Don’t mention the flaw!

Once upon a time I was posted to a department in an oil company which dealt with the early-stage designs of new installations, much of which was geared towards providing enough information for a cost estimate to be carried out. To a rough order of magnitude, the cost of a new offshore installation (either floating or fixed to the seabed) can be estimated from its weight. Keeping things simple, the weight of an offshore facility comprises Equipment Weight, Piping Weight, Structural Weight, and Others. If you have enough data, it is theoretically possible to work out the total weight of a new offshore installation by taking just the Equipment Weight and applying various ratios from similar, existing facilities. Most large engineering companies do this in order to obtain order-of-magnitude weights and cost estimates, but it is very much a finger-in-the-air approach which, at the early stages of a project, is fine.

The problem with my new department was they did the equivalent of dividing 11.3 by 3.4 and writing the answer as 3.32352941. Any GCSE science or maths teacher will tell you the answer to any calculation cannot be more accurate than the initial input data. But when we did estimates using data with an accuracy of ± 30%, we’d make comparisons of estimates that were within 10% of each other and propose weight savings of 5%. If you think it’s just journalists who are innumerate, be aware there are engineers with the same affliction working in large oil companies.

Then things got a whole lot worse. Weight ratios apply to offshore facilities because they are designed as a single unit relatively unaffected by their location (I’m talking topsides or floaters here, not the jackets or other support structures). I’m simplifying massively, but the point is that the weights of floating and other offshore facilities are not primarily driven by where they are installed. By contrast, the cost and complexity of onshore installations is enormously impacted by topography and geotechnical conditions under the soil. As you can imagine, building a facility on flat, firm ground is a bit easier than doing so on the side of a granite mountain or in a marsh. Civil engineering accounts for approximately 30-40% of the cost of constructing an onshore oil and gas installation, mainly grading the site, bringing in aggregate and compacting, and building the vast underground networks of pipes and cables needed to run the thing. This is why the first things you do when you’re thinking about building an onshore plant is the topographical and geotechnical survey; it’s sort of hard to do anything without it.

But I worked with very clever people, and they came up with a way of estimating the costs of an onshore facility regardless of where it was located. Insofar as topography went we could just assume it was flat, and soil conditions could be ignored or data from a project on another continent used instead. That soil conditions can vary dramatically across a hundred metres didn’t seem to matter. Furthermore, we could use ratios to work out the weights like we did offshore. Now I spied a problem with this. Offshore, on a global basis, there is probably a relationship between Total Equipment Weight and Total Structural Weight; all equipment on such facilities is supported by structural steel, after all. But onshore equipment is generally placed on a concrete plinth sunk into the ground, the size of which is driven by the soil conditions and equipment weight. The structural steel supports some equipment and a lot of piping and cables, but it does a very different job to that on offshore facilities. In many instances, the structural steel around a piece of onshore equipment is negligible. In short, on an onshore plant there is no ratio from other facilities which can be used to estimate structural weight using equipment weight. But here were were, applying the same methodology as if it could.

Having some experience on onshore sites, I began to use my noggin a little. In one estimate, I ascertained that a vessel had no structural steel at all: it rested on its own legs and there was no maintainable valve on top which would need an access platform. But two managers queried this: they asked how the structural steel weight could be zero. I said it was because there is no structure associated with this vessel. They said this must be wrong, and I should apply a ratio of 30% vessel weight. So I asked them what structure they thought I was missing. They couldn’t say, but they told me to add the weight in, which came to several tonnes.

A little later, they got an intern with no post-graduate engineering experience to create a formal procedure for estimating the weights of onshore facilities, convinced that from such data the costs could be derived. They then passed it around all the engineers for comments. I noticed that it did not consider many components of the underground networks, which as I said comprises a huge portion of the costs. The most glaring omission was the firewater ring main, which is big, expensive, and common to all onshore oil and gas facilities. The reason this wasn’t included was because it would be designed “later”, which I found actually meant “nobody here knows anything about firewater ring mains so it’s best to pretend they don’t exist”.

I’d only been in the department a few weeks and I naively thought I’d be being helpful by pointing out, as I have done above, why this new methodology drawn up by the intern was fatally flawed. I drafted a comprehensive email with examples and explanations and sent it to my boss and the head of department, whose brainchild this new methodology was. A few days later I was called into an office where both of them were waiting and told to close the door. Their talk with me can be summarised as follows:

“We have read your email, but the decision has been made to adopt this methodology going forward. Your job is to follow it without asking questions.”

