How many Women in the Royal Academy 2015 Cohort?

The Royal Academy of Engineering has announced 50 new Fellows: its anointed of 2015. How representative is this cohort? Objectivity is always difficult: subjective, personal perceptions are always likely to be powerful. What the hell; let’s try.

Here’s a simple approach without over-analysis.


I have used four categories:

Gender [division into two only, I’m afraid],

domain as in commerce and government etc.,

discipline of original or basic degree, and

 workplace by a coarse, geographic division.

Here’s two disclaimers. I realise that four categories do not give an intensely nuanced description of the new Fellows and you must also realise that it is also a relatively small sample especially in the case of the women.


Of the 50 new Fellows, four [8%] are women. All are University Academics; three are based in London and the other in Wales. Their disciplines are all different as Chemical, Mechanical, Materials and IT. The Fellow of the latter discipline is working in “Human-Centred Technology and Science of Cyber Security Research”.


The four domains are each to represent a distinct and somewhat different milieu for its toilers.

There is the Commercial domain: generally driven by the profit motive. There is the University Academic seeking knowledge. The Government domain is that of laboratories sponsored by Government: largely or completely funded by the public purse. Finally, the Infrastructure includes such bodies as the NHS, independent Registration bodies, and national transport networks.

Commerce University Academic Infrastructure Government
      20       25            4           1

50% of the new Fellows are in the University Academic domain whereas only 40% are in Commerce and 8% wrestling with the UK Infrastructure.

Once upon a time some decades ago, the Government, with such organisations as the National Engineering Laboratory at East Kilbride, employed rather more engineers than this 2%. Today, if the government employed more engineers, their effective engineering decisions would benefit. That is, if it sought out and took their advice.


This statistic is derived from the declared, first degree discipline of the Fellow. Technologically, this does not always map exactly onto their current position. Although their career may well have moved away ‘upwards’ somewhat, they still do not usually stray too far away technically. The degree of one Fellow was unknown from the published biography with no response to a query.

Mechanical  ——————————  9

Civil  ——————————————  10

Electrical or Electronic  ————  7

Chemical  ———————————-  3

Aeronautical  —————————-  1

Manufacture  —————————-  2

The top three at between 20% and 14% are about what I expect given my perceived proportions of the professional engineering workforce. The aeronautical 2% seems low considering its, perhaps self-assessed, technical brilliance. Manufacturing is only slightly higher at 4% and, assuming that all the deserving have been found, UK plc could do with a higher proportion of such engineers.

Robotics  ————————————–  2

Materials  ————————————-  5

Oil and Gas  ———————————-  4

Bioengineering  —————————-  1

Information Technology  ————-  5

Unknown  ————————————  1

The Materials discipline at 10% is not surprising and also encouraging. Vast engineering improvements are being gained. These stem from both our greatly improved understanding of materials at the atomic level and also from developing the complex and accurate process control needed to benefit from that understanding. The 8% for Oil and Gas seems about right if we need to get the most out of the apparently emptying North Sea fields. I say that not in order to burn fossil fuel but using it as feed stock for complex organics. The field of Robotics at 4% as a coming speciality needs more engineering intellectual horsepower [pardon the pun] as well as IT insight.

The 10% under the IT discipline [AI, computer vision algorithms, complex data analysis, medical image computing, and cyber-security research] involves much wrestling with mathematical logic and no bending of physical forces to the human will.


This is a division defined by place of work of the new Fellows according to their biographies.

London  ————————————-  14

Midlands  ———————————–  5

South  —————————————–  7

South West  ——————————–  5

North  —————————————–  6

Wales  —————————————–  1

Scotland  ————————————-  3

Abroad  —————————————  9


Not to my surprise, or I imagine to anyone else’s, London apparently shelters the most new top engineers this year at 28%. Considering how little production occurs in London and how much elsewhere in the UK, the London 28% seems high. Not so much when we realise, firstly, that most engineers these days are not occupied in manufacture but perhaps in servicing the manufacturing process carried out abroad where costs are lower. Secondly, 14% of the ‘Londoners’ are University Academics.  Indeed, the North/South divide is alive and well in that London, South and South West together account for 52% of all the new Fellows this year. This is more than all the rest put together: which is particularly striking because ‘the rest’ includes Abroad at 18%.

Talking of London University Academics, if I was mischief-making I would tell you that Imperial College blew the others away with 8% of new Fellows with only 4% from UCL and 2% from Brunel. Not only that but if I look at all the University Academics within the 50 new Fellows, Imperial has bragging rights over every one of the other Universities, none of whom has more than the 4% of Cambridge as well as UCL.

