The Renaissance of Irish Engineering.

Yesterday I gave the opening keynote of the annual Engineers Ireland conference.   Engineers Ireland was founded in 1835 and so this is our 175th year.   The full text of the speech is below [[and since the original version of the this post,  a video recording of my talk with the slide deck are now online here]].

Forty years ago last July,  from my parents couch and on a snowy black and white TV screen on 20th July 1969,  I vividly remember as a teenager watching Neil Armstrong step onto the moon.

One small step for man came after two hundred thousand years of human existence,  as men had gazed into the heavens at the silver lunar world,  so close but so unreachable.

It was an extraordinary feat of engineering,  combining the then most powerful engines,  multi-staging,  exotic materials, exquisite design of the lunar module,  self contained life-support biospheres,  interplanetary navigation, and complex software in computers less powerful than today’s wrist watches.

The US space programme in the 1960s,  and Apollo 11 in particular,  was a golden age for engineering.   And yet,  as I remember well,  just a few months later Apollo had become a little routine,  not quite front page news,  and relegated in the absence of finding little green men,  blue cheese or anything else exciting on the lunar surface.  Engineering can inspire awe in the public and media,  but usually does not hold attention for very long,  and in due course is often taken for granted.

Then forty years ago this month,  on April 13th 1970, just short of 200,000 miles from Earth and well on the way to the moon,  the number two oxygen tank of the Service Module of Apollo 13 exploded.

Mission Control had requested a routine stirring of the hydrogen and oxygen tanks.  Damaged insulation on the stirrer motor of oxygen tank 2 shorted and ignited.   The resulting fire damaged the other oxygen tank,  and the entire oxygen supply of the Service Module leaked out over the next few hours.  No oxygen in the Service Module in turn meant that electricity could not be generated,  and the three man crew had only extremely limited battery power to survive the remaining days ahead.

Having largely ignored live TV transmissions from the crew of Apollo 13 the day before the incident,  the world’s media suddenly put Apollo back on the front pages.   Engineering was abruptly no longer taken for granted.

Engineering frequently fades from the public attention until something goes wrong,  through accident,  or poor maintenance,  or under-investment.

During my year as President of Engineers Ireland,  engineering has come back to the attention of the Irish public and media as coasts continue to be eroded,  rivers and waterways have flooded,   drinking water quality has been substandard,  natural gas supplies have been throttled by Russia,  and even jet engines have been threatened by volcanic ash. Ireland needs engineers,  maybe as never before.

My personal hero,  my engineer’s engineer,  the engineer who inspired me to become an engineer,  is Gene Kranz.

Kranz was the lead Flight Director in Heuston during the Apollo 13 mission.  Known for his flat top crew cut and white waistcoat he wore during missions,  Kranz was also Flight Director when Neil Armstrong guided Apollo 11 to the lunar landing.  Kranz’s last mission as Flight Director was the shuttle STS-61 mission of the Endeavour shuttle in 1993 which repaired the optically flawed Hubble Telescope.  I have never meet him:  he is now 76.  His book of his NASA career published in April 2000 is,  in my view, one of the great books of engineering.

“Failure is not an option” is his book.  Ron Howard invented the phrase for his movie “Apollo 13”,  and Kranz so liked it that he used it as the title of his book.

Failure is not an option.  As I reflect on my year as President,  we have have seen failures in our banks,  in financial regulation and planning,  in corporate governance,  in political oversight,  in religious orders,  in some of our hospitals and in the Health Service Executive.

For professional engineers,  failure is not an option.  We design systems and processes to work.   But our designs almost always assume that any component can fail,   that environmental conditions might be extremely exceptional,  and – especially – that human operators may make mistakes.  Our systems approach,  our holistic examination of the problem,   and our professional philosophy,  all combine to ensure that failure is not an option.   For these reasons,  the engineer’s ethos is often different from those of others.   Ireland needs engineers,  maybe as never before.

