“Engineering Connections” on BBC1

Isambard’s Lad’s not beating about the bush. He was impressed by the first programme of the series, “Engineering Connections” on BBC1 that he saw. It took a single project – in this case the Burj al Arab modern hotel in Dubai – and talked about a wide variety of  the engineering problems that had to be solved in the design of the building. They were real engineering problems; not just fluffy aspects of the dressing of the building.

The presenter was Richard Hamilton of Top Gear fame who is not, apparently, an engineer but whose relaxed, light and downbeat approach combined with clear presentational skills were admirably suited to the programme. A professional engineer who is equally skilled in the art of presentation will be rare, The Lad fears. Present company excepted, of course. The engineers who appeared on screen serving as assistants and advisors to Hammond were however, suitably highly skilled in the technology. Neither, at least, did they have leather patches on the elbows of their jackets. Indeed he cannot remember any of them wearing jackets.

Quite a good range of topics were covered and The Lad noted these down. The modern versions of wave energy absorption were vividly modelled in real life, not in a computer. They showed how they were used to protect the foundation island. The overall structure of the hotel had a steel exo-skeleton and the high Dubai, temperature variations meant that it expanded and contracted and this would have caused problems with dimensional changes during building. A clever but simple bolt hole cam arrangement was shown that was able to deal with this feature.

The way that several hundred thousand tons of building stood firmly in stand was also addressed. The modelling of this was one of the more striking coup de theatre. Skin friction between the sand and the piles is claimed to be the secret. Such friction can build from a tiny effect to a large force with interleaving. Hammond hung with his  feet off the ground from two books with their pages interleaved only. No glue or clamping force.

An entirely different problem was at first seemingly only a fluffy one. How do you get the jets of water in the foyer fountains to look like ballistic, polished, stainless-steel bars and not like water out of a tap. Maybe a fluffy problem but, anyway, it is not a fluffy solution.  The Lad has to confess that he has seen and admired this very effect in a lot of the works of the masters of the Modern Fountain Genre: the Japanese showing just this effect. They make the water flow laminar and not turbulent.  But he never realised before that this was the secret of the fountains. This difference is central in many problems that engineers deal with in fluid flow projects and aircraft design. Fluids flowing at low speed or high viscosity [a measure of fluid ‘thickness’ as between water and, say, syrup] flow in smooth sheets and the sheets do not mix with each other. Turbulent flow, at higher speed on the other hand, has a lot of mixing or churning as it flows. The TV programme showed how laminar flow is ensured by using tubular flow straighteners.

Then there was the problem of lighting, its dimming and not having the hotel going up in flames. Note though that, typical of the programme’s approach, a real shed went up in real flames. It was the Hammond humour, you know. Light dimmers operate by cutting on and off at high frequency the power supply to the light bulb. This dynamics of this frequent change in current usually causes spikes in the voltage and these could generate significant extra heat compared to steady alternating current.  This is an effect of what is known as an adverse Power Factor. In a building like a hotel and some industrial processes this adverse effect must and can be avoided by installing [usually in the basement!] banks of capacitors and inductors to ‘correct the Power Factor’.

The programme was also respectable and important in that it showed that there are different flavours of engineer involved in all such projects of a normal complexity.

“Engineers change the real world”

The First Law in the Garden Centre

In the Garden Centre The Lad saw a display of a pump for emptying the water from the garden rainwater butt; it takes the place of a tap at the bottom of the butt emptying into a watering can.


Versus the tap it seemed an example of inappropriate technology. This is a subject exercising his mind lately but as it will be a subject of another post shortly, we can move on.

Hozelok Waterbutt pump
Quite a sizeable pump as these things go in the garden.


Anyway, the display had one buzzing and pumping away sitting in the bottom of a water butt covered by only  few centimetres depth of water. The pumped water went up a length of straight garden hose about a meter and a half and poured out of a garden hose gun in a straight stream under gravity down back into the bottom of the water butt. As he walked by, The Lad let the water stream from the tap wet his fingers and he came to an abrupt halt as he noticed that the water was quite warm. Not hot, you understand, but quite warm enough to to make a really comfortable hand wash.