This was probably the first time it dawned on me that in many corporate departments results are meaningless, and all that matters is people obediently follow the process. I fought it for about a year, then just got with the program and pumped out absolute garbage which got wrapped up in more garbage and presented to senior management right up to the CEO. It didn’t take me long to work out whatever rubbish we were generating was not the basis on which decisions were getting made – the company wouldn’t be in business if that were the case – and the entire process, which cost millions of dollars, was merely to keep people employed. I once remarked in the wake of the oil price crash that if the company wanted to cut costs they could get rid of our entire department and employ a child to roll dice every time senior management wanted figures. That went down about as well as my critique of the estimation methodology.

The experience left me wondering how much of this sort of thing goes on in major corporations with names you’ve heard of. Quite a bit, would be my guess.

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How to pass exams in subjects you don’t understand

Last semester on my MBA I studied five main subjects, one of which was Quantitative Business Methods (QBM). It quickly became apparent this consisted entirely of statistical analyses, of the sort I don’t think I’d done before. I studied statistics as part of maths A-level and I’m sure I must have done some during my engineering degree, but this definitely seemed new to me.

At the beginning, I couldn’t work out why anyone in business would need to carry out statistical analyses of the sort we were being taught, which was mainly about finding correlations and associations in data. I was rather surprised to discover it was possible to find associations in sets of qualitative data; until then I’d assumed you could only do so with quantitative data. Anyway, the chap teaching us was exceptionally knowledgeable about statistics and appeared to do advanced analyses for fun. He took us deep into the theory, and pretty soon stuff like this was appearing on the board:

I was never very good at maths and when it came to statistics I was very average indeed (did you see what I did there?), so a lot of this confused me. I reckon by the end I grasped about 60% of the theory, and that involved me dredging my memory banks for stuff I’d learned 20 years before. But many of my colleagues had no such background and struggled like hell; one had done a bachelors in tourism, which I’m reasonably sure doesn’t involve giant sigmas surrounded by numbers.

It wasn’t until three-quarters of the way through the semester that I cracked it. I’ve written before about my engineering degree and how I didn’t understand half of what the lecturer said, and the secret is that doesn’t matter. With most engineering subjects there’s a theory part and a practical part. Take for instance the concept of second moment of area. This is the basis for why I-beams make such good structural members: the stress in the beam under load is inversely proportional to its second moment of area. The maths behind the second moment of area disappeared from my understanding decades ago (assuming it was ever there) but the principle behind the second moment of area and the importance of the I-beam cross-section remained forever.

It would have been possible for the lecturer to simply say an I-beam is better than a rectangular hollow section just because, but that wouldn’t have made us very good engineers because we’d have no confidence in the statement. By showing us the mathematical theory behind it, we had that confidence even if we didn’t fully understand the theory. The exam, like many others on engineering subjects, tested our knowledge of the theory as well as its application. To pass the engineering exams it was important to figure out which parts of the theory you were going to be tested on, and how to apply it to the practical part of the question. You did this by asking the lecturer what would be on the exam, getting hold of past papers, and speaking to those in the year above. In other words, most of us got good (enough) at passing the exams and only a handful of the super-geniuses actually understood everything. This was sufficient to produce engineers who can work in industry, where knowledge of the theory isn’t required.

So I figured out that’s what was going on with this QBM course. The professor could easily have said if P(F<=f) is less than 0.05 then there is an association and we could thereafter apply that to datasets in future, but we’d have no confidence in it. So we got taught the theory, and this scared the hell out of everyone (including me in places). But towards the end it became apparent that we were only going to be tested on the application, i.e. how to generate descriptive statistics from a dataset and interpret them rather than the underlying theory, which made it an awful lot easier. From there, it was just a matter of boiling it down into those bits which are really important and disregarding the rest.

Some of my colleagues looked at me as if I was some sort of sorcerer, so I explained that I don’t understand it any more than they do, I just know how to apply the theory in a practical application and what numbers to look for when interpreting the results. I spent two hours before the exam giving several of my fellow students a crash-course in how to pass it, mainly by telling them what was important and what they could ignore. I’m not sure how they got on, but I passed with a good mark and I hope they did too.

Funnily enough, when I started reading the academic papers in preparation for my dissertation I realised the regression analyses being used to determine correlations and associations were those I’d just been taught in my QBM course, so I was actually able to understand the numerical results to some degree. Without that, I probably wouldn’t have any idea how they’d gone about it. Which is why why they teach it, of course. It’s been a while since I’ve learned a new discipline, and it feels rather good.

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Wishful thinking

The other day, Soviet-born demented NeverTrumper Max Boot tweeted this:


Leave aside the silly notions that:

1. Running government is the same as flying an airplane: does a pilot need to juggle dozens of competing interests with one eye on his job between takeoff and landing?

2. Government is about qualifications: if it were, why bother with elections?

3. People who think they’re the sort of expert who should be in government ought to be anywhere near the levers of power.

