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Thread: Are Engineered Designs Doomed to Fail?

  1. #1 Are Engineered Designs Doomed to Fail? 
    Forum Radioactive Isotope zinjanthropos's Avatar
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    For the purposes of this thread let's use this dictionary meaning...

    Engineering: the branch of science and technology concerned with the design, building, and use of engines, machines, and structures.

    When the designs fail and cause many terrible things to happen are engineers responsible?

    When designs work great, are beneficial and cause very little problems are engineers responsible or does the human race take the credit. i.e. A team of engineers designs a spacecraft to Mars yet we as a race are now intelligent enough to figure out space travel. When things go right, do engineers represent everybody?

    When things like pollution, cancer, oil spills etc. are associated with their creations, do engineers feel its totally the fault of their designs or are they quick to place blame on any number of extenuating circumstances. Perhaps at the time of design there wasn't enough known to predict catastrophic results. Are they off the hook?

    If lack of unforeseen knowledge is an excuse for the failure of a design then is there an engineer that can honestly design the perfect machine or structure? Is engineering really a science doomed to fail at every opportunity, whether it be now or way off in the future? Do engineers only attempt to make the best out of what they have to work with? Should we expect failure and if so then ignore catastrophic results?

    I have plenty of engineering buddies and we often chat about things that go wrong. What could or should have been done, what was missing, etc. They talk about instructions a lot. If instructions are not followed to a tee and things don't work out then it isn't an engineer's fault, true or false?

    Don't mean to piss off any engineers here but where do you guys draw the line of culpability? Do you expect your designs to stand the test of time or are they considered temporary at best?


    All that belongs to human understanding, in this deep ignorance and obscurity, is to be skeptical, or at least cautious; and not to admit of any hypothesis, whatsoever; much less, of any which is supported by no appearance of probability...Hume
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  3. #2  
    Genius Duck Moderator Dywyddyr's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by zinjanthropos View Post
    When the designs fail and cause many terrible things to happen are engineers responsible?
    It depends on how and why they failed, of course.
    If a ship runs aground due to negligence on the part of the crew is that a failure of the engineer?
    If the ship dissolves in water that IS a failure of the engineer.

    When things go right, do engineers represent everybody?
    Heh, when things go right everyone wants the credit!
    Generally though, and in my experience (with 30+ years in engineering) when things go right the engineer is glad his part worked as intended (1), but the concept/ project is usually initiated (and financed) by someone else. E.g. they too should get credit.

    When things like pollution, cancer, oil spills etc. are associated with their creations, do engineers feel its totally the fault of their designs or are they quick to place blame on any number of extenuating circumstances. Perhaps at the time of design there wasn't enough known to predict catastrophic results. Are they off the hook?
    Again, it comes down to how the failure occurred, but (again in my experience) there's always the "Did I f*ck up? Could I have prevented that?".

    If lack of unforeseen knowledge is an excuse for the failure of a design then is there an engineer that can honestly design the perfect machine or structure? Is engineering really a science doomed to fail at every opportunity, whether it be now or way off in the future? Do engineers only attempt to make the best out of what they have to work with? Should we expect failure and if so then ignore catastrophic results?
    Doomed to fail at every opportunity? Aren't you ignoring the successes?
    Basically engineering is producing a working solution on time and on budget. We are constrained to produce something that can be used by a customer, when the customer wants it. It's always possible to spend more time (and more money) to make something better than what is delivered, but customers tend not be interested in a "perfect" solution in 50 years' time - they want something to do that job now. Hence the saying "better is the enemy of good".

    They talk about instructions a lot. If instructions are not followed to a tee and things don't work out then it isn't an engineer's fault, true or false?
    Largely true. In the UK at least the designer/ engineer has a legal responsibility to ensure that the product is safe even if misused - providing that misuse is deemed "reasonable" - e.g. one can foresee that a screwdriver may be (mis)used as a hammer for tacks, reverse the screwdriver, hold the blade and hit the tack with the handle, that could be classed as reasonable misuse, deliberately using a screwdriver as a duelling weapon against a Kodiak bear would be regarded as an unreasonable misuse.

