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.
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.
You would need to have been on another planet not to be aware that ‘3D printing’ has become a much-hyped technology: just type it in to Google and be staggered by the mind-boggling scale and diversity of results you get. Underpinning this frenzy of interest is a technology that was developed 30 years ago. The label 3D printing is now used to describe several different technologies applied in a wide range of areas (for a summary of what 3D printing encompasses, this podcast may be useful).
But it is good to imprint powerful, tangible examples in our visitor’s minds. I find that showing them a few videos relating to one theme – 3D printing applied now in healthcare – usually do the trick:
Project Daniel - using low-end 3D printers to support local communities in South Sudan in making low-cost upper-body prostheses.
3D printed vertebrae – a 12-year-old boy suffering from bone cancer became the first recipient of 3D printed artificial vertebra replacement.
However, looking beyond sector and product application areas, one of the most interesting issues is the potential impact that 3D printing may have on education, in terms of what skills are needed for the future, changing the way in which we learn, and transforming our perceptions of what engineering actually is. This will be the subject of the next post on this blog. In the meantime, if you’d like to keep up with trends in 3D printing, follow twitter.com/dfab_info.
The chart below was posted last week as part of an NPR article by Steve Henn on gender balance among coders and computer scientists. This is one of the starkest charts I’ve seen on a gender-related STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) issue. What’s particularly jaw-dropping is that you can almost pinpoint the moment it happened and the technology that caused this profound change.
The article also highlights the distorting role of unconscious biases, and the way in which parents can unintentionally fix children on set pathways from which it is very hard to deviate as they get older. This was discussed recently in a great BBC Horizon programme entitled Is Your Brain Male or Female? One part of this programme focused on the ‘pink-blue’ toy debate, and showed how parents and carers unconsciously encourage children to play with ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ toys. The programme interestingly also explored whether this is entirely a nurture rather than a nature thing by getting monkeys to choose which type toys they preferred – watch the programme to see the surprising results.
Steve Henn’s article is yet other illustration of the importance of getting the message about STEM right at the earliest ages, how easy it is to unintentionally distort the message, and the impact that can result from not making the message clear. This has been recognised for a long time, but clearly we need to ensure that clear, accurate, unbiased information about what STEM is (and isn’t) is widely disseminated. It is therefore great to see a new attempt being made to help define one part of STEM – the role of engineers and engineering – in a new report from the Royal Academy of Engineering. But there’s a way to go before we overcome some of our deep-seated biases, such as those beautifully summed up in this video.
I’d been stuck in near-stationary traffic for over an hour. But that was OK; it was the peak of the summer holidays, and I had mentally prepared myself for this. What was definitely not OK was the fact that my SatNav was telling me ‘No traffic reported ahead‘. How could this stupid machine not know that there was a mile of cars going nowhere ahead of me? What is the point of ‘real time’ updates that are wrong? Why had I wasted good money on this ridiculous piece of junk?
Once I’d finished ranting about this to my supremely uninterested family, I realised I had neatly illustrated one of the most common challenges engineers face. A few years ago, GPS technology was the stuff of James Bond. The idea that anyone could buy a small, relatively cheap device that could pinpoint your near real-time location to within a few metres while travelling at speed would have been laughable. But GPS, in common with so many extraordinary engineering developments, has rapidly moved from the extraordinary to the everyday. There is initial sense of wonder (‘Wow, that’s amazing! It knows exactly where the turning is!’), which quickly decays as the technology is absorbed into the everyday (‘Keys, wallet, phone, SatNav, OK, we can go now’) to end up as something you only notice when it fails to perform perfectly (as illustrated at the start of this post).
But is this inability to be continuously impressed by technological achievements a bad thing? Much of human progress is driven by people being dissatisfied with how things are. Engineers and entrepreneurs thrive on this dissatisfaction to find ways to improve things. What would have happened if Karl Benz had thought that steam trains and horse-drawn carriages were adequate for our transport needs? What if Joseph Swan and Thomas Edison had been sufficiently impressed by gas lighting not to bother with developing the incandescent light bulb? Think of how contemporary engineers and entrepreneurs such as James Dyson, Mandy Haberman and Jonathan Ive have looked at current technology, and pushed things forward to deliver to us something much better (be it vacuum cleaners and hand driers, a child’s drinking cup, or consumer electronics and computers).
Maybe if we were constantly impressed by everything we had, there would be less incentive for engineers to strive to improve things. So perhaps next time you are ranting about slow video download speeds on your smartphone as you hurtle across the country by train, moaning about your flight to the other side of the world being a few minutes late, or giving the SatNav a hard time for not being perfect, you might reflect that you may be doing exactly what is needed to encourage engineers to keep pushing the boundaries of technology to make things better.
Last week, James Dyson wrote an article in The Guardian highlighting the UK’s shortfall of engineers and the impact this is having on his business. This article made some really important points, but also triggered a whole series of questions including:
How many engineers is ‘enough’ for an economy?
Do we know how many engineers we have now?
What type of engineers do we need?
Is the shortage of engineers just a UK issue?
James Dyson’s article also highlighted a particular issue that resonated with me: “[..] That’s why my foundation works with young people from primary school age to dispel the myths and help them discover what a career in engineering is like.”
This seems to be one of the core underlying issues: If young children don’t have a sense of what engineers do, then trying to encourage them to consider engineering as a career and choose the right subjects to study is going to be really difficult. Great work is being done by a wide range of organisations to help improve understanding of what engineering is. There has also recently been increased presence in the media of engineering-related issues (for example, Mark Miodownik’s TV series on ‘Everyday Miracles’). But there is still a lot more to do. The pictures shown at the top of this post I think are symbolic of the problem. They were drawn by 9-10 year olds at a Cambridgeshire primary school in response to the request to ‘draw a picture of an engineer doing engineering work’. I got 40+ excellent pictures of almost exclusively men, repairing and maintaining cars, trains, and boilers. Hardly any of the pictures showed anything to do with constructing, developing, or innovating. This points to the narrow view that these children had of what engineering is about (as discussed in this video). And if that is the basis on which we are developing of workforce of the future, that would seem to be quite a major concern for the UK.
The next few posts on this blog will be exploring the four questions posed above. If you have views on these or related issues, please add your comments below.