on March 21st, 2012

Perhaps the subject line is a rather frivolous ‘throw away’ line to many of you. However, the focus on engineering these days is keeping within the budget (don’t we know when we overrun on costs or recommend equipment which is too high quality?); maintaining safety margins; unbelievably detailed documentation on everything related to the design and extensive and unrelenting risk management. Engineering has steadily become very conservative with many unwilling to take risks in conceptual design. Dare I say – we have become more unimaginative in our engineering?  Especially today, with many projects being culled as too high risk or adventurous (apart from mining and oil and gas, I hasten to add).

Naturally, I am not advocating ignoring safety and putting people into dangerous situations; but being imaginative and ‘thinking big’ in what we dream and think and how we handle challenges.

One of the areas which I believe is particularly ambitious and challenging is of course, space and planetary exploration. Surely, this is pioneering stuff at the extreme for engineering? In the current depressed economy, this is a sure fire target by politicians for cutting budgets. We build up incredible skills and know-how in space engineering on an international basis with teams of engineering professionals stretching their ingenuity and communications skills across barriers of technology, culture and language.

Many people (including my feisty wife) believe that space exploration is somewhat of a waste of money and we should be devoting these billions to sorting out more immediate problems closer to earth. The spin-offs from space exploration include, accelerating developments in mobile phone technology, medicine and security and many tiny improvements to our lives. For example, how many know that the ubiquitous Velcro strip (to quickly connect two objects together) originated from space exploration in the sixties.

We need to dream big and be more imaginative in what we do. Tackle tasks and projects which would appear to be impossible. Look at things which we haven’t been able to accomplish before and attack them with renewed vigour using different approaches and tools.

We have to seize the initiative from the faceless men that run our lives – the accountants, lawyers and contracts people (and much maligned Wall Street banker types). The ones who refuse to consider anything risky in terms of engineering.

So my humble suggestions today:

  • Renew your engineering vigour to tackle projects which you have found too difficult to consider
  • Look at new approaches in tackling intractable engineering work
  • Relook at synergies and focus on making 1 + 1 = 3
  • Re-invigorate flagging projects which seem to be inundated with negative vibes and a sense of failure
  • Be more ambitious in what you do and target the stars rather than the top of a molehill

At a risk of irritating a few folk on the subject of ambition; I do find Timothy Leary’s comment heartening: Women who seek to be equal with men lack ambition.

Yours in engineering learning


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