    Don't mean to piss off any engineers here but where do you guys draw the line of culpability? Do you expect your designs to stand the test of time or are they considered temporary at best?
    As for culpability, again - how did the failure occur? One of my designs resulted in a guy losing his hand. My first thought was "Oh shit!". Then it transpired that not only had he disabled all of the electrical safety locks he'd also deliberately jammed the mechanical safety locks and fixed the thing so that the motor was running while he fiddled about inside the gearbox. Highly unreasonable since he made a conscious effort to negate every safety feature. I considered myself totally blame free (and also lost any shred of sympathy) - you can't (and shouldn't be expected to) cater for wilful stupidity.
    As for "temporary at best". Yes, mostly. Any time you finish a design you realise that you could have done it in a different (and maybe better) way - but that comes back to the product being required NOW. We're aware that we design for a market, and that improvements come along. Plus, in my case at least as a designer of mechanical equipment with moving/ rubbing parts, use of the equipment means it will wear out... it would be possible to design to account for this (over long periods of time) and come up with something that has a working lifetime of decades or longer, but the customer wouldn't like the cost; and society, in general, tends to regard things as obsolete after a while anyway and look for something newer, shinier and with a better colour scheme.

    Footnote:
    1 It's the old Dilbert (nearly) joke: the ambition of every engineer is to retire without having once been blamed for a major disaster.


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  4. #3  
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    Quote Originally Posted by zinjanthropos View Post
    When the designs fail and cause many terrible things to happen are engineers responsible?
    Sometimes. If the Challenger takes off despite cold temperature for which the seals are not designed, then it is not the responsibility of the engineer who warned against the launch, but it is the responsibility of the engineers who did not do so.
    When designs work great, are beneficial and cause very little problems are engineers responsible or does the human race take the credit. i.e. A team of engineers designs a spacecraft to Mars yet we as a race are now intelligent enough to figure out space travel. When things go right, do engineers represent everybody?
    They couldn't do it on their own. For example, they did not produce the funding for the project. So others would get some of the credit.
    When things like pollution, cancer, oil spills etc. are associated with their creations, do engineers feel its totally the fault of their designs or are they quick to place blame on any number of extenuating circumstances. Perhaps at the time of design there wasn't enough known to predict catastrophic results. Are they off the hook?
    It depends. The catastrophic result may be due to negligence on their part, or it may be due to bad luck. There is always a non-zero chance of something failing, I don't care what it is.
    If lack of unforeseen knowledge is an excuse for the failure of a design then is there an engineer that can honestly design the perfect machine or structure? Is engineering really a science doomed to fail at every opportunity, whether it be now or way off in the future? Do engineers only attempt to make the best out of what they have to work with? Should we expect failure and if so then ignore catastrophic results?

    I have plenty of engineering buddies and we often chat about things that go wrong. What could or should have been done, what was missing, etc. They talk about instructions a lot. If instructions are not followed to a tee and things don't work out then it isn't an engineer's fault, true or false?
    Sometimes true, sometimes false.
    Don't mean to piss off any engineers here but where do you guys draw the line of culpability? Do you expect your designs to stand the test of time or are they considered temporary at best?
    Every design is temporary.
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  5. #4  
    Brassica oleracea Strange's Avatar
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    My experience as an engineer (working on low key projects; i.e. not in the public eye, only money/reputation/company at risk) is that you have to get used to being unacknowledged for doing a good job. You might get some praise from your peers and, occasionally, immediate management but that is about it. Normally you are straight on to the next project - getting to do another project is the reward for not screwing up!

    When you have to commit millions of dollars for manufacturing something which can only be tested in simulation, you will do as much of that as possible. But it is always limited by time, budget, resources. So there is a judgement call about when you have done "enough" testing. At some point you have to bite the bullet and commit to manufacturing.

    I have never worked on projects where lives would be at risk, but I am confident that the design and verification processes we developed would have been good enough for that. On the other hand, every design project was unique and at the end of each one we would be sweating in a state of suspended panic waiting for the first prototypes to come back from manufacturing to be tested. Even after years of producing "right first time" designs, we never took it for granted (which is why we were able to keep doing it, of course).

    In my experience, when things go wrong is nearly always the fault of management (I continued to believe that even when I was managing projects): not providing resources, not creating the right "culture" regarding testing, verification and quality in general, changing specs too late in the project, etc. I can only think of one major problem that was entirely down to engineering (the memory designer screwed up the layout).
    ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat
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    Forum Radioactive Isotope cosmictraveler's Avatar
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    Its funny how people judge others mistakes while they also do the same thing.

    Do you expect your designs to stand the test of time or are they considered temporary at best?
    I'd say most everything is only temporary and time itself will cause cessation.
    When the power of love overcomes the love of power the world will know peace.
    Jimi Hendrix
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  7. #6  
    Moderator Moderator Janus's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Dywyddyr View Post
    Then it transpired that not only had he disabled all of the electrical safety locks he'd also deliberately jammed the mechanical safety locks and fixed the thing so that the motor was running while he fiddled about inside the gearbox. Highly unreasonable since he made a conscious effort to negate every safety feature. I considered myself totally blame free (and also lost any shred of sympathy) - you can't (and shouldn't be expected to) cater for wilful stupidity.
    And thus the saying, "It is impossible to make something completely foolproof, as fools can be so ingenious."
    "Men are apt to mistake the strength of their feelings for the strength of their argument.
    The heated mind resents the chill touch & relentless scrutiny of logic"-W.E. Gladstone