An Engineer’s New Year Fantasy

Here’s a fantasy vision. Nothing to do with snow or twerking or New Year Resolutions. It seems particularly that of an engineer: not that of a journalist or scientist or even of an oceanologist. Tell me I am wrong, go on.

In the newspaper piece, the headline was “Five trillion pieces of plastic in seas are damaging food chain”. It told of many findings and repeated, as well as much else, previously mentioned topics such as how such rubbish accumulates mostly in five large ocean gyres. There were interesting maps of distribution by particle size around the world’s oceans. The piece was based upon a research paper from the University of Western Australia.

Now I did not look, deliberately, at any of the internet, below the line comment. It might have spoilt the pristine enthusiasm of the moment or even destroyed the fantasy with facts, [though on line there are usually more abuse than facts].

Now here is the skeleton of a vision: triggered by the scenario, a Global Project envisaged by this engineer.

If much or most of this material is gathered in Gyres, then that situation is, if not good, but at least better than it might be. Concentrated in one [or five!] areas, we know where to go to pick most of it up. [First Project question – do these gyres really exist?]

If we can pick it up in the gyres once, the material that is remaining elsewhere will after a suitable period be ‘sucked into’ or go into orbit around the gyres again. So we go extracting to the same place later. [Second Project question, “Will we need to do it more than once? It may affect the engineering, if not].

One author said that in the gyres it was like “sailing through ‘plastic soup’”. So that sounds as though it is relatively easy to skim it from the surface or just below. Reminds me of, when cooking, how I extract shredded red cabbage with a colander out of its rinsing water. So: go sail through with a net or other filter and the stuff is on your boat and not in the water. [Third Project question. Specify a net or filter required in terms of pore size and power required to pass water through it?]

Perhaps there is a more subtle way of extraction developed for other problems like ocean spillages. [Fourth Project question. What can BP or other specialist salvage contractors with such as their Gulf spillage experience tell us?]

So we need to specially design extraction vessels sailing across and within the gyres. But how many do we need and how fast can they sail? May be they can sail relatively slowly to save energy: time is not of the essence in such a Project. [Fifth Project question. How big are the gyres?]

The propulsion of extraction vessels, like most other things in this world will need energy and power. This will be a significant cost apparently and affect the details of the Project. They will be sailing in the open ocean. [Sixth Project question. Can the vessels be solar or wind powered?].

The crew is another major cost in operating ships at sea. Could we dispense with them? We could plan to use of a fleet of autonomous, radar visible, small ships: they could perhaps be small and launch size [Seventh Project question. Ask the academics in the robotic field if we know enough yet to design and set up a reliable fleet].

Traversing oceans land to land is not something easily done by small ships. For another thing, a small boat extracting waste will soon reach its pay load. So it seems that a Mother Ship with a fleet is the operating scheme. Such a Mother Ship could carry an economic load to the processing plant on land. [Eighth Project question. What are the processing economics for waste plastic crumb?]

Can we overcome the problems of marine safety? Perhaps this might be easier as they may be operating in remote areas of the oceans but then maybe not. It depends on where the gyres are found. [Ninth Project question. Query the international coastguard authorities on the size of the problem and any potential solution.]

We seek to solve the economics of transporting the extracted material to process plants on land. Perhaps the inhabitants of Pacific and other ocean islands or remote corners of continents might consider hosting a plant set up. It would provide work and compressed plastic as raw material for building. [Tenth Project question. Could such a plant be powered by renewable energy sources?]

Such a Project may need and international effort. [Eleventh Project question. Does it need the United Nations or a somewhat more agile organisation?]

Well, there you have it. That’s as far as I have got as a first stab. Cost and economics are probably more central than the technology. I imagine the latter is already in sight. As an international good it does not necessarily have to make a profit.

Now go on then: en primeur, nothing more. Have a think about it, but give it a fair wind with a constructive approach. There are probably at least a dozen more major Project questions.. I fancy that there might be a feeding frenzy of the critics but may be the Project or something like it could be done.

By the way, along the route of the text of this piece there is a screech about this plastic weighing “more than the entire biomass of humans”. Shock! Horror! No, it’s not good but my first thought is that, at an estimate of 269,000 tons, this is about one or maybe two big, modern container ships. Think how many ships are afloat and then think of the weight of the buildings erected by the human race. Our biomass is, to not mince, words a stupid measure worthy of the worst Greenpeace hype.

Summer time by the river

Clever Designing 160 years ago

One drowsy, summer’s day in the World Heritage Site, Derwent Valley Mills, an elegantly curved weir makes the river swish and some ripe old engineering appears.

Long, wide weir in high Summer
Long, wide weir in high Summer

Beside it, through the green canopy, slightly mysterious stone structures appear.