Let’s instead look at the idea that we want the best qualified people to design buildings. Is it true? Well, I’ve been involved in some civil infrastructure projects and I recall the contracts were generally awarded to the local company with the strongest political connections. I’ve also been involved in several engineering tenders and although lip-service is paid to quality and track record, it generally goes to the bidder with the lowest price.

And then there’s this:

State, local and federal government agencies regularly make a certain number of contracts open to bidding from minority-owned business enterprises, or MBEs. This minority business certification is a designation given to companies with women or ethnic minorities in control or in ownership. Learning how to bid on minority government contracts involves securing appropriate forms of certification and identifying and applying for contracts posted by various state and federal government agencies.

So we want the best qualified to design buildings, do we? If only.

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The truth about self-driving cars

Regular readers will know I’m rather skeptical about the prospect of self-driving cars (1, 2, 3) and so I listened with interest about what somebody in charge of a car manufacture had to say about them.

He first listed the five degrees of autonomy, with Level 5 – the highest – allowing the human occupant to remove his hands and switch his brain off any time, anywhere. This is what most people think of when they talk about self-driving cars, the ability to go to sleep in the back or be blind drunk leaving the car to take care of everything. At the moment, production cars are fitted with Level 1, which is basically driver assistance. Level 2, which allows the driver to drop their concentration a little, is being introduced slowly.

He then talked about five technical areas which will need to be tackled in order to have Level 5 autonomous cars. I’ll take them each in turn.

1. Computing

Modern cars currently have around 50 black boxes carrying out various functions. In a fully autonomous car, they will likely have a single computer split 5 ways, with the parts carrying out the safety-critical functions kept well separate from the bits that run the entertainment system. Raw computing power is unlikely to be an obstacle to the development of autonomous vehicles.

2. Antennae and Sensors

The number and variety of sensors and antennae an autonomous vehicle will need is mind-boggling, particularly if redundancy is considered and 2-out-of-3 voting required to avoid spurious trips. The antenna on the Google car can be seen in the picture below:

A fully-autonomous car would need about 5 of these, mostly for communication outside the vehicle. It would need multiple 5G connections as well being able to connect via wi-fi and satellite. Sensors will include radar and infra-red cameras, which must be kept clear of dust, dirt, and rain.

3. Decision Making

Here’s where it starts to get complicated. What does the car do with all this information it’s receiving? The software is going to have to come pre-programmed with every situation the car can conceivably encounter so it knows what it’s looking at. Even if we charitably assume self-learning AI will be fitted to the cars, automobile accidents are often such that the occupants, be they human or computer, don’t get a second chance. The sheer size of this task in achieving Level 5 autonomy for cars is unprecedented.

4. GPS Mapping

GPS for civilian use is accurate to around 3-15m, although considerably better when the US military is lobbing missiles through windows and cave entrances. Level 5 autonomous vehicles will need GPS mapping to be accurate to within centimeters. If the car comes with an incredibly accurate GPS map installed in its brain, what happens when the map changes? A new road could be easily updated, but roadworks? Will we rely on the South Pembrokeshire District Council to inform whoever makes the maps in an accurate and timely manner every time they dig up the street?

5. Control and Action

Once a car has figured out where it is and what’s in front of it, what action does it then take? Does it jam on the brakes, swerve, or carry on? Software that could handle this in a normal street environment is not even on the horizon, and probably won’t be for another twenty years at least.

He emphasised that these 5 areas only cover what is required in the car; the infrastructure required to support autonomous cars was an equally gargantuan technological challenge which national or city governments will have to deliver.

Our visitor compared the challenge of Level 5 autonomous cars to landing on the moon, only without the single, dedicated organisation driving it. He didn’t say whether he thought we could replicate the Apollo 11 mission today, but my guess is we wouldn’t stand a chance. For a start, there is a worrying lack of diversity in the picture below:

I asked him whether he thought, as I do, this is all just a pipe-dream and we might never see Level 5 autonomous vehicles. He replied that, in his opinion, the technology will advance while there is an obvious benefit for the additional cost, as was clearly the case for ABS brakes and traction control. So it could well be that we get to around Level 4 autonomy before the costs and effort to reach Level 5 outweigh any benefit.

One interesting thing he said was that the most obvious place to use autonomous vehicles was on motorways, where the environment is much more strictly controlled than on other roads. The trouble is, only around 3-5% of road deaths in Britain occur on motorways, with the bulk taking place in urban areas or on rural roads. This is because on motorways the relative speeds of the cars isn’t too dissimilar, so in a crash cars just tend to get bounced around a bit while all heading in the same general direction. By contrast, accidents on country roads tend to involve cars converging at speed, hitting stationary objects, or leaving the road altogether. Therefore, the easiest and most obvious place to have autonomous cars will not save many lives, which kneecaps one of the main arguments of their proponents.

