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Petroski on Engineering: Engineering & Civilization

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naperlou
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Still readable
naperlou   5/3/2012 9:47:48 AM
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Henry, one comment you made really resonated with me.  You mention that Vitruvius's book is still eminently readable.  I find that all the time.  It is interesting to go back to read source material (as opposed to contemporary commentaries) on any subhject and to see how much like those authors we are.  Despite all the great innovations we have developed, we still think in similar ways.  In some ways that seems suprising.  I guess it should not. 

A wile back I was in Germany and our hosts were showing us a Roman aqueduct that was still in operation.  It is really a testament to their knowledge and skill.  We build on that foundation and reap the benefits.

Charles Murray
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Lessons of failure
Charles Murray   5/3/2012 1:22:35 PM
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Professor Petroski's point about learning from failure is an important one. A recent book, "Creating Innovators: The Making of Ypung People Who Will Change the World," makes a similar point. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, the author, Tony Wagner, writes, "In most high school and college classes, failure is penalized. But without trial and error, there is no innovation." Professor Petroski puts that lesson in historical context when he describes how ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks built a body of engineering knowledge by learning from failure.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Lessons of failure
Rob Spiegel   5/3/2012 3:57:20 PM
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Good point about failure, Chuck. I remember a few decades ago IBM -- then considered a master of business organization -- did a study and found that the most successful employees were also the empolyees who made the most mistakes. The conclusion of the study was that employees should be encouraged to take more risk.

Charles Murray
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Re: Lessons of failure
Charles Murray   5/3/2012 7:27:32 PM
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Rob, I believe some engineering schools are starting to take note of this fact, as well. Most notably, it's being incoporated in the curriculums at Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Lessons of failure
Rob Spiegel   5/4/2012 11:25:37 AM
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It is a disturbing trend, Chuck. Consumers are discarding products that work just fine. New features make their predecessor obsolete long before there are any problems with the product. Millions of dumb phones that work perfectly well are getting discarded years before they would experience any malfunctions.


Mydesign
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Re: Lessons of failure
Mydesign   5/4/2012 5:41:16 AM
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"The most successful employees were also the employees who made the most mistakes"

Rob, exactly correct. Most of the innovations are happened by accidently, similar to Einstein discovered force of gravity. If employees are not making any mistakes means, the productivity and innovation are less associated with him. He is just doing whatever he knows , that's all.

JoeWojcicki
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Re: Lessons of failure
JoeWojcicki   5/4/2012 10:46:34 AM
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It is CRAZY when "legal representatives" overrule engineering opinions, especially in Regulatory Commissions' decissions.   It seems the permits were given  before explosions, e.g. BP Gulf and paying small fees approved by inspectors instead of serious safety corrections - WV cosl mine, etc. in last years.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Lessons of failure
Rob Spiegel   5/4/2012 12:28:16 PM
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I agree, Mydesign. Innovation doesn't come through caution. IBM's response to its findings was to look at its culture to see if there were impediments to risk taking. 

Charles Murray
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Re: Lessons of failure
Charles Murray   5/4/2012 6:43:09 PM
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I don't know if risk taking should be encouraged in all areas of business, Rob, but I can't see how you could have very much success in the area of innovation without it.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Lessons of failure
Rob Spiegel   5/9/2012 12:53:05 PM
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Good point, Chuck. Risk is not an intrinsic virtue any more than all movement is forward. I think the point of the IBM study is that the company had created a risk adverse culture and that was a problem that needed to be solved. I'm sure IBM has lived through 17 cultures since that study. My guess is that rick adversity is not the company's major concern any longer. They may be more worried about whether all major golf courses are willing to welcome their CEO.


Larry S.
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Much of what is built today will barely last a lifetime ...
Larry S.   5/3/2012 3:15:11 PM
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Buildings, roads, bridges are repeatedly repaired, replaced, and demolished.  We seem to have the technology to make better materials; engineering sophistication to make things last; but not the foresight to put quality ahead of short-term cost considerations.  The TV breaks, it is cheaper to toss it out and buy a new one.  Plastic plumbing components are replacing copper products that are now so cheaply made that they have become undependable.  This says something about the current state of engineering AND our "civilization".

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Much of what is built today will barely last a lifetime ...
Rob Spiegel   5/3/2012 4:05:16 PM
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Good points, Larry. When it comes to TVs, though, I think they last well beyond the period consumers want to own them. Consumers give up well-made, perfectly well-running TVs in order to gain new features.

bdcst
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Re: Much of what is built today will barely last a lifetime ...
bdcst   5/4/2012 11:08:08 AM
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Hi Rob.