As you approach it, machinery begins to take a clearer form; but more of that in the next post.


The stone structures and the machinery can contain and control the river flow even when it is thunderous in full winter spate. This place is where the mastery of water power brought industrial scale manufacture in its youth. The first factories here needed what, in the terms of the early to mid 19th Century, was a lot of power. When the river was angry in those winters long ago a lot of clever, state-of-the-art engineering design was needed to avoid their destruction, let alone power extraction and control. There can be more momentum thundering by here, far inland, than you will see other than at a gale bound sea coast.

The factory manager sometimes needed to control water flow rates into his mill wheels; at other times needed to allow water to bypass the weir. Then they raised or lowered massive gates. When closed and water depth was thus high on the upstream side, , these gates needed to be able to resist, without bursting, the high pressures of the water. Some things can resist pressure but flex a lot while doing it; balloons and car tyres are examples. But, these gates had to be rigid. If they were not, the flexing would jam them in their closely-fitting slide-ways and they could not be made to move up or down when that was needed.

An ideal material for the faces of the gates wetted by the water was then timber; for the strength of its fibrous structure, its integrity in large sizes and also because it expands in water to make a good seal.  Massive though the timber gate baulks were – even bigger than railway sleepers then or now – they would still deflect. So the design engineers set out to design a way of stiffening the timber beams: they used a design called a ‘composite deck’. This is like decking on some bridges where there is timber to walk on or drive a cart across and a steel structure of ties and struts below to stiffen it. Build this to the right size, turn it on its edge and, Olé, a water gate.

Now this was all being done by engineers, quite a long time ago. And here’s proof.


What? Ah yes, the gates themselves. Here’s one and we’re looking vertically down at the back of the gate at the stiffening structure.


Note here that the strut components, mounted at right angles on the backs of the timber baulks are cast iron [molten metal poured into shaped moulds] while, joining the top of the struts to each other and the to the gate frame at each end of the gate [out of shot in this image], the ties are wrought [forged at red heat by a blacksmith]. There are several identical [in this case], independent courses of struts and ties, above and below each other.


Each end of each tie is passed through to the water side of the gate and the nut is turned up tight to make the timber and the metal structure act as one.

I don’t know the name of the engineer who designed the gates and the stone structures. Whoever it was, he [it probably was a ‘he’ in those days] faced a similar conceptual struggle as does the design engineer today. Nowadays, she still has to look at a more or less blank page and produce ideas of a design that will fulfil the task specification. This designer did a good job with the technology to hand. Although the gates had to be of different sizes and so had to with stand different loads whilst doing the same job, he used a standard design concept. That concept used standard struts and ties in a determinate structure for each design.

Strut & Tie Patterns 02


With these simple designs of strut and ties, and depending on the depth of the water forcing the height of the gate, there are several levels of frame above each other. There are limits to the design in that those used here and shown above are determinate. By that I mean that, with these designs, it is relatively easy to calculate the loads that each component has to with stand. If you add any extra struts or ties and it is difficult to ensure that all are tight and if you do, then it is uncertain what load each is seeing. It is then called ‘indeterminate’.

This is not to say that this design did not have its shortcomings. For this, see the next post. Remember, few engineers of today will be credited with designs that are still doing a job after 160 years: I would be delighted if any of mine were.

Hard game, Engineering.

Cut slack? Not often!

The structural engineer Bill Harvey, @BillHarvey2 on Twitter followed by The Lad, is one of the few, practising engineers on the social websites. Once, when The Lad made some hard, unjust criticism of a video promoting engineering, he suggested cutting some slack. Slack, though justified there, is seldom available in daily, real engineering and here are a few examples. They are five and random: three small scale, one serious and one lethal. In the wrong place though, even small errors, if not picked up, can create dangerous havoc. Anything ever designed offers chances of error.

Mostly engineers design machines or components for a particular function. Often the upshot is they do something else, such as fail, much better. ” Damn it!” [usually worse]. “Try again” The profession of engineering is vastly important, difficult and usually misunderstood by the media.

All modern engineers know about metal fatigue failure. Loads and low stresses may not break a piece applied once, but if they are often repeated can still cause breakage or cracks. It is a danger always lurking to spring on the unwary design engineer. She designs out sharp internal corners because of the stress concentration can encourage a fatigue crack: so she designs in a nice large radius.

Radiused corner
Radiused corner to minimise metal fatigue failure risk

Ah, but fatigue is pushed only one step further away. For how is the radius to be machined? If the manufacturing process or careless handling allows a scratch to appear: boom, even higher stress concentration and fatigue enters again and takes it’s position centre stage.