He pondered on where the heat energy came from and thought that there were several phenomena causing it.  He found that they were easy to envisage but were difficult to imagine in the form of the calculation of each contribution to the total heat of the water in the little [almost!] closed system. There would be heating from the shear flow of the leakage round the centrifugal impellor; there would be the friction of the flow against the walls of the hose as it rose up it; then there would be the heat generated as the water jet splashed into the bottom of the butt [the Joule Honeymoon effect according to The Lad – look it up!].

Then he realised that from the point of view of the water in the butt the net sum of velocity and displacement is [apart from the small amount of swirl in the butt] zero. This simple version says that , apart from the bit of swirl in bottom of butt the total power of the pump is changed into net zero velocity and displacement. It only turns into heat. So all the separate sources of heat can be sidelined by this overall calculation.

The summary version of the calculation in its simplicity is enough for us here. It also shows that a suitable insight can simplify estimates. But it is also true that in real engineering, where they have hot oil or hot water coolant flowing in a closed system, there is a need to control the heat flows and to ensure adequate cooling. Then they will have to calculate or experiment or, almost certainly, both to work out what are the contributions of every source of heat generation and sink of heat radiation, convection or conduction. Now that’s what real engineers working on engines or machine tools have to do and do do.

Butt and Pump
"In Memorium. James Prescott Joule 1818 to 1889. 772.55"

“Work is Heat and Heat is Work” is one version of the First Law of Thermodynamics. There it was – in the Garden Centre.

TV’s Favourite Physicist comes good

The Lad read a Sunday Paper Colour Supplement piece about Professor Brian Cox; the man and his views. The Lad is not usually struck by Colour Supplement pieces but this time, for a change , liked what he saw [See The Sunday Times magazine 27.2.2011, page 14, “The New Mister Universe”].

As you might expect in the current, media universe, Professor Cox is known and mainly defined apparently by two things: one thing is his being the presenter of both last year’s popular BBC TV programme “Wonders of the Solar System” and also the coming programme on an entirely different Universe and the other thing is – spoken after an indrawn breath – his once being the keyboard player of a famous rock band that wrote a track that became the theme song of a political party. And, by the way would you believe, he is a Prof at some University!

The Lad assumes that he no longer plays in that band – if it still exists. Ow! That’s a sour, irascible, old-mannish crustiness. Don’t be miserable.

He was in the band during his PhD student days in the band, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D:Ream and the current link is http://d-ream.co.uk/. Subsequently,  he has become a professor of Physics at the University of Manchester. Visit http://www.hep.man.ac.uk/ , the Particle Physicles Group.

In between he worked at that incredible place CERN, or l’Organisation européenne pour la recherche nucléaire. Start learning about it at http://public.web.cern.ch/public/ . He was working on and with that vast machine called the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) which is a circular tunnel many miles in circumference and buried under the soil of France and Switzerland. It is not just a tunnel though. It is filled with gigantic, high accuracy engineering structures and vast electromagnets the size of buildings. Its purpose is to accelerate atomic particles to speeds close to the speed of light and allow the physicists to study the results when they collide with each other.

The Lad was fully expecting the article to describe a newspaper world that is divided only into the meeja, politicos, plebs and boffins (in white coats of course). Indeed an actual quote from the article was that “you can be cool and a scientist” Perleese!

However, even as a trendily dressed whirlwind, Cox soon painted a diferent picture. He outlined poetically imagined narratives of the world of Solar Systems, galaxies in astronomy. But The Lad noted a crucial quote. Cox said that he wanted to get the Prime Minister to want Britain “to be the best place for science and engineering in the world”. The Lad celebrates him and wishes he could be mates with him for simply saying that.

