Ask an Engineer: Fix the World!

Jam's picture

Kayla asks:
Q: If you--the major problem-solvers out there--could chose any major world problem to fix what would it be? You can choose anyone to work with, no time limits or budget constraints. Actual PLANS to fix these problems need not be included. I just want to know what you engineers think are the biggest and most worthwhile problems out there in the world that you'd like to wrangle if given free reign! :)


Jim - Cement Industry, Pennsylvania, USA

Headline: “BP manager, boss both ignored warnings”.  If there was one engineering-related problem I would fix, it would be the fact that engineers and managers collude to ignore risks and warnings of failure. 

Most of the failures go unnoticed by the public, but once in a while they are spectacularly catastrophic, like the BP oil rig blowout.

Engineers and managers are incentivized to take unwarranted risks.  I’m not talking about intricate technicalities or unforeseeable interactions.  I’m talking about things like “Yes, we all knew it was too cold for the O-Rings to seal properly, but we really wanted to get that space shuttle into orbit so we launched anyway.”  You know, real Darwin Awards stuff.  It happens all the time.

I don’t know how to change this behaviour.  It’s built into our system.  Maybe the engineering profession could help by promoting a more widespread use of proactive risk analysis and appreciation of worst-case scenarios, instead of acting like the lap dogs of gamble-prone managers.

For a clear and classic expose of the risk-taking phenomenon, do a web search on Feynman’s Appendix to the Challenger Report. It’s fascinating reading, even if you are too young to remember the Challenger disaster.

Dan - Diesel Engine Manufacturing - Illinois, USA

To me, one of the biggest problems in the world is in emissions and efficiency of transport (passenger and good).

If there were a way to reduce the overall carbon footprint of our major transport vehicles, that would contribute a major effort to reduce global warming. This becomes an interesting problem - electrics don't exactly cut it when you're a long haul truck or airplane, and other renewable energy can't go the distance. Unfortunately, hydrocarbons as a fuel here are king- for energy per volume, there's nothing out there that compares at the moment (though some fuels, like hydrogen, are more energy per mass, but the storage systems for them make them unusable for small vehicles).

There's two ways to help this, both of which are interesting fields right now- increasing energy efficiency of our engines that run our cars, trucks, trains, planes, and ships, as carbon neutral biofuels (i.e extract the CO2 and turn it into fuels, like plants) with sufficient energy volume to encourage use over standard fuels we use today. With the combination of the two, energy use in the world would be massively reduced, and that would also help the environment.

Justin - General Contracting/Construction Management – International

I am going to cheat and give you two:

Number 1a as I see it is providing the ever expanding world population with energy.  Not just energy though; clean, renewable energy.  As more and more developing countries enter into the world industrial scene, we will tax the remaining resource to the breaking point.  If something isn't done and soon, I fear what will happen when the oil is gone, or so expensive as to prohibit "normal" people from having access.

Number 1b is similar in nature to 1a: providing the world with clean water.  We as a race require water for life, but we continue to pollute our sources and have no efficient means to catch up.  I fear the results will be the same for water as it is for energy.

Thomas - Software Consulting – Taiwan


I would teach people how money works. I would go to poor countries and explain why banks who seem to be helping them with easy loans are actually crushing them under high interest rates. I would go back home to the US and slap any person who mentions "Home Equity Loan" square in the jaw. I would stand inside stores offering EZ financing and block people from the cash register. I would do anything it takes to have people wake up and understand that they can get ahead in life by living within their means.

 

Dyson - Mechanical Technologist - Yukon Territories

You have a very good question and I've had to truly examine the depths of my experience to find an answer. (I know that sounds really corny but I do take questions like this seriously.) If I had unlimited funds and time, I would make beer that didn't taste the way the hindquarters of a wet muskox smells. That way, rednecks wouldn't be so bitter and angry all the time so we "tree-hugging liberals" could benefit from their experience to solve some of the larger issues that our civilization faces. We more "open minded' types tend to think an issue to death, and many problems can be quickly solved by having someone come along that can cut right to the chase and provide a really simple solution.

Johan: Software, Domotics Industry, Netherlands

 That's a tough question for me, Kayla. Mostly because I believe that the sector I work in (IT) is something of a luxury. No real world problems (poverty, drought, global warming) falls within my expertise. I'm guessing though, that with the right tools, a lot of world problems can be solved, or at least we can understand more about the world around us.I'd love to build one of those tools. Not directly for its practical applications, but FOR SCIENCE.

