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.