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An Engineer’s Reputation

Last week, a bridge that I had designed two years ago, came back to haunt me. It turns out I used an old standard plan sheet instead of the most current edition and so the construction is delayed while a few plates are refabricated. The plates are not structural members but the small error is still wearing on me.

I can go through my litany of excuses, I was switching job positions while designing the bridge, I had a checker who also missed it, it was a minor non structural error on a multi-million dollar bridge but a week after hearing about it, I am still depressed. It is still my responsibility.

Which brings me back to the topic of an engineer’s reputation. Having a solid reputation is something that all engineers strive for and it is amazing how easy it is to ding it. Can you imagine a profession where you have to be a 100% correct on every project for the rest of your life.

I have been designing bridges for a long time now and this is the biggest mistake of my career. And it bugs me, it bugs me that I was wrong. It doesn’t matter that the mistake was small and not a life or death situation, it was an error and engineers can’t make mistakes.

I don’t think the public understands how seriously engineers take their jobs. I’m not sure anybody but engineers understand how much we worry about being wrong.

In this case my reputation took a hit with the contractor. It doesn’t matter how many times I produced the perfect set of plans or how many times I made the right decision in a design.

I can take the hit to my reputation, what really depresses me, is that I made a error in a plan set.

An engineer’s reputation is a fragile thing and maybe you have to be an engineer to understand how hard we work to be perfect all the time.


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Should Engineers learn to draw?

(HT David)

Should engineers learn to draw? Not cadd or sketchup but actual pencil to paper sketching? I think most engineers can sketch but drawing is usually not a part of the engineering curriculum.

I have tried to learn to draw and paint but my sketching is still awful.

In an article called “Doodling for Dollars”, it states that some companies are encouraging their people to learn to sketch.

Employees at a range of businesses are being encouraged by their companies to doodle their ideas and draw diagrams to explain complicated concepts to colleagues.

Firms are holding training sessions to teach employees the basics of what’s known as visual note taking. Others, like vacation-rental company HomeAway Inc. and retailer Zappos, are hiring graphic recorders, consultants who sketch what is discussed at meetings and conferences, cartoon-style, to keep employees engaged.

Doodling proponents say it can help generate ideas, fuel collaboration and simplify communication. It can be especially helpful among global colleagues who don’t share a common first language. Putting pen to paper also is seen as an antidote to the pervasiveness of digital culture, getting workers to look up from their devices. And studies show it can help workers retain more information.

To loosen up employees, meetings sometimes begin with participants sketching self-portraits. Although some engineers are skeptical and say they can’t draw, “it gets them in the mood,” Ms. Courage says.

Maybe it is time we make drawing a part of our engineering studies?

On another note I found this helpful guide to the differences between architects and engineers…….


1. Architecture is more into the creativity of designs. Civil engineering focuses on innovation to realize that design.

2. Architecture involves the design of structures with the focus on aesthetics and functionality. Civil engineering will not normally care about those things; Civil Engineers will rather deliberate and plan the methodology to construct the design.

3. Architecture initiates the project through architects’ drafts. Civil engineering involves studying drafts and examining the practicality of the design; civil engineers ensure that the design can withstand normal and extreme loading conditions.

4. Architects will need engineers help to make their designs work. Civil engineers will be guided by the architects outlines and dimensions.

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Harvard university can’t afford journal prices

This is an issue that may be difficult to resolve. I know that universities often promote faculty based (partially) on the number of papers they publish.

If you can publish in open source outlets how do you define a “quality” journal? And how does the journal make money?

In this blog I have been critical of hiding research behind pay walls, so I think this may be a good development.

Exasperated by rising subscription costs charged by academic publishers, Harvard University has encouraged its faculty members to make their research freely available through open access journals and to resign from publications that keep articles behind paywalls.

A memo from Harvard Library to the university’s 2,100 teaching and research staff called for action after warning it could no longer afford the price hikes imposed by many large journal publishers, which bill the library around $3.5m a year.

Thanks David for the link.

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In nothing we trust

Engineering is typically unconcerned with politics but it seems something different is in the air, a lack of trust in people, groups and organizations.

The National Journal has an editorial about this loss of trust. Engineers have to be careful that what we do and what we say can be trusted.

For the most part I think we do a good job. But sometimes we keep our heads down too much and we don’t lend our collective weight to improving things around us. We don’t speak out against bad science, or try to engage in improving political outcomes.

I believe we could also use some more engineering non profits, a sort of engineers within borders, to help our local communities.

Maybe that would be a good kickstarter project?


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Anyone can make a book

Okay I have my first ebook on Amazon and I think it turned out alright. (search Structural Analysis Example Problems if you want to see it.)

I’m not sure a book of hand written structural problems will sell but it allowed me to learn how to make an ebook.

Now I’m a big believer in this marketing model. I can create books and market them by myself. I think anyone can do this but in the interest of making myself look good, you need some skills.

If you writing an all text book, no problem, just use a program like word and publish your book. If you want to try something a little more ambitious, say by adding graphics, you either have to hire someone or do it yourself. I believe you should do it yourself.

With the amount of free software out there I think you can get reasonable images fairly quickly.

