If ever a group of highly educated professionals missed the marketing boat, it is engineers

 

SCIENCE:WHAT IS THE deal with engineers? They make our mobile phones work and develop medical devices that save lives. They make our airplanes safer and improve the quality of our roads. They help deliver the water we drink and bring us dramatic new buildings. Yet who knows this?

If ever a group of highly educated professionals missed the marketing boat, it is engineers. They are central to the design and development of the modern technology we rely on daily, from satellite communications to replacement joints. Yet their efforts go largely ignored by the people who use these technologies.

This is not a good situation. It means that people have little or no concept of what an engineer is or does. It means parents have no grasp of the career opportunities open to their children if they encourage them to study engineering in any one of its dozens of forms. It means that we do not fully value what has been done on our behalf by the engineers who make things work.

Perhaps there are too few “hero” engineers out there able to capture the public imagination and encourage us to pay attention to them. Someone who can do what David Attenborough does for natural history or Brian Cox for physics.

Aircraft manufacturer Boeing found a hero engineer to its liking, someone who saved them perhaps hundreds of millions of euro and who also happens to be Irish. Dr Pio Fitzgerald was named Boeing Commercial Airplanes Engineer of the Year for 2011, beating thousands of other Boeing engineers from around the world.

From Kerry, Fitzgerald graduated in aeronautical engineering from the University of Limerick in 1999 and during his studies he was on placement at Boeing. He later completed a Masters and PhD at Cranfield University in the UK before joining Boeing.

In 2010 he and his group were assigned to look at a problem that arose when a design crisis, unwanted vibration, emerged in the wing of the company’s new 747-8F freighter aircraft. The problem was simple – find a way to get rid of the vibration or the entire wing would have to be scrapped and a new one designed, with all the attendant costs, delays and reduced performance.

Fitzgerald and his team made what Prof Michael McCarthy, chair of aeronautical engineering at the University of Limerick, described as “their own piece of aerospace history” by developing a way to knock out the vibration without any physical redesign of the aircraft. Once installed all the pilot has to do is throw a switch and the vibration is gone.

McCarthy says the accomplishment has already been compared to the “legendary Sutter Twist solution” delivered four decades ago when a similar design crisis faced the original passenger version of the 747. So important was this discovery that the engineer involved, Joe Sutter, now has a Boeing building named after him. So what might Fitzgerald expect in the future?

This all seems at some remove from the rest of us, but the Sutter Twist made the 747 a very safe aircraft in which to fly. Equally important discoveries are being made every day by engineers working in biomechanics, energy, bridge building and other areas that help us live our lives.

Engineers readily acknowledge they haven’t been the most effective communicators of their own accomplishments. This is why 32-county representative body Engineers Ireland has paid for a slick advertisement with the tag: “Bringing dreams to life for me and you.”

It provides a sampler of engineering disciplines by showing us an infant in an incubator, crashing waves on a beach, soldiers clearing away mines and white-coated people in a lab among others. The message is simple: we are engineers and we do good things for you.

There must be lots of good news stories like that of Pio Fitzgerald, work being done by engineers that contribute to our quality of life. These stories – and indeed the ad – are valuable if only to help overturn most people’s perception of an engineer as being something akin to a mechanic, as one engineer put it recently. He readily acknowledged that people have little or no idea of what an engineer does.

Engineers do have an effective annual platform from which to work, Engineers Week, which this year runs from February 27th to March 4th. It offers events across the country with activities aimed at students from seven to 18 and for adults as well.


For more information on Engineers Week, see engineersweek.ie