Thursday, 28 January 2016

ICE Triennial 2: Why Engineering Change Needs All of Us to Get Involved

This morning, an opinion piece about the value of learning by heart got me thinking. Does the ubiquitous  availability of sat-navs mean that the Knowledge, the detailed memorisation of routes through Central London required to become a London taxi driver, is no longer necessary? Or is there value in spending several years and discipline to get by hard work what any visitor can get off their smart phone? 

You could ask a similar question about engineering practice. A trend in the rail industry, where a quarter of experienced rail engineers are expected to retire in the next ten years, is to meet the shortage of skilled resources with project managers and new software to automate planning processes as much as possible. The ICE have been asking what the role of engineers will be in the future, in an age of Building Information Modelling (BIM), driverless cars and other technologies such a 3D printing or off-site fabrication. When people can look up anything that interests them on the internet, do we still need textbooks and engineering courses? 

Friday, 22 January 2016

In Praise of Precision

If you care about using language precisely, does that make you a pedant or a good engineer? This question has been coming up a lot lately, because people regularly use embankment, cutting and earthwork as if all three words mean exactly the same thing, whereas to a ground engineer like me, they are completely different. What's the difference then? 
  • An embankment supports the railway track above natural ground level and was built by human hands, usually from poorly compacted soil, ash or rubble (because the Victorians had no access to the kind of compaction plant we would use today). The only way to find out what an embankment is made from is to drill boreholes, because there are no decent construction records from the 1830s and it could vary dramatically over a very short distance. If an embankment fails, your track could be left dangling in mid-air like those photos from Dawlish.
  • A cutting is where the natural ground level is higher than the railway, so material can fall off or be washed onto the track, which can cause a derailment (whether this material is soil, pieces of rock or rotten tree stumps). Cuttings are slopes within the natural ground, so there might be layers of different types of soil, bands of hard and soft rock or places where groundwater emerges onto the slope (springs). You need to consult the geological map (and ideally some borehole data) to work out the ground conditions.
  • An earthwork is "any structure made of earth" ie it is the general team we use to mean both embankments and cuttings.
So why use language precisely? Firstly to aid communication, because you can then ensure that you're not talking at cross purposes, and secondly because the public expects professional people to know what we are talking about.