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    Quote Originally Posted by Janus View Post
    And thus the saying, "It is impossible to make something completely foolproof, as fools can be so ingenious."
    Quote Originally Posted by Dywyddyr View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by zinjanthropos View Post
    When the designs fail and cause many terrible things to happen are engineers responsible?
    As for culpability, again - how did the failure occur? One of my designs resulted in a guy losing his hand. My first thought was "Oh shit!". Then it transpired that not only had he disabled all of the electrical safety locks he'd also deliberately jammed the mechanical safety locks and fixed the thing so that the motor was running while he fiddled about inside the gearbox. Highly unreasonable since he made a conscious effort to negate every safety feature. I considered myself totally blame free (and also lost any shred of sympathy) - you can't (and shouldn't be expected to) cater for wilful stupidity.
    "A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools" Douglas Adams

    A favourite quote of mine.

    To the original question: as an engineer, you try and envision failure modes of whatever you are designing. While it's impossible to think of every possible failure or situation, a little thought and experience goes a long way.
    Life has a 100% risk of death. The safest system is the one you never build.
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  9. #8  
    Forum Radioactive Isotope sculptor's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by zinjanthropos View Post
    ...If lack of unforeseen knowledge is an excuse for the failure of a design then is there an engineer that can honestly design the perfect machine or structure? Is engineering really a science doomed to fail at every opportunity, whether it be now or way off in the future? Do engineers only attempt to make the best out of what they have to work with? Should we expect failure and if so then ignore catastrophic results?

    I have plenty of engineering buddies and we often chat about things that go wrong. What could or should have been done, what was missing, etc. They talk about instructions a lot. If instructions are not followed to a tee and things don't work out then it isn't an engineer's fault, true or false?
    engineers ain't research scientists, they work with what is already "on the shelf"-----knowing what is available, however is a whole 'nother matter.
    like any other profession, some do a thorough job of it, and some are schmucks.

    I worked a few months on the line at american motors. Often, I watched the company spend(waste) millions of dollars on bonehead engineering decisions----and complained that they needed to get off their dead asses and come down to the production floor to see if their latest changes actually functioned----These guys and other management schmucks finally managed to kill the company.

    My brother-in-law is an engineer and now heads a small engineering firm (largely associated with motorola). Long ago, he worked for symboltech, and was asked to look over the designs for the gun that read the barcodes----he thought the trigger mechanism too complicated and expensive, so he called up their plastics supplier, and discussed using the plastic housing for the trigger and hinge---and the chemist he talked with thought it do-able, so he brought up the idea at one of their weekly mettings, and his boss told him to run with the idea---a few months later, they had a working prototype which cut the manufacturing costs by almost 20%.

    following instructions------
    I worked with one product whose instruction booklet was written in what I called engineer-ese- with far too few drawings or pictures--as I ran into problems "in the field" I called the engineer who had designed the product, and after a long conversation with him, began to re-write the booklet, renaming many components, and redooing the front page with a blow up diagram of the component parts(clearly labeled)---sent him a rough draft(pre-internet), and, 2 or 3 mailings later, we had a working copy ready for the printers-----really a pleasant experience working with Dick Beau(sp?).

    When they started to build the dome over the rosemount horizon ampitheatre, the contractor disregarded the engineers cautions and instructions, and as the structure collapsed 27 carpenters fell to their deaths-------- the next contractor followed the directions, and the structure still stands, having weathered massive snowstorms, and 70 mile per hour winds.

    "fault" is an peculiar little bastard that tends to eat away at the lining of one's digestive system.
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  10. #9  
    Forum Radioactive Isotope zinjanthropos's Avatar
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    One thing I do notice is that designs usually improve with each successive generation. IOW's the original design cannot do as well, that which the most recent design can do. So I can't help thinking that prior designs, although the best you could get at the time, weren't actually top of the line. Logically speaking, all designs from prototype to the latest become technically flawed once the newest design is introduced. So whatever design one is working with has an element of risk attached to it.
    All that belongs to human understanding, in this deep ignorance and obscurity, is to be skeptical, or at least cautious; and not to admit of any hypothesis, whatsoever; much less, of any which is supported by no appearance of probability...Hume
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  11. #10  
    Genius Duck Moderator Dywyddyr's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by sculptor View Post
    "fault" is an peculiar little bastard that tends to eat away at the lining of one's digestive system.
    Quoted for truth.
    "[Dywyddyr] makes a grumpy bastard like me seem like a happy go lucky scamp" - PhDemon
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