Then there used to be this massive pile of print-out. Fifty sheets were common.

pack cover
Cover of a map-folded print-out pack of stress analysis results.

Do you believe what is printed on it?

Arbitrary sample of Fortran results, frequently 50 pages of this.
Arbitrary sample of Fortran results, frequently 50 pages of this.

In those days massive piles of map-folded printout was a product of the batch operation of the Mainframe on the air-conditioned wing of the ground floor. We had to be wary of the ‘never mind the quality: feel the width’ syndrome. Quality of the answer depends on the assumptions fed in, Watch out for GIGO, ‘garbage in: garbage out’.

A colleague was obsessing over the stresses and forces in an hydraulic system and was greatly worried about one static pipe element. In one scenario, a transient increased the compression forces up to enough to buckle the element.

These are tubes or pipes buckling under end loads.

Buckling is bad was our usual rule of thumb. The chief stress engineer asked “Where is it and where is it going?” The eloement was passing through a small, fitting clearance in a hole. If it buckled, all it did was just touch the side. No problem, move on.

Modern gas turbine engines power most of the aircraft in which we are flown about the globe. The gas turbine prime mover is very different to a piston engine. One aspect is the compressor which compresses the gas before fuel is injected and burned.

leaky compressor
The compressor, made up of rotating discs with many blades, is to the left and the combustion chamber is to the right.

This job is also done in a piston engine when, before fuel injection, the piston compresses the air with little or no leakage possible around the piston. In the gas turbine there is a potential convoluted leak path backwards[to the left in the photo] between the blades. In a normally running engine, this leak is only avoided at optimum speed because the rotating compressor with its carefully designed blade shapes pushes air, compressing it as it goes, to the right towards the combustion chamber. Operating the engine at non-optimum speeds (say, start up or acceleration at take-off) can result in airflow slowing and the pressure at the right side growing too high. Then, with a large bang and (if repeated) highly expensive, blade damage, flames rocket out of the front and rear of the engine. Only very careful engineering design based on extensive experiment can stop these explosive forces.

There was a new design of bridge called a Box Girder. Instead of chains, frames or cables, it had a large hollow section to bear most of the loads. Without too much simplification, we can see that this had two advantages. Such a large, closed shell was very strong and stiff which is just what you want for  the deck of a bridge. Secondly, such a smooth design promised low maintenance as a very large part of it, the inside, was protected from the weather. The West Gate Bridge in Australia was such a design.

High in the air supported by piers, the box section can be clearly seen.
High in the air supported by piers, the box section can be clearly seen.

Trouble is, being very stiff (that great advantage), it is difficult to assemble accurately on site and align when installed. Sadly at West Gate in a fatal misjudgement, what were seen as the necessary tweaks to get sections to fit accurately only overloaded the bridge sections. They buckled and crashed to the ground.  Over thirty men lost their lives.

Collapsed West Gate Bridge

Engineering is, and always will be, hard. You want challenges? Be a professional engineer.


Institute of Making Birthday

Cabinet of Curiosities

It was Saturday, the Fifteenth day of March in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Fourteen and The Lad hied hence to the Great Wen for the First Anniversary of the Institute of Making, scion of the esteemed University College of the University of London.

As the sun shone and spring peeked shyly, like March hares the inhabitants of the Metropolis were mostly hurrying about their business. They had that characteristic air that seems as though it stems from suppressed hysteria.

Not wishing to appear too eager, he arrived about half an hour after the opening time. The queue was already nearly 100 strong waiting to replace those already within. The majority were families with pre-teen children of both sexes. It took about 45 mins to arrive at the front of the queue, the wait eased by free coffee and both nitrogen-made and conventionally Cadbury’s 99 ice creams. A ‘Generation Y’ passer-by wore a sweatshirt emblazoned with ‘UCL Parkour Club’: disappointingly he was walking and not progressing by somersault or bounding off the buildings.

More intellectual fare was provided to pass the waiting time with one popular project of paper plane folding and flying competition. Another project was a competition to blow the largest bubble-gum bubble.

The creed of the Institute includes strong emphasis on a Maker culture. According to Wikipedia:

‘Maker culture’ emphasises learning-through-doing (constructivism) in a social environment. Maker culture emphasises informal, networked, peer-led, and shared learning motivated by fun and self-fulfilment.[2] Maker culture encourages novel applications of technologies, and the exploration of intersections between traditionally separate domains and ways of working including metal-working, calligraphy, film making, and computer programming.

Advocates of maker culture claim that a greater emphasis on some memes distinguishes the newer “Maker-Culture” from earlier hobbyist learning environments:

It encourages people to make things themselves: frequently using traditional hand or machine tools. A higher consciousness can lead, seems to be the overt belief, to better products than the original artisanal user could achieve. The Lad saw it as a “neo-Arts and Crafts Movement”.