The idea I'm proposing is creation of a particle physics engine that can work accurately on the atomic or subatomic level. In this, we would be able to execute physics experiments without the need for an actual setup, since it would all be virtual. Given enough (processor etc.) speed, the experiments wouldn't need to take more than a few milliseconds.

Taken far enough, it would even be possible to create a copy of the world as it exists the moment the equipment is finished. It is theoretically possible, and it will give us an immense array of philosophical questions to answer.

It'd also be able to give us a more accurate weather forecast.

Angela – Sustainability Industry – Vancouver

 My pet issue, if you want to call it that, would be urban sprawl/urban planning. In North America at least, many problems (energy and oil consumption in particular) can be at least partially traced to the fact that cities sprawl for miles and miles. Everyone has to have their detached two-story single family home and personal quarter-acre, and they drive very, very far (and/or sit in gridlock) every day to get to work and back.

If we were able to do a better job urbanizing there could be better transit systems, everyone and everything would have to travel less distance, resources and city services could be distributed more efficiently. I'd decentralize the workforce - making telecommuting easier and more common, and reducing the need for travel overall. We’d use less oil, less energy, and everyone would have more free time (by spending less time sitting in their cars). It’s partially a civil problem, but at it’s core it’s really a social problem.

I won't say it's humanity's biggest problem... not by a long shot... but it's the one I dream about fixing most often.

Bruno - Polytechnique - Junior Software Engineer - Quebec (OIQ)

Wow, now that's a hard question. Being a software engineer, I couldn't make plans for the wonderful machines I can imagine. Yet, the principal difficulty of being an engineer is actually having to solve a problem with all its constraints. Removing the budget and time limits make the job really easy. I could, for instance, say that I will create a software to rule out identity theft. I don't care if it takes a thousand times the computational power we have today, I have no time limit: I'll extend my work to, let's say, in 50 years.
 
Or I can say that in my very utopic world, I'll irradiate poverty with a complex machine that will be able to perfectly recycle trash, doing the whole process of separating the different components of said trash to make it usable again. I am not in a hurry, I have all the time in the world to do the research and to build my machine.
 
See what I did there? Not the kind of answer you were expecting, for sure, but it still is what it is: I believe any problem can be fixed if given infinite money and time, but it is not what being an engineer is all about. It's about solving complex problems with a lot of constraints, negotiating for a budget and for a deadline.
 

Robert - Oil and Gas Industry - Texas, USA

What I really want to see happen, and yes I know I'm a science fiction nerd for wanting this, is for us to colonize space. You know, lunar bases, orbiting space stations, terraforming/colonizing other planets, space colonies that don't even have to be attached to anything and can travel vast distances while sustaining a "normal" lifestyle.

This could help address overpopulation. There's also resource scarcity, as new planets can be harvested for their resources in order to supplement and supply our own. The food shortage, in order to terraform and to create self sustaining colonies, new advances in agriculture/horticulture would need to be made. The energy problem, or at least a partial fix for it: in order to travel the distances required energy production and use would need to become more efficient, also it goes along with the resource harvesting.

So really a lot of different problems can be solved through this, however, because of resource, time and budget constraints, it really isn't feasible, then again you threw these out of the window within the question so I made use of that.


Download the pdf attached for longer answers. Have a question for our engineers? Email it to Jam AT Wastedtalent DOT ca ! Register now to join the discussion and comment on this post: http://www.wastedtalent.ca/user/register


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Comments

drake7707's picture
drake7707
0

As an .NET developer I'm constantly on the lookout to automate tedious and unnecessary complex processes and make them as efficient as possible. I can't speak much for the worlds bigger problems in poor countries, like searching a viable source of clean water, electricity etc. because I'm not familiar with the situation.

One that I do experience daily is the amount of traffic and traffic jams that go with the home-work-home route. So what I'd like to solve is the biggest inefficiencies and annoyances that go with traffic, ranging from pollution and noise to traffic jams. I'm not an inventor and I can barely call myself an engineer (in the sense that most people would think of what I do for a living), so I doubt I'll ever invent a new way of transportation altogether, but I'd love to write software for streamlining red lights, optimizing a car efficiency and implementing/realizing the ideas of others by putting  them into practice by developing the necessary software for it.

underclocked's picture
underclocked
0

...is it just me, or is there no attached .PDF?

keith's picture
keith
0

It's not just you; I don't see one either.

