Six months ago I wrote about our EU research project, called INSTRUCTIVE, and the likely consequences of Brexit for research [see my post: ‘Instructive report and Brexit‘ on March 29th, 2017]. We seem to be no closer to knowing the repercussions of Brexit on research in the UK and EU – a quarter of EU funding allocated to universities goes to UK universities so the potential impacts will hit both the UK and EU. Some researchers take every opportunity to highlight these risks and the economic benefits of EU research; for instance the previous EU research programme, Framework Programme 7, is estimated to have created 900,000 jobs in Europe and increased GDP by about 1% in perpetuity. However, most researchers are quietly getting on with their research and hoping that our political leaders will eventually arrive at a solution that safeguards our prosperity and security. Our INSTRUCTIVE team is no exception to this approach. We are about half-way through our project and delivered our first public presentation of our work at the International Conference on Advances in Experimental Mechanics last month. We described how we are able to identify cracks in metallic structures before they are long enough to be visible to the naked eye, or any other inspection technique commonly used for aircraft structures. We identify the cracks using an infra-red camera by detecting the energy released during the formation and accumulation of dislocations in the atomic structure that coalesce into voids and eventually into cracks [see my post entitled ‘Alan Arnold Griffith‘ on April 26th, 2017 for more on energy release during crack formation]. We can identify cracks at sub-millimetre lengths and then track them as they propagate through a structure. At the moment, we are quantifying our ability to detect cracks forming underneath the heads of fasteners [see picture] and other features in real aerospace structures; so that we can move our technology out of the laboratory and into an industrial environment. We have a big chunk of airplane sitting in the laboratory that we will use for future tests – more on that in later blog posts!
At the Airbus PhD workshop that I attended a couple of weeks ago [see my post entitled Making Engineering Work for Society on September 13th 2017], Axel Flaig, Head of Airbus Research and Technology, gave us an excellent opening presentation describing their vision for the future. Besides their vision for the next generation of passenger aircraft with reductions in CO2, NOx and noise emissions of 75%, 90% and 65% respectively against 2000 levels by 2050, they are also looking at urban air mobility. We have 55 megacities [cities with a population of more than 10 million] and it is expected that this will increase to 93 by 2035 [see my post entitled ‘Hurrying Feet in Crowded Camps’ on August 16th, 2017]. These megacities are characterized by congestion and time-wasted moving around them; so, Airbus is working on designs for intra-city transport that takes us off the roads and into the air. Perhaps the most exciting is the electric Pop.up concept that is being developed with Italdesign. But, Airbus are beyond concepts: they have a demonstrator single-seater, self-pilot vehicle, the Vahana that will fly in 2017 and a multi-passenger demonstrator scheduled to fly in 2018.
Soon, we will have to look left, right and up before we cross the road, or maybe nobody will walk anywhere – though that would be bad news for creative thinking [see my post on ‘Gone Walking’ on 19th April 2017], amongst other things!
Last week I attended a one-day workshop for PhD students sponsored by Airbus. Most of the students produced a poster describing their research; and a dozen brave ones gave a three-minute presentation on their PhD thesis. It’s a challenge to describe three years of research in three minutes to an audience that are not experts in your specialist field. However, the result was an exciting and stimulating morning covering subjects as diverse as multidisciplinary design optimization and cognitive sources of ethical behaviour in business. The latter was presented by Solenne Avet who was the only woman amongst the twelve three-minute thesis presenters. The gender diversity was better for the other, longer talks with two women out of six presenters. Interestingly, the female PhD students were the only ones tackling the interaction between engineering and human behaviour, including system-human communication, collective engineering work and innovation processes, which I have suggested is essential for viable engineering solutions to our global and societal challenges [see my post ‘Re-engineering engineering’ on August 30th, 2017]. This population sample is too small to make a reliable generalization; however, it suggests that a gender-balanced engineering profession would be more likely to succeed in making substantial contributions to our current challenges [see UN Global Issues Overview].
More than a decade ago, when I was a Department Head for Mechanical Engineering, people used to ask me ‘What is Mechanical Engineering?’. My answer was that mechanical engineering is about utilising the material and energy resources available in nature to deliver goods and services demanded by society – that’s a broad definition. And, mechanical engineering is perhaps the broadest engineering discipline, which has enable mechanical engineers to find employment in a wide spectrum areas from aerospace, through agricultural, automotive and biomedical to nuclear and solar energy engineering. Many of these areas of engineering have become very specialised with their proponents believing that they have a unique set of constraints which demand the development of special techniques and accompanying language or terminology. In some ways, these specialisms are like the historic guilds in Europe that jealously guarded their knowledge and skills; indeed there are more than 30 licensed engineering institutions in the UK.
In an age where information is readily available [see my post entitled ‘Wanted: user experience designers‘ on July 5th, 2017], the role of engineers is changing and they ‘are integrators who pull ideas together from multiple streams of knowledge’ [to quote Jim Plummer, former Dean of Engineering at Stanford University in ‘Think like an engineer‘ by Guru Madhaven]. This implies that engineers need to be able work with a wide spectrum of knowledge rather than being embedded in a single specialism; and, since many of the challenges facing our global society involve complex systems combining engineering, environmental and societal components, engineering education needs to include gaining an understanding of ecosystems and the subtleties of human behaviour as well as the fundamentals of engineering. If we can shift our engineering degrees away from specialisms towards this type of systems thinking then engineering is likely to enormously boost its contribution to our society and at the same time the increased relevance of the degree programmes might attract a more diverse student population which will promote a better fit of engineering solutions to the needs of our whole of global society [see also ‘Where science meets society‘ on September 2nd 2015).
A couple of weekends ago we went to see ‘Anthony and Cleopatra‘ performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. It was a magnificient spectacle and a captivating performance, especially by Josette Simon as Cleopatra. Before the performance started, we couldn’t help noticing the columns of steam forming in the auditorium from the ceiling downwards. Initially, we thought that they were a stage effect creating an atmosphere in the theatre; but then I realised, it was ‘steam’ forming as the air-conditioning pushed cold air into the auditorium. It’s the same effect that sometimes causes alarm on an aircraft, when it appears that smoke is billowing into the cabin prior to take-off.
The air in the theatre was a mixture of air and water vapour that was warm enough that the water was completely gaseous, and hence, invisible. However, when the air-conditioning pumped cold air into the theatre, then the mixture of air and water was cooled to below the dew point of the water vapour causing it to condense into small droplets that were visible in the auditorium’s downlighters, forming the columns of ‘steam’. Of course, the large mass of warm air in the auditorium quickly reheated the cold air, causing the droplets to evaporate and the columns of steam to disintegrate. Most people just enjoyed the play; it’s just the technologists that were preoccupied with what caused the phenomenon!