What does an engineer do? I imagine the answers are nearly as varied as the number of people involved in engineering, from conception of an idea through design, modeling, tooling, manufacturing, testing, commissioning, operating, maintaining, troubleshooting, repair, and return to service. Engineering brings to our lives those ‘things’ that fundamentally make our lives better. Take away the engineers and we’ll quickly find ourselves back in the Stone Age. How long did it take us to fly to the moon once we were challenged and focused?
It used to be that an engineer’s reputation (anyone’s reputation) was built on their consistent production of good-to-great work. But the failures in engineering deflate good and great reputations alike. Remember Deep Water Horizon, or maybe better known as ‘the Gulf Oil Spill’? How about a ship called the Exxon Valdez? More recently, there have been a number of airline accidents, from an engine fire on a runway to a Russian flagged airliner simply breaking apart in the sky. Thousands of smaller failures occur every day. There are many reasons for these major and minor failures. How does one engineer or any company coordinating engineering products convince customers of the reliability and sustainability of their product?
I propose the soundest method is the detailed documentation of a project from beginning-to-end. Machinery history starts when a drafting pencil first meets the paper, or that first mouse click creates the grid upon which the project will be drawn electronically. The records that define the path I’ve designated above are the due diligent actions that demonstrate from the outset through end-of -life that a project is sound and trustworthy.
My Dad and his Dad were machinists by trade I learned the ‘art’ of drawing plans in our garage as a means of sharing the ideas we would build. Both of them could just have easily turned the wood and metal and created what it was they wanted to bring into reality. Seeing something in one’s own mind is the stuff of creativity that we may express as humans. Sharing this creativity is the ‘stuff’ of good engineering machinery history as a framework for products and the sustaining drive of growing societies.
One more thought I want to share. Running nuclear powered propulsion plants for the U.S. Navy requires a detailed focus on maintaining machinery history among other requirements. Annually, that is, every twelve-to-fifteen months, an inspection team from Washington D.C. ‘visited’ us for a formal safety inspection. Most ships simply endured the inspection. On the U.S.S. Mississippi, a guided missile cruiser, we challenged the inspection teams to find problems. So proud and so confident we were of our complete package of effort, we set pads and paper out for the teams. We never actually said, “Go ahead, TRY to find something wrong,” but the attitude was there. The first area of inspection was always the machinery history, from which most of the remaining ‘tests’ in the inspection evolved.
So, are you ready to take the challenge? Can you create the detailed ‘paper trail’ on your engineering projects that will prove your work is worthy of a great reputation? What kind of inspection program are you willing to fund to prove your product’s reliability? I think our society deserves such a commitment from consummate professionals.