Straying just a bit off the course I have to comment about TV's outlasting consumers' interest.  It remains to be seen if LCD back lit flat panel monitors will ever achieve the life expectancy of CRT TV's. 

Back in the late 1940's my parents were early adopters of televison in their home.  Their Magnavox TV saw the factory authorized repairman several times a year to keep that sucker working!  There were lots of silly engineering mistakes in that early set design.  One that comes to mind involved the main power supply subchassis.  It consisted of a pair of 5U4 rectifier tubes.  The subchassis was mounted on the inside wall of the cabinet such that those tubes were horizontal.  Well, they were designed to be operated base down, not base to one side.  Thus, the filament ribbons (cathodes) would eventually sag sufficiently to short out!

Once the vacuum tube count was greatly reduced, TV's became more reliable requiring fewer repairs during their expected service life.  With the advent of modern solid state designs TV's became carefree devices that would last as long as their CRT's. 

Early CRT's had metal to glass seals around their faces as the body of the tube was a metal cone!  But, it was typically the electron gun that  would wear out as the cathode emission would drop off.  CRT boosters were quite popular.  They were devices installed in series with the CRT socket to boost the filament voltage to squeeze a few more months life out of a tube.

Back when all computer monitors were CRT's I almost never replaced them due to failure.  Flat screen LCD's have been quite the opposite, typically going dark due to failed backlights and/or failed switch mode power supplies to drive them.

Though MTBF has diminished for modern TV's, the pace of available new features has accelerated.  So, you are right that for consumers today their interest will most likely wane faster than the failure rate of their TV's compared to yesteryear.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Much of what is built today will barely last a lifetime ...
Rob Spiegel   5/4/2012 12:36:18 PM
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Good points, Bdcst. Sometimes I wonder whether we could reach a point where the advances in new features could be added without replacing the hardware. I know we're nowhere near that yet, but with advances in cloud computing, we may see a day when existing hardware gets refreshed with new features.

bdcst
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Re: Much of what is built today will barely last a lifetime ...
bdcst   5/4/2012 1:47:51 PM
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Hi Rob,

Actually, we are there regarding devices whose feature set can evolve over time without new hardware costs.  I have on my bench, as I type, a state of the art FM broadcast audio processor whose internal DSP farm was designed for the future.  The manufacturer considers this to be their flagship processor in a line of three current production models.  In fact, their present firmware is quite lacking in features all promised for future releases.  This is a quick way to get a superior product out in the field and begin to recoup some of its R&D costs before tying all the ribbons on it.

Granted, this is a niche product for a specific industry.  But take a look at software defined radios.  In the hobby field there are several amateur radio transceivers whose feature sets keep evolving.  The end user can upgrade for free by downloading new firmware.  Heck, the same sort of thing happens ocassionally in the broader consumer market too.  I'm on my third Android cell phone update and my Blu-ray players at home have had at least one firmware update in the past 6 months.  In both instances the updates were more than bug fixes.

Obviously, unless there is a mechanism to reward manufacturers for long term product support, there is no incentive to build upgradeability into their hardware.  So, maybe if those Android updates were awards from the cellular carrier for staying loyal rather than trying to sell you, at discount,  a new phone every two years, we could keep handsets out of the landfill longer.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Much of what is built today will barely last a lifetime ...
Rob Spiegel   5/9/2012 12:57:48 PM
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That's good news Bdcst. I didn't realize some of the Android handsets were doing that. It would be nice to see Apple adopt that model. With each new release, they send millions of phones to the trash can.

GlennA
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The 'Quality' Myth
GlennA   5/4/2012 9:24:40 AM
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Larry S.;  Quality means different things.  In manufacturing 'quality' is conformance to specifications.  A process can be Six Sigma and still produce junk, but it is 'quality junk' if it conforms to specifications.

And there is always the demand to always make things 'less expensive'.  The trick is to stop making things 'less expensive' before the point of making them 'cheap'.

And a tangent:  Despair.com has a take on building the pyramids = when you have an unlimited supply of expendable labor, there's nothing you can't do.  Still, there are ancient structures that rival modern buildings.

Larry S.
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Re: The 'Quality' Myth
Larry S.   5/4/2012 11:00:58 AM
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"Quality Junk"?  Good design will yield a quality product at the targeted price point!  To suggest that the production of "junk" that meets "specifications" is acceptable is nothing more than an inferior, lazy design shortcut.