Brian Cox also had a pretty take on life and civilisation that The Lad liked although it is not engineering. Here is a rather drastically shortened extract. 

“…there’s a finite time during the universe’s adolescence when life is possible.   …it’s an instant,   ……….. that time is now.     ………Civilisation is the seventh wonder of the universe. We’re the universe made conscious.”

Very nice idea. Professor Cox then went on to tell very interesting stories about the physiscists and their work at CERN delving into the mysteries of matter and energy in the Universe. But The Lad wants here to praise the vital part played by the engineers who designed and developed the LHC as a machine. The Lad will seek out some information on the engineering of the LHC and, if successful, he will make it the subject of a future post. Perhaps the CERN will let me use some pictures.

The Lad makes distinctions between science and technology. The latter is mostly one form or another of engineering. A simplified version of the distinction, he believes, can start from the fact that the explorers in the fields of science can follow, to a large degree, the paths that interest them; or at least the paths that interest their research supervisors. Any data is worthwhile to support a particular theory, or not. Even apparent lack of, say, a correlation can be useful.

On the other hand, the engineer has to follow the path that can be powered by risk capital and is constrained by the rigid boundaries of what is possible as defined by the forces of the brute world. Circumventing these forces is sometimes possible but denying them is not. The Lad does not disparage the sciences at all; for it is usually a scientist in her research that discovers, defines, measures and sometimes estimates those forces of the brute world. The engineer cannot do anything but make use of her work and that of her colleagues.

Power by the Hour


Pence per minute; quarters per hour; that’s the information that we all need. Not just engineers. Let me tell you that nowadays, the designers and builders of engines for aircraft do not just sell the engines to the airlines. They sell them Power. The engine builder knows how much they cost to run and the airline likes to avoid the hassle. So the builder sticks a reasonable profit on top of the running and insurance costs; lends the airline the engines and charges them for however much power the airline uses. One builder at least calls it Power by the Hour.

That’s how we all need to think, not just the engineer’s family. Save the pounds or the dollar. Make it easier to save energy. Make it easier to save power. Make it easier to save money. It’s easy to help this to happen.

The Lad has been shouting this to himself today. His power bills are sky high and painful to pay. So are yours probably. In the modern household there are a multitude of electrical appliances. Some are power gluttons: they are mainly heaters of one sort or another. Some are only sipping at the meter: IT gadgets are such. Unless you are obsessed by the problem as is The Lad or any engineer, you will have little idea about how much power it takes to heat anything. An enginer can tell you, it’s enormous. In any flavour you want, it’s gigantic; be it kilowatthours, simply pedalling a bike or, if you prefer, horsepower.

Just running the hot water tap – especially running the hot water tap – costs a fortune over the month. The Lad’s old Physics master at school said to him that the specific heat of water [that is energy required to raise water by a degree or two of temperature] is higher than almost anything else except some gases. The Lad will dig out the figures for a future post.

Big Towel rail
Can you see it? At the right above the box. (c) The Lad 2011

Anyway, there was The Lad crawling around on the floor trying to find the Rating Plate of the various heaters in the house so that he could rant at the family. “Did you know it costs gold dust to run this thing for five minutes?

Small Towel rail
Another one lurking. On the left, behind this time! (c) The Lad 2011

But the Rating Plate was round the back or underneath or, better yet, inside. He cricked his neck looking up at the plate between the base of the appliance and the floor. Then the bifocals, joys of late-middle age, were the wrong way round. The distance reading area of the bifocal, intended for seeing the football or cricket ball a hundred metres away, were failing to assist him in reading the plate one centimetre from his nose.

Under the vacuum cleaner
This time it is underneath! You try turning a vacuum cleaner upside down! (c) The Lad 2011

No, No! Do it better. Help the Mother to harangue the family to do things better. Maybe in this day and age, it will be an ecologically conscious child. “Don’t waste money!”

