Instructive Update

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!

INSTRUCTIVE is an EU Horizon 2020 project funded under the Clean Sky 2 programme [project no. 686777] and involves Strain Solutions Ltd and the University of Liverpool working with Airbus.

Statistics on funding from

For other posts on similar research topics, see ‘Counting photons to measure stress‘ on November 18th, 2015 and ‘Forensic engineering‘ on July 22nd, 2015.


Airborne urban mobility

Pop.Up_copyright Italdesign 2

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!


Image from where there is also a video.

Making engineering work for society

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].

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Blinded by the light

It has become a habit during our summer vacation to read the novels short-listed for Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction.  Unusually this year, we were not only unanimous in our choice of the best novel but we also agreed with the judges and selected the ‘The Power‘ by Naomi Alderman.  In another of the books, Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, a Chinese composer called Sparrow thinks ‘about the quality of sunshine, that is, how daylight wipes away the stars and planets, making them invisible to human eyes, might daylight be a form of blindness? Could it be that sound was also be a form of deafness? If so, what was silence?’.  I felt some resonance between these thoughts and John Hull’s writings on blindness and my earlier blog posting on ‘Listening with your eyes shut‘ [on May 31st, 2017].  In our everyday life, we are bombarded with sounds from people living around us, from traffic and from devices in our homes and places of work.  We rarely experience silence; however, when we do, perhaps on holiday staying in a remote rural location, then a whole new set of sounds becomes apparent: waves breaking on the shore in the distance, the field mouse rooting around under the floorboards, or the noises of cattle enjoying the lush grass in the field next door.  Okay, so you have to be in the right place to hear these sounds of nature but you also need silence otherwise you are deaf to them, as Sparrow suggests.

The same is true for knowledge and understanding because our minds have finite capacity [see my post entitled ‘Silence is golden‘ on January 14th, 2014].  When you are bombarded with information and data it is easy to become overwhelmed and unable to structure the information in way that makes it useful or meaningful.  In our connected society, information has become like white noise, or daylight obscuring the stars and planets.  Information is blinding us to knowledge and understanding.  We need to aggressively filter the information flow in order to gain insight and knowledge.  We should switch off the digital devices, which bombard us with information constantly, to leave our minds free for conceptual and creative thinking because that’s one of the few tasks in which we can outperform the smartest machine [see my post entitled ‘Smart machines‘ on February 26th, 2014].

In a similar vein see: ‘Ideas from a balanced mind‘ on August 24th, 2016 and ‘Thinking out-of-the-skull‘ on March 18th, 2015.

Wanted: user experience designers

A few weeks ago, I listened to a brilliant talk by Professor Rick Miller, President of Olin College.  He was talking at a conference on ‘New Approaches to Higher Education’.  He tolds us that the most common job description for recent Olin graduates was ‘user experience designer’ rather than a particular branch of engineering.  Aren’t all engineers, user experience designers?  We design, manufacture and maintain structures, machines, goods and services for society.  Whatever an engineer’s role in supplying society with the engineered environment around us, the ultimate deliverable is a user experience in the modern vernacular.

Rick Miller’s point was that society is changing faster than our education system.  He highlighted that the relevance of the knowledge economy had been destroyed by internet search engines.  There is no longer much advantage to be gained by having an enormous store of knowledge in your head, because much more is available on-demand via search engines, whose recall is faster than mine.  What matters is not what you know but what you can do with the knowledge.  And in the future, it will be all about what you can conceive or create with knowledge.  So, knowledge-intensive education should become a thing of the past and instead we need to focus on creative thinking and produce problem-solvers capable of dealing with complexity and uncertainty.