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Engineers: Men with Oily Rags and Hammers? Essay

1. Synopsis.

The term ‘engineer’ has many different meanings and, depending on whom you ask, they will give you their own interpretation of an engineer. As the term is so commonly used on a daily basis, its true meaning has become somewhat distanced and diluted from the definitions provided by the professional bodies and also the literate bodies (dictionary authors). But even if the definitions from the professional bodies are examined, they still differ from one to the next. Even the UK based bodies have a difference, let alone comparing the rest of the world’s. Several key factors run true though for each and they are explained in the following pages.

2. Definition.

The word engineer is defined as ‘ a person whose job is to design or build machines, engines or electrical equipment, or things such as roads, railways or bridges, using scientific principles’ and ‘a person whose job is to repair or control machines, engines or electrical equipment’ (Cambridge Dictionary Online, Cambridge University Press, 2011). The term is derived from the Latin roots ingeniare (“to contrive, devise”) and ingenium (“cleverness”). (Oxford Concise Dictionary, 1995; “engineer”. Oxford Dictionaries. April 2010. Oxford Dictionaries. April 2010. Oxford University Press. 22 October 2011). In summary, an engineer is a person who faces a problem and through the use of mathematics, physics and their experience,
will divulge a solution to overcome the problem.

The engineer also has to deal with the non technical side of the engineering environment e.g. management, prioritisation etc. For example, Patrick Head is the Engineering Director at the Williams Formula 1 Team, and Adrian Newey is the Chief Engineer at Red Bull Racing Formula 1 Team. Mr Newey is the most successful engineer in F1 circles. It has probably been many years since either has picked up a spanner or a screwdriver in anger, instead they design the car, gather the best people to do the jobs (more engineers) and extract the best out of them, whilst sticking to immovable rules and deadlines. The question – Engineers: Men With Oily Rags & Hammers? Is flawed on several levels. Apart from the sexist side (so from now on the term engineer will relate to both male and female, even though the text may state ‘man’), it really depends on what ‘sort’ of engineer you are.

From the first definition, it becomes clear that an engineer is a producer, in that the end product will have been produced by them e.g. a pile of cogs, wheels, gears etc will produce a machine. This may be a man with an oily rag and hammer. But what about an electrical engineer? Or how many oily rags do you think will be needed to construct a telecommunications satellite? Or Chemical Engineers? Engineers also fall into the design side of a project. Again, no oily rags in the tech drawing office. Nor will there be any in an MD’s office of an engineering company. According to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, there are eight sectors of engineering; aerospace, automobile, construction & building, manufacturing, medicine& health, power, process and railway. Not all have men with oily rags and hammers.

3. The Early Days.

Indeed if it wasn’t for engineers, particularly mechanical, the world we currently live in today would be a different place. There would be no bridges, no rail or road networks, nor any vehicles to travel on these networks. The ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) would still be the horse! If it wasn’t for two American brothers in 1903 with their oily rags and hammers, the aeroplane would not have been invented. Imagine a world without aeroplanes. Thank you Wilbur & Orville Wright. Then in 1935, a young RAF cadet, Frank Whittle, shaped air travel to what it is today. Using Sir Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion – for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction – he designed and developed the jet engine. Then again, if it wasn’t for electrical engineers, who use screwdrivers and wires instead of oily rags and hammers, the world would just be pockets of inhabitants as opposed to a whole population of our planet.

Why? If it wasn’t for the electrical engineers (especially the Italian, Volta, and the Brit, Faraday), Sir Alexander Graham Bell would not have come up with his invention in 1876; the telephone. Since then, these inventions have been shaped, modified and improved so the world we see today is how it is thanks to these gentlemen. If it wasn’t for their pioneering breakthroughs and engineering prowess we would not have the telephone, the television, the internet, telecommunications satellites and, most importantly, electricity. All of these items require men with screwdrivers and wires. Once these ideas were developed, it takes engineers to construct all of the given parts into a useable component.