We need a new label that the manufacturer of the appliance is required to supply. It will be applied prominently by the on/off switch. Or it could be one that we choose to make prominent. The most visible or even the only text would be a box into which the owner can write in a number which is a running cost, cash value and, after the box, will be printed the words ‘per minute’ or ‘per hour’.

The new owner will use her utility bill [which gives a cost of power per kilowatt hour] and the Instruction Leaflet or Rating Plate either of which will give the power absorbed by the appliance to help to calculate the cash cost. The Instruction Leaflet will also have a Table with a few lines with possible cash cost per kilowatt hour charged by the utility and, next to it the corresponding cash cost per hour or minute. Like this for a 1kW appliance:
                          Electricity                       Cost
                      pence per kWhr         pence per 15min
                                  20                                5
                                  30                               7.5
                              …………. and so on……………….

Easy, says the engineer! The new owner will consult this table and she can find the number to write in the label.

The Mighty Hunter felled by the Coalition

The gripping intro to the written BBC report begins

In a distant corner of a fenced-off site in Cheshire a fleet of Nimrod MRA4 warplanes which cost taxpayers more than £4bn are being turned into scrap.



The video footage on the main News bulletin that night http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-12281640 certainly made The Lad wince. It was shot from a helicopter and showed an area surrounded by high tarpaulin and steel screens between two hangars. Within are the tattered chunks of a fuselage heaped beside another Nimrod that is clearly to be the next victim of the advancing dinosaur of a demolition machine. Both the remnants and the more-or-less complete aircraft shell have the matt, olive sheen of the treated aluminium skin of a part-finished aircraft. The RR engines have already been removed and they will at least have been saved for use in some other aircraft.

Was it wanton mindless destruction, or, as Unite’s John Fussey described it, the dismantling as ‘barbaric vandalism’?

It is fortunate that engineering design is not a function like entropy that can only be degraded by use. If it had been, then the destruction of these planes without going into service [that is some sort of use] would be more painful still. But bring the attentions of these engineers that worked on the Nimrod to another project and they will fire up other ideas into reality.

This report says that the project was 10 years in the making. The Lad has read somewhere else rather that they were 10 years late in delivery. The Wikipedia story, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BAE_Systems_Nimrod_MRA4 , is very detailed and seems to confirm his memory. This and £4 billion of sunk costs and £2 billion to operate are eye watering and show that this is not a good engineering project. Whether it is the MoD or BAe that is to blame for beginning and sustaining this project is an entirely different question.

Don’t take ourselves too seriously

This is just a quick post about something that makes The Lad laugh. He is a fan of Dilbert who is greater than or on a level with ‘Peanuts’. Dilbert, with the patience of Job, daily wrestles with the low level war which is the modern technical office. The strip is about Dilbert and his co-workers and their bosses and the demons that afflict the organisation.

In this particular episode, Dilbert is confiding in his doctor who notes that he is an engineer and that this is classified as a disease these days.

See all the rest of them daily and chuckle at the incisive insights at http://www.dilbert.com  . It will improve your life.

Trussed in the ‘Scientific American’

The season of goodwill has just passed, so the Lad is on the lookout for slights.

The magazine ‘Scientific American’ is well known internationally: indeed The Lad could perhaps irritate it, that is if it deigned to notice, by referring to it as a “venerable institution”  http://www.scientificamerican.com/

The Lad read the feature “SCIENTIST IN THE FIELD” in the Jan 2011 edition. This very title of the feature has the flavour of a scientist sallying forth from the Grove of Academe to assist, and patronise, the toiling agricultural peasants.

The particular feature was on Pamela Fletcher, who holds down the job of a Global Chief Engineer, no less, for the multi-national, vehicle manufacturer General Motors. See http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=practically-green . She is clearly responsible for leading and managing the team of engineers who will have designed and developed the insertion of power trains into future vehicles including the like of the new US car, the Chevrolet Volt.