GlennA
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Re: The 'Quality' Myth
GlennA   5/4/2012 11:24:57 AM
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Larry S.;  Re-read your post and you will see that you have contradicted yourself.  The price-point determines how much 'quality' a product can have and still be sold at a profit.  Or do you blame 'inferior, lazy design' for a Chevrolet Chevette not having the same 'quality' as a Chevrolet Corvette ?  'Quality' expectations are higher for more expensive products.  And are you familiar with Deming ?  e.g. defect does not equal defective.

Droid
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Re: Much of what is built today will barely last a lifetime ...
Droid   5/4/2012 11:16:42 AM
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Couple points here.  First - seeing something that was made with good functionality long lasting quality and aesthetic beauty is alway a treat. However, in many cases, we are often comparing apples and oranges when talking about old engineering versus new.  I am not sure that a Roman road built in a more extreme hot/cold climate such as Minnesota and pounded with heavy 18 wheelers all day would fair any better than our current construction.

The automobile is a another prime example of progress from recent decades and people's poor memories.  People talk about how good the old cars were mainly because the body structures were so heavily built, but I beg to differ that they were necessarily always better.  Our modern vehicle see more mileage, have less corrosion problems, and have more features while getting decent gas mileage in spite of overbearing government regulation and silly ethanol mandates.  

Additionally, the fact that we view many items as "temporary use" is a testament to just how fast technology and engineering is progressing.  We marvel at ancient technology, but only for the sake of how it compared to the "standard" knowledge of ancient times.

On a final thought - If I am correct, the Romans often used lead in their piping systems - so plastic does seem a bit better.

Charles Murray
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Re: Much of what is built today will barely last a lifetime ...
Charles Murray   5/7/2012 6:53:31 PM
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I'll add a point to your point, Droid. The cars of the "good old days" were doing well to get to 100,000 miles. Today, many vehicles reach 200,000 to 250,000 miles. Today's cars are far, far more reliable.

bobjengr
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ENGINEERING AND CIVILIZATION
bobjengr   5/3/2012 7:54:34 PM
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Excellent point—engineering and civilization DO go hand-in-hand.   Several years ago, my company sent me to Egypt to call on a distributor concerning issues with atmospheric gas burners softening (another word for melting) during extended periods of firing.  Propane gas was used as the fuel.  If you recall, propane gas has a heating value of approximately 2500 Btu/Ft³ so the orifices must be sized accordingly or you will definitely have problems.   While there, I had an opportunity to visit the pyramids.  Pictures, in no way, do them justice.  They are massive—massive.  I would love to know the mechanisms used to hoist those stones upward and into place.   I have always thought that for such an undertaking, there would be some form of documentation as to how this was accomplished.   In our day, time is "of the essence".  It is definitely hard to believe the "ancient" engineers worried that much about time.  They seemed to be more in tune with achieving quality.

Mydesign
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Technology and civilization
Mydesign   5/4/2012 5:33:41 AM
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Henry, civilization and engineering are closely co-related and related in a bilateral way. Technology can bring up the living standards of citizens and this in turn can uplift the civilization. Most of the technologies we are using now a day's are either digitalized or extended versions of the older ones.

Ann R. Thryft
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If engineering = civilization, civilization is really old
Ann R. Thryft   5/4/2012 2:18:55 PM
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Thanks for a thoughtful discussion of this subject. In the Neolithic, long before the pyramids of Egypt, some truly amazing stone structures, the megalith monuments, were erected throughout Western and Northern Europe out of huge stones. It wasn't until the 1970s that the tree-ring dating revolution in archaeology gave us any idea just how old these structures are. More recently, some 20,000 year old dwellings have been found in the Middle East. Those are not particularly remarkable, except for their age. "To engineer is human" may be true.


ChasChas
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Before we get too excited...
ChasChas   5/7/2012 10:01:26 AM
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The underlying commonality of these great enigeering feats is slave labor. Would projects of this size been built without slave labor? I wonder if the engineers worked under forced conditions.

Even today we enjoy great products build under dubious conditions in foreign countries that are lax at preventing unfair labor conditions and human suffering.

Great article, Petoski.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Before we get too excited...
Ann R. Thryft   5/7/2012 4:18:54 PM
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We know for sure that today there are truly awful conditions for many workers in different parts of the globe. But it turns out that not even the Pyramids, the supposed classic slave labor example, were built entirely with slave labor. Most evidence now points to wage workers building them. As far as the megaliths go, many were apparently built by local communities over long periods of time.


ironhorse
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The High and Mighty ...
ironhorse   6/1/2012 11:12:27 AM
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A pet peeve is the veneration of the ancient pyramids:  A pyramid is the simplest of structures; mere variations of piles of dirt and rocks! The  inverse of a hole-in-the-ground!  A pyramid is close to non-optimal material utilization – the least amount of building that you can get for given amounts of resources.  Vaulting is primitive, mostly corbeling with very few examples of anything as "advanced" as triangular arches.  Layout requires nothing more than high school geometry (I reject the notion that anyone who got an A in Geometry was taught by aliens).