In Ireland,  we urgently need to rebuild our economy.  The unemployment rate has now reached a crisis level of 430,000.  Over the last decade,  while we had our property bubble,  the global economy continued to significantly change in favour of the emerging nations.

While the United States had its distraction of its “war on terror” and subsequently entered recession in December 2007, China focused on interventions to stimulate its own domestic demand, and to quietly gain control of sources of raw materials including bauxite,  fluorspar, silicon metal, coke, magnesium and zinc across the world.   These materials are now available more cheaply to Chinese manufacturers than to their US and European competitors.   China has simultaneously had a policy of active engagement with many governments world-wide to foster trade and friendly export markets for China.   Meanwhile,  as Craig Barrett observes,  some 3 billion new consumers have entered the global market – in south east asia,  south america,  latin america,  South Africa, China and India.   Ireland no longer has a global monopoly on low costs and a low corporate tax rate,  nor on a technology skilled and English language competent labour pool.

It seems obvious that the world has changed.  It seems clear that restoring our national competitiveness to pre-bubble levels is insufficient.   It seems apparent that a strategy of getting more output from each unit of input is deficient.  We need to create value rather than volume.  If we can create high value services and goods for the international markets,   then we will create wealth for our economy and also sustainable employment freed from the vagaries of an international race to the bottom.   Ireland needs engineers,  maybe as never before.

How do we do this ?   How are we going to accelerate our economy,   make an immediate improvement in employment and also at the same time build sustainable growth ?

Kranz said:  “Lets work the problem people.  Lets not make things worse by guessing”.   Kranz did not allow his team to make it up as they went along,  but instead re-planned the entire mission.  He had a systematic review of the contents of the spacecraft,  to work with the crew to devise solutions – in particular scrubbing the build up of carbon dioxide.  Duct tape came to the rescue.

What do we have going for us in the Irish economy ?  What do we have to work with ?  And let’s have a plan for the future rather than guessing and trying to muddle through.

We have many multinational companies present in the country,  and are thus jealously viewed by competing jurisdictions such as Israel,  Singapore and even indeed Silicon Valley.  Our multinational footprint is a considerable competitive advantage for Ireland,   that creates opportunity for collaboration – in its widest sense – with many of the best companies in the world,  and also with younger international companies emerging onto the global stage.  I’m aware of recent initiatives taken by Cork Chamber’s Science, Research and Innovation Committee and Cork has particularly strong opportunities in this regard.  We have the security of European Union membership, and the benefits of the euro as our currency.  We have our natural resources, including agri-food, marine and – uniquely – our relatively under-used electromagnetic spectrum.   We have an international diaspora,  several times larger than the combined Israeli and Indian diasporas.  We are a relatively small market,  which creates the opportunity for market trials before the expense of addressing global markets.    Our glass is thus half full.  How do we fill the rest of it ?

Our work in the Innovation Taskforce has been focussed on these challenges.  The smart economy of course cannot provide all the answers,  but I believe it can be one major component of a solution to our jobs crisis and to our faltering economy.     Innovation which creates new offerings – services,  products,  and business processes – for the global export market best stimulates our national income.  To put science to work,  to put mathematics to work,  to put business insights to work:  Ireland needs engineers,  maybe as never before.

Apollo 13’s problem occurred when the spacecraft was outbound towards the moon.  In earlier lunar flights,  NASA had placed their spacecraft into a trajectory to the moon that enabled a return back to earth in the event of a mission abort,  without any further engine firings.   However for Apollo 13,  its planned lunar landing at the Fra Mauro crater meant that it was deliberately moved off the free return trajectory early in its flight.  Getting back onto the free return trajectory required an engine firing,  but the condition of the main Service Module engine was unknown.  The free return trajectory was regained using a burn of the lunar descent engine instead.   Apollo 13 was then able to exploit the natural gravitation pull of the moon to undergo a slingshot around it and back to earth.   Kranz worked with nature,  not against it.