From her own words, her curriculum vitae includes, academically, her B.Sc. and M.Sc. both in Mechanical Engineering and what appears to be the equivalent of an M.B.A. [Master of Business Administration]. Her commercial, engineering experience within GM must be considerable although not in the public domain. See http://coe.uncc.edu/newsletter/newsletter-home/91-pamela-fletcher.html .

We can, perhaps, perforce more accept with a shrug when the hacks of the common press describe engineers as scientists. Quite different however is it when the scientists try to arrogate engineers to themselves and their profession. Doesn’t it somehow aggravate the misdemeanor too that this very senior engineer is a woman?

I wonder how many other engineers have featured in this section. Perhaps if I bring this post to their attention, they will tell The Lad.

BP ‘Deepwater Horizon’ Oil Spill Two


Part Two –The cause

What, then, did cause the BP ‘Deepwater Horizon’ Mexican Gulf oil leak? Part One explained what did not. This is what The Lad has learnt about what the engineers involved believe so far in October 2010.

This drilling did not succeed: it failed. This time there were failures on gigantic scale. This cannot and must not be denied. The even bigger job of recovering from the blow out and the vast leakage needed even bigger teams of engineers and took 87 days; but the engineers did, in the end, succeed.

In most of the great engineering undertakings the teams succeed. Not because they make no errors but because of a combination of good practice, planned operational checks and balances and, if and when occasional potential errors still get through, other team members pick them up. There are thousands or hundreds of thousands of such projects at any one time that proceed to a satisfactory completion using the built in checks and balances and the judgements of the engineers.

There is a simple, descriptive model that I think casts some light on the tragedies of real world engineering.

The likelihood of one error in a job occurring has a probability and the checks and balances correct it. Two errors in the same job have a smaller probability and they are also corrected. Likewise, for a job to have a larger and larger number of errors, there is a smaller and smaller [called monotonic] probability. That is, they become less and less likely to occur. In this model, if even just one of the errors are spotted and corrected, the chain of error is broken and problems averted.

Consider venturing even further into very, very unlikely events, that is of very, very low, low probability. We could arrive at a job where there are more errors than there are existing checks and balances or some are not applied or without any team members picking them up. What might happen then? Catastrophe, that’s what.

In a big job there is a possibility everywhere and all the time of one or more errors lurking due to human mistakes or by malign circumstance. It is the enemy that he or she has to fight as part of the engineer’s professional task. That’s one of the things that engineers do.

There are the previous, rare cases where such multiple errors occurred and none are picked up. Take the Piper Alpha, UK, North Sea gas production platform accident; the Flixborough Nypro plant explosion; the West Gate Bridge collapse in Australia or even the horrifying Baby P case. Each one had multiple errors all in the same project and none put right. BP ‘Deepwater Horizon’ Mexican Gulf oil leak was undoubtedly another such. A chain of uncorrected errors dragged the rig and a group of its engineers into death, flame and pollution.

To repeat, all great disasters that I know of are due, not to one error great or small, but to a chain of mistakes. A chain where one correct decision would have averted a catastrophe or at least resulted in failure made small. It seems to me to be a valid, general rule.


I believe that the general outline of what went wrong is here, as described in the BP early analysis.

  1. Bad choice of concrete mix
  2. Seals in the bottom-most section leaked
  3. The pressure tests that should have shown that the concrete and seals were inadequate were misinterpreted as showing them to be adequate.
  4. The instrumentation in front of the controller’s seat showed a small whisper reaching the surface which was the quiet first stirring of the fierce, violent power of the hydrocarbons hurtling from the bowels of the earth. Those sitting in that chair should have fastened onto the whisper and recognised it. Then they could probably have acted to at least mitigate the problem. None of the crew Involved in the drilling operation recognised the whisper.
  5. In the last terrifying moments as the catastrophe took its gigantic form on the rig, the team could have sent the gas into one of two directions. One was overboard and the other was into a tank. The choice of an effectively infinite volume overboard could have given time to respond and the consequences lessened. Someone chose the tank. The finite volume tank was soon overwhelmed and gas flooded the rig. A rig power supply engine fed on the flammable gas rather than air went into howling over-speed. The gas entered parts of the rig with unprotected electrics and somewhere here a spark turned the gas cloud into a massive incendiary bomb.
  6. The Blow out Preventer failed entirely to close off the well. Not one of the three independent ways of it doing its job.

