The Elements of Engineering



My life is very different from my grandfather's. His life's goal was to have a farm in West Virginia. In his later years, he was concerned by the loss of all the land to highways. He was particularly worried about the interstate highway system consuming acreage that could be used to plant corn. My life also is very different from my son's, who is an Internet/computer junkie. I fall somewhere in between the pre-computer and high-tech world.

Culturally we are changing. Science and engineering are dominating our lives and changing our culture. I once used a slide rule. That slide rule was replaced by a very expensive calculator that is now obsolete.

Next came the big mainframe computers. Mini computers and the PC soon followed, and now the personal assistant and the Internet dominate. Huge increases in productivity have occurred as a result of these technologies.

This march of technology is likely to continue.

Individual technologies might lead for a time, but then they mature and lose leadership to a newer technology.

At the center of this technological evolution is engineering. Engineering generates technology.

Engineering is change. Engineering exploits knowledge. The engineering attitude is that the present condition does not have to be accepted. You do not have to take "no" for an answer.

Engineers keep trying to find solutions. We were unable to fly. Now we do. Rivers flood, we dam them. Perseverance is important to engineering. If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.

Engineering usually focuses on problem solving, but not always. Necessity is not always the mother of invention. The invention sometimes can generate the need. Airplanes were not perceived as being "needed" at the turn of the century. Now almost everyone flies.

As engineers solve problems, they obtain knowledge. Therefore, engineering is also a generator of knowledge. Engineering also can involve intuition, instinct, guesses and "guts." Many engineering discoveries simply have been blind luck.

Unfortunately, society does not always embrace change and engineering. A natural human resistance to change exists ," and for good reason. Many technologies are introduced before the public is ready for them. Others simply might be a waste of time. Engineering, therefore, can suffer from many types of acceptance problems and fall victim to society.

Those working in engineering often must overcome the "establishment," misperceptions related to science, and other obstacles. "Fighting the fight" can take on many forms. Our society often is unable or unwilling to recognize concepts and ideas and to accept change. We must overcome these difficulties. As engineers, we should not be shy about touting the benefits of something new.

Remember, too, that failure is a natural component of engineering and change. Engineering is not always going to get it right the first time. I once worked for a company with the motto: "Do it right the first time." Obviously, the originator of that statement had very little understanding of the engineering process.

NASA is an excellent example of a true engineering enterprise. This organization is constantly undertaking new missions and new processes. In its beginning, NASA experienced many failures on the launch pad in its attempt to get one rocket to fly. From time to time, we still hear of NASA's mistakes. However, mistakes are part of the engineering process. To err is human. To err is engineering.

The successes that eventually come out of NASA's mistakes are what makes the organization great. Many new materials, methods and techniques, technologies, engineering and scientific discoveries now are being developed from the work NASA does. If one could do a cost analysis of NASA, looking back from the future, the benefit-to-cost ratio would be astoundingly positive in NASA's favor. Engineering, therefore, is also about success.

In engineering, we need more of the NASA attitude: "the right stuff." At this point in the business cycle and with all the recent layoffs, I hope we have reached a point where engineering can once again be appreciated. Look at what engineering has provided. The benefit-to-cost ratio was very high in the past and will be again in the future. CP

Tatterson is a technical editor for

Chemical Processing. He is a professor at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro. Contact him at He also teaches short courses for the Center for Professional Advancement,
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