Scientists use their comprehension of the natural world around us to discover further understandings and to advance our knowledge of the universe.   Mathematicians use their comprehension of patterns to discover further understanding of the symphony of the universe.  Engineers use the results from scientific detection and the abstractions discovered by mathematicians to craft works and tools which safely benefit society and humankind.   Using our understanding of nature to help humanity is no simple feat.   It not only requires ingenuity and insight,   but also a deep ability to predict and analyse the consequences of a design.   Engineering is hard,  and requires a good comprehension of both mathematics and science.   If you are going to work with nature and not against it,  then you first need to understand nature and how to apply its rules.  In the new era of limited and not infinite natural resources;   in a world struggling to raise global living standards;  in a world threatened by climate change,  Ireland needs engineers who apply mathematics and science to solve real problems,  and maybe as never before.

Kranz made decisions which ultimately saved the lives of three astronauts.  Medics and engineers save lives.  A serious mistake by an engineering team can cause catastrophic loss of life.  Professional engineers carry the burden and the responsibility for the safety of very many.  Professional engineers design so that even if others,  including the operators of their systems,  make mistakes then the integrity of the system is still maintained.

I expect that in the future,  any engineering works in Ireland in any engineering field which could affect health and safety will,  by law,  require prior authorisation by a professional Chartered Engineer.  To assume this trust and responsibility,  I fully expect that all chartered engineers will proactively remain current with the state of their art,  understanding recent lessons learnt from the experience of other chartered engineers.   Continued Professional Development,  throughout the entire career of chartered engineers,  is critical.

I believe we in Ireland,  and indeed the world at large,  are entering a new era of engineering;  we are waking to a new dawn as Ireland and indeed our entire planet faces challenges which threaten the integrity of our society and of our values;   and – as Paul Jowitt,  President of the Institution of Civil Engineers,  has so succintly put it – are experiencing a renaissance of engineering.

Failure is not an option.  Ireland needs engineers,  maybe as never before.


About chrisjhorn
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6 Responses to The Renaissance of Irish Engineering.

  1. Al says:

    Hi Chris

    “the engineer’s ethos is often different from those of others”

    Interesting piece.
    You seem to subscribe to the view that the craft maketh the man.
    Can such an ethos be formed through craft?
    There seems to be a view of human nature behind this view. If it exists can it be transfered to the other disciplines like medicine etc.
    Is there a danger of subscribing such virtues to any discipline?

    Wishing I was an engineer!!

    • chrisjhorn says:

      HI Al,

      I believe that ethos can be formed through craft, and through the experiences and testimonials of others. In my experience, engineering is about the thrill of some understanding and appreciation of the natural world/universe in which we live, and then musing over how can that understanding be safely used to help society…

      Never too late to become an engineer…join us.

      best wishes

      • Al says:

        Hi Chris

        Agreed, there has to be the human example of craft present, best represented by experience.

        As a brick/stone layer, I am lucky to be able to teach apprentices the theory and practice of, for example, archwork.
        It is a perfect example of the interaction of between the maths:geometry and the material consciousness necessary to deliver quality work.

        Perhaps the closest I come to being an engineer!

        One thing that you have repeated here? and in the media is the importance of mathematics in education.
        I scratch my head each time I have to cover quadratic and simulaneous equations with brick/stone apprentices, but delight when we use maths in practical application of our archwork, for example.

        For maths to actually thrive for everybody in school, there must be a strong base of practical application in use.
        There is a danger of educational maths advocates singing the same song as Irish language advocates and ending up with the same results.