As the BP ‘Deepwater Horizon’ Oil Spill ground its way towards catastrophe, there was certainly no one engineer who ran the operation minute to minute and whose word was law. There weren’t even 2 or 3 such engineers. There were several corporate teams of engineers each answerable to their own management with their own team philosophy. There were three principal teams [there were others] working on the drilling.

There was BP as the operator of the lease on this part of the sea bed. It itself had a subsurface team as well as a well engineering team that was presumably based on land.
There was the Transocean team who owned and crewed the floating rig and had been operating and working it for BP for nine years.
Then there was the Halliburton team providing cementing services.

 We will see that each team had or will claim to have had a different view on responsibilities. The drilling task was extremely elaborate and ever-changing hour-by-hour or even minute-by-minute. Despite this the costs involved mean that this argument is almost certain to grind through the courts for years. In the real world it isn’t the end when the engineers agree about the errors. Then; the blame game blossoms. This game features the financial specialists and the lawyers are at point.

We cannot yet be sure that the early analysis has got the details exactly right and one or more may not have occurred at all or in exactly this form. Longer and more detailed investigations that will take place stemming from the expenditure of more money and investigatory manpower will almost certainly fill in the detail. What, by the way will drive this further investigation. It is simple – more money. But why will this be spent and from where will the treasure come from? Why from several players. One is of course an extremely angry government. The others are, of course, the engineering protagonists who are extremely large and very rich. Because they are very rich this means that they can spend a lot to justify their actions and, they hope, show that the actions of the others were to blame. Because they are very rich also means that should they be shown to be at fault then their large treasure houses will be pillaged by fines and damages, Powerful driving forces indeed.

Whilst ever the global consumption of hydrocarbons runs, as it does, at such a febrile rate, men will continue to reach down under the ocean and ever deeper in the rocky strata. The economic pressure is still there so the engineers will work to successfully overcome the problems and, as usual, accommodating the problems.

The US President’s Commission has, at the time of writing November 2010, seemed to consider that the concrete failed to do its job and played a part in the accident. There are also arguments that the depth at which a single concrete plug was set is significant. The Lad recommends that you visit their website [link following] and you will find excellent graphics that explain and clarify the engineering of this and, by extension, other oil wells. For completeness after that, I have added the BP website that leads to the BP report.



All engineers will agree that if they are so responsible for so much of our modern world, then engineers must also bear proper responsibility for when there are failures. …But… Edward Phelps, a lawyer turned diplomat, observed back in 1899 that,

“The man who makes no mistakes does not usually make anything”

It is as true today as it was then.


Edward John Phelps.The Columbia Encyclopaedia, Sixth Edition. 2008.

In summary, I repeat that there is no sign that the accident was caused by the drill site being in deep water or not on land. Neither was the depth of the drill bore below the sea bed. The cause was a series of errors that occurred in an unbroken chain. These errors could have occurred in drill site on land or an ocean bore that was shallow.

It is the error chain overseen by teams of engineers that needs to be studied. The causes must be discovered and never repeated by future engineers. Engineers seek to make things happen and to bend natural forces to convenience of humanity. This aim must never be allowed to fall victim to hubris or a gung-ho attitude or a cavalier attitude that risks health and safety. That is the lesson that has to be continually re-learnt by BP, its contractors and all engineers everywhere.

[P.S. – I do not work for BP and never have. Nor have I ever had any connection with it or any other organisation in the oil industry.]

[P.P.S. – I do buy petrol for my car though.]