So, that is your engineer. What about chemical engineers though? “In 1900 the average life expectancy in the United States was 47 years. By 2000 it was nearing 77 years. That remarkable 30-year increase was the result of a number of factors, including the creation of a safe water supply. But no small part of the credit should go to the century’s wide assortment of medical advances in diagnosis, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and other forms of treatment.” (Health Technologies, National Academy of Engineering, 2012). So, Chemical Engineers working in the pharmaceutical society have managed, through ingeniare and ingenium to add 30 years to the human life cycle within the space of just 100 years.

At the current rate of increase in the pharmaceutical world and scientific world, as well as the technological world, before we celebrate the year 2100, we should all be receiving a telegram from the King on our 100th birthday. Civil engineering is one of the oldest fields of engineering. The Romans had magnificent architecture such as the Coliseum and the Pantheon. The Romans also were also some of the earliest civil engineers. For example, they were some of the first to build roads throughout their empire and they built beautiful and functional aqueducts, a system of bridges and canals, used to redirect and bring water into cities. Perhaps Imhotep, the builder of the Step Pyramid in Egypt in 2250 B.C., was the first engineer ever.

(Roman Coliseum: Tour-Europe.org) (Stepped Pyramid:
Ancient-Egypt.co.uk)

The term ‘engineer’ is very ambiguous. Quoting from Wikipedia, there are two basic types of engineer, which can then be sub divided into areas of expertise. The first quotes an Engineer as; “a professional practitioner of engineering, concerned with applying scientific knowledge, mathematics and ingenuity to develop solutions for technical problems. Engineers design materials, structures, machines and systems while considering the limitations imposed by practicality, safety and cost. Engineers are grounded in applied sciences, and their work in research and development is distinct from the basic research focus of scientists. The work of engineers forms the link between scientific discoveries and their subsequent applications to human needs.” The second quotes “An Engineer may also refer to: An operator of equipment e.g. flight engineer, marine engineer”

4. Real Life Definition.

As can be seen one thing all engineers have in common, as stated earlier, is that they are producers. Give them a task, components and tools and they will give you a finished product, irrespective of their field of engineering. Sometimes these disciplines must work harmoniously alongside each other, especially in the construction side of a plan. At other times though, they will be arguing like cat and dog. This may be for something as simple as who gets access first to a controlled area e.g. the restricted space of an undercarriage bay of an aircraft, or in the design stage where one engineer requires more space for his components and says that their counterpart must reduce his sizing and give him more room e.g. the electrical engineer needs more room to put a circuit board in the satellite, and he asks the mechanical engineer to make his motor that will deploy the solar panels, smaller.

However, the production may not take a physical form i.e. components bolted together. “The engineer can make a valuable contribution to primary decision making. Primary decision making is the first step in design. The design process begins with major decisions as to the need to be met, and as engineers it is important to recognise that this stage benefits from, and indeed requires, a professional engineering contribution.” (Royal Academy of Engineering, Principles of Engineering Design Synopsis, 1999).

And so it can be seen that Engineers will be involved at other levels too, not just the ‘oily rags and hammer’ stages. But they are still producers in as much as they will produce a design. Design is the essential creative process of engineering, which distinguishes it from science, and which calls for imagination, creativity, the knowledge and application of technical and scientific skills, and skilful use of materials. So, the Royal Academy believes that primarily Engineers are designers. This is understandable as you have to design something first before it can be produced. The mechanical producers are therefore secondary in the Royal Academy of Engineer’s eyes, to the idea producers. This is shown quite clearly in their diagram below;

(raeng.co.uk)

Here it shows that there is a requirement (“we need to produce component ‘X’”) and that after this requirement there are various levels of debate. Here the Engineers will get together to discuss with the idea creator what exactly is needed. They will call on their skill, judgement, intuition and expertise to come up with a final plan, the solution, long before any manufacturing takes place.

4. The U.K.

The UK Standard for professional Engineering Competence (UK SPEC), like many other professional bodies, has three ‘levels’ of engineer; the Engineering Technician, the Incorporated Engineer and the Chartered Engineer. They state that ‘Engineering Technicians are concerned with applying proven techniques and procedures to the solution of practical engineering problems. They carry supervisory or technical responsibility, and are competent to exercise creative aptitudes and skills within defined fields of technology. Professional Engineering Technicians contribute to the design, development, manufacture, commissioning, decommissioning, operation or maintenance of products, equipment, processes or services. Professional Engineering Technicians are required to apply safe systems of working.’

