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Spring 1993 | Volume 8 |  Issue 4

Learning To Engineer

I greatly appreciate “How Engineers Lose Touch” (by Eugene S. Ferguson) in the Winter 1993 issue of your magazine. I have never forgotten the frustration I experienced as an engineering student in the sixties when I discovered that many of my fellow students, who were doing much better than me academically, hadn’t the slightest idea which way to turn a nut, little intuition about how to put things together, and no feel for materials.

I have seen engineers who sit in their offices and issue drawings and instructions to the plant floor or field locations and make one error after another because they fail to see how a component is located or how it must function with other components or what maintenance problems it may cause. They won’t listen to the people who must build, install, or maintain it. One engineer told me he didn’t need to be there because he could see everything on his computer-aided-design screen.

I still think one prerequisite of a good engineer is a love of the hardware and a desire to have one’s hands on it. Hopefully Mr. Ferguson’s writings will prompt engineering schools to give more attention to the practical aspects of the engineer’s art.

Robert B. Stout
General Manager
Amtrak Beech Grove
Maintenance Facility
Beech Grove, Ind.

Learning To Engineer

Eugene S. Ferguson’s article is an unusually powerful statement on the importance of design in engineering. Clearly, Ferguson is a long-standing expert on the history of technology, with particular interest in mechanisms and machines. I am sending out his article to all my graduate students, asking them to read it carefully and to try to take steps to avoid the pitfalls he so vigorously documents.

On the other hand, our reliance on computer simulation is well founded, primarily because we can pursue increasingly more complex structures and systems. Ferguson’s comment about a “bottom-up” approach to design confirms the history of our most successful commercial products, such as automobiles and home appliances, but the article does not also stress the benefits of a full architectural top-down road map, which is essential to efficiently develop many new concepts and systems. The case history of the helicopter in the same issue suggests the extraordinary need for an architectural perspective to rapidly move such an innovation forward.

Ferguson’s primary point is that simple refinement of existing designs and their extension to larger and more complex systems without a careful review of all basic assumptions leads to failure and sometimes catastrophe. If these assumptions are buried in a simulation package, then no matter how strong the analysis, mistakes in design will occur. I agree with this contention.

Invention & Technology goes a long way in bringing the history of technology to young people. Learning from past successes and failures is the first step in remedying the dilemma of design by simulation only.

Professor Delbert Tesar
Carol Cockrell Curran Chair
in Engineering
University of Texas
Austin, Tex.

Learning To Engineer

I found Mr. Ferguson’s gloom-and-doom attitude toward engineering and design very misleading. As evidence of the miserable failure of mathematical design, he cites the Challenger , the Stark , and the Vincennes . Needless to say, these were all unfortunate disasters, but three examples of failure versus literally countless examples of success make for a very weak argument. Does Mr. Ferguson think the space-shuttle program would have been possible at all without mathematical modeling? What about the vast array of medical diagnostic tools and artificial organs, most of which are designed using mathematical tools? What of the phenomenal advances in biotechnology, many of which have come via the use of molecular modeling?

Computer simulation and mathematical modeling can save millions of dollars that might otherwise be wasted on poorly designed experimentation. Furthermore, computer design can make possible scientific and engineering advances that would otherwise be impossible. Under no circumstances should modeling be used to replace experiments or experience, but to equate the tragic crash of the space shuttle Challenger with a fundamental failure of mathematical design is naive.

Bruce C. Robertson
Senior Research Engineer
W. R. Grace & Co.
Columbia, Md.

Learning To Engineer

I found your article to be right on the mark with respect to the climate in today’s engineering practice. As a senior professional responsible for quality assurance in my firm, I plan to furnish a copy of the story to each member of our professional staff and ask them to take the message to heart.

Garr M. Jones
Senior Vice President
Brown and Caldwell, Consultants
Pleasant Hill, Calif.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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