Great set of videos on what engineers do

Dr Emma Carter from Sheffield University has made a great set of videos on engineering:

With funding from the Engineering Professors’ Council, I’ve made some films to share the genius of Engineering featuring engineering researchers, lecturers, students and apprentices on film talking about their particular area of engineering and explaining some of the science behind it. The films are aimed at children aged around 9 – 13 but adults may learn something too :-)

The whole collection can be viewed by clicking this link.

Biomechanical Engineering from Emma Carter on Vimeo.

Manufacturing Zone at the 2015 Cambridge Science Festival

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We had a great day yesterday at the Manufacturing Zone at the Institute for Manufacturing organised as part of the 2015 Cambridge Science Festival. Many thanks to all those who attended and all those who helped deliver such a great range of activities.

For those who’d like to explore some of the issues presented in the talk on ‘How engineers make the world a better place‘, here are links to some of the videos and projects we mentioned:

  • If you’d like to know more about Cambridge University Eco Racing (the team that Keno described who built the solar-powered racing car to travel 3,000km across Australia), click here.
  • Robohand – making a low-cost 3D-printed artificial functioning hand for children. This project has since inspired others such as the fantastic Project Daniel, delivering both new hands and arms for child amputees in South Sudan, but also training local teachers to make these new limbs.  You can also watch Iron Man himself deliver a new hand to one lucky child.
  • Basics of 3D printing – this video from Ultimaker provides a nice clear illustration of how the consumer 3D printer works. And this video gives a summary of the main opportunities and challenges of 3D printing.  The latest new technology that delivers a kind of rapid 3D printing is Carbon3D and a video of their extraordinary “Terminator 2-ish” technology can be seen here.
  • The wonderful Dovetailed company’s video on 3D printed food can be accessed here.
  • Crossrail is the truly jaw-dropping project to build a new East-West underground line for London.  There are lots of resources relating to this project here.
  • To learn more about how jet engines are built, Rolls-Royce has some videos on their main video website.
  • James Dyson set up a foundation to help young people and teachers learn about industrial design, and there are a whole bunch of really useful resources available for download.
  • The time-lapse video of a 15-storey hotel being built in 48 hours can be found here.
  • And the excellent ‘Building an Airbus A380 in 7 minutes’ is here.

Engineering humour: Help wanted

There is great work being done to raise awareness on the role of engineering in society, and to show that engineering offers rewarding (in all senses), enjoyable and diverse opportunities. This is, of course, important as there is evidence that we need more engineers to help deliver sustainable economic growth. But there is a risk that the delivery of this message can start to get a bit, well, worthy and preachy, which in turn can start to switch people off.  So as we engineers try to spread the word about engineering, a bit of self-deprecating humour can be really powerful in helping keep a sense of balance in our message.  I’ve started to collect and share some examples of this but I would very much welcome suggestions for other resources to add. Some great ones found so far include Big Bang Theory: Engineers = Oompa Loompas of scienceDilbert: The Knack; and Louis C.K. “Everything is amazing and nobody is happy”


There are also powerful and embarrassing ‘failure’ stories that can be used to show that engineers do make some cringeworthy comical errors. Two great illustrations are the Genesis spacecraft (where a single accelerometer inserted up-side down resulted in the loss of a >$260m probe as it returned to earth) and the Mars Climate Orbiter (a confusion between metric and imperial units led to the destruction of a >$300m spacecraft as it entered Mars orbit).

So, if anyone has suggestions for videos, cartoons (and, yes, I know that there is a whole website of Dilbert-related engineer-specific cartoons!) or situations that show engineering in a self-deprecating light, please add a comment. But please no more ‘Jokes that only engineers would understand’; we want examples of humour that are inclusive, not ‘in-jokes’ .. funny though many of those are.

What skills will our children need for a 3D printed future?

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Danielle George’s excellent Royal Institution Christmas Lectures highlighted one aspect of a cultural, social and economic shift that could transform many aspects of our lives; a trend towards hacking and a return to making things. This shift is driven by a combination of a rather unfocused rage against the intangible world of finance, a feeling that a more ‘balanced’ economy would be a better economy, and a natural desire to “cling to the real world” while still benefiting from the convenience of the virtual. This shift can be seen in the emergence of the ‘maker’ movement (evidenced by the huge numbers attending Maker Faires and growth in the number of FabLabs worldwide), the increased interest of governments in manufacturing (especially the appealing sounding but ill-defined ‘high value’ type), and the over-hyping of 3D printing as a technology to transform, in the words of Barack Obama, “the way we make almost everything“.

This last point is particularly relevant now  – the market for 3D printers is consistently predicted to be huge, and governments around the world are scrambling to come up with national strategies to respond to this opportunity. 3D printing ticks all sorts of boxes. It sounds wonderfully futuristic yet reassuringly familiar (the use of ‘3D printing’ rather than the more accurate ‘Additive Layer Manufacturing’ was a stroke of marketing genius). It is a technology that almost writes its own headlines thanks to the printing of guns, mini-me, and replacement body parts. It also spans the virtual-physical divide in a way that is really appealing to those who worry about children only able to interact with shiny glass screens (these barriers disappear before your eyes if you hand a small child a tablet running super friendly software such as Doodle3D and connect it to a 3D printer).

Much is made of the ‘design freedom’ that 3D printing enables. But it also teaches through disappointment as pupils learn that freedom still comes with some constraints. An inappropriate choice of design and material can lead to some spectacular fails. 3D printing can also break down some of the barriers between subjects, as printers can used to support learning in biology and geography. There is also the ‘Wow factor’ when stories such as those about 3D printing in space stimulate discussion of what else might be possible, and the role of scientists and engineers in making them real.

The problem is, whenever a technology such as 3D printing comes along, no one really has a clue about its real impact (it is well worth a look at the wonderful BBC Tomorrow’s World archive on YouTube –particular favourites are the clips about the first home computer, mobile phones and digital camera). So is the emergence of 3D printing a golden opportunity to prepare the next generation for a maker-based future?  Should we spend taxpayers’ money placing 3D printers in schools as the UK did with PCs in the late 80s and early 90s with its ‘Microelectronics Education Programme’? Would providing ready access to 3D printers provide the next generation a chance to enter the workforce with essential skills for the 2020s and beyond? Possibly, but what would those skills actually be, and is using a 3D printer the best way to develop them?

Danielle George’s message is absolutely right – encouraging children to take an interest in how things work, and fiddling and experimenting with stuff develops really useful skills for life. And while you don’t need a 3D printer to do that, the arrival of a technology that makes making seem accessible, futuristic and fun rather than complicated, old-fashioned and boring is probably only a good thing.

Engineers don't just fix things: They make things better. They make the future.


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