The Incorporated Engineer Standard states that IEs ‘maintain and manage applications of current and developing technology, and may undertake engineering design, development, manufacture, construction and operation. Incorporated Engineers are variously engaged in technical and commercial management and possess effective interpersonal skills.’, and Chartered Engineers ‘are characterised by their ability to develop appropriate solutions to engineering problems, using new or existing technologies, through innovation, creativity and change.

They might develop and apply new technologies, promote advanced designs and design methods, introduce new and more efficient production techniques, marketing and construction concepts, or pioneer new engineering services and management methods. Chartered Engineers are variously engaged in technical and commercial leadership and possess effective interpersonal skills.’ (Engineering Council, 2010). The IMechE Council on Wednesday 27th May 1998 defined mechanical engineering thus: “Mechanical engineering is the innovative application of science and technology in the design, production and operation of all mechanical devices, machinery and systems”

5. International.

However, the Washington Accord (one of six international agreements which forms part of the International Engineering Alliance.) defines an engineer as “persons with professional, chartered or similar status or engineer title. “. (Washington Accord, Glossary of Terms, Ver 2: 15 September 2011). So anyone with an engineering degree, or similar, may approach a professional body (IMechE, RAeS etc), become registered and then have a title after their name. In theory, yes, they are an engineer, but it may be the case that a person whom has the title CEng, IEng or PEng after their name, may never have set foot in a board room to discuss plans, nor on a shop floor and picked up a tool. Yet they are still a certified Engineer. However some countries are stringent about awarding this title. In the United States for example, the person applying for the accreditation must satisfy certain conditions.

This includes education of a recognized stature (degree from an accredited source), pre-examination (Fundamentals of Engineering exam), examination (Professional Engineering Exam), and engineering experience (typically in the region of 5+ years). But in the U.K the term ‘engineer’ or ‘professional engineer’ has no legal meaning. It is loosely used sometimes to describe mechanics, installers or maintenance workers. If a fault develops on your central heating, a gas engineer may be dispatched to fix it. He may well be CORGI registered and have all the certification, but he may not have taken any engineering degree nor be registered with any professional body. Likewise, a satellite engineer may just be a man with a set of step ladders, reels of cable and a drill to attach your satellite dish to the side of your house. Nothing too technical there.

In the European Union, the title European Engineer (Eur Ing or EUR ING) is exactly that; a title. It is not a license to practice engineering and has no legal authority to offer services to the public. The title is granted after successful application to a national member of the European Federation of National Engineering Associations (FEANI) which includes representation from many European countries, including much of the European Union. It allows a person who has an engineering degree and usually an engineering professional qualification in one of the member countries to use the qualification in others. To be awarded this title, the applicant must have had at least seven years training resulting in an accredited engineering degree, followed by further training and experience before FEANI will award the Eur Ing title.

7. Conclusion.

So here we can clearly see all three stages of engineering, as previously discussed. Not only do they plan (or design) and produce (oily rags and hammers) but also they operate the equipment. If you look at each aspect individually they all have one thing in common. When they plan, they produce a design to fulfil the requirements of the task. This then goes to the machine shop and shop floor where the parts are manufactured and assembled, producing the final item. After that it has to be operated, to produce the original requirements of the tasking e.g. we need a machine to drill holes. It then has to be maintained, to continue producing the original requirements. In all stages, the Engineer is a producer.

8. Sources:

Cambridge Dictionary Online, Cambridge University Press, 2011. (http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/engineer_1?q=engineer) Oxford Concise Dictionary, 1995.
Oxford Dictionaries, April 2010.
Oxford University Press, 22 October 2011.
Health Technologies, National Academy of Engineering, 2012.
Roman Coliseum: Tour-Europe.org
Stepped Pyramid: Ancient-Egypt.co.uk
Royal Academy of Engineering, Principles of Engineering Design Synopsis, 1999. (http://www.raeng.org.uk/news/publications/list/reports/Universe_of_Engineering.pdf) The UK Standard for professional Engineering Competence (UK SPEC), Washington Accord, Glossary of Terms, Ver 2: 15 September 2011. The IMechE Council .


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