Episode 70 — Awkward Engineer

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typingIn this episode we chat with mechanical engineer Sam Feller about product design, power optimization, and drawing skills. Oh, and we talk about dunking cookies in milk… how can you beat that?

  • Adam continues working on a semi-automated system for brewing beer.
  • An xkcd comic suggests an optimal blood alcohol level for effective programming, otherwise known as the “Ballmer Peak.” There is at least a modicum of scientific evidence that this might be true.
  • Our guest for this episode is Sam Feller, founder of Awkward Engineer Creations, LLC.
  • While initially intrigued by its promotional pamphlet, our guest chose Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) for his engineering education because of the project-based curriculum.
  • Sam built a roof-inspection robot for his senior project at WPI.
  • Looking for a creative outlet, Sam started Awkward Engineer as a “profitable hobby.”
  • Eliminating TV from his life helped Sam find enough time to start his business.
  • Field Notes was started as a “side project” by an advertising firm.
  • The first product that Awkward Engineer brought to market was the Panic Button light switch.
  • Although initial sales of the light switch were not encouraging, Sam’s product eventually got picked up by retail website Think Geek.
  • To get his product carried in brick-and-mortar stores, Sam had to create appropriate packaging.
  • Our guest took drawing classes to improve his ability to convey ideas, starting at a local community college, and eventually moving on to the Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt).
  • Sam feels that his ability to create CAD models is enhanced by his sketching skills.
  • While Moleskine is his notebook manufacturer of choice, Sam also likes drawing on stacks of printer paper.
  • Currently in development, the next major product from Awkward Engineer will be a voltmeter clock.AWK105
  • Initial development of the clock was carried out using a DigiSpark controller.
  • Careful attention to controller configuration and programming is crucial in allowing the clock to run for months on battery power.
  • Sam developed a transistor network to allow him flexibility in extending clock features.
  • Working with local suppliers makes Sam’s life easier, so he prefers to do so.
  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a listing of substances generally recognized as safe (GRAS) with regard to food products.
  • Sam encourages engineers wanting to head out on their own to get started.
  • Essays by our guest can still be found on the since-retired Engineer Blogs website.
  • Sam continues to blog on his Awkward Engineer website.
  • He can be reached via email: questions +=- at -=+ awkwardengineer.com, or on Twitter as @AwkwardEngineer.

Thanks to Sam Feller for allowing us to use the photo of him, taken by Emily Falcigno. Podcast theme music by Paul Stevenson.

Episode 69 — Credentials

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diplomaWe talk with Gary Bertoline about graphics communication, computer-aided design, credentials, and competency-based degree programs in this episode of The Engineering Commons.

  • Adam is less stressed now that he’s earned his professional engineer (PE) license.
  • Our guest for this episode is Gary Bertoline, Dean of Purdue University’s College of Technology. In addition to his administrative work, Dean Bertoline has authored a number of books on graphics communication and computer-aided design (CAD).
  • Graphics is a communication medium, just like language or mathematics.
  • Mental manipulation of figures and objects in three-dimensional space is known as spatial visualization.
  • Jeff is old enough to have taken a drafting course in college that required T-squares, compasses, and triangular scales.
  • Carmen expresses his desire that electrical engineers possess better drafting skills.
  • According to Dean Bertoline, computer gaming can help improve visualization skills. So now you have an excuse!
  • Ancestor to today’s CAD software, Sketchpad was a computer graphics program written in 1963 by Ivan Sutherland. (A YouTube video shows the software in action.)
  • Autodesk and Dassault Systems are large companies that have survived in the competitive computer-aided drafting (CAD) industry.
  • Many modern CAD packages include modules designed to assist with product lifecycle management (PLM).
  • Brian mentions the use of a STEP file, which is an industry standard (ISO 10303) for exchanging 3D model information. The acronym stands for “Standard for the Exchange of Product model data.”
  • HFSS is a commercial finite-element model solver for electromagnetic structures (owned by Ansys). Carmen isn’t sure of the acronym’s meaning, but Wikipedia tell us that it originally stood for “High Frequency Structural Simulator.”
  • Carmen’s “E&M” reference refers to “electricity and magnetism.”
  • Digital models can be made to behave as physical objects through the use of a physics engine, which is software that constrains the models to conform with “real-world” physical phenomena.
  • Professional credentials might take the form of academic degrees, academic certificates, professional certificates, digital badges, or physical artifacts.
  • Gary heads up Purdue’s Polytechnic Institute, which seeks to radically transform the undergraduate educational experience.
  • Purdue is one of 108 United States institutions listed by the Carnegie Foundation as being a very high research activity university.
  • Purdue University’s College of Technology was chartered in 1964, and it currently offers 30 undergraduate degree options across its seven academic departments.
  • The first Polytechnic was École Polytechnique, founded in 1794 and located in Palaiseau, France.
  • One can better understand the development and adoption of innovative technologies using the S Curve Framework.
  • Our guest walks us thorough some of his organization’s early experiences in establishing a competency-based degree program.
  • Jeff inquires whether competency badges might lead to employers defining their own unique sets of required competencies for potential employees.
  • Gary tells us that T-shaped professionals are being sought out by industrial firms.
  • Our guest mentions “Generation on a Tightrope,” a book that argues today’s students need a very different education from the one that their parents received.
  • Also mentioned is “Creating Innovators,” a book that explores how the educational process must change to encourage young people to become innovators.
  • Listeners will find additional information online about Purdue’s College of Technology, and the Purdue Polytechnic Institute.
  • Dean Bertoline can be reached via email at: bertoline -=+ at +=- purdue.edu.

