The danger of what you don’t know you don’t know

Think of an engineering degree as a license to learn rather than an end in itself.


Engineering disciplines, like a lot of educational disciplines, have become very narrowly focused. At some level this is a necessary trend, since to be expert in every aspect of a field has become something that is almost impossible to accomplish. Very few mechanical engineers are experts in metallurgy, hydraulics, machine design, HVAC design, thermodynamics, mechanics of materials, strength of materials, metal cutting operations, metal forming operations, and, well, the list goes on. An engineering student attempting to delve deeply enough in every aspect of his or her chosen discipline to be an “expert” would never finish college. Most colleges don’t even attempt to expose a student to all the aspects of a discipline, but expect specialization early on in the undergraduate program. If you’re an electrical engineer, you may have to choose between electronics and power.

The result is many engineers don’t even know what they don’t know about what their jobs require after they graduate. Take working in the field of process control as an example. Many of the controls engineers I’ve encountered have no innate knowledge of what’s connected to their control system and how that might affect their control design. When asked what they are controlling, they can usually tell you if it is a level or flow or temperature or whatever, and they can usually tell you they are operating a valve to do so, but when asked what kind of valve, they may or may not know if it’s a globe or ball or butterfly, what size it is, what the characteristics of the trim are, or what the impact of all these details might have on the control design. Therefore, they also won’t know what the impact of the control design might be on the valve. Are they forcing the valve to operate in a range where it will cause cavitation or cause the fluid to flash? Are there operating conditions where the valve will wire draw its seat? Can the valve respond as fast as the control loop needs to control the process properly? Similar questions can be asked about the sensors.

Most of the time the answer to all these questions is, “It doesn’t really matter.” Most of the time the loop can be tuned to accommodate the requirements of the system. However, sometimes that isn’t enough, and changes to the code are required. The danger lies in those times when it does matter and often it’s only revealed when the disaster happens. I once watched a six inch schedule 80 pipe whip like a rope because a piping designer didn’t know about water hammer. As a result, two men ended up in the hospital with broken bones and were lucky that’s all that happened to them. If any of the pipe welds had failed, people would probably have died.

So, if you don’t know that you don’t know something that you need to know, how do you find out? If you’re new to a job, keep your eyes and ears open. When you see or hear something you don’t know about, ask. Fortunately, most engineers are more than happy to expound on their knowledge. Those of us who have been doing the job for a long time have been in your position at one time or another, so while we might get a laugh out of your question, we’ll respect you for asking it. Also keep in mind that an engineering degree doesn’t teach you everything, it just gives you the tools to learn.

This post was written by Bruce Brandt. Bruce is the DeltaV technology leader at MAVERICK Technologies, a leading system integrator providing industrial automation, operational support and control systems engineering services in the manufacturing and process industries. MAVERICK delivers expertise and consulting in a wide variety of areas including industrial automation controls, distributed control systems, manufacturing execution systems, operational strategy, and business process optimization. The company provides a full range of automation and controls services – ranging from PID controller tuning and HMI programming to serving as a main automation contractor. Additionally MAVERICK offers industrial and technical staffing services, placing on-site automation, instrumentation and controls engineers.

, OH, Serbia and Montenegro, 12/27/12 06:42 AM:

It is extremely important to educate engineers to "can" talk to different professions. It would be useful to introduce the "little training" to conduct technical discussions.
The Top Plant program honors outstanding manufacturing facilities in North America. View the 2013 Top Plant.
The Product of the Year program recognizes products newly released in the manufacturing industries.
The Engineering Leaders Under 40 program identifies and gives recognition to young engineers who...
Sister act: Building on their father's legacy, a new generation moves Bales Metal Surface Solutions forward; Meet the 2015 Engineering Leaders Under 40
2015 Mid-Year Report: Manufacturing's newest tool: In a digital age, digits will play a key role in the plant of the future; Ethernet certification; Mitigate harmonics; World class maintenance
2015 Lubrication Guide: Green and gold in lubrication: Environmentally friendly fluids and sealing systems offer a new perspective
Drilling for Big Data: Managing the flow of information; Big data drilldown series: Challenge and opportunity; OT to IT: Creating a circle of improvement; Industry loses best workers, again
Pipeline vulnerabilities? Securing hydrocarbon transit; Predictive analytics hit the mainstream; Dirty pipelines decrease flow, production—pig your line; Ensuring pipeline physical and cyber security
Cyber security attack: The threat is real; Hacking O&G control systems: Understanding the cyber risk; The active cyber defense cycle
Designing positive-energy buildings; Ensuring power quality; Complying with NFPA 110; Minimizing arc flash hazards
Building high availability into industrial computers; Of key metrics and myth busting; The truth about five common VFD myths
New industrial buildings: Greener, cleaner, leaner; New building designs for industry; Take a new look at absorption cooling; Offshored jobs start to come back

Annual Salary Survey

After almost a decade of uncertainty, the confidence of plant floor managers is soaring. Even with a number of challenges and while implementing new technologies, there is a renewed sense of optimism among plant managers about their business and their future.

The respondents to the 2014 Plant Engineering Salary Survey come from throughout the U.S. and serve a variety of industries, but they are uniform in their optimism about manufacturing. This year’s survey found 79% consider manufacturing a secure career. That’s up from 75% in 2013 and significantly higher than the 63% figure when Plant Engineering first started asking that question a decade ago.

Read more: 2014 Salary Survey: Confidence rises amid the challenges

Maintenance and reliability tips and best practices from the maintenance and reliability coaches at Allied Reliability Group.
The One Voice for Manufacturing blog reports on federal public policy issues impacting the manufacturing sector. One Voice is a joint effort by the National Tooling and Machining...
The Society for Maintenance and Reliability Professionals an organization devoted...
Join this ongoing discussion of machine guarding topics, including solutions assessments, regulatory compliance, gap analysis...
IMS Research, recently acquired by IHS Inc., is a leading independent supplier of market research and consultancy to the global electronics industry.
Maintenance is not optional in manufacturing. It’s a profit center, driving productivity and uptime while reducing overall repair costs.
The Lachance on CMMS blog is about current maintenance topics. Blogger Paul Lachance is president and chief technology officer for Smartware Group.