He also mentioned the legal aspects of autonomous cars. Currently drivers are responsible for accidents, and individual drivers insured. With autonomous cars, it will be the manufacturers which will be responsible, and this will drastically change the legal and insurance landscape in any country which adopts them. He didn’t put this forward as a reason autonomous cars won’t happen, he just mentioned it as another thing to consider. Regarding the technological challenges, he didn’t think there was any chance Level 5 autonomous vehicles will be possible for at least twenty years. My guess is it’ll be a lot longer than that.

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The truth about electric cars

Earlier this week we had a the head of a car manufacturer visit us and give us a couple of talks. The first thing I noticed was that he didn’t immediately start apologising for what his company does or grovel at the feet of our moral guardians and beg for forgiveness. Instead, he unashamedly said his company made cars of which they’re proud, and said the automobile represented an enormous leap in personal liberty. The fact that this was refreshing says a lot about modern corporations, whose CEOs are often found wringing  their hands while preaching moralistic piffle to placate a noisy minority who think any economic activity which makes people happy is evil. This chap was doing none of that, which made me like him right away.

Rather than speak about his company’s products, he instead spoke about the two major challenges the automobile industry is facing: electric vehicles and autonomous cars. On electric vehicles, he said pretty much the same as I have (1, 2) in that the battery technology is nowhere near mature enough to make the switch now, and probably won’t be for at least 20 years. He compared the power to weight ratio of Tesla’s batteries with the internal combustion engine in his company’s vehicles, as well as their respective useful lives. He thought there will be some improvements with a move to solid-state batteries, but without some sort of hydrogen cell electric cars aren’t going to replace petrol and diesel. He also spoke about the environmental effects of making, recycling, and disposing of batteries for the 100 million cars which are produced every year, including the mining of lithium. None of this will be new to readers of my blog. He didn’t go into the amount of copper that would be required to provide charging points in domestic streets on a national scale, but he did ask where the electricity was going to come from and whether it’s not a case of just shifting pollution from cities to somewhere else. I found all this interesting because it is so out of whack with current policy, which seems to be based on the notion that electric cars are just around the corner. This is from the BBC today:

A ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars should be brought forward by eight years to 2032, MPs have said.

The government’s current plans to ensure all new cars are “effectively zero emission” by 2040 were “vague and unambitious”, a report by Parliament’s business select committee said.

It also criticised cuts to subsidies and the lack of charging points.

The government said it aimed to make the UK “the best place in the world” to own an electric vehicle.

Politicians seem to think technological barriers to electric cars can be overcome by sheer force of will, as if car manufacturers are sitting on the solutions but are reluctant to apply them. I don’t know who is advising them, but given how the hard sciences have been corrupted by environmentalists and every institution in the land captured by lefties, it’s not too hard to imagine what form government consultations on electric cars takes. Even if they roped in a few representatives of car manufacturers, they’d probably just cave in under NGO and government bullying and tell them what they want to hear (with one eye on their pension and retirement date). My guess is these efforts will run into a brick wall, government-backed schemes will be scrapped having wasted millions in taxpayer cash, and the public will be left high and dry with the cars they’ve bought as official policy collapses into a confusing mess.

What our guest said about autonomous cars I shall write in another post.

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Two Approaches to Delegating Tasks

Other than a few useful modules of my engineering degree, I’ve received very little formal management training. When I found myself plonked in the position of general manager of a small office of an industrial service provider aged 29, I took the approach that I would manage people how I’d want people to manage me. I won’t say I didn’t make any mistakes, mainly due to impatience born of immaturity, but I found the approach worked. When later I became a manager in a much larger company, I applied the same principle and, insofar as my management of my subordinates was concerned, I think it worked well. A common complaint I used to hear a lot from my former colleagues is they didn’t like the manner with which various managers handed down work. One of them, I’m not sure why, asked me how I would delegate a job to him if I were his manager. So I told him.

When I receive a piece of work someone in my team needed to carry out, the first thing I’ll do is take a good look at it myself. Is it a reasonable request? Have the other parties done their jobs, or has it come in half-arsed and my guy will spend most of his time running around trying to get information that should have been supplied to him already? What’s my first impression of the job? I’ll then identify the person in my team who I want to lead it and send him an email as follows:

“Fred, can you have a look at this sometime over the next few days when you’ve got a moment. I’ll come and see you on Friday, and we’ll have a chat about it.”

At some point before Friday I’ll wander over and see Fred and say, “did you get that email about the job?” and Fred will reply, “yeah, I’ll have a look at it after lunch.”

