Tuesday, March 1, 2022

The Nature of Engineering

Engineering isn't as glamorous as people think it would be.

When I worked at Carrier, I spent the better part of two years building a prototype multi-zone air handler   If you don't understand how commercial HVAC works, often for large buildings there is a "chiller" in the basement (a machine about the size of a small shipping container) which makes chilled water.  This is piped to each floor in the building where there is an air handler.  In the air handler, which is a big metal box with a big fan in it, there is a chilled water coil (and usually a hot water coil as well or the chilled water coil is converted to hot water use as the seasons change).  Air blows through the coils and into ductwork to each office.

To control temperature, there are air-flow control boxes mounted above the drop ceiling. These are attached to thermostats which then modulate air flow to control temperature in the corresponding office.  It is not a perfect system as the HVAC part is usually installed before the final "build-out" of the office space.  As a result, often the thermostat is in one room while the corresponding air duct in another.  Hilarity ensues as one office is too hot and another too cold, and doors blow shut or open because of air pressure.

The system isn't cheap, either, as it requires you install all these air-flow control boxes and then install thermostats and run wires (or air pressure hoses) which often means a call-back to tweak and "balance" the system to make it work.  Suppose you could put these air-flow control boxes right on the air handler?  Then you do one install and route the ductwork and your're done!

The Engineers came up with the design - or multiple designs - and had the model shop build prototype parts.  As technician, I was to assemble the thing, instrument it, and test it.  The first model was pneumatic and involved bundles of air hoses.  The second version was electric and a little more modern.  The big problem was measuring air flow - the dampers we used tended to spoof the air flow meters (how they do this in cars is beyond me!).  I spent a couple of years of my life on the darn thing.  A few years later, I came back as a Co-Op student, working in another lab on a computer data logging system and I visited my old lab.  The techs told me they took "my" machine out to the scrap dock, after it cluttered up the test bay for several years.  I went out to see it, and it was bittersweet - so much work, such a part of my life, and now it was just scrap.

And this is typical of Engineering - you spend years on a project and it might not work out.  Or you spend years on a project and it is successful - but the scrap dock is still lined with all the failures you encountered in the process of designing the success.  And much of the work is drudgery - testing and re-testing, again and again.  Re-designing a part or tweaking a system and then testing again.  You go down so many blind alleys - and they all need to be investigated - before you figure out what works and what doesn't.  And getting an increase in efficiency of even 1% is heroic, saving a dollar from a design is Olympian.   It isn't just sitting around and dreaming up sexy products.

When I was at GM, it was the same deal.  People think "Automotive Engineer" means sketching sexy car bodies and then molding them into clay.  The reality is, that's design, not Engineering.  An Automotive Engineer might be coming up with a new piston ring design - or a more economical and easier-to-assemble hinge for the ashtray.  Oddly enough, both are important.

Specialization is the nature of the game.  There really isn't someone "designing a computer" but rather a plethora of companies designing components, which someone then assembles into a computer system.  One company may make the graphics chip, another the processor, and yet another the memory chips - I've written Patents for all three.  Someone else may do the network chip and yet another company make a network card from it.  Connectors, keyboards, mice, cases, wiring, fans, cooling systems - each has its own supplier, or if done in-house, its own department and Engineers.

Many lay people fail to understand this.  They think that Steve Jobs "invented" the computer or the iPod or the smart phone. The reality is something different. Jobs and Wozniak (mostly the latter) assembled their first computer from components made by other companies.  And they actually came late to the game, as CP/M systems already existed before them.  The "Genius" of Apple was in marketing an inexpensive computer to the masses at a time when most "home computer" users were hobbyists who assembled their machines from components.   What created the personal computer wasn't the actions of one company or one or two people, but the perfect storm of inexpensive memory chips, processor chips, and other components which made the PC possible.

But that's not a sexy story.  A better story is the Edison-type "Eureka!" story, where a lone inventor toils day and night and one days shouts, "Watson!  Come here!  I need you!"   Both stories are sort of bullshit, as we later learned.

This is not to say the lone inventors don't exist.  The Wright brothers were the first to produce a workable heavier-than-air craft, but others were not far behind.  It was the combination of inexpensive internal combustion engines (made out of aluminum, which was newly cheap) and an understanding of airfoil designs (pioneered by predecessors to the Wrights) that made it all possible.  If the Wrights hadn't done it first, others would have shortly thereafter.

This is not to denigrate or take away from their efforts or efforts of other inventors or entrepreneurs, only to illustrate that behind the scenes, there are dozens, if not hundreds, if not thousands of people toiling away at computer screens or working in laboratories, designing, building, and testing machines, before they become products.

And just as prototypes end up being scrapped, so do Engineers end up being shown the door on a regular basis.  When I lived in Syracuse, there were a number of defense contractors, including General Electric.  They would bid on a big defense contract and hire Engineers for the project before it was even granted to them, so they could hit the ground running if it was.  If they were not the winning bidders on the contract, the Engineers were laid off.  As a result, Engineering became a peripatetic profession, and most Engineers (and their families) had to move from one place to another as jobs came and went.

Being "vested" in a pension became something of a joke for Engineers.  No one ended up staying the five or ten years needed for a pension to "vest" and even then, if you were laid-off thereafter, your pension wasn't all that great.  When the 401(k) was introduced in 1978, many in the Engineering field felt this was a big improvement - you could put money in, tax-free and maybe get some matching funds from your employer and take it with you when you left without onerous vesting rules (except maybe a short vesting period for matching funds).

It's not an easy job.  And the pay is... well, it depends.   You won't get rich as an Engineer, even if you are some hotshot "coder" (which some argue is not Engineering in the classical sense) making six figures (which isn't what it used to be).   The problem is, your experience and knowledge is only good for so many years.  Eventually, everything you know will be outdated and outmoded, unless you are very good at keeping up with the latest in technology.  The other problem is common to almost any profession  - management figures out that it is a lot cheaper to fire you at age 55 and hire two youngsters whose combined salary and benefits is less than yours.

Granted, some end up in management, but few Engineers have the "people skills" for that sort of thing.  And maybe a few end up starting their own companies - but history has shown that most Engineers are lousy business people and often they get forced out of their own company after a while.  Even Steve Jobs was fired from Apple after a while.   They brought him back as an icon more than anything.  I doubt he was the driving force behind the subsequent products (iPod, iPhone) but I could be wrong about that.

I am not sure what the point of all this was, only that I recalled visiting the scrap dock the other day and seeing all that work sitting there waiting to be converted to scrap metal.  That was nearly 40 years ago.  Since then, they've torn down the factory and even the Engineering department has moved away.  The products I worked on are all obsolete.  I designed a circuit board for a heat pump that I am sure is now woefully obsolete and went out of production decades ago. Life goes on, and for Engineers, it means that much of what you did for a career becomes irrelevant in short order.  Given the shorter and shorter product cycles these days - particularly for electronic gadgets - it could be a matter of a few years before your work is all in the trash.

This is not to say that Engineering is a bad career.  And for some types of Engineering, your work may last for decades or even a Century.  The guy who designed the Brooklyn Bridge left behind a lasting legacy.  And regardless of how long your designs last, there is a great satisfaction in bringing something to life - from the drawing board to reality.  It is like birthing a child, I guess, and sending them out into the world.  Funny thing, too - we use the same terminology in both cases - talking about "teething pains" and "infant mortality".

But sexy?  Engineering isn't very sexy.   And neither are Engineers!