        Good night

  2. Myles Rath says:

    I have followed with great interest your very informative posts on the Innovation Task Force and related issues and my observations here relate to a number of your posts.
    I very much agree with you that the attitude and orientation of engineering graduates is likely to be much more important to Ireland’s future development than the attitude and orientation of scientists as demonstrated in recent discussion of the Knowledge Economy. You stated that scientists use their comprehension of the natural world around us to discover further understandings and to advance our knowledge of the universe. That view also seems to be very much in line with the approach taken by the SFI to research support over the last 10 years. However, I believe this is far too restricted a view of the role of scientists in the modern world, and therefore we run the risk of not fully exploiting the contributions that scientists can make to innovation and to economic development.
    Thomson Reuters in their Web of Science database, probably the best in the world, allocate published research into 22 “Fields of Study”. Included are Biology and Biochemistry, and Molecular Biology and Genetics, where “curiosity driven research” is very prominent. In contrast areas such as Engineering and Clinical Medicine are also included, which are clearly devoted to problem solving and to the application of principles and concepts from the relevant sciences and other disciplines. However, also included in the 22 “Fields of Study” are areas such as Chemistry, Computer Science, Geosciences, Materials Science, Pharmacology and Toxicology, and my own area of study, Agricultural Sciences. While research in these fields of study and also areas such as bioengineering, and nanoscience and nanotechnology may cover the spectrum from “blue skies” or “curiosity-driven” research activity to rather mundane everyday applications, these areas are primarily concerned with the application of the principles and concepts and techniques from the relevant underpinning sciences to the solution of real-world problems. Materials science presumably reaches “back” for ideas and information from areas such as chemistry, physics, toxicology etc and reaches “forward” to areas such as bioengineering further involving areas such as human physiology, clinical medicine etc.
    Scientists in many areas are therefore very much concerned with problem solving and publicly funded research should not be dominated by support for “blue skies” or “curiosity-driven” research. We should not draw sharp distinctions between the roles of scientists and engineers, and we must support research in engineering and the more applied end of scientific spectrum as well as in the areas which have dominated research funding in the last decade in Ireland. Such a change in emphasis should greatly increase the chances of getting a much more worthwhile return from our investment in research and in the knowledge economy as the chances of getting significant economic development from basic research in Ireland are very slight.
    I was very pleased to see that the Innovation Task Force included Key Recommendation 13.1 as follows: A transparent and objective process, overseen by the High Level Implementation Committee, should define and regularly publish metrics which report progress on all aspects of the innovation ecosystem, including the impact of State-funded research projects, as well as the specific job creation objectives. In my submission to the Task Force I argued that we badly needed new metrics for SFI that were much better aligned with the real needs of our society. I hope that this recommendation is treated seriously by the relevant groups. Your information, Chris, about the very small contribution which licenses, royalties and equity disposals have made to MIT and Stanford makes a compelling case for this review.
    I have been very harsh in my judgement of the likely benefits of expenditure on some of the research supported by SFI . As an academic and researcher in an area which was not very fashionable in UCD my views may have been coloured by my experience. Your view that the competence of the research community, especially principal investigators, is nationally strategic gave me cause for reflection. In an attempt to be fair I looked at the publication record of a number of the researchers from UCD and Trinity in some of the Life Sciences areas listed on the SFI website. To my surprise, the number of scientists listed in the top 1% of scientists worldwide in their areas of research was very small. There are a few exceptions, with Professor Luke O’Neill in Trinity head and shoulders above almost all of his compatriots in terms of his academic record. As someone who is, along with my principal co-worker in Teagasc, included in top 1% of scientists in our research area I know that this is a reasonable target for established researchers. The relatively poor performance of many of the SFI supported researchers on the metric favoured by most of them is a cause for concern. Your confidence in them may be misplaced – in the Life Sciences area at least.
    The Task Force report also included Supporting Recommendation 13.2 as follows: A study should be undertaken to identify a model for measuring direct and indirect economic returns from public investment in R&D in Ireland to inform decision-making on investment priorities and refine the framework of performance indicators for STI investments. There may be a fundamental difference between the requirements for research and academic support for different areas of the economy. Intuitively, I suspect that large pharmaceuticals and bulk chemicals, biomedical devices, ICT, agrifood, and sustainable energy all may have quite different requirements; and MNCs and SMEs may also have very different requirements. In support of recommendation 13.2 an examination of the contribution to the real economy of contrasting research institutes such as the Tyndall Institute in Cork, CRANN in Trinity and the Conway Institute for Biomolecular and Biomedical research in UCD might be very instructive.
    Apologies for my rather long-winded comments but your posts are very insightful, very valuable and thought-provoking.

