And, the devices that enabled all these innovations were made in such quantity and quality that they were affordable and relatively universally available.

We can’t really know what engineers will achieve between now and 2101, but one engineer is willing to guess.

Inspired by the NAE’s book, engineer and Senior Intel Fellow Eugene S. Meieran, decided to make a list of predictions. Over the course of several years, he mentioned the list in presentations at universities, conferences, and industrial seminars, and took suggestions from other professionals.

Without further ado, here are the areas where Meieran believes the greatest achievements will happen in the next 88 years:

1. Energy conservation
2. Resource protection
3. Food and water production and distribution
4. Waste management
5. Education and learning
6. Medicine and prolonging life
7. Security and counter-terrorism
8. New technology
9. Genetics and cloning
10. Global communication
11. Traffic and population logistics
12. Knowledge sharing
13. Integrated electronic environment
14. Globalization
15. AI, interfaces and robotics
16. Weather prediction and control
17. Sustainable development
18. Entertainment
19. Space exploration
20. “Virtualization” and VR
21. Preservation of history
22. Preservation of species

What do you think? Is Meieran right on the money, or not even close?

Engineering Graduates: Should You Get Your PE License?

January 12th, 2012

Somewhere near the end of your engineering degree program, you’ll have to decide whether to get your Professional Engineer (PE) license. You’ll have to decide whether you’re willing to put in the time: studying for and taking the Fundamentals of Engineering exam; putting in roughly 4 years as an   Engineer-in-Training (EIT) ; then studying for and taking the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam

It takes a lot of time and effort to get  a PE license. Is it worth it? Read the following 6 facts and see if they help you make up your mind:

1. Your PE License Sets You Apart

The PE license demonstrates that you have the equivalent of a 4-year engineering degree, four or more years of progressive experience and a multidisciplinary understanding of physical and engineering principles. It shows that you have met all the standards required of the profession. For fields where the PE is preferred but usually not required, it gives you another opportunity to stand out.

2. Your PE License Generally Means a Higher Salary

According to the National Society of Professional Engineers’ 2010 Engineering Income & Salary Survey, the median salary of engineers without a PE license was $94,000, whereas the median salary of engineers with a PE license was $99,000 — a difference of about 5 percent.

3. A PE License Can Make a Difference in the Hiring Process

If a company has to choose between two qualified applicants, one with a PE license (or an EIT working toward his license) and one without, which one do you think it will choose? Companies typically hire based upon which candidate they believe will bring the most benefit to the company.

4. A PE License Gives You the Ability to Sign and Seal Plans and Drawings

Only a licensed engineer can submit plans and drawings, and be in charge of work in the private sector. These requirements lead to more responsibility for the licensed PE, and thus greater career potential.

5. You Can Only Officially Call Yourself an Engineer If You Have a PE License

If you don’t have a PE license, you—or your company—can’t officially call yourself an engineer in official documents, such as business cards, letterheads and resumes.

6. Having a PE License Means You Can Work Anywhere in the Country

Since the FE and PE exams are standardized nationally, you can work as a professional engineer if you transfer to another state. You would need to register with the board of engineering in your new state, and your new state may have additional requirements, but you can use your PE license throughout the US.  And with the engineering profession now operating in an international environment, licensing may be required to work in, or for, other countries.  You’ll be prepared if your career moves in this direction.

The website of the National Society of Professional Engineers might best summarize the situation: “Licensure is the mark of a professional. It’s a standard recognized by employers and their clients, by governments and by the public as an assurance of dedication, skill and quality.”

So, what do you think is the wise choice?

The Rescue of the Chilean Miners, Using Plan B – Who Were the Real Heroes?