On Friday, I’ll sit across a table from Fred and ask him to tell me what he thinks. Is it a big job, a small job, a difficult one, and easy one, an impossible one? How long will it take? How would this fit in with his current workload? Can he squeeze it in next week or will it take a month of dedicated effort? Fred will then say something to the effect of:

“The job itself is do-able, nothing too complicated about it, but it will definitely need a site visit. And we’re going to have to have a meeting with Marine Operations because it’s not clear why they want to install that 2″ line from A to B. I’m busy with that other job now but I should be finished on Wednesday, after that I can start to pull the drawings out and have a proper look. But it really depends on when I can get offshore; once I’ve done that, I reckon it’s about two weeks’ work.”

I’m simplifying, but this gives me what I need to write an execution plan, and go back to my internal client and brief him up on when he can expect the job to get done. I also put in the request for the site visit, and let him know the job can’t properly get going until Fred’s been offshore. In my experience, the internal client is quite happy to have this discussion; half the time their requests disappear into the ether and they expend a lot of effort chasing up where they went. A little two-way communication goes a long way.

I’ve also found taking this approach means Fred is quite happy with the execution plan – which he should be given the bulk of it is his own and we practically agreed it in advance. Moreover, I’ve found engineers feel a lot more valued and respected if you give them an opportunity to propose how they want to do the job, and raise any concerns they have up front. If you don’t like something in their proposal you can argue the point with them before the work starts, so when it does you’re all in agreement. There’s nothing worse than a manager intervening with a bright idea of how things should be done once work has started, particularly if he had ample time to say what he wants beforehand.

If it’s a multi-disciplinary job and other departments are involved, I repeat the process above with each individual and at the end I send the execution plan around for  each person’s review. Then I hold a kick-off meeting which normally lasts 30 mins max as everyone nods their heads and says “yeah, we discussed this already”.

Unfortunately, it seems my approach to work delegation is unusual. In my experience, and that of a fair few of my former colleagues, managers normally distribute work via an email which reads as follows:

“See attached work request, this is urgent, please arrange a kick-off meeting for tomorrow and send invitations today.”

You open the work request and find it’s a garbled pile of incomplete nonsense which makes no sense to anyone. The total effort your manager has spent on it is to click the forward button, enter your address, and write the email. At the same time, you’re already working on three other jobs which you’ve also been told are urgent. If you ask your boss about this clash of priorities he will say “you just have to manage”. So you drop everything and spend  the entire afternoon trying to get the availability of people who you have no interest in talking to, at least not yet, for a meeting you don’t want to hold. Then you have to find a spare meeting room. Oh, and the manager wants a presentation with slides – lots of them.  The kick-off meeting goes on for several hours as each discipline or department bickers with one another as to how the job should be done and tries to solve technical problems there and then, while your manager intervenes at frequent intervals to tell you which tasks you can start “immediately”. Such as construction. Over the course of this meeting it becomes clear the job is only urgent in the sense that a Big Boss has asked for a status report after it’s languished on someone’s desk for months. It wasn’t unusual for me to receive “urgent” requests for work for which the paperwork had taken the offshore and onshore clerks more than a year to complete. Your manager will nonetheless expect you to react as if the platform is on fire.

Insofar as the two approaches to delegating work to team members go, I think I’ll stick with mine.

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Offshore Clerks

Back in the days when I had a career and was running a team of engineers, a job request landed on my desk regarding the replacement of a valve in the depths of an offshore platform. According to the process, this request was born from a problem identified by the offshore operations and maintenance team, who then discussed it with their onshore counterparts to consider what should be done and with what priority. The offshore team consisted of the Offshore Installation Manager (OIM), the field operations supervisor, the maintenance supervisor, the marine operations manager, plus a whole host of operators, technicians, maintenance personnel, and safety officers. Onshore, the team comprised a production manager, a deputy production manager, a maintenance manager, a safety manager, plus a load of engineers and other support staff. All were involved in the discussions surrounding the problem – the valve was seized – and they decided to replace it. Were it a straight-up replacement it would have been handled by the maintenance team, but because they wanted to move it to a different location nearby, it became an asset modification and needed engineering to get involved. As per the process, every manager and supervisor both onshore and offshore had to sign off on the request for engineering support, and each was given space to append their discipline comments to the form. These managers and supervisors were mainly western expats between 35 and 55 years of age, and considered some of the best the company had to offer. For this reason they were well paid.

So the request lands on my desk, I look at it for a while, then turn it the right way up, then call my lead piping engineer, a grizzled Scotsman who I’ll call Fred. Fred had more brownfield engineering experience than I could hope to acquire in three lifetimes, and I decided early on that he was someone worth listening to. I handed the request to Fred and asked him to take a look, and a few days later we sat down and discussed the job. Fred said the valve was enormous, it was very heavy, and the area it was in very tight and congested. It was therefore going to be a rather difficult job, but not impossible. However, he said he’d know a lot more if he could get out to the platform and take a look for himself.