  3. chrisjhorn says:


    thanks for your very thoughtful – and though provoking – comments.

    I personally take the widest possible view of engineering – that engineering is the application of scientific (and mathematical) understanding and appreciation of the natural world, to benefit society at large. So, for me at least, engineering embraces agrifood, toxology, materials, and the other sectors which you mention..

    Engineering is concerned with how to safely apply scientific knowledge to benefit society. Safe design, considering what can possibly go wrong, and what contingencies can be pre-placed to handle failures and mis-use/mis-understanding, is for me the core of engineering philosophy. Engineers of course make mistakes — which can sometimes cause catastrophic loss of life and/or severe damage to property and assets – but the engineering profession tries to learn from its mistakes and ensure they can never re-occur.

    A mistake by a scientist rarely causes loss of life. A mistake by a medic can cause loss of life of an individual, or – thankfully, rarely – a few individuals. A mistake by an engineer though can literally cause the loss of life of very many people. Engineers carry truly awesome responsibility….

    I must admit that I draw a sharp distinction between engineers and scientists – despite your own recommendation to the contrary – precisely because I sense that some scientists do so too. In my view, the public service which engineers profess and undertake responsibility for is often lost on the Irish public. In my view, engineers are frequently overlooked until things go wrong: sure, Armstrong landed on the moon, and so now frankly we’re not so interested in live TV interviews with Lovell, Swigert and Haise in their tin can on the way to the moon — oooooooppppssssss until their oxygen supply suddenly blows and hey wow whatdoyouknow they – the Apollo XIII crew – are in very serious trouble…

    I sense the Irish public and media have some degree of recognition for scientists, but much much less for engineers – but I also believe in the last 12 months that attitudes in the public and media are changing.

    In a world seriously threatened by finite resources and climate change, suddenly engineers are internationally being put to the forefront in a way that hasn’t really happened since the time of Brunel and Stephenson and the Victorian engineers…

    Changing tack, my experience in IONA was that as CEO you generally get what you chose to measure. So, be EXTREMELY careful about what you measure! The system – in my case, my team – responds to what you measure. Its almost Heisenberg like: if you chose to focus on one set of metrics, you may lose sight of and distort other metrics which are also important. Trying to derive a holistic perspective, so that the system doesn’t become biased by your particular selection of measurement criteria and doesn’t try to optimise those at the expense of others, requires some careful — dare I say engineering 🙂 — perspective.

    Myles, very much appreciate your own analysis and suspect you too are an engineer at heart 🙂

    best wishes

  4. Chris, we keep hearing words and phrases like “innovation”, “smart economy” and “talent pool” – and yet none of those words were used when the Japanese followed the model of Demming to create a world force from the ashes of their defeat after the 2nd world war.

    They took action, and they did it in a concerted way as a whole country.

    The computing and software model is moving into the cloud – because that is an efficient use of resources. It does not make sense for each business to have their own hardware and software infrastructure – and thus this model works.

    Introducing “cloud development”

    So why can’t we do the same with people – rather than having lots of innovation centres, lots of government departments inefficiently deploying some of our fantastically skilled resources.

    If we look to India or China, or indeed large companies like IBM, we see centres with hundreds or thousands of developers working on myriads of projects for different clients. Can you imagine if we put a lot of our funding into efficient development centres – with the very best processes to turn the innovative ideas of the Irish people into marketable products.

    We could get all Computer science, engineering and other science students to spend 2-3 years in these centers, the way medical students when they graduate go into hospitals to train on the job – and this could be state funded, managed and measured.

    This would bring Irish Ideas to market faster, where they could be tested and save millions in wasted funding on building solutions that no-one wants.

    As a country, we need to take our failures that you mention and start doing something new and creative – we can do it, we have the resilience, we just need leaders to take up the reigns and make it happen

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