Spills

This blog is called badengineering and people no doubt have been wondering when I would tackle the issue of the BP oil rig explosion and the subsequent oil spill that is wreaking havoc in the Gulf.  I have not looked into great detail of the cause of the initial explosion (I haven’t seen this fully addressed in the press) and I am not sure that the current solution can really be labeled as bad engineering except in the likely miscalculation of risk.  Nevertheless, I do have some comments.

First of all, I don’t find it surprising that BP is unable to cap the well now.  I know a little about trying to make stuff work in ocean depths and the difficulties are immense even at a quarter of the depth they are working in right now.  The similar situation in Mexico in 1979 took about nine months to stop (by drilling bypass wells) and there they were in a couple hundred feet.  Here they are trying to do the same thing in 5000 feet.  The task is enormous and it shows just how far the engineering has come that anything at all can be attempted.  I doubt anything will work until the other wells are drilled, but it is amazing that they are able to try at all.

Which, of course, brings us to the question of whether they should be drilling in these areas if they don’t have ways to mitigate the risks.  Any time you have these massive engineering efforts the risk analysis and management become all that more important.  And any time you have consequences that include the possibility of lives lost and huge environmental impacts, risk management and mitigation must become a major and constant effort.  This gets more complicated when great costs and profits are involved and when risk mitigation itself can be cost prohibitive.

What is disturbing in this situation is BP’s poor disaster management process (as reported by the press; I have no first hand knowledge of it).  It seems that it is and was completely insufficient for the risks involved.  This can be understood when consequences are not well understood.  But this happened in 1979 and that data should have been used in all oil companies’ risk management and mitigation plans.  I would love to see if any of them actually changed their plans in light of that and other accidents.  Risk management is an iterative process but rarely is that recognized in real life.

And what of the regulators?  Did they alter regulations based on prior accidents?  Do they have regulations that address the extreme engineering that is being done in this industry?  Do they have the enforcement capability to make sure companies are following the regulations?  And are the regulators separated enough from the industry to do the right thing?  I don’t have any answers to these questions, but I hope somebody is asking them and demanding answers.

As to the future?  Well, accidents will happen.  Any time you explore the limits of engineering accidents will happen.  Because of the general engineering process we all follow, accidents are and will be few, but we must learn from them and we must improve the engineering and the management to ensure the accidents aren’t repeated.  And if risk mitigation is not affordable then the need must be extraordinary for the project to go through.  And I don’t think profit is ever an extraordinary need.

I hope to have more on this as better information is forthcoming.  If you have something to add to the subject, post a comment below.

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Published in: on July 9, 2010 at 9:37 pm  Leave a Comment  

Diversity

I was at our annual international conference a week or so ago and it got me thinking a lot about diversity.  No, I don’t mean the politically correct ethnic or cultural diversity that most of our large corporations bend over backwards to make it appear that they care about.  I don’t care much about that – we all came out of Africa, just at different times, and it is just stupid to think that we are different just because of what we look like.

No, what I am thinking about is engineering diversity.  I think it is very important for many engineers to know about other fields and I think it is vital for any engineering manager to know something about many engineering disciplines.  Granted, we need some of those very specialized engineers to stay within their narrow focus, but for most of the rest of us, exposure to other fields can only help.

My undergraduate degree is in ocean engineering.  How I stumbled upon that field I can’t really say, but I am glad I did.  OE encompassed civil engineering (steel structures, concrete structures, and even soil mechanics), mechanical engineering (thermodynamics, machine design, and materials), naval architecture (ship design, ship motions, hydrodynamics), and a good smattering of science including physical, biological, and chemical oceanography.  For those of us going into oil or port design, our electives stressed civil; for the others more naval architecture courses.  Either way, we came out pretty well rounded and with a good sense of at least the important topics in the other engineering disciplines.

The importance of getting this understanding of other areas of engineering was manifested in the initial concept of integrated product teams, IPTs.  In the original incarnation, rather than in today’s bastardized form, the IPT was made up of engineers, designers, cost people, even marketers who, together, brought forth a product, idea, or whatever.  The team was strengthened by the diversity of outlook and experience in the members.  Today an IPT of, say, structural engineers is a group of structural engineers.  Okay, sometimes it is good to get them all together, but it loses the whole idea of integrating diverse ideas and talents.  Of course the initial idea died because it was just too hard to do.

