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Professional Engineering in an Academic Setting

By: , Posted on: September 16, 2015

I can see no way to really teach the culture of professional engineering in an academic setting. Perhaps all that we can do is be aware of the difference between academic and engineering cultures, and get the best information available outside academia on the differences.

“Engineering is a collaborative human activity. Humans vary in their technical, intellectual, social and verbal capabilities, though engineers may not encompass the full range of variation.

Whilst there may be a few individuals with high levels of ability across the range, good collaboration allows those with high technical ability but poor social or verbal abilities (you know, nerds) to complement those with less technical ability, but more charisma and communication skills (the managers of the future).The most creative designers may be rather questioning of authority and intolerant of rules, for the same reasons as they are good at finding creative solutions and are consequently often freelancers.

There are a number of formal interactions between engineers which facilitate communication with those who may be uncomfortable with unstructured conversations. Those which count as work might broadly be termed design reviews, negotiations, and formal procedures, though there are crossovers between these categories.

There is another type of interaction which is very useful to engineers, follows a well understood format, but doesn’t usually count as work: discussing what not to do based on personal anecdotes.

Harvey Dearden has produced a little book which helpfully sets out quite a lot of the unwritten rules of professional engineering culture, and which I would recommend to all new engineers – though you can skip the Jane Austen chapter.

Informal Design Reviews

Consultation with Equipment Suppliers

The people who sell unit operations and other process kit usually have a very deep knowledge of its practical characteristics, and those of competing products. Obviously they would like to sell you their kit, but they will scarcely ever lie in order to achieve this. See a good few of them, and you can learn how to play a game which will allow you to incorporate their detailed practical knowledge into your designs.

Consultation with Electrical/Software Partners

Sometimes you will have in-house electrical or software engineers, but mostly nowadays, there will be an external electrical installer, MCC supplier and software designer. These may all be under one roof, or there may be combinations. If you don’t have in-house specialists to back you up, combinations are better, but as with all in engineering, the less you know the more you pay.

Electrical and software components of the job are very significant, and are perhaps the single biggest opportunity for cost overruns at installation and commissioning stage, so there is a potential liability to manage. There are also big opportunities for cost savings if a well-integrated and controlled design can be devised.

Consultation with Civils/Buildings Partners

As with electrics, civils and buildings are often not designed in-house. Civil engineering companies often work on very small margins, and may consequently have a rather inflexible approach to contract documentation.

They are far more likely to employ quantity surveyors than other disciplines. QSs are a kind of engineering accountant-cum-lawyer, and are not well loved by engineers. They are characterized in an old joke as the “people who go in after the war is lost and bayonet the wounded.”

These companies are also much more likely to sue partners if things do not go well in construction than other disciplines. Experienced engineers are consequently generally very cautious in their dealings with civil partners, though design and costing are normally separate parts of the operation for civil contractors and consultants.

There is, however, potential for both good savings, and more importantly good control of potential construction stage cost overruns if the civil aspects of design are well integrated and defined.

The things you learn in these discussions can also alter the starting point of your future designs in such a way as to give them better cross-discipline integration.

Consultation with peers/more senior engineers

Some people like to keep things to themselves, and some need a sounding board to develop ideas. I am in the second category, so I have learned a lot from others during these interactions. The other party does not, however, always have to be a more experienced engineer. Sometimes you just need to get an idea out there and play with it to see its strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes it needs a fresh pair of eyes to see things which an idea’s author cannot.

Unless you are in the fortunate position of being allocated a personal mentor, senior engineers may often not have a great deal of time to talk to you, but few will refuse to help you out with a knotty problem.

Peers and near-peers will probably be the people you spend most time discussing things with, and whilst they can be useful, you should bear in mind that they are more likely to suggest investigating blind alleys, or using inappropriate design techniques than old hands.”

Hopefully my book and Harvey Dearden’s do as much as can be done in the higher education and early career situations to make beginners aware of how engineers work together in professional practice.

Read more from Sean on SciTech Connect


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About the Author

sean moranProfessor Moran is a Chartered Chemical Engineer with over twenty years’ experience in process design, commissioning and troubleshooting. He started his career with international process engineering contractors and worked worldwide on water treatment projects before setting up his own consultancy in 1996, specializing in process and hydraulic design, commissioning and troubleshooting of industrial effluent and water treatment plants.

In his role as Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham, he co-ordinates the design teaching program for chemical engineering students. Professor Moran’s university work focuses on increasing industrial relevance in teaching, with a particular emphasis on process design, safety and employability.

Connect with Sean on LinkedIn here, check out his Facebook page here and stay up-to-date on his thoughts, research and practice at his personal blog here.

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