Professor Mark Miodowski and all his student helpers wore a uniform of unpretentious, dark overalls. This may detract a little from efforts to move the making or engineering image, all too common in the media, away from that of the spanner and oily rag or hard hat. Many were female engineers, and obviously and encouragingly, seemed to well out-number the males. A contingent was from the USA, notably speaking using Imperial inches.

Seemingly, with the large lifting platform and the Gantry crane, the whole working space appeared to be an impressively recycled or re-claimed loading bay.

Samples of over a hundred materials were displayed and numbered, nicely lit, along the walls: mostly of simple cubic type forms but also some component parts. There were, deliberately apparently, no naming or data visible for the samples. ‘They’re on the app’ only. It was though OK, possibly even at this stage encouraged, to pick them up and handle them. Certainly it is a Twenty-First Century version of the 17thC Cabinet of Curiosities.

Then there were hands-on experiments. One was BluTack weighting of He filled balloons. Another and very popular, was the chance to make a mould of small keys and the like in thermal resistant and insulating cuttle bone. Into this the helpers poured hot, molten pewter to make for you your own cast metal model.

In the Make Space area hung on the wall was a collection of 50 or more hand tools, without duplicates, hung on the wall. There were saws, files, squares, scribers and mallets. From a distance through the crowd, all seemed to be pristine and unused. But the only vice visible was a woodworking type on a carpenters bench. No sign of a strong metal working vice that would be needed to use most of the tools properly. There were a small number of simple machine tools: a new woodworking lathe, an emery belt machine and some tool-grinding wheels.

Up in the mezzanine level, there were three 3D printers: those devices that, according to many in the media, are going to transform Manufacture and Commerce by way of a new Industrial Revolution. They were making 2cm-3cm plastic red pigs and green frogs. Anything bigger would have taken too long, it was said. These machines seemed, software driven as they are, to sit paradoxically with the hand-making aesthetic of the rest of the Make Space. A sculptor was asking about the possibility of making multi-coloured maquettes. He seemed to conclude though that he had more feel making them by hand.

Judging by the number of people attending, 50:50 adults and children, the occasion must be seen as a success.

The Lad retired to the womb of the Lamb and Flag to revive with ale his weary legs. Then, after admiring not only Boris Bikes but – even more – paramedics on mountain bikes at St Pancras station, he repaired again to the North.

How to get better! Boot-strapping.

A tweet by @Therese_LW on Sir Joseph Whitworth the Victorian engineer reminded The Lad [@isambardslad] of an interesting question. It sparked off an Twitter thread with @BillHarvey2

Whitworth was an engineer close to Brunel in any global ranking. He made enormous strides in improving the methods and accuracy of machine tools. In general, he greatly improved the efficiency of engineering manufacturing techniques. In this work he drove the Industrial Revolution into a higher gear.

Screw threads are an enormously important factor in engineering manufacture quite apart from their use in a multitude of types of fastener. In the form of lead screws they not only allow heavy masses to be moved but also, in many types of machine tools, allows the distance of movement to be very accurately controlled.

A lead screw on a simple lathe is an important example of this. Here a cutting tool is usually mounted on a saddle whose position is governed by the lead screw. Such a machine can, using the lead-screw as a controller and via gearbox in the headstock, cut another screw thread.

diagram lathe
The parts of a simple lathe


The point here though is that a new screw cut on such a lathe cannot have a better accuracy than the lead-screw that controls the cut. It can only be, at best, as accurate as the lead-screw or, to some degree, worse. This seems to be a completely general feature of machining.

So, this is the question. How can you get from a screw thread that looks, in a wine-press of the early 18thC, like this….

Wine Press of 1702


….to one that looks, and is, much, much more accurate like, for example, this lead-screw?

Acme thread
This is an Acme thread Lead-screw


The Lad and @BillHarvey2 had an interesting, if rather compressed discussion on Twitter on the topic. He made the point that, in the early days, the toolmakers would have improved the shape and accuracy of a thread like the wine press or somewhat smaller, manually with hand tools like files and scrapers. This could then be a master screw to make others similar.

The Lad believed that there would be a limit to what could be done this way as the threads got smaller in diameter and the required accuracy increased. As was said above, you cannot expect to make an identical screw in a lathe that is better than the lead-screw you are using. It can only be as accurate or worse.