Which brings me back to the conference.  The society (SAWE) is, I think, unique in that all the members are involved in one way or another in mass properties (mass, weights, centers of gravity, inertias etc.) but we all come from different industries and interests.  I think that no place else can you sit in the same chair and in the course of one morning listen to papers on oil rigs, submarines, lunar probes, fighter jets, and the newest airliner.  And that is the strength of such an organization, its diversity.  While we all do similar jobs, the cross-polination between industries lets you discover new and better ways to do things, and gives you other benchmarks against which you can measure what you’re doing.  Besides, it gives you new perspective on what you might be considering your old boring field.

So what if you don’t have such an organization?  Well, I encourage you to seek out other aspects of engineering that either interest you or that you think might have applications or at least lessons learned that you can use in your own field.  Learning new stuff in engineering can only be to the good, whether you are seeking new methods or processes, or if you simply need a new perspective to get out of the stale rut for a little while.  And the more you do it, the more diverse your knowledge and the better equipped you will be for the future.

What do you think?  What other field has interested you and helped you gain a more diverse outlook?

Published in: on June 9, 2010 at 8:45 pm  Leave a Comment  

History

I am sitting in a small room deep in the basement squinting at an old microfiche reader as I try to rescue some old data from the wrath of time. The room is packed with file cabinets, microfiche racks, and moving boxes, all holding maybe the last 50 or 60 years of our engineering history. And I am looking around wondering if I am going to be the last one to look at this stuff. Or even know that it is here.

Then I wonder if they need to know about it. Part if the job of engineering is to establish policies, specifications, lessons learned, and guidance documents that capture the essence of the engineering history for future engineers. If I’ve done my job right over these years those future engineers shouldn’t have to come visit the raw data here in the vault.

I give myself a little self-assessment as I listen to the reader mangle the old thermal paper. I’ve written policy, papers, a textbook, and a number of computer tools, all of which contain at least a part of all this data. But is it enough to keep the next generation from repeating work and mistakes? I think maybe no.

I’d like to blame it on the corporate mentality of tossing everything out after five years and not giving us the time or support to retain our corporate history, but, while true, that would be counter-productive. They don’t care and it isn’t worth the effort to try to tilt at that windmill

Instead we engineers who care about the future need to make sure we preserve what we know for the next generation. How best to do this is still in question. I tend to do it through professional societies but maybe Web 2.0 is the better model.

What do you think? How do we bring and keep the musty history of engineering into the now and the future?

Published in: on March 18, 2010 at 9:35 am  Comments (1)  

Measurement System

Metric.

Need I say more? Yes, I suppose I do. Believe it or not, The US formally made it legal to use the SI system in 1866. So why isn’t being used? Habit and cost; the usual impediments to progress.

Of course if you take into consideration the costs of errors due to conversions and using mixed units (see the Mars lander) , then the cost of moving to the world standard is cheap. Habit is harder to combat. Until you actually start using it.

Working in the shipbuiding industry I am pretty used to working with mixed units, or at least to different designs using different systems. The advantages of the decimal system are clear in all the calculations we normally do. Consider a simple case:

1 foot + 1 1/3 inches = ?

10 cm + 22 mm = ?

Which was easier? And how many of us have had trouble at home with measuring with tape measures; calculating centers, adding measurements, converting, etc. I know I’ve screwed up more than one project because of this. On the other hand, my airplane project is almost entirely metric, in mm, and even though it isn’t the system I grew up with, it is so much easier that I can’t really imagine going back to English measurements. Only bolts (SAE sizes) and aluminum sheet thicknesses are in English and these are necessary since these are only widely available in the US in the English system.

Cost aside, it would only take one generation for the SI system to take hold. We are in a global society now, we need to get on board and stop thinking that we are special cases.

What do you think?

BTW, according to Wikipedia, only the US, Liberia, and Myanmar don’t have the SI system as their official measurement system.  Aren’t we in good company.

Published in: on April 22, 2009 at 5:18 pm  Leave a Comment