November 10th, 2011

In August 2010, Chilean President Sebastian Piñera officially confirmed rumors that the 33 miners trapped in the depths of a San José mine were alive and well — in a refuge chamber almost a half mile underground. The news brought relief and joy to the miners’ families, but it also presented a difficult challenge: figuring out the best way to rescue the miners as soon as possible, which would involve technical and human challenges no one had faced before. Several options were considered, including drilling a rescue shaft with a raise borer, a machine designed to cut mine ventilation shafts.

But Chilean government authorities and the group of professionals in charge of the rescue did not rule out alternate solutions. Soon, two more ideas were suggested. One included widening an existing pilot hole using a water drilling rig; the other called for using oil field drilling technology with an oil-drilling rig. The three options were named Plans A, B and C, respectively.

In the end, Plan B was the first to reach the target.

The professionals, technicians and operators at Geotec Boyles Bros., an experienced drilling company already working at the San José mine, came up with Option B. They determined that their approach had one major advantage: By using one of the existing pilot holes, it was almost guaranteed further boring would connect with the target, unlike the other two methods.

Executives at Geotec contacted two nearby copper miners to ask if their drill rigs could be used for the task of widening the shaft. These companies also funded the project and provided a team of technical personnel led by three geologists.

Geotec also made the critical decision to use large-diameter air hammers instead of tricone bits to sink the hole faster and brought in four specialists from its U.S. affiliate, Layne Christensen.

On August 26, Geotec put Plan B into action, first ensuring the pilot hole was oriented as accurately as possible to reach the area of the underground workshop. In order to avoid flooding the space in which the survivors were living, the team drilled without downhole motors to direct the drill string, as this technology uses large quantities of water. Instead, rigid bars were introduced into the hole to guide the drill.

The miners provided information indicating where the drill had broken through, and the Geotec team began the second stage of the operation. Using the newly completed hole as a guide, they wanted to widen it to 28 inches, the diameter necessary to allow passage of a rescue capsule. They brought in a larger capacity machine typically used to drill deep water wells.

Advancing at a rate of 65 feet per day, the new rig had the advantage of using a previously drilled hole to facilitate the first stage of its job: drilling a 12-inch diameter bore. The team then had to figure out how to widen the shaft, an unprecedented challenge for the drill. It normally had the capacity to lift 130,000 pounds. The engineers from Schramm and Geotec performed an engineering study that showed them how to modify the hydraulic pressure to reach a capacity of 170,000 pounds.

The initial team coordination meeting was held at Geotec on September 5, and the Plan B drill team was ready to begin the following day. Over the next 33 days, Geotec’s operations were far from trouble-free. Four days in, drilling came to a halt when the nose of the hammer bit broke. The final 130 feet meant drilling through particularly hard and abrasive rock, forcing rig operators to fine-tune the drill several times.

On Saturday, October 9, the Plan B drill rig finally reached the underground workshop, creating the avenue of escape that would allow the rescue of the 33 miners to begin.

Who were the real heroes here? The trapped miners, or the engineering professionals who designed and accomplished their rescue?

How the Engineering Field Has Changed for Women, and What Changes Need to Come

November 3rd, 2011

In 1947, the earliest year for which there are reliable statistics, 0.3% of all engineers in the United States were women. By 1983, a little more than a decade after Congress had passed the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, the percentage was up to 5.8%. By the end of the millennium, after engineering colleges had spent millions of dollars making special efforts to woo and retain women students, the figure had almost doubled, to 10.6%.

According to 2001 Current Population Survey (CPS) data, one out of ten employed engineers was a woman, while two of ten employed engineering technologists and technicians were women. Among engineering specialties, industrial, chemical, and metallurgical/materials engineers were the only occupations in which women saw higher representation than the overall percent of total women engineers. Women made up 17 percent of all industrial engineers, 12 percent of metallurgical/metal engineers, and 11.5 percent of chemical engineers. Among all other engineering specialties–aerospace, mining, petroleum, nuclear, agricultural, civil, electrical or electronic, mechanical, marine, or naval architects–women represented fewer than 11 percent.