Thanks to Jim Kelly for the photo titled “My Diploma.” Podcast theme music by Paul Stevenson.

Episode 68 — Engineering Expert

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expertJames Trevelyan speaks with us about the skills and talents of expert engineers, and how those of us who have not yet achieved “expert” status can improve our ability to complete engineering projects on time and within budget.

  • Brian feels he is becoming less of an expert as time goes along; there just seems to be so much to know!
  • Our guest is James Trevelyan, a professor of Mechatronics Engineering at The University of Western Australia.
  • Some of our listeners may remember Dr. Trevelyan from Episode 19. (Yes, Jeff said Episode 17 during the podcast, but he was wrong!)
  • Dr. Trevelyan has recently published a book, The Making of an Expert Engineer.
  • Our guest mentions the book by Louis Bucciarelli, Designing Engineers, as one of the few sources of information about what engineers actually do on the job.
  • Engineering provides great opportunities for making the world a better place… and for spending other people’s money!
  • Research indicates that engineers have trouble delivering reliable and predictable results.
  • Carmen quotes the singer Meatloaf, noting that “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad.”
  • James mentions the accomplishments of C.Y. O’Connor, an engineer who oversaw the construction of a water pipeline across uncharted regions of Australia in the late 19th century.
  • Our guest feels the skills needed to drive projects to completion have been largely lost as experienced engineers retire.
  • While Jeff longs to take engineering students out onto the factory floor, James indicates that some students aren’t particularly keen about participating in plant trips.
  • Engineers spend a lot of time teaching others, even if on an informal basis.
  • Peer instruction has proven effective in helping college students learn new material.
  • James mentions our prior interview with Dave Goldberg, in Episode 65.
  • Once again, we mention the Grinter report (pdf), which changed the course of engineering education in the United States.
  • ABET (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, Inc.) is the organization that accredits most engineering programs in the United States.
  • James has spoken with corporate leaders who actively work to dismiss engineering employees, seeing the engineers as unable to produce predictable results.
  • Engineers have a reputation for being unable to communicate with those in other professions.
  • Listeners who are curious about accrual accounting are directed to Episode 34, Accounting for Engineers.
  • Expert engineers accurately forecast what can be done, then deliver on their promises.
  • An ability to avoid problems is often the mark of an expert engineer, and is more highly valued than the ability to solve problems.
  • “Prudent engineers build on past practice as much as they can.”
  • Engineers rely a lot on unwritten (implicit) knowledge.
  • Michael Polanyi was a philosopher who suggested that “we know more than we can tell.”
  • Explicit knowledge can be written down, and easily transferred; this type of knowledge forms the basis for much of what is taught in universities.
  • Expert engineers do not rely solely on their own knowledge, but know how to build on the knowledge and abilities of others.
  • Supplements to James’ book are available online, including a classification of engineering knowledge (pdf).
  • University grades don’t have much relation to engineering performance, at least as evaluated by supervisors.
  • Young engineers with an ability to obtain assistance from seasoned engineers are more likely to experience career success than are those who find themselves unable to garner expert support.
  • James hopes that senior engineers will begin cataloging concepts and ideas that younger engineers need to learn and understand.
  • One important skill that has been lost among the current generation of engineers is the art of writing of technical specifications.
  • While prior guest Dave Goldberg champions Noticing, Listening, and Questioning (NLQ), our current guest dedicates a chapter of his book to similar observational activities, which he designates the “three neglected skills:” listening, seeing, and reading.
  • We debated the relative merits of programming languages in Episode 64; James tells us that programming among engineers is most frequently performed with Excel (and its accompanying Visual Basic language).
  • James can be reached via his website: JamesPTrevelyan.com.

Thanks to Ruth Hartnup for the photo titled “Expert Ethan.” Podcast theme music by Paul Stevenson.

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