Then Bill Harvey gave what seems to be a breakthrough idea. A lathe is not limited to making screw threads that are the same dimensions as the lead-screw. So, let us fit our best, hand-improved screw as the lead-screw in a lathe. Then we set the lathe gearing suitably to cut a smaller diameter and finer [more threads per inch] screw. This way, the inaccuracies in the existing lead-screw will still be there but reduced in absolute terms in the new lead-screw. Fitting this new, finer and smaller screw back as a lead-screw in the lathe [probably a specially designed lathe for the job], we can then use it, with another gear change, to make a large screw again. This new one could be improved even more by hand.

Then this process could be repeated, with an improvement in accuracy each time, over several cycles of large to small to large threads. This is a boot-strap type process that seems to make possible an improved thread. There are other aspects perhaps such as a wide-span follower on the lead-screw as part of the improvement process.

All this so far though is deduction and an element of supposition based upon engineering judgement. The Lad must therefore check it if possible. First port of call will be “Sir Joseph Whitworth – The Worlds’s Greatest Mechanician” by Atkinson. See if that supports our deductions.

Thanks to @BillHarvey2 for the original discussion and the large/small thread idea and to @Therese_LW for raising the matter of Whitworth that sparked us off. Bill Harvey also posted on this subject.

Engineer looking into a hole in the road

Even The Lad, engineering-promoter-advocate-enthusiast-fanatic did not expect to see an interesting engineering material when he looked in a hole in the road.

There it was: a sharp-edged, massy, black moulding, not cold to the touch and with a slightly elastic feel. Its smart matt blackness was entirely new to The Lad. What was the material?

This is what The Lad saw
This is what The Lad saw

The Lad found out in the end. It was a long search through many organisations; but the details of that are certainly less interesting than the material itself. So, we’ll cut to the chase. Looking into the hole in the road, The Lad sees a engineering problem and solution like this.

Many things such as valves, cables, switches need to be sited beneath the road surface. Such devices cannot be simply buried. They need to be accessible whilst protected from the loads of the heavy lorries passing over them.

Boxes with latchable lids are efficiently made from cheap, strong, castable iron. The material has been around for 2 centuries or more but up until recently it was brittle. A metallurgist invented a treatment that made it ductile instead.

It may be ductile iron but the boxes can be prone to damage by very slow movement of the surrounding earth or macadam. You may be surprised that the surface of a road and immediately beneath it is not rigid. However it does move: with dynamic traffic, varying atmospheric temperature and simply the passage of time. The ground flexes under load and creeps with time and sometimes, cracks. We have all seen some of this in our towns. This movement is more like a slow flow of warm lava rather than impact loads. The movement can distort the box by deflections and these eventually ‘use up’ all the ductility. When that happens, the iron will fracture.

So now we need something to surround the box: something that will protect it, in its turn, against the slow, distortional forces. Concrete is a material that is much stronger under compression than the iron. So this has been done in the past with what is, compared to the section thickness of the iron box, massive concrete frames These isolate the box from the loads in the surrounding ground.

In the real world of traffic civil-engineering there is a problem though. Concrete being as weak in tension as it is strong in compression; the frame breaks easily when, without being wrapped in cotton-wool, it is transported from the concrete factory to the various road works. It is then useless: they lose 22% this way.

Here we see the stealthy entrance of one of the major engineering criteria — cost. Then a guy suggested this material for this application. It overcame that problem and met the several other engineering criteria.

It was tested against the national standards and shown to have the necessary compressive strength to do the job.

Concrete frames are enormously heavy to transport and store. One user needed a supply of 3 lorries per month. When they moved to this lighter material the transport footprint went down to 1¼ lorries per month.

Installing the concrete versions needed a team of two technicians to handle it at the roadside. The lighter material can be safely and easily handled by only one person. It helps to get more road repairs per buck.

Too much bounce as with a trampoline when a vehicle rolls over it is a bad thing. So the Coefficient of Restitution or internal damping of the material has to be right and is. If they made the material from recycled rubber tyres, for example, the damping would be too small.

They make it black to achieve the utilitarian appearance and because it is easy maintain uniformity of appearance in manufacture.

If you don’t know any of these, take it as a challenge to find out about it.

OK then. What is this material? It is a re-use of scrap PVC. This source material is mechanically shredded, dyed black, then heated and extruded into moulds of the finished shape.

It does not have the pedigree of the creep-resisting, nickel, super alloy Nimonic 105. There is not the sexiness of a single crystal turbine blade alloy [or its eye-watering cost]. It is far from the fey Aerogel [solid smoke]. It doesn’t have the imperiousness of concrete.

Instead it has a heft of a journeyman material, the density and corrosion resistance of wood with the pitch-blackness of a B2 Spirit stealth bomber. And it seems to be ecologically sound. What’s not to like?


Perhaps Mark Miodownik, Professor of Materials and Society at UCL will consider if this attractive and sturdy, engineered material can be or should be included in the Institute of Making.