Now, more than 70 colleges and universities have programs geared toward females. There are major trade associations for female engineers, including the Society for Women Engineers,  the Women in Engineering branch of IEEE and the Women in Engineering ProActive Network (WEPAN), all of which work towards the promotion of women in the engineering field.

For years, though, researchers have struggled to understand why so many women leave careers in engineering. Theories run the gamut, from family-unfriendly work schedules to innate differences between the genders. A new paper by McGill University economist Jennifer Hunt offers a well-researched explanation: women leave engineering jobs when they feel disgruntled about pay and the chance of promotion. In other words, they leave for the same reasons men do.

Hunt combed through data collected by the National Science Foundation in 1993 and 2003 on some 200,000 college graduates. Her first finding was that about 21% of all graduates surveyed were working in a field unrelated to their highest college degree. That proportion held steady for both men and women. Yet in engineering, there was a gap: about 10% of male engineers were working in an unrelated field, while some 13% of female engineers were. Women who became engineers disproportionately left for other sectors. Why?

Hunt analyzed surveys that allowed respondents to indicate why they were working outside their field, suggesting options such as working conditions, pay, promotion opportunities, job location and family-related reasons. As it turned out, more than 60% of the women who left engineering did so because of dissatisfaction with pay and promotion opportunities. More women than men left engineering for family-related reasons, but that gender gap was no different than what Hunt found in non-engineering professions. “It doesn’t have anything to do with the nature of the work,” says Hunt.

The question now becomes why women engineers feel gypped when it comes to pay and promotion. Hunt ran a slew of statistical tests to see if she could detect any patterns. She did. Women also left fields such as financial management and economics at higher than expected rates. The commonality? Like engineering, those sectors are male-dominated. Some 74% of financial-management degree holders in the survey sample were male. Men made up 73% of economics graduates. And to take one example from engineering, some 83% of mechanical engineering grads were male.

How, exactly, being in a majority-male environment leads women to leave for reasons related to pay and promotion is unclear. Hunt’s study did not formally evaluate possible root causes.

Nonetheless, she concludes that making engineering jobs more family-friendly — by offering flexible work schedules, say — isn’t the solution. If we desire to keep women working as engineers, then the focus should be on creating work environments where women feel more able to climb the career ladder.

Talking E: The Effects of Government Mandates on Engineering Projects

October 13th, 2011

If you’re in the engineering business, you know first-hand about the tremendous impact that state and federal laws and regulations have on your day-to-day operations. You also know that those laws and regulations can often be prohibitive.

Two professional associations, the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) and the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC), are working toward change.

The AGC, for example, opposes all efforts to use government-mandated project labor agreements (PLAs) on Federal construction projects. The AGC is committed to full and open competition for all public projects, and they believe that:

  • the choice of whether to adopt a collective bargaining agreement should be left to the contractor-employers and their employees, and that such a choice should not be imposed as a condition to competing for, or performing on, a publicly funded project.
  • government mandates and preferences for PLAs can restrain competition, drive up costs, cause delays, lead to job site disputes, and disrupt local collective bargaining.
  • government-mandated PLAs can limit the number of competitors on a project, because government mandates for PLAs typically require contractors to make fundamental, often costly changes in the way they do business.

The AGC has found no evidence proving the claim that PLAs will improve the economy or efficiency of a project. The Government Accounting Office also reported that it could not document the alleged benefits of past mandates for PLAs on federal projects.

The ACEC is currently concerned with repealing the 3% Withholding Mandate, a requirement that was buried in the Tax Increase Prevention and Reconciliation Act of 2005. The law, which is due to take effect in 2012, will require federal and state government entities and any local jurisdiction with annual expenditures exceeding $100 million to withhold 3% from all payments for goods and services.

