Article - Issue 32, September 2007

Response to ‘Brightening Lives’, Educating Engineers, Protecting the Family Silver?

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Response to ‘Brightening Lives’

Professor Richard De La Rue FREng gives a fascinating account of the tremendous engineering achievements represented by the state-of-the-art in semiconductor optoelectronics. He also provides some tantalising glimpses of what remains in store for us as the underlying device technologies are further developed (Ingenia 31). He points out that whilst the cornerstone devices “have been around for a while, there is still plenty of room for growth and improvement”. This, of course, is true. Yet it is equally exciting to note that even if little or no such improvement were forthcoming, we would remain in the midst of an explosion in the commercial opportunities now offered by the all-pervasive photonics.

There is no longer any month of the year which does not play host to at least one major international meeting addressing a bewildering range of applications; and there is no longer any sector of industry that remains untouched. Frequently in combination with optical fibres, recent reports have addressed a most diverse range of applications for optoelectronic devices – from structural health monitoring by embedded networks in airframes and major civil works, to quality assessment in large-scale food processing; from precision gyroscopes and navigation systems, to drug detection units; from stress measurement systems in the massive blades of wind power turbines, to new road traffic monitoring and control schemes; and the range of emergent biomedical uses is astonishing.

It is noteworthy, indeed, that the diffraction grating described in the article as the key feature in the DFB laser is responsible in different formats, as a periodic perturbation of the physical properties of the core of an optical fibre, or in any one of a number of planar optical materials, for many of the newest achievements in this wider photonic or optoelectronic field. The periodic structures underpinning the photonic crystals discussed by Professor De La Rue are simply multidimensional versions of these nanostructured gratings.

Professor De La Rue’s article elucidates some of the essential building blocks upon which new industries are being built. From an engineering standpoint, there is much remaining to be done that will yield yet further advances in these components. Equally, there is so much ingenuity in the burgeoning applications sector. This is a new enlightenment, perhaps!

Professor Ian Bennion FREng
School of Engineering & Applied Science
Aston University, Birmingham

Educating Engineers for the 21st Century brochure front cover

Educating Engineers for the 21st Century

Educating Engineers

My “Letter” in the September 2007 issue of INGENIA refers to an article written by me and published in the TIMES Higher Education Supplement of 15th July 1977 under the title “Managing things as training for managing people”. At the time of writing that article, I was Head of Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Leeds. Below is the text of my 1977 article.

Much is currently said about the shortage of jobs for young engineering graduates, and misgivings expressed about the need for them to seek non-engineering employment. Contrary to this view, however, it can be argued that it is in fact desirable to obtain a university degree in engineering expressly for the purpose of employment in management and administration.

There are several reasons for this. At the most cynical, we can observe that the world around us, which has so far been run mainly but the “artsmen” and economists, has proved so manifestly unsuccessful that a change – almost any change – in the “management” team is bound to be for the better. The second reason is the intrinsic value of engineering education, especially of the type we practise in civil engineering at Leeds, for general administration and managerial work.

The third reason is more parochial: more people with engineering education spread throughout society at large would be good for the status of those who practise engineering. And status seems to be the main preoccupation of engineers at the present time – although personally I do not share this concern.

Before elaborating any of these ideas, something should be said about the present situation regarding

the presence of engineers outside engineering practice. A search for the names of people in Britain well-known in business, the administrative branch of the Civil Service, Parliament or local government who have a degree in engineering does not produce a long list; yet in the United States, France and Germany, many such people have engineering diplomas.

This is not the place to compare the fortunes of those countries with our own, and of course the presence or absence of engineers is not the only distinguishing feature. But in those countries engineers are thought to have something to contribute to management and to administration, so that their services are welcome and indeed well paid.

Let us look at what is involved in management. The manager’s task is to decide what has to be done, and to get other people to do it. So the basic difference between engineering and management is that one uses forces of nature and the other forces in people. (And of course forces of nature cannot be utilized other than through people.)

There is a terrible quotation from William Durrant, an American philosopher and historian, that “under every system of economy, men who can manage men manage men who can only manage things”. I do not believe that engineers can only manage things, though not every engineering graduate will make a good manager.

What knowledge is needed for management? Presumably the manager has to be knowledgeable about people. The usual engineering course, admittedly, teaches little on the subject: but nor does law, economics, accounting, and certainly not English or the Oxford Greats, and yet graduates in these subjects are thought to be natural managers. So the explicit knowledge about people acquired at the undergraduate level is not a prerequisite for joining the managerial or administrative class.

The requisites for management also include a great deal of specific knowledge about business, financing and perhaps law, but this has to be acquired after graduation by the engineer and non-engineer alike.

My second point is that as far as possessing a basis for learning management, the engineering graduate is better off than the arts graduate. For the engineer has become acquainted with several useful approaches and techniques, one of which is to make decisions on the basis of knowledge derived from reproducible experiments. This is better than knowledge of a series of one-off “happenings”, as in history.

An insistence on reproducible situations would, of course, be stifling; but the engineer, in design, in construction, and above all in planning must also learn to make decisions on the basis of incomplete data. Here, he is much better prepared than a pure scientist, who thinks nothing of requiring five years before he can commit himself on a specific point. And, of course, managers, as well as generals and medics, must make decisions with inadequate data in hand.

