Friday, 8 February 2013

What research means to building engineers

Nic Coombes’ recent blog post on the accessibility of academic research ( struck a chord with me and her advice about potential work-arounds was very welcome in a world where industry access to new ideas and concepts which might move us forward is certainly lacking.

As someone who hasn't ever been a researcher, but is involved in research (by way of being an industrial supervisor to another EngD, Nic's industrial examiner, lecturing etc), I wanted to explore this topic from industry's point of view – at least as far as building engineering is concerned.

Undoubtedly, we (I mean those in industry as opposed to academia) need research. However, the reality is that the results of most research are of passing interest and little else to engineers trying to design a structure, a ventilation system or a lighting solution. Most engineers never see or hear about most research and the small amount they do come into contact with is generally through their institutional journal – filtered by editors into what they think will be of interest and use to their members.

This is fair enough of course and the journals do a good job here; we can’t expect engineers to be abreast of every new piece of research which might be relevant to their particular discipline, but, this narrow channel of dissemination certainly hampers a broader awareness of new thinking in the field.

In addition, much of the research out there is largely irrelevant to an engineer’s day to day work. That isn’t to try and devalue research; it’s just the truth. New uses for a material which acts like the tentacle of an octopus may well have some future application in building structures (, but, a structural engineer isn’t likely to be able to specify it anytime soon.

Couple this with the commercial pressure and risk aversion abundant in most engineering companies and you have a recipe for engineers not experimenting on a live project even if they wanted to. And, when I say experiment, I don’t mean build a carpark out of marzipan, I just mean take a new approach to a problem.

This actually ties in to a blog post I wrote back in October on my internal company site – it discussed innovation and the ways in which it works. Research is one of those ways; it’s the long haul, big leap approach to moving things forward and whilst essential to getting us to where we need to be, it remains largely inaccessible to most engineers – at least in its raw, untested by industry, form.
The other way of being innovative (and I want to be clear here that I absolutely believe that setting out on a project with the intent of being innovative will only end in the dissappointment of all involved), is through marginal improvement. Ok, it may not be as sexy as a big leap but it’s successful far more often and, essentially, far more accessible.
In the context of everyday engineering (by far the lion’s share of what happens in industry), I think at least part of research’s job is to inspire engineers to make relatively small changes, leading to marginal (or maybe even not so marginal) improvements on the road to realising the potential demonstrated by the research.

Monday, 4 February 2013

The office kitchen dance and the sushi based solution

There's a thing that happens pretty much every day you're in the office.

So, you've decided your mouth feels as furry as the underside of my mate Jon's sofa (he has three dogs and they're not fussy about where they deposit...well, anything really, but certainly not their fur) and it's time for a cup of tea (or perhaps coffee if you fee that way inclined...which I'm don't!).

A glance around the rest of your tea round buddies (if you haven't got tea round buddies, I'm sorry for you. Really. There's nothing like a good tea round to bolster your spirit) and mentally check off when each of the crew last made the trek to the kitchen and brewed up.

Bad news. They've all done it since you last offered your services as a teaologist. There's nothing for it, you're going to have to get it sorted.

After breezing round the team; gathering mugs and taking orders, you head for the kitchen which is where the fun starts. Inevitably, the kitchen / tea point / staff room or whatever is about as well designed as a pair of underpants with the Y on the back - nothing is in the place which would afford optimum 'handiness'. So, you spot a gap in the people who were there before you, head for the bench to put down the mugs and start the process of creation - at the last minute the guy from finance moves to his left to reach for a teaspoon and the gap's gone. A last minute lurch to your right and you set yourself up in a sling-shot like arc toward the far end of the worktop.

Having safely landed, you begin the Hungry Hippo like grabbing of tea bags / coffee / sugar in an intricate dance of death with colleagues hands darting to and fro with many a 'sorry', 'after you' and 'no, not for me - I'm on the Roibosh'. Tea and other less interesting choices sorted (for information, there is no hot beverage which comes close to the deep joyjoy felling of a good cup of tea - in case you were wondering).

Then begins the perhaps most dangerous element of the entire dance - the shuttle runs between ground zero and the hot water boiler - steaming mugs in hand, you and your colleagues move in a capoeira like dance. At each turn disaster is waiting to strike, but your sure, deft movements pirouette you and your tea to safety every time (or at least most of the time. Thankfully office-based scalding incidents are rare(ish)).