The Lad’s grateful thanks for their great help – above and beyond –  go to

Ian Elston   and Charles Sykes in the search

Mike Holmes of Laing O’Rourke Ltd, a user.

Richard Bone  of ABC-UK Ltd, the manufacturer,

Think about specifying the material for your applications.


How many Engineering Ages?

Professor Lisa Jardine of University College London hosted a series of seven programmes on Radio 4 recently. Called “The Seven Ages of Science”, it was a cultural-historical take on the progress of Science through the centuries. There were plenty of thought-provoking angles on what we thought was a fairly well-trodden story.

The Lad is, like many others, concerned and puzzled at the current, image of the profession of engineering in the public prints and public imagination.

Can the Cultural Historian bring some specialised tools or a different standpoint to the story? Has it been done already? Is there a PhD in it for some post-grad or even a radio or TV programme?

Engineering is defined as manipulating forces for our benefit, starting from erecting first shelters through to, take your pick, nuclear power, wind turbines, building CERN machine itself, etc., etc.. Yet many see engineering having only the ’oily rag’ image. Or the image is either vanishing or, at best, subsumed into that of ‘scientists’.

Some vignettes through the Ages could include the contemporary reputation of Roman engineering and engineers (perhaps via Professor Mary Beard); the initial division between scientists and engineers during the Renaissance [or was it later]; engineers in the Lunar Society; commercialisation of the steam engine by Boulton; Edison’s first Applied Science laboratory.

There will be many other vignettes that The Lad has not thought about. After all, he is only an engineer not a cultural historian.

Perhaps a rousing climax could address the claim of some software writers in I.T. to the title of ‘Engineer’. Have they seen it as a derelict title that they quite fancied? From this view, have they then arrogated the title to themselves?

The engineer, when she is working in engineering, uses the physical forces that exist in the natural universe. Thus she is subject to the laws of Newton, Faraday, Carnot, Clausius, Maxwell and others.

The software writer on the other hand is subject to no such Laws. Her work inhabits a different space: a space that is not subject to the same constraints. It is only making marks on paper or specifying switches to be opened or closed.

Her only limitations are those in the ethereal: far boundaries only set by such as Gödel’s theorem on undecidable propositions;é such as Wittgenstein’s statement that “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent”; and such as the Kantian ‘phenomenal world’. It is a range so wide that it is almost impossible to imagine other than as ‘anything is possible’.

Look at it another way.

Consider the computer games and the Star Wars films and the Star Trek ships that go to warp speed. They may from their visual complexity make a pretty good fist of looking like a real, complex, space structure. More, at least, than those of Flash Gordon’s V2 like rockets. But have they been designed so that they could work in the real physical world? No they haven’t.

It has been said that if it looks like a duck walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck. To some, coding apparently looks like engineering, walks like engineering and sounds to them like engineering, so it is engineering.


Its champions have been mainly brought up in the world of Microsoft and Google; do they know what engineering really is? Whereas coders, logicians, can operate like the pilots of an aerobatic plane, engineers are struggling in the city and its streets. Coding has the glorious flexibility of dreams; engineering needs the stamina of the London Marathon runner.

The Lad is eager to repeat that some Information Technology is engineering. For example the designers of the IC chips that seem endlessly to develop and advance and without which most software projects could not take flight; and much the same is true of the engineers of the marvellous hard disc technology

Professor Lisa, can you offer us a refreshing draught of a new view?

The Devil in the detail

Dishwashers, Jets and Taxis

The handle that opens the dishwasher door broke off today. It almost scrapped the machine. If you can’t open the door, it is useless scrap metal.

The internal structures and rotors of the washer fight corrosion and stress throughout its life. Even when it is stopped and not in use: no – ESPECIALLY when it is stopped. That’s corrosion. A lot of engineering effort have gone into these internals and the outer, white-enamelled shell.

It happens time and time again to engineers. The team works hard to get the core of the machine right. At the end, the team leader sighs, ‘Phew!’, she says ‘Well done, guys’. What happens then? Something outside the core goes wrong, that’s what.

In the handle mechanism, there are steel links to take quite high latching loads. On one link is mounted a plastic moulding for the fingers which clearly has some bending in it. It broke; so too much it seems. Or it’s just old-age perhaps.

Anyway, now with strong fingers, you can still move the bare linkage and open the door. With weak fingers though, the door stays locked and you are done for. It is a machine still just working– but getting close to useless.