Jam's picture
Jam
0

I've asked Trevor to look into it... I can see it, it's probably just a permissions thing. Sorry about that :(

Here's is dad's full answer:

********************************************************

Headline: “BP manager, boss both ignored warnings”.  If there was one engineering-related problem I would fix, it would be the fact that engineers and managers collude to ignore risks and warnings of failure. 

Most of the failures go unnoticed by the public, but once in a while they are spectacularly catastrophic, like the BP oil rig blowout.  We may never have a full explanation for this mess, but we do know this much:

  • On April 15, BP management had in hand an engineering recommendation to install 21 centralizers in the well, along with a warning that failure to do so meant risking a defective well seal and severe gas flow.
  • On April 16, BP management decided to go with only 6 centralizers, and BP engineering acquiesced in that decision.  As one BP engineer e-mailed to another, "Who cares, it's done, end of story, will probably be fine”.
  • The well blew out on April 20. You might have heard about it.
  • In August, two of the BP engineers who were called to testify about what went wrong, took the 5th Amendment: “I refuse to answer the question on the grounds that it might incriminate me.”

All these engineers and managers were just doing their jobs.  Their jobs led them inexorably to take unwarranted risks.

Engineers and managers are incentivized to take unwarranted risks.  I’m not talking about intricate technicalities or unforeseeable interactions.  I’m talking about things like “Yes, we all knew it was too cold for the O-Rings to seal properly, but we really wanted to get that space shuttle into orbit so we launched anyway.”  You know, real Darwin Awards stuff.  It happens all the time.

I don’t know how to change this behaviour.  It’s built into our system.  Maybe the engineering profession could help by promoting a more widespread use of proactive risk analysis and appreciation of worst-case scenarios, instead of acting like the lap dogs of gamble-prone managers.

For a clear and classic expose of the risk-taking phenomenon, do a web search on Feynman’s Appendix to the Challenger Report. It’s fascinating reading, even if you are too young to remember the Challenger disaster.

canadaka's picture
canadaka
0

fixed! anyone can now see attached files, thanks for reporting the issue.

New Renaissance's picture
New Renaissance
0

First I'd like to say that 'Ask an Engineer' really provides me with some interesting insights into the engineering profession, and think that it's great that all the contributers are willing to take the time to answer questions that people have about the profession.

As for everyone trying to solve the worlds energy issues;

Why not take the millions of dollars of funding and equipment that various (wealthy) people are wasting on solar-sail experiments, and build a space based solar power station. Forget heavy expensive silicons solar cells and trade them off for a kilometers wide parabolic reflector, made out of light and cheap mylar. Focus all that collected energy on a larger version of the mirror chip found in DLP projectors, and then focus the light on a gas tube, making it flicker at a high frequency, creating a pulsed laser. (The DLP chip will have the advantage of not having to absorb all the energy when switched to the off state, as it could simply reflect the light energy to some point in the middle of nowhere.)

With your new space based superlaser you can now:

-Drive steam turbines to generate electricity

-Generate hydrogen

-power carbon recapture technology

-distill seawater into safe drinking water

-smelt various ores

I realize that this is a gross oversimplification, but it still seems like a simpler concept than cold-fusion, and IMHO more feasable with current technology.

PS: it bothers me when people tout hydrogen as the solve all solution to our problems. Don't people realize that it will be coal fired plants that are used to provide the electricity to generate the hydrogen? My uncle who is an engineer working with the power grid in North America put it best "Coal plants have to run at full capacity all the time. You can't just shut off a boiler and expect to heat it back up cheaply. So when demand falls, all the wind turbines and solar panels are shut off." There is good evidence of this at the Pincer creek wind farm in Alberta. Whenever I've been there less than half the windmills were turning, and it was plenty windy out.

Jam's picture
Jam
0

That's a personal pet peeve of mine with Hydrogen as well...

The other problem with wind is that it's intermittent. When someone needs power, they  need power NOW, they can't wonder about whether the wind is blowing or not. Older methods of generating like Hydroelectric or Coal will be needed to ensure there is a 'guaranteed' source of power.

Wind is great, don't get me wrong, it's just not a solution all by itself.

Dax's picture
Dax
0

This is really spectacular! Thank you so much for your thoughtful answers, they gave me a lot to think about. I'm especially thankful to Bruno for putting things into perspective for me about the love/hate dance engineers do with constraints...

It's really inspiring to hear read these, especially the problems you're PASSIONATE about finding solutions for--even space travel. :) Thanks again.

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