I made the image below in about an hour. Not the greatest but on a small page I think it would work.

I have some ideas for my next ebook and if I want to also sell hard copies, I can use Amazon’s site. (no I am not a paid amazon consultant, all though I would be willing to do that. Are you out there Amazon!)

So bottom line, get creative, never in our history has it been so easy to get published.

Click on the image or right click and open in a new window to see the whole thing. That is the Titanic in the image….


Here is another play image.


One with a plane.


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Princes bridge

One of the best things about the Internet is the chance to find unexpected things. I was looking around trying to find some good images about installing expansion joints on bridges. I saw a cool little image, the Princes bridge.

Looking at the hand drawn image makes me a little nostalgic for the time period. (But I’m not ready to give up modern sanitation…)

Of all the buildings and bridges designed by John Grainger, Melbourne’s Princes Bridge is the most iconic. On completion, the bridge was viewed as a badge of achievement, a visible manifestation of the rewards which Melbourne offered to those who strove and prospered there. The occasion of its opening, which took place at the height of the land boom in October 1888, presented the city fathers with a powerful and timely opportunity to represent and celebrate their colony’s remarkable progress.

John Grainger designed Princes Bridge to replace the existing bridge of the same name, which by the end of the 19th century was clearly too narrow for the volume of traffic. The new bridge was designed to function as both a conduit between the city and the affluent southern suburbs and as an impressive gateway to the booming Melbourne central business district. The resulting elegant structure unquestionably fulfilled its promise. Standing upon it, looking up Swanston Street, the eye was drawn to that great massed pile of newly-erected stone edifices which gave Melbourne its most commonly used superlative: ‘marvellous’. Most contemporary accounts agreed that the public was very impressed with the splendid new bridge.


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Engineering books on Kindle

Last night I put my old book of handwritten structural analysis examples on Amazon. Specifically, I added it to the Kindle (ebook) only part of the site. I set an asking price of $1.99 and sat back to enjoy my new found wealth.

Now I doubt I will sell any books but I wanted to try and see if I could actually do it. Seems I could and now I am a book publisher anywhere Amazon is available.

I like the idea of ebooks and having access to my library of engineering books at all times. ( what can I say, I’m an engineer) The book took a little bit of work to get it in the proper format and I’m still not completely happy but I’m letting go.

Do any of you access engineering books through a Kindle, iPad, iPhone or a regular computer? AASHTO specifications are in an easy to search PDF format but to protect their stuff they have made the login process quite onerous. (you have to login every time you want to use the PDF sitting on your computer)

I have seen the future and it is ebooks.

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ArtStudio iPhone App

I bought the ArtStudio iPhone app for $2.99 and it is amazing. BUT, it is not easy to paint anything useful…I know it is just me.

I may be buying an iPad and I think the app would be a lot of fun.

Here is an apple I “painted” in our meeting today. At worst it is a good app to get you through a meeting. (it could use a stylus)


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Bridges could be ripe for disaster

A newspaper editorial from Henry Petroski.

The 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic has occasioned considerable reflection on the concepts of technological risk, engineering failure and human tragedy. Are we vulnerable to another massive disaster that could take hundreds or thousands of lives?

Obviously, we’ve made remarkable progress in safety innovations. But experience teaches us that the lessons learned from past failures are soon forgotten and thus history tends to repeat itself.

If I had to identify one pressure point that worries me among many, here’s where I’d point: bridges. Victorian engineers who designed bridges for the earliest railways gained considerable confidence when their designs worked well for the relatively light rolling stock of their day. However, as the railroads extended their reach, ever longer and stronger bridges were required.

With the self-confidence gained from their initial triumphs, engineers designed bridges that were structurally lighter and more economical. Of course, this meant that they were also more likely to fail — and they did.

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Keystone XL oil pipeline

The latest issue of Engineering News Record contains an editorial praising the idea of an oil pipeline from Alberta, Canada to the Midwest and Texas.

I’m not a fan. The oil sands of Alberta contain some of the toughest and dirtiest oil to recover. If I remember correctly, the cost of oil has to stay over $100 bucks a barrel for the oil recovery to remain viable.

I’m not necessarily against getting oil from Canada but I think it pushes the can down the road. We need to start looking at alternative forms of energy and to do this we probably need really high prices on gas and oil. Why? Well I doubt we will change our ways unless we are forced too…..

What do you think, is cheap oil the best way forward?

For engineering professionals on the front lines, building the Keystone XL pipeline, which will link new sources of oil in Canada to refineries in the Midwest and Texas, is a no-brainer and an essential step to achieving a more stable energy supply. Here in the U.S., we continue to import nearly one-fifth of our oil from the Persian Gulf. Furthermore, instability in key oil-producing countries causes volatility in oil markets and drives up gasoline and petroleum prices.

Thankfully, Canada remains the largest supplier of imported oil and natural gas to the U.S. According to a report for the U.S. Dept. of Energy, U.S. refining and importing of Canadian crude will more than double in the next two decades. At a time of unrest and uncertainty in other energy- producing countries around the world, the vast energy reserves of our longtime North American neighbor are more important to the future of U.S. energy security than ever before.