I usually insist on a site visit by discipline engineers on any brownfield job because the drawings, even if properly updated to as-built status, can never give you the complete picture. 3D scans and PDMS models are very useful, but everything must be verified with a site visit. For all you know, someone’s built a temporary structure right in the area you thought was free; temporary modifications in the offshore oil industry have a terrible habit of remaining in place until the facility is decommissioned. Some managers are only too happy to have engineers visit the site to allow them to discuss the precise problem and proposed solutions with the operators, and some OIM’s insist on such a visit. But often visitors are not welcome offshore due to a lack of bedspace or seats on the helicopter. In this particular case, it was easier to get an audience with the Queen than get a guy offshore as the accommodation was permanently full of essential personnel who couldn’t be spared for a single day. However, I’m a stubborn sod and I refused to move forward with the engineering until Fred had gone offshore and looked at the job in person; I was of the opinion that if the OIM cannot accommodate an engineer for a couple of days, the job can’t be that important. I learned that management don’t like it when you put it like that in meetings.

So eventually Fred got his offshore visit, much to the annoyance of the offshore team. When Fred got there and had undergone the usual safety inductions, he stepped out of the living quarters to find the operations area like the Marie Celeste. He walked around  the whole platform and barely saw a soul, but when he went back to the living quarters and stuck his head in the offices, he found it stuffed to the gills full of people. It stayed like this for the whole two days he was out there. In the company of the most junior operator on the platform Fred descended into the bowels of the platform and found the valve that was seized. It really was huge. He spent an hour or so down there, taking measurements and working out what could be done. He then went back to the living quarters where he was summoned to the meeting room by the OIM and asked to present his findings. Around the table were all the senior people on the platform, who lived there 24/7 for 4 weeks at a time.

Fred began. “I think we need to look at a repair, rather than replacement.”

He was immediately interrupted by the OIM. “No, we have decided it is better to replace it.”

“Replacing it is going to be very difficult,” said Fred. “It’s a huge valve and…”

The maintenance manager cut in. “Yes, it is big but it needs to be replaced.”

“Then that will be a lot of work,” said Fred. “And I’m not sure how you’re going to get a cutting torch down there.”

“A cutting torch?” said someone.

“Yes,”  said Fred. “The valve is too big to fit out the entrance door, even if we dismantle it. The valve body won’t fit.”

“Are you sure?” asked the OIM. “I don’t think so.”

“Okay,” said Fred. “A show of hands, please. How many people around this table have actually been downstairs and had a look at the valve?” The room fell silent. Everyone looked at each other. No hands went up. “Okay, well I have and I’ve measured the valve, the valve body, and the size of the hatch and there is no way we’re getting that valve out without cutting it up, and that won’t be easy down there. So I recommend we dismantle it and repair it in situ.”

So what’s my point? The situation described in this anecdote might not be typical, but it is certainly not unusual either. It is almost inconceivable that an oil company would pay hundreds of thousands of dollars per month to have people sitting on an oil platform (with all its inherent risks) who limit their interaction with the facility in order to do bureaucratic tasks which could just as easily be done onshore, yet it happens. It is common, especially in big companies, to have an organisation staffed by ostensibly experienced and qualified people who are well paid, but simply decline to do their jobs. Instead, they busy themselves with other activities, often under the direction of a manager who never properly understood what they should be doing in the first place. It’s what happens when an organisation’s processes become divorced from the goals they are supposed to achieve, and managers are rewarded solely for following the process regardless of outcomes.

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The Bridge Collapse in Italy

In March this year, following the collapse of a footbridge in Miami, I said this:

For a standard, single-span footbridge to suddenly collapse in this manner in the United States in 2018 is incredible. Reinforced concrete footbridges have been built worldwide for decades, and ought to be the sort of thing a highways department can design and build on their own.

There is enough knowledge and experience by now to ensure these sort of accidents no longer occur.

I had the same thoughts yesterday when I read about this:

A motorway bridge has collapsed in the northwest Italian city of Genoa, killing 26 people and badly injuring 15, police told the BBC.

Dramatic video footage captured the moment of the disaster when one of the huge supporting towers crashed down during torrential rain.

Cars and trucks plummeted 45m (148ft) on to rail tracks, buildings and a river along with slabs of concrete.

This simply should not happen anywhere, much less in a modern, developed country with a history of engineering and industrial competence. The BBC has a good page on possible causes of the bridge’s collapse, but I fear it may have overlooked something far more serious: a general decline in overall competence.