The disposal of tea bags, the addition of milk, the transfer to the tray and the journey back to your team can often be equally challenging but you are an expert, master, a savant of teaological transportation.

Far be it for me to suggest an alternative to this regular poetic expedition into the arms of danger just so we don't go all dry and crusty but, and you have to admit that the Japanese have got something here, what about sushi?

I'm not specifically talking about the foodstuff but rather the delivery mechcanism. We're clever right? I mean humans generally (and engineers in particular obviously) - so, surely it wouldn't be beyond the wit of man to produce a sushi bar based antidote to the office kitchen dance?

I would have done a drawing of it but I couldn't quite figure it out (are we on the conveyor, is the hot water on the conveyor, what if you need more than one cup etc etc), so I did a drawing of the 'before' instead (basically carnage). Answers for the 'after' on a postcard.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

A half-decent explanation of the VW T5 Transporter

This post is kind of a supplemental to the vlog about Stage 2 of buying and converting our VW van. You can find that here. Confession up front - I said in the video, I'd explain about lots of different types of VW vans but I found this post was long enough just talking about T5s. I'll do the others another time...

It explains what I meant when I said T5, T28, 2.5, SWB, panel van...because understanding that lot was one of the main issues I had when we were looking to buy it.

T5: This is the model - it's basically the 5th generation of VW Transporter which started production in 2003.

T28: This refers to the maximum gross weight of the vehicle. 28 = 2800kg or 2.8tonnes. So, the vehicle itself, as it arrived from the factory weighs around 1800kg (this is the Net Weight) which means that the weight of the load it can carry is about 1000kg or 1tonne (2800 - 800. That's a metric tonne as opposed to an imperial ton before you ask...). The T5s also come in 2600kg, 3000kg and 3200kg versions. The last of these is what you'll get if you buy an ex-RAC or AA version but be careful as they're a different MOT class which means your normal garage may not be able to carry out the MOT and you'll have to find somewhere which can do industrial (or Class 7) tests.

2.5: This is the engine size - but you knew that already right? What I didn't say in the video is that ours is a 130bhp version. The T5s come in the following engine sizes and powers:

2003 - 2009 van models
1.9l 83bhp
1.9l 101bhp
2.5l 129bhp
2.5l 172bhp

Post 2009 models differ but you can check the Wiki link below for details of those

SWB: This stands for Short WheelBase and refers to the measurement between wheel centres which is 3000mm (3m). T5s also come in a long wheelbase versions which are 400mm longer (but don't look as good...)

Panel van: This means our truck is your basic, work-a-day, builders van. No windows or seats in the back, just space. Lots of space (but not as much as the LWB versions...obviously)

The T5 has a few variations on your good ol' workhorse - check the van variants over at Wikipedia (see link below). The other key flavours of T5 are actually a bit tricky to pin down with any great authority because of course any individual vehicle could have been bought with extras. Nonetheless, this will give you a good starting point:

  • Kombi: basically a van with seats and windows in the back and the base model is pretty basic and has between 4 and 7 seats. You can also get three different roof heights (standard, mid and high).
  • Shuttle: One step up from the Kombi in terms of trim and some extra options. You'll get it in both wheelbases but only a standard roof.
  • Caravelle: Tops out at 9 seats, some nice features including a proper passenger seat (as opposed to the two person bench) come as standard.
  • Multivan: Top of the range T5 people carrier. Whizzy stuff includes the back seats on rails so they can be moved plus a wide range of extras.Just to confuse things, the Multivan is sold as a higher spec Caravelle in the UK...great.
  • Sportline: Top trim, alloy wheels, more powerful (172bhp as standard although seen it quoted as 174) engine. If you can afford it, this is a sweet van.
  • California: VWs commercial vehicles in-house campervan. Great bit of kit but maybe not as individual as getting one converter yourself.

Backdoor: Another thing I didn't say in the video is that our van has barndoors rather than a tailgate. So, ours has two doors which open like, well, a barn. Left and right. The other type you'll see is a tailgate like on a hatchback car. Personally I prefer the barndoors but most people want a tailgate - they just have to pay a bit more for it.

Ok, that's about all I have to report right now. Please let me know if you think I've got anything wrong in this post - I'll check and change it if that's the case.

Useful links:

T5 Wiki Get on Wikipedia of you really want to know the detail of a T5 inside and out Use this site to find a Class 7 (or any other class to be honest) MOT centre near you.