Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Engineering education and ignoring reality

“In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, theory and practice are not the same.”

I worked on a project building a large hydraulic manipulator arm (7500 lb payload). Assigned to the project was a post-doctoral fellow in robotics. He had the idea of mounting a proximity detection system on the arm. He proposed that as soon as the proximity sensors detected an imminent collision the arm would be driven away from the point of imminent contact.

A sound idea on the surface. My objection to the scheme, however, was that the hydraulic valves controlling the arm had bandwidth (frequency response) limitations and the power unit could only put out a limited amount of power. Both of these factors would dramatically limit the responsiveness of the arm.

The post-doc did not take into account the physical limits of the system. His model did not take into account saturation of the power supply and frequency rolloff of the control valves.

The post-doc refused to concede my point until the senior control engineer (a PhD) stepped in and backed me up.

The post-doc ended his term at my employer and went on to a teaching position. But I suspect he missed the entire point of that incident I recounted. The engineer works works in the real world not simply a world of mental constructs. The goal of an engineer is to make real machinery, run a real assembly line.

I fear a number of engineering professors do not understand that. I see the world of the engineering professor becoming divorced from that of the practicing engineer. When I was in school there were a number of professors who had had significant industrial experience prior to teaching. There were even a few with only master's degrees and significant industrial experience. The situation now is that almost all professors have come up through academic ranks and don't have any non-academic experience.

Engineering is not just a set of academic knowledge but also a craft with a body of knowledge that must be picked up by the doing.

mechanical engineering
engineering education


Anonymous Ed said...

I think that you need both sorts of people in the engineering world. I just finished my MS and have been working in industry for almost a year, so I've dealt with both types recently. You need the professors that don't think about the logistics of implementing their ideas to come up with the really revolutionary things, while you need the down to earth practicing engineers to actually get things done day to day. But without the professors dreaming, there would be no innovation.

Friday, February 09, 2007  
Anonymous jf said...

I see a similar problem in civil projects. The breakdown typically occurs at transition, i.e., the end of design and the beginning of construction. Those in charge of reviewing plans do not have the "muddy boots on the ground" experience to recognize an element on the drawings that will not work at construction. There are all kinds of space limitations related to construction equipment that are often not taken into account at design plan review. The solution, of course is to recognize the inherent biases and get the two talking to each other earlier in the process.

There must be a name for this kind of project management. I once toured a plant in Kalkaska, Michigan and the plant manager spoke about how they ran their project meeetings. Everybody associated with the system was involved, from senior design engineers to oilers and sweepers.

Monday, February 12, 2007  
Blogger JBC said...

Sorry for the long delay in replying. My criticism is of academics is not that they aren't proficient in the day to day details but that they don't care to learn of their existence.

It's fine to dream but you need to have some idea as to whether it is achievable.


Tuesday, February 20, 2007  

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