My guess would be a lack of timely maintenance is the technical reason the bridge collapsed, but what I’m more interested in is how Italy became a country incapable of carrying out basic maintenance. This is the sort of thing you used to see in the Soviet Union, or basket-case countries whose rulers enjoy the kickbacks and prestige of large capital projects but can’t be bothered with the mundane task of maintaining anything. However shambolic Italy may have appeared over the years, you could be reasonably confident the bridge over which you were driving wasn’t going to disappear from under you halfway across: they might be corrupt and disorganised, but the basics still got done. That’s no longer the case, so what’s changed? Again, I’ll refer back to my earlier post:

There has been a major shift in modern companies from delivering something useful – such as a bridge which doesn’t collapse – to managing processes. A lot of companies have subcontracted out the actual work – designing, building, manufacturing, operating, maintaining – and instead busy themselves with “managing” the whole process. This involves lots of well-educated people in nice clothes sitting in glass-fronted office buildings sharing spreadsheets, reports, and PowerPoint presentations by email and holding lengthy meetings during which they convince one another of how essential they are. I’m sure this is pretty much what Carillion was doing when they went bust: anything useful was done by subcontractors. The distance between those doing the actual work and those supposedly responsible for the outcome has, in far too many companies, grown into a yawning chasm. Survival in a modern company is all about compliance and obedience, and accountability is non-existent because it is no longer required.

In such an environment, it is inevitable that the quality of work suffers, errors go unnoticed, and – occasionally – catastrophes occur.

Italy is flat broke and has been for some time, and this will likely be put forward as a contributing factor to the bridge’s collapse. But in my experience, when modern organisations start feeling the pinch the white-collar middle-managers clogging up the glass-fronted offices start preparing spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations which show if they cut back on certain things they can save money – things like maintenance. I’d hazard a guess the organisation responsible for maintaining this bridge has a budget which would make your eyes water, but almost all of it will be blown on overheads and inefficient, process-driven nonsense. They’ll also have a staff which would match the cast of Ben Hur, all of whom will know lots about the latest managerial missives but little about bridge maintenance. I’d also bet the individuals who actually maintain the bridge are subcontractors, and there’s a fair chance they’ve not been paid in a while.

I’m speculating, and perhaps I’m wrong. But currently there is a bridge lying on the ground when it ought to be sitting pretty in the air, and people are asking questions. This should never, ever have happened and it is almost inconceivable that it has. It might be a one-off but me, ever the skeptic, I’m not so sure. I think we’re going to see more of this sort of thing, vital pieces of infrastructure suddenly collapse or stop working in a manner which we in the west thought we’d never see again. I also expect we’re going to see several major corporations go under in the same period, and this will not be a coincidence. It’s good that engineers are now running around Italy inspecting other bridges for signs of collapse, but it’s high time some of these organisations and their management were subject to similar scrutiny.

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Getting wood over wood at The Economist

Part of the decline of The Economist, aside from the fact its employees write drivel, is its wholesale adoption of the environmentalist religion. With their latest video they seem to be plumbing new depths of woo-embracement:

The answer, of course, is no: wood has been used as a construction material since the dawn of time, and in the modern age there is probably not a thing we don’t know about it. Concrete and steel replaced wood for very good reasons, and unless wood has undergone some revolutionary step-change (e.g. trees grown with carbon-fibre grafted into them), those reasons still apply. If it made technological sense to use wood instead of steel, people would be doing it. If it made economic sense, the same would be true. But let’s take a look at the video (I’ll paraphrase rather than write the whole transcript).

0:25 The world’s population is increasing, by 2050 it will be 10bn most of whom will be living in cities in skyscrapers with a large carbon footprint.

The video shows Tokyo and other developed world cities, but almost all that population growth will come from Africa. Are they going to be living in high rises? Having seen the sprawling shanty towns of Lagos in person, I doubt it. And if “carbon footprints” are a problem, maybe its time to stop subsidising that population explosion in Africa? One of the main reasons Nigeria’s population is exploding is the lack of reliable electricity, which in turn is a direct result of corrupt government practices. What I’m trying to say is, if increasing populations are a concern, building materials are an odd thing to focus on.

0:30 Our view is all buildings should be made from timber, and we should look at steel and concrete as we do diesel and petrol.

I have no idea who this chap is, but he’s looking at a Landcruiser and trying to say a horse would be better. I suspect he’s saying this because his salary depends on it.

0:44 I think it’s realistic someone will build a wooden skyscraper in the coming years. There is a lot of potential that is unrealised for using timber at a very large scale.

It’s as if engineers are unaware of wood’s limitations in compression. Hell, even the Romans knew over a certain size you had to use stone and concrete.

1:00 Throughout history buildings have been made of wood But it has one drawback, it acts as kindling.

Don’t ever say Economist videos aren’t informative.