The author highlights how primitive the pyramids are by his immediate contrast of the Romans.

I have viewed Engineering as the profession of how to do the most with the least -- considering volume of stonework enclosure, on one end you have the pyramid piles and on another you have gothic cathedrals (still just Geometry).   

Still "Quantity has a quality all its own."  When SAC was having a B52-capable runway built in Salina, KS, the Officers were frustrated with the detail of analysis the Civil Engineers were presenting to figure out how thick the runway had to be to land B52s.  Finally, a General stood up and demanded, "Would 2 feet of concrete be enough?"  To which the Engineer replied, "Yes, but 2 feet!?!"  So, today, aviation in Salina has a very stable runway.

Yes, there is a tradeoff between durability and utilization, Engineering failure is often a case of carrying utilization too far (using tie rods so thin that welding becomes a risk,  replacing butter with hydrogenated soybean oil), but the pyramids carry durability to the point of practical uselessness.  It would be technically simple to recreate the Egyptian Monuments today, but why?

Please Note: I'm not bagging on the article, but on the idea that pyramids represent much  advancement other than social organization.

Dave Palmer
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Materials and civilization
Dave Palmer   5/11/2012 12:35:01 PM
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Being a civil engineer, Professor Petroski naturally focuses on monuments of civil engineering.  Certainly the examples which he gives, such as the Pyramids, are iconic of the civilizations which produced them.

But as a materials engineer, I'd like to think that the role of materials engineering has been even more fundamental to civilization.  After all, entire historical epochs are named after the materials which were used (the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, etc.).  The Mesoamerican civilizations prove that highly advanced societies can be built using primarily stone tools -- but they were unable to defend themselves against less-civilized European invaders, because the Europeans had steel weapons.  And, of course, the Bible records that the Bronze Age Israelites were unable to overcome Caananite tribes who had iron chariots.

Of course, mechanical engineers might argue that tool use is even more fundamental.  It used to be said that tool use is what separated humanity from other animals, although now there is some evidence to the contrary. (And, by the way, all tools need to be made out of something).

All in all, it seems clear that it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the superstructure of human civilization from its technological and material base.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Materials and civilization
Ann R. Thryft   5/11/2012 4:07:56 PM
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Dave, I agree with you about the importance of materials and materials engineering, as well as structures and civil/architectural engineering, helping to define different eras of human cultural advance. Since those advances happened at different times in different parts of the world, the Old Stone, New Stone, Bronze and Iron Age labels turned out to be not as useful as when they were invented to describe what early archeologists were discovering about ancient European history. I think the combination of materials and what's made with them--tools, machines, buildings, art--are some key indicators of the nature of a particular culture, as much as the particular ideology.

Dave Palmer
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Re: Materials and civilization
Dave Palmer   5/11/2012 5:40:39 PM
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@Ann: You're definitely right about the "three age" classification system not being particularly applicable to Africa, Australia, or the Americas.  I was alluding to that with my reference to Mesoamerica.  On the other hand, history might have turned out very differently if the Aztecs had developed ferrous metallurgy.  In terms of civil engineering, Tenochtitlan was much larger and better laid-out than any city in Spain, and Nezahualcoyotl, who is credited with designing the city's levees, was probably at least the equal of any Renaissance European thinker.  But it's hard to beat gunpowder and steel.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Materials and civilization
Ann R. Thryft   5/14/2012 2:41:21 PM
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Dave, "Guns, Germs and Steel" by Jared Diamond is a great read and also an excellent analysis of the big-picture reasons behind why Spaniards conquered the in many ways more advanced New World cultures, the Incas and Aztecs, instead of the other way around. The lack of iron and steel is certainly a major, but not the only, factor.

Dave Palmer
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Re: Materials and civilization
Dave Palmer   5/15/2012 8:16:18 PM
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Ann, thanks for that reference.  I've heard about Diamond's book, but I haven't read it.  Maybe I'll check it out.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Materials and civilization
Ann R. Thryft   5/16/2012 1:14:19 PM
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Although Diamond's background is not in anthropology, archaeology, culture studies, or even history, he did an amazingly good job of taking the macro approach and synthesizing much work that's already been done in those areas. The result is a very thoughtful and thought-provoking analysis. Several scholars in some of the above disciplines were apparently annoyed that he did this analysis (or publicized it) before they thought of it.

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