The withholding mandate will apply to the total cost of the contract, not to the net revenue generated or the size of the company. Because many companies realize a profit margin of less than three percent on a contract, withholding 3% up front for tax purposes will force them to divert funds needed to complete the contract, creating cash flow problems. As a consequence, government agencies may see the cost for goods and services increase as firms seek to offset the impact of the 3% percent withholding mandate.

Smaller firms will be hit hard, both in terms of creating cash flow problems as well as affecting the important role they often play as subcontractors on large government contracts. Prime contractors may be compelled to pass the costs associated with the 3% withholding requirement to their subcontractors, or possibly shift from subcontracting work out to performing it internally.

The ACEC is deeply concerned about the impact and unintended consequences of this new requirement on all companies that receive contracts or other forms of government payments. The provision was designed to deter tax evasion, but it will primarily penalize honest taxpayers. In addition, implementing the provision will cost federal agencies and state and local governments billions of dollars. A Department of Defense study estimates that it will cost DOD alone $17 billion in the first five years to comply with this mandate.

The ACEC is urging Congress to repeal the 3% withholding mandate, and has worked closely with the Ways and Means Committee on the legislation and built substantial coalition support. The full House is scheduled to vote on the bill during the last week of October.

Talking E: The Real Heroes of Apollo 13 – The Engineers Who Saved the Astronauts’ Lives

September 8th, 2011

In 1970, the near-disaster of Apollo 13 was turned around not by astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert, but by a team of well-trained engineers on the ground.

When Swigert (not Lovell) reported to mission control that “Houston, we’ve had a problem,” a team of life-support systems experts at the Johnson Space Center swung into action to help initiate one of history’s most famous rescues.

In 2005, the Apollo 13 Crew Systems Division, led by Robert “Ed” Smylie, received the first ever Great Moments in Engineering Award for their life-saving efforts. Smylie accepted the award on behalf of his team at Space Center Houston.

“It was certainly crucial, the problem we solved,” Smylie said later. “If we did not have a solution to the problem, then the crew would not have survived.”

What Happened?

Two Apollo missions had successfully landed on the moon before Lovell’s crew blasted off on April 11, 1970. But as the spacecraft was nearing the moon, an external oxygen tank overheated and exploded, crippling the electrical system. Two of Apollo’s three fuel cells, a primary source of power, were also lost.

Any hope of a lunar landing was instantly abandoned, and Mission Control moved into rescue mode. The mission became a race to get the astronauts back to earth safely.

The Race Was On

The astronauts were forced to retreat to the cramped lunar lander attached to their command module capsule, to preserve enough electrical power for the trip back to Earth. The first challenge for Smylie’s team of engineers was how to keep the air in the lunar module cleansed of the carbon dioxide the three astronauts were exhaling. There was a very real risk of the astronauts running out of oxygen.

Working in a short timeframe, the engineers had to use materials that would be available to the astronauts on their spacecraft. They ended up using rugged plastic cut from a garment stowage bag, cardboard from reference manuals, a sock and of course, duct tape, in the gadget they developed to cleanse the air in the lunar lander. They also incorporated canisters designed exclusively for use in the command module.

Astronauts Lovell, Haise and Swigert would have died without the engineers’ quick thinking, said John Schneiter, president of GlobalSpec, the New York company that presented the Great Moments in Engineering Award. The engineers on the ground had to figure out a solution, then tell the astronauts how to make the fix. “They had to make it right the first time,” Schneiter said. “It had to work, and son of a gun, it did.”

Haise said the device was tricky to build, but it worked. “Had someone not figured that out, we wouldn’t have survived… We had confidence the right people had been brought in and would work it out,” he said.

To outsiders, it looked like a stream of engineering miracles was being pulled out of a magician’s hat as mission control identified, diagnosed, and worked around life-threatening problem after life-threatening problem to bring the Apollo back to Earth. But what happened behind the doors of the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston wasn’t a trick, or even a case of engineers on an incredible lucky streak. It was the manifestation of years of training, teamwork, discipline, and foresight.



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