1:32 If concrete were ever to arrive as a new material on “Dragon’s Den”…but then you say we need a whole new fleet of trucks to move it around…

You can tell this guy is an academic. Firstly, there are transport costs associated with wood; they don’t grow trees on potential building sites and wait a hundred years. Secondly, the cost savings associated with using concrete obliterates the additional cost of needing specialist concrete trucks. It’s one thing to play devil’s advocate for some future hypothetical, but this guy is doing it for something that’s already happened: he’s already been proven wrong.

1:51 I don’t think it would be a compelling case.

The richest man in Africa is a Nigerian called Aliko Dangote; the bulk of his wealth comes from his owning Africa’s largest cement company. The invention of concrete revolutionised construction, and made an awful lot of people incredibly rich. But here we have an academic saying if it came along nowadays, nobody would be interested because you need to add steel and buy some specialist trucks.

1:58 Concrete and steel are costly to produce and heavy to transport.

Compared to what? This is like saying the weather is good.

2:05 Wood, however, can be grown sustainably and is lighter than concrete.

Weight doesn’t matter much in buildings, because they tend to be stationary objects supported by the ground. You also have a lot of glass curtain walling these days. If weight is a concern you use steel – as the Manhattan skyline nicely demonstrates. Insofar as transportation costs go, aggregate can be shipped cheaply in bulk from anywhere, and you can install a concrete batch plant on or near to the construction site. A someone who lived in Dubai during the construction boom, I saw a lot of this.

2:07 And crucially, as trees grow, they absorb carbon dioxide from the air, locking it into the timber.

This is crucial? Not to construction considerations it isn’t. If you want trees to absorb carbon dioxide then plant more trees, but to put this forward as an advantage for using wood in construction? You might as well say forests are nice places to walk a dog. In any case, unless these buildings will stand for centuries, at some point the wood will rot or burn releasing all that carbon dioxide into the atmosphere anyway. Why not leave the trees standing?

2:18 One study showed that by using timber to construction a 125-metre skyscraper could reduce the building’s carbon footprint by up to 75%.

One study…could…by up to. Well I don’t know about you, but I’m convinced! Note all this assumes a building’s “carbon footprint” is something we should be concerned about.

2:42 Wood isn’t strong enough to build high, but engineers have come up with a solution: cross-lamination.

Plywood?

2:45 It’s cross laminated so layers of wood are glued at 90-degrees to one another.

Plywood!

3:17 But what about fire?

They demonstrate how a skyscraper made from wood will withstand a fire by holding a blowtorch to a piece of plywood before claiming it will extinguish itself after losing “some structural mass”.

3:25 We’ve actually seen steel roofs collapse in fires when wooden ones have not.

Assuming this is true, this is an argument for making sheds from wood, not skyscrapers.

3:52 Once these wooden panels arrive on site we’re building a floor a week.

Right, but it’s essentially a 5-storey plywood box. Are you sure this method is going to work for skyscrapers with 50 plus floors?

3:57 This is maybe twice as fast as concrete.

The guys in Dubai were pouring a floor every few days. I’d like to see how fast these wooden panels go in when they’re a hundred metres above the pavement.

4:23 Andrew and his collagues designed Britain’s first wooden high-rise apartment block.

It’s ten floors, hardly high-rise.

4:51 As yet, nobody has used CLT (plywood) beyond 55 metres.

The building they refer to is Brock Commons tower in Vancouver:

The structure is concealed behind drywall and concrete topping, mainly to comply with the accepted fire-safety codes and consequently speed up approval from building authorities.

So it needs concrete to stop it turning into a matchbox, incinerating everyone inside. But wait, what’s this?

Due to concerns about structural stability, the American Wood Council and the International Code Council currently limit wood structures to a maximum of six stories above grade, depending on occupancy type.

For good reasons, I’d imagine.

To reach its height of 18 stories, Brock Commons used a slightly different approach. It follows in the shoes of the supertall skyscrapers we’ve seen cropping up across Asia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which use a central structural core to take the stress off of the building’s exterior.

Oh! What type of central core?

Two concrete “trunks” on a concrete podium form the core of the structure, with the rest of its 18 stories being constructed of cross-laminated timber (CLT) flooring and glue-laminated timber (GLT, or glulam) columns.

So this groundbreaking tower block which demonstrates the viability of wooden skyscrapers is held up by two, bog-standard concrete cores? The Economist never mentioned that.

This entire video is basically a puff-piece for a London-based architectural firm with its eye no doubt on government monies earmarked for eye-catching green “solutions”. Wood can be used effectively for construction, but it has severe limitations which are well known: warping due to heat, rotting due to damp, termites, separation of lamination with time – and the ubiquitous fire hazard. I’d love to see how well this Brock Commons tower is holding up in a decade’s time, and hear it from the poor sods who have to live in it, not the architects. This is before we even address such issues as increased land use to grow the trees, not to mention the wastage. The good thing about steel and concrete is it can be moulded