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What Engineers Do.

During the twenty-odd years I worked in the engineering and process chemicals industries, I always was struck by the fact that even close friends, spouses, and relatives never really had a good idea of what engineering companies (and engineers) do. Most of the descriptions I have heard, such as "design stuff," defy quantification. But the actual scope of designers' work itself sometimes seems to defy quantification. Whether it is in design concepts, materials selection, modeling and prototyping, process documentation, or any of a dozen other steps in bringing a product to market, the engineering talent it takes to product a viable product, on time, and within budget, is truly impressive.

A good place to get to the bottom of the engineering discipline is the FAQ section of the sci.engr Usenet group. There you can find The Engineer's Companion at[sim]rgraham. Find (through linking) the definition of "professional engineer," what basic design elements and skills are involved, and the differences between science and engineering. There are also more light-hearted sections such as books that involve engineering (Engineered for Murder, Jurassic Park, etc.) and "the engineer as hero" that list movies from the 1930s to the 1990s that have substantial engineering content (Things to Come, The Bridge Over the River Kawi, etc.). There are also resources on where to go for more information on engineering such as International and USA-based engineering societies and associations. The section closes with an apropos quote from Douglas Adams (Mostly Harmless) claiming that, "Anyone who thinks they've designed something completely foolproof has underestimated the ingenuity of complete fools ."

Another good background source is in the EEVL Engineering Net at Go here especially if you're looking for student resources to understand what engineering is, what engineers do, and how to prepare for an engineering career. Besides introductions to various engineering disciplines, you can also get information on course materials, training materials, and general engineering resources. All recommendations include links to universities, engineering associations, and news of the latest engineering advances. There is also a bulletin board and an excerpt from Raymond Landis' book Studying Engineering. Supplement this with an interesting site called Engineering Quotes at[sim]nstange/seg.html. A gem from Freeman Dyson: "A good scientist is a person with original ideas. A good engineer is a person who makes a design that works with as few original ideas as possible." It includes material back to the time of the Code of Hammurabi (Ca. 2250 BC), which dictated that any builder who built a house that collapsed, resulting in the death of the owner, would also be put to death. What a warranty, eh?

Finish up the intellectual elements of engineering with a trip to The Cooper Union Gateway Coalition at This gateway is a collaborative of 10 institutions, supported by the NSF. The idea is to promote inter-disciplinary learning efforts and bring a new model of the emerging professional into a multifaceted 2lst century environment. Some of the areas the collaborative focus on include integrated engineering disciplines, changing what is taught in classes, and improved retention of women and minorities in engineering curriculums. Disciplines currently in the program include rapid prototyping, concurrent engineering, networks, electronic materials, and design. Another great finishing site is The Codex Leicester at http://www.amnh.ore/exhibitions/codex/index html. Penned by Leonardo DaVinci between 1506 and 1510, this codex, one of many still in existence, serves as a compendium of many of DaVinci's classic engineering designs and scientific dis coveries. Working a day job as a military and fortifications designer, DaVinci is better remembered these days as a brilliant painter and the visionary who conceived of such varied and forward-looking activities as helicopter and aircraft design, hydraulics, bridge building, and even the designing of machinery for textile production. Other Leonardo works can be accessed through the Artcyclopedia at da vinci.html.

For a closing "20/20 hindsight" experience, try taking a guess of which engineering drawings of Leonardo represent which machines he designed. Sketches are available for your perusal at http://www.mos.ore/sln/Leonnrdo/LeosMysterious Machinerv.html.

Steve O'Neil, Ph.D. is President of N'Fusion, inc., an editorial and Internet consultancy which aids technology companies in integrating their business and online strategies, improving advertising and branding accountability, and building end-to-end e-commerce solutions. The company is headquartered in the Tampa Bay, FL area with offices and affiliates throughout the US, Europe, and the Pacific Rim.
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Author:O'Neil, Dr. Steve
Date:Jun 1, 2000
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