It happens all the time; sometimes more painfully than when it is on a dishwasher.

trent 900 turbine end
Turbine end of a gas-turbine engine where fire & explosion took place

There was a small component once on a new design of £multi-million aero gas-turbine. It had just gone into service. It was festooned with the good results of testing that had cost many, many more £millions. The component probably cost about 0.001% or less of the cost of the whole engine. One machining process in the part was badly controlled. Cracks appeared. The component failed. Oil leaked out and caught fire in the engine. The turbine exploded in flight and nearly brought down the plane with all its passengers. All the engines – and their aircraft – had to be grounded. The cost was a fortune in treasure and reputation.

The jet engine company survived the cost of the problem but a taxi steering box problem bankrupted its maker.

The London Taxi Company had been struggling with financial losses for some years. Then came a serious problem with the steering box. The detail of the problem was never made public. Now the cost of the steering box is only a very small proportion of the cost of a black taxi compared to the engine and body. It is, though, a vital safety assembly in that it is a link in the steering system.

When the problem was found to be present in taxis on the road, many hundred had to be recalled and repaired at the expense of the London Taxi Company. The financial burden of this process drove the Company into administration and most of the workers lost their jobs. After a few months of suspense and, no doubt, negotiation a Chinese car firm, Geely, bought it out.

The original manufacturer in the UK of the steering box claimed that the problem arose in the box only when it was taken away and out-sourced to, strangely enough, China. When the manufacture was repatriated to the UK [back to him, the original, of course] the problem went away.

The engineering devil is ALWAYS in the detail.

The eternal problem for the engineer is ‘How do I think of what I have not thought of?’

The engineer’s new coin

It’s 1968 and the Decimal Currency Board is planning decimalisation. This group of the great and good wanted to get rid of the Ten Shilling note. Change it, they decided, to a new coin that had not previously existed and worth what is now 50p: a value greater than the then biggest coin. Now a bigger value usually means a bigger coin. Not a good idea this time though: for, to fit into the purse or pocket, it needed to be not too large or too damagingly heavy.

What’s to be done?

Through the ages, for every State and its Mint, resistance to the counterfeiter has been vital. But modern coins need another feature too. They need to operate vending machines and be suitable for bank counting machines.

Therefore, their weight and thickness have to have the right relation to other value coins. But the major criterion, by far, is that when you pop it into the machine, however a coin is oriented, the machine recognises its value because the coin width is constant.

Ergo, the coin has to be circular. Right?

One of the great and the good was Sir Hugh Conway. He was a top notch engineer, having spent most of his career designing aero-engines and was a recent past President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

Sir Hugh Conway.

We mustn’t hold it against him that the company portrait gave him a strong resemblance to a Stage leading man of the 1950’s. Sorry, Sir Hugh.

Anyway, Conway was familiar with the processes used by his production engineers. They are the Company team who carefully engineer the methods for making amazingly-accurate engineering devices.

There are hundreds of different machining processes. Grinding is one way of making some highly accurate pieces. There are sub-types of grinding: some for flat items, others for cylinders.

Trying to avoid the cry, ‘Too much detail!’, The Lad resists the nerdy approach. One sub-type, see image below, squeezes the ‘work piece’ between two rotating wheels. The ‘moving’ wheel moves towards the other removing the metal; the other ‘stationary’ wheel rotates the work piece. As the machine removes material, the work piece will remain circular, won’t it?

This is how centre-less grinding works.
This is how centre-less grinding works.

No, not always. The work piece certainly does stay a constant width. So that’s circular, then? Not necessarily. If the engineers don’t set up the machine properly, the work piece will become – not circular but a lobed, non-circular shape. Certainly it is a strange shape but one which has a constant width. To the production engineers demanding a perfectly accurate, circular cylinder, this was nothing less than a pain in the butt.

To Conway though on the Decimal Currency Board, it was an opportunity. Make the 50p piece that shape and it will still work a vending machine while yet looking and feeling different to people.

Try this video to see a spritely take on the shapes.

To see this strange, lobed shape in real life, just look at a 50 p piece from your purse. Another thing is to put the coin on edge on a table. Then roll it, very carefully to stop it falling over, between a flat rule and the table. You will feel NO BUMPS at all. I guarantee you will think that your eyes are deceiving you.

In October 1969 the 50p coin was introduced, with the 10s note withdrawn on 20 November 1970.Now, in 2013 in the UK, the 50p is not the only coin this shape; the 20p coin is another. It was an announcement a couple of weeks ago of a new coin design that reminded The Lad of this story.

Not all think it was a good thing. Here is a ‘mint’ example of a truly ridiculous, bonkers, journo screed lauding romance apparently – by someone who does not calculate very much – his partner probably does it for him.

Engineering influences our daily lives in some ways that you may not expect. So, there it is: a new coinage by the engineer – both literally and metaphorically.