Monday, August 05, 2019

Should Engineers Get Their Fingernails Dirty?

Up the road from me in Austin, Texas, it turns out that Apple has been building Mac Pros, a desktop model, in a Flextronics manufacturing plant since at least 2013.  But a recent news item in the Austin American-Statesman says that the company will soon shut down its manufacturing activity of Mac Pros here in Texas and move it to China.  However, Apple is moving ahead with plans to open a new billion-dollar campus in Austin, which will increase the number of Apple workers there from around its current 7,000 to as many as 15,000.  But you can be pretty sure that most of those workers won't be holding soldering irons or screwdrivers—they'll be sitting at computers typing code.

The image of the engineer has changed radically over the years since the profession first attained significant public recognition, which came about in the late 1800s.  In 1900, artistic portrayals of an engineer would show a rugged, muscular man who might be holding an engineer's hammer in one hand (something halfway between a regular hammer and a sledgehammer), and adjusting a surveyor's transit as he squints through the eyepiece.  Most engineers prior to about 1920 were civil engineers, engaged in laying out railroad tracks or roads, installing water and sewer systems, and making sure bridges and buildings didn't fall down after they were built.

Then the era of scientific engineering came along.  The slide rule replaced the hammer, and now engineers were depicted in hiring ads in the 1950s as lab-coated intellectuals, wearing horn-rimmed glasses and looking through microscopes or fiddling with flasks of chemicals.  The habitat of the 1950s engineer was inside, not outside, but he (always a "he" back then in images of the time) was still engaged in working with exotic equipment or machinery for which special training and even clothing was required.

Then the computer came along, banishing the slide rule.  Companies quickly learned it was cheaper to let engineers try new designs in software models rather than actually building prototypes and finding out that most of them didn't work.  So as much of the engineering knowledge that formerly resided in engineers' brains moved into computer programs, the typical engineer wound up sitting at a desk in front of a computer monitor.  Sometimes she just writes code, and sometimes she works with drawings of actual stuff.  But whatever subject is displayed on the screen, that is often as close as the engineer gets to the actual thing that is built. 

The end product, whether it is a microchip, a car, or an airplane, is often made far away from where the designer sits, possibly in another country.  The people who actually get their hands dirty to make the products know no more about them than they have to in order to do their jobs right.  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this—it is one more application of the great economist Adam Smith's principle that each person, organization, or nation should specialize in what they are best at, and swap their products with those who are best at other things.  If engineers are best at designing with software, why, that's what they should do, and not waste their expensive time on a workbench actually building things that lower-paid and less-educated technicians can build. 

I grew up and learned engineering at a time when math and models could get you only so far, and there were imponderable and incalculable factors that had to be worked out on the workbench.  In my specialization of RF engineering, that meant that any engineer worth his salt had to know how to solder and troubleshoot actual hardware, and we did.  And things got built—maybe not the absolutely most optimized designs, but good enough to go out the door and make money for the company (most of the time, anyway). 

But these days, things that had to be figured out on the workbench thirty-five years ago can be modeled in the much more sophisticated software that is available today.  And so almost every kind of engineer these days, whether chemical, electrical, mechanical, civil, or environmental, ends up spending most of their working time in front of a computer.  There are exceptions, of course, but it is in the interests of most firms to see that their engineers spend as little time as possible fiddling with hardware and as much time as possible doing what they are paid the big bucks to do. 

Engineering is an intensely practical business, and if most engineering firms succeed in satisfying their customers with the services of engineers who never touch hardware, I can't see anything to criticize in that.  The lingering suspicion I have that something is missing that may cause trouble down the road may be nothing more than an old guy's prejudice in favor of the way things used to be. 

In my own teaching, I try to make students deal with hardware when it's practical to do so.  This fall I will be teaching a course in analog design.  Software is available that lets you build the whole circuit on the computer screen and test it with software "scopes" and get results that are much more precise than anything you can do in the lab.  But after the students have done that, I will request them to go get real parts, that they really have to read the values of, and put them in a real prototype "breadboard" circuit, and show me that it really works. 

Most students don't complain of this.  In fact, over the years I have had positive comments along the lines of, "I never knew what that oscilloscope was for until I had to use it in this class," and so on.  I'm sure some of them feel that shoving little wires into just the right holes is beneath them, but a little humbling is good for the soul.

Next spring, if all goes according to plan, I will teach the first course in power electronics ever taught on this campus.  Power electronics involves things like controlling giant 1,000-horsepower motors in steel mills.  Much as I would like to have a lab that used a 1,000-horsepower motor, all the labs in this course will use software.  It's much cheaper and safer to have a software 750-kW motor blow up than a real one.  And that's perhaps the way it should be. 

All the same, engineers should never forget that no matter how nice things look on paper or the computer screen, physical reality reigns.  And sometimes, it bites back.

Sources:  The report on Apple's moving production out of Austin appeared at

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