Engineers have the obvious advantage over those trained in the arts of being numerate: they also acquire the asset of step-by-step analysis, which is necessary in decision-making, particularly on allocation of resources and in complex planning.

These are exercises in choice-making and so is engineering. The engineer has been taught to recognize the salient features of a problem, and also to deduce information and conclusions in a logical way.

In this process of decision-making as learnt in engineering, objectives have to be decided upon, the problem has to be analysed, broken down into components which can be tackled, and then a solution has to be synthesized – we call it design. The same sequence applies in management.

There is some historic evidence for the assertion about the suitability of an engineering background for management; it was engineers who brought to the field of management a systematic approach, formulation of procedures, and above all the concepts of efficiency and optimisation, who created the science of management, and who shaped the largest American corporations.

A specific comment can be added here about engineering curricula vis-à-vis management. I mentioned above the scheme to study in the department of civil engineering at Leeds. One feature which is relevant to the present topic is the possibility of including in the curriculum subjects from outside the department.

In the first year, and sometimes in the second and third, our students have selected as optional subjects: English or French literature, psychology, law, sociology, philosophy, history of Roman Britain, archaeology, and so on – a total of 31 different subjects.

These are not special courses for engineers, but our students are put right among arts students or other non-engineers. This contact, usually totally absent, is useful for our men and women in the future when they practise engineering. It is even more useful for them if they do not, and it is of course very educational for those studying the arts.

Finally there is the point about spreading the engineering image – not faith – among other people. If engineering graduates make a success of work in commerce or government, then the idea that engineers are different – that they are ill-equipped practitioners of a craft – will slowly disperse. They will be thought of more highly as people, and perhaps even as engineers. And the Government will hopefully become more conversant with technology and its proper role.

An important corollary of the argument that engineering education is not exclusively for producing chartered engineers, is that the prospects of engineering employment should not control the numbers entering university courses in engineering. After all, job prospects do not influence the number of students reading for a degree in English literature and, in a professional sense, such a degree offers no career at all.

To summarize the above argument, more graduates in engineering – either immediately or later on in life – should move into general management because they have the right background for management. This move would be good for them, as management provides a satisfying, open-ended, and well-paid career.

It would be good for management and administration, which needs good people. It would be good for those who remain in engineering because movement out of it would mean more elbow room and better prospects within it. It would be good for the engineering profession, because we would get our people into the “other” camp, and perhaps have less of the “us” and “them” approach.

And last, but certainly not least, it would be good for engineering academics, because we would get more able, active and interesting students who would be looking forward to a managerial career in the world outside.

Adam Neville CBE FREng FRSE

Formerly Head of Department of Civil Engineering,
The University of Leeds and Principal and Vice-Chancellor, University of Dundee

Protecting the family silver?

I welcome the cogent review of Intellectual Property (IP) conducted by Andrew Gowers and his team. An extract from the summary is very telling: “The increasing importance of knowledge capital is seen in its contribution to the value of firms. In 1984 the top ten firms listed on the London Stock Exchange had a combined market value of £40 bn and net assets of the same value. Advance twenty years and the asset stock of the largest firms has doubled while their market value has increased nearly ten times. The difference in value is accounted for by intangible assets: goodwill, reputation and, most importantly, knowledge capital.”

I first wrote on the importance of the “Knowledge-Driven Economy” in a report for the DTI Future Unit in 1998. I believe that we have systematically underestimated the value of intellectual contributions in areas such as business processes and software. It was good to see recent publications by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) starting to get to grips with this under-recognition. The figures for UK 2006 GDP have been revised up by £8.3bn (0.6%), simply through the inclusion of internal software development.

The Institute of Directors (IoD) estimates that every £1 spent on software and hardware, typically needs to be matched by £4 spent on ‘people’ and ‘process’. ONS is now exploring how this might best be tracked, quantified and included in future GDP estimates.

All of this under-reported economic activity suggests that a sensible framework for the measurement, management, protection and exploitation of IP is a key priority.

I was also both interested and intrigued by Sir Hugh Laddie’s comments (Opinion, Ingenia 31). Clearly small and medium enterprises (SMEs) need a great deal more help and guidance in navigating the IP minefield. They certainly deserve support when seeking to assert their legal rights on a playing field heavily tilted by cost in favour of the big battalions. So what has happened to the Gowers recommendations?

The Patent Office has indeed become the ‘Intellectual Property Office’ (IPO) – as per Recommendation 53. A visit to the IPO Gowers Implementation website suggests that much further consultation is going on. Even the IPO’s own implementation plan focuses mainly on exploratory discussions. The main achievement so far has been the implementation of Recommendation 42; giving trading-standards authorities enhanced powers with respect to copyright enforcement.

It is imperative to ensure that freedom to innovate, drawing on the collective knowledge of others is encouraged rather than penalised. Let us trust that all this ‘consultation’ does help, in the words of Andrew Gowers himself, to “create incentives for innovation, without unduly limiting access for consumers and follow-on innovators. It must strike the right balance in a rapidly changing world so that innovators can see further by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Professor Jim Norton CDir CEng CITP
Senior Policy Adviser e-Business & e-Government, Institute of Directors

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