Archive for Engineering

Not Trusting Belgians

Posted in Alas the Mystery Remains Holmes, Irregular Features with tags , , , , , on May 23, 2014 by awickerman

The new NATO HQ, which is probably going to be late and over-budget, has reached the fit-out stage where the various nations put in the various computers, desks and doors to make the building actually usable. Most nations have decided to trust the Belgians to fit out their national areas for them, that way they can get a bulk discount from the main contractor and save a few quid.

Britain has decided not to trust the Belgians and the British section will be fitted out separately, along with “Three other NATO nations”. Obviously one of those was the US, but while I can find many, many documents confirming that four NATO countries have opted not to trust Belgians I cannot find out who the other two are.

If I had to guess I would say France and Germany, but that is just a guess. In fairness I cannot think of any plausible reason why I would ever need to know, but nevertheless I would like to. Alas I suspect I never will.

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Female Engineers and Lying at Interview

Posted in Alas the Mystery Remains Holmes, Engineering, Irregular Features, Posts that are far longer than I first intended, Tenuous Link of the Day with tags , , , , on April 1, 2014 by awickerman

Lured in by the bewitching headline that 1 in 10 of the population had named a Brunel when asked to name a famous female living engineer or scientist. One can only assume they felt the same confusion I did as frankly it’s a struggle; I could name plenty of female engineers, I just don’t think anyone has heard of them so I wouldn’t call them famous.

Resolving to solve this mystery I tracked down the organisation behind this poll, hoping to find the actual source data. Alas the depressingly 1990s name ScienceGrrl has decided not to release that information, perhaps because they too are struggling with a famous living female engineer but don’t want to admit it.

Now to the point of this post, this article by one of their directors. It begins by her complaining about how she had to lie about pretending to be interested in Lego to get her first engineering job, she then glosses over the part about how she didn’t last long in the real world and ran off to the fluffy world of non-profit development work and research before ending on what she would like to have said at interview, a bundle of content-free buzzword heavy fluff about impacting on disadvantaged communities and working respectfully. She even talked about shifting goalposts, frankly I was left feeling slightly ill. Perhaps this explains why I drew two completely contradictory conclusions;

1. It was a good thing she did lie at interview, because if she had spouted that bilge at me I’d have never hired her. Engineering is about many things, but buzzwords, fluff and waffling like an architect are never helpful.

2. It was a terrible mistake she did lie at interview, had she said the “truth” hopefully the interviewer would have stopped it there and kindly explained she was in the wrong industry. I like to imagine they would have gone on to suggest she stop wasting everyone’s time and just go work in a fluffy job, much like the ones she has now. Alas her poor first employer was woefully misled into thinking she was a proper engineer who liked Lego and not a naive, idealistic buzzword spouter (her words not mine, well the first two anyway)

On the subject of the actual problem, the lack of women in engineering and science, I really can’t help. I would read their doubtless thrilling report on the subject, but frankly it starts with ‘Gender Lenses’ and just goes down hill from there. It does appear to be a long list of ‘Anyway, the point is we need more money’, as these reports always are, mixed in with baffling contradictions about how girl’s “STEM needs” are the same, but also different. However maybe I’m just not using my Gender Lenses correctly and it will all make sense if I squint a bit and knock down the diversity stereotypes.  Or not.

Great Units of Our Time

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on July 31, 2013 by awickerman

While I realise I may have just led a sheltered life I have never before come across a unit of measurement that combines two units from entirely different systems into one contradictory whole, until today. For today I came across the acre millimetre, which quite obviously is the volume required to fill a one acre area up to a depth of one millimetre.

There was, of course, the acre inch or the hectare millimetre available, but luckily the author spurned these options and instead chose to take the gloriously unconventional path. Truly it enlivened an otherwise deadly dull report, though admittedly at the cost of making me question every other number in the document.

This marvellous unit was topped when, while looking for similarly odd unit combinations, I can across a petition against the Jispa Dam quoting the dam’s capacity as 0.6 million hectare feet of water, which is a truly outstanding unit which will mean nothing to people who think in either system. Only those conversant in both will have a feel for it, and they are probably the people who’d most prefer it if the two weren’t mixed. Truly a triumph of number wrangling.

The wonderful world of the railways

Posted in And thus the Mystery was solved Watson!, The Railways, Tunnels with tags , , , , on November 10, 2011 by awickerman

Started the week all set for an exciting run of tunnel inspecting night shifts, having made the mistake of not getting it wrong the last few times round I was top of the list this year. While some idiot had booked Tuesday to Friday night, instead of the more civilised Monday to Thursday I had carefully established as the norm, it was still four short nights work for five full days pay. Variety being the spice of life I was also looking forward to the change of scene and a chance to escape the office.

Things began well when, before we even began, Thursday night was cancelled as Network Rail wanted to put a test train through and so cancelled all other work on site. When we arrived on Tuesday night things improved further when, due to a combination of the world’s slowest road-railer and a double booking, from our original 3 hour time slot we managed about 1hr 30 of work. That’s 1hr 30 including travel time around the site, so you can imagine how little we actually achieved.

Things hit a peak on Wednesday night when both that night’s work was cancelled due to a tiny mistake in the paperwork AND Friday night was also canned, as Network Rail belatedly pulled the plug, perhaps realising that Friday night is a right bugger to resource and they couldn’t manage it. Almost as if I had deliberately avoided Fridays in previous years for a reason that wasn’t just personal comfort…..

As this is all abortive works we can just pass all the costs onto the client and leave them to argue over who’s fault it is, thus I can happily stick down a full week on the timesheet having only gone to site twice and done barely 1hr of actual work. As a bonus all the work still needs doing before year end, so we’ll be back out in a few weeks for a second attempt, all charged as extras.

To all politicians, rail users and transport pressure groups I say thank you for this wonderful paid holiday. If you focused on the current network and all the problems there, instead of scrapping over white elephants like HS2, I might have been forced to some real work this week.

Why civil engineering is not respected

Posted in And thus the Mystery was solved Watson!, Engineering, Irregular Features, Posts that are far longer than I first intended, Tenuous Link of the Day, The Railways, The Underground, Tunnels with tags , , , , , , , , on June 3, 2011 by awickerman

It is a common complaint among engineers that the profession is under-valued, the conversation then normally ranges over the usual topics;  Why are photocopier repair men called engineers? Why don’t we have something like the German Engineer’s Law to protect the name engineer? Why is it that providing the power, gas and water people need is ignored while shagging ex-Big Brother contestants a matter of national concern? In truth these are not good or even original questions, but it does get the conversation going in the pub which is often the main thing.

What never get mentions is the habit of the engineering profession of doing it’s level best to repeatedly bugger up it’s own chances. Consider the ICE London Civil Engineering Awards. Look at some of these past winners;

  • 2010 – Infrastructure Award: King’s Cross St Pancras Underground Station Redevelopment – Phase 2
  • 2009 – Greatest Contribution to London Award: Heathrow Terminal 5A
  • 2008 – Special Award: Wembley Stadium

King’s Cross Phase 2 was a nightmare, this brief history barely covers half the problems but suffice to say horrifically late and well over budget cover it quite well. T5A construction (as opposed to the fit out and staff training) was in fact on time and on budget, but frankly that was irrelevant to the general public perception of the whole project wasn’t it? Nothing really needs saying on Wembley Stadium,  but for those who’ve forgotten it was several years late, over twice the original budget and that the at least one of the multiple court cases over the construction was still going earlier this year.

The pattern you should note is that for most of the population the ICE London branch goes around giving it’s best awards to late, over-priced or otherwise flawed projects. Sure from a purely technical viewpoint they were a triumph for the engineers involved (commercially not so much, particularly not Wembley which the FA got on a fixed price. Genius I tell you), but they are not calculated to make the profession look good, particularly at the showcase event of the year.

Still for those who insist the profession has a higher status I bring good news. This year’s infrastructure award went to the Boris Bikes, a scheme with all the civil engineering content of the average banana, but one that will doubtless garner many fluffy headlines and approving nods from the Guardian….. It’s enough to make a man turn to drink really.

The north/south divide

Posted in And thus the Mystery was solved Watson!, Engineering, Tunnels, Your cut-out-and-keep Guide with tags , , , , , , on May 15, 2011 by awickerman

A new take on this old chestnut from a tunnelling perspective. Some of the high voltage cable circuits installed back in the 1960s are becoming ‘life expired’ and need replacing with new ones.

In Liverpool the plan is to dig up the roads, excavate a giant trench and put them in there, three years (or more) of disrupting the entire region that is apparently perfectly acceptable.

In contrast in London a vast sum of money is spent on building a tunnel instead of digging up local roads, disrupting traffic and winding up the locals.

Though of course you will always offend locals whatever you do, apparently the solution of ‘We’ll stop the construction works if you stop using electricity’ is not an acceptable form of community relations…

Offshore Wind – Tricky

Posted in Irregular Features, Your cut-out-and-keep Guide with tags , , , , , on November 5, 2010 by awickerman

The chaps at the Carbon Trusts have belatedly worked out that off shore wind farms are tricky beasts, particularly the upcoming ‘Phase 3’ lot of deep water wind farms. As we’ve used up all the easy to get to spots off shore, and as people are starting to complain about having a large, noisy, ugly bird muncher on land, we must head to deep water and that is a problem.

To solve this they have launched OWA, the Offshore Windfarm Access challenge. For obvious reasons the normal deep offshore approach wont work (helicopters and windmills go together almost as badly as birds and windmills) so they need to get there by boat. For the current generation pretty much anything will do as it’s not to choppy inshore, so the waves are small and currents low, while the windmills themselves are relatively small. It’s usually a small little 10m jobbie that uses a gangplang to get onto the access platform, no crew accommodation to speak off and fairly limited range and endurance.

In contrast the Phase 3 windfarms will be something like 300km into the North Sea, be far bigger and have to deal with high winds and big waves, the design scenario being 5m high waves and 30knot wind. Hence the need for a new shiny transfer system. And make no mistake a transfer system is important as offshore windmills run at only ~90% availability (not load factor, though availability is one of the components of load factor) and that’s for windmills in shallow water. In deep water and being hit by North Sea storms that figure will plunge, particularly when you consider the main causes of failure; the turbine controller trips out. No seriously, 70% of all ‘repairs’ are turning-it-off-and-on-again which apparently cannot be done remotely and needs a bloke on a boat to do. If the controllers get phased by inshore conditions the central North Sea is going to eat them alive, in all honesty this should probably be a contest to make hardened and competent control systems, but that would be too logical for the Carbon Trust I suppose.#

For those of you with an interest find here the project spec, you too could win £100,000 in development money and possibly millions to build a prototype. For everyone else fear not, windmill makers still need help building foundations (it’s deep, giant concrete pillars just aren’t cutting it), sorting out the wake effect of windmills (i.e. how far apart they have to be) and electrical transfer systems (how on earth to get the electricity back to the mainland).

As the Carbon Trust is very generously funded by the inordinately retarded Climate Change Levy (which is far too mind blowingly stupid to discuss here in detail) there will be plenty of money to be thrown at all these problems, not to mention the dozens of other problems they haven’t even thought of yet, because as I said at the top; Offshore Wind – Tricky.

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