Readers talk about change, skills

Engineers need to use imagination In life, we, the human race, tend toward stagnation, content in not rocking the boat to see the angle of list before the boat takes on water. Only a curious child does that, we say. Well, maybe we need to experience that childish urge to do something that challenges our imagination.

By Staff July 1, 2007

Engineers need to use imagination

In life, we, the human race, tend toward stagnation, content in not rocking the boat to see the angle of list before the boat takes on water. Only a curious child does that, we say. Well, maybe we need to experience that childish urge to do something that challenges our imagination.

The only problem for this 55-year-old electrical engineer is that there is not enough memory in most HMI’s to have a waterfall and jumping trout screen, let alone a Star Wars battle screen, when a process is in standby mode. The MP3 player is boring in itself; it does not have a holographic projector to put the whole story in motion. Good article though ( CE , June 2007, Editorial). Maybe it will challenge someone add a holographic projector to that MP3 player.

—Paul M. Mrozinsky, M & M Control Systems

Soapbox represents dangerous advice

With all due respect, and understanding full well where your money comes from, it is just as irresponsible for an engineering magazine to publish marketing drivel as it would be academic drivel ( CE , May 2007, Soapbox).

I have spent almost 30 years attending to the assurance of safety of technologically-based systems and devices applied in health care. In recent years, I have become very concerned about the acceleration in the rate of change of technology and its impact on engineering practices. You can look it up. I often mention Henry Petroski’s writings in my work. He writes about such things as being not careful enough led to the collapse of a walkway in Kansas City that killed around 100 people and the history of failures and successes that preceded the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows bridge, a film just about all engineers have seen. Currently, I am writing an article mapping Petroski’s concerns to medical device safety for a biomedical technology journal.

One of Dr. Petroski’s primary messages is that we become forgetful of the lessons of the past deduced from failure. A professor of civil engineering, he cites how major bridge failures have tended to follow a 30-year pattern, which interestingly coincides with how long it takes the youngest engineers who were practicing at the time of the failure to have moved far from practice. Consider [Tom Lee]’s article in this light.

I cannot fathom the intent of the article. Of course you can hack a blog site; but why would an engineering magazine care about that? The implication not far below the surface of the article is to “go with the flow.” That’s fine for marketing execs, but it has no place in engineering. Or an engineering magazine. Period.

—Rick Schrenker, systems engineering manager, Massachusetts General Hospital

Engineering doors open with speaking skills

Chuck Sherman’s article “3 ways to engineer success” ( CE , March 2007, p.14) said a mouthful. Public speaking is the downfall of most engineering types. I know I was very weak in that area early in my career. Fortunately, I recognized my shortcomings and undertook a lifelong self-help process to teach myself by voraciously reading every book, and every audio and video tape I could find on the subject. I joined volunteer organizations where I could practice and hone my skills. People outside the workplace soon recognized the leadership of a person who can speak in public. In the workplace, however, engineering managers didn’t know how to manage or control a speaker in their midst.

After approximately 20 years of being squelched, I had the opportunity, following my company’s merger with a competitor, to recommend a training program on MRP. I first made the suggestion to my department head and was referred to the VP of engineering. He asked me what it was that I had in mind to cover, to put together an itinerary, and who I thought could be the presenter. I volunteered. After seeing the draft of a syllabus, he said, “That’s too important to be limited to your department of 30 folks,” and sent an invitation to two other VP’s of different divisions.

The response was overwhelming. I ended up with 90 folks for three one-hour sessions. Upon completion, the word reached top management, and I was recruited for the steering committee of the ISO 9000 efforts. I was placed in charge of the facilitators, wrote the handbook, and trained a crew of 35 plantwide. In a very short time, I gained a lot of visibility and respect. When I was finished, one of the lead design engineers (a brilliant fellow) approached me to coach him through his presentation to the board of directors to sell his latest design invention.

Not too shabby for a two-year degreed person, but that’s what public speaking abilities can do. A few years later, after several more mergers, I found myself on the outside looking in. In my job search, I put together a “Reading List,” which I attached to my resume and was hired (from among 300 applicants) as a field sales representative of capital equipment by a guy with an MBA degree from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

One trick I used to organize my talks I learned from my 7th & 8th grade geography teacher: make an outline of areas you want to cover, and be brief, preferably one word. Another trick I use is to critique each and every speaker I hear to reinforce things I do right and make note of mistakes they make and avoid them.

Public Speaking is the missing weapon in an engineer’s arsenal, and it does make a tremendous difference.

—Jack R. Jones, field sales representative, Fleetwood Industrial Products

High-end engineers

Regarding the “Support of innovation” editorial ( CE , March 2007), there has really never been a shortage of engineering talent—just a shortage of talent at the target price. The engineering profession has been dumbed-down deliberately and effectively with the sole purpose of making it a commodity that can be easily replaced.

While it should be reasonably easy to use products to be efficient at our jobs, we must define easy in what sense. Are these “real” engineers or do they just have a title? From what I see it’s the title. Never have I seen so few qualified “engineers” in my 25-plus-year career, which included 11 years in the U.S. Navy. This is a result of the industry at hand: disposable and prepackaged.

The “high end” engineers are the only real engineers anymore. They are low in numbers and work with more sophisticated systems. That is the real problem. “All” engineers should be high end in their jobs. This is why they—we—are engineers in the first place. Now they are more like lower-level technicians, if that. They can’t draw properly in CAD and constantly leave out critical dimensions or instructions. They don’t know their systems or definitions. Why? Because they are preprogrammed by their companies to perform a small part of a process and someone else will worry about the “details.” That is how the details are lost and considered insignificant.

Since 1995, I have worked for a small company that has been in business since 1957. Big companies work with blinders on, never thinking about the “whole process,” only their little part. Smaller companies use a broom and dustpan to clean up after them. It is becoming increasingly difficult. Our workload, not profits, has quadrupled, fixing their errors.

Offshore engineers, hired for their titles and for a low price usually deliver low quality and create many problems. To be fair, this is not true in all cases, but rampant in my industry, which deals in manufacturing.

The answer is to revamp the engineering profession, making it profitable and appealing to young people, not a job that that is going to be outsourced. Can this be done? I am not sure. We need to develop it like a baseball farm system, using people here at home.

Since the downturn, I have heard and read in your magazine that we in the U.S. must improve specialty markets to survive. Well, China has all the commodity markets now and is quickly moving in on our specialty markets because our government has policies that promote offshore businesses. It’s like a snowball rolling down hill gaining momentum. What will happen? We’ll see when we run out of snow.

—Mike Korkowski, BSEE Controls Engineer

Wrestling with the issue

The content of Control Engineering magazine is always current and informative. That makes it one publication in which I actually read most of the articles. This issue (May 2007) contains three extra inserted advertisements, two attached by heavy paper strips (at page 17 and 93) and one heavy paper ad glued to page 49. The way these heavy paper inserts are attached makes it difficult to get the magazine to lay flat on a table while reading. You have to compress each page to read the content. I wrestled with the magazine for a few minutes before deciding to put it down and send this email.

I know this may sound trivial, but it was annoying enough to prevent me from viewing the complete magazine. I’m not sure about most of your readers, but for me, the first few minutes I spend looking at a magazine determine how much of the entire magazine I read. This is meant as constructive criticism to improve your magazine.

—Jim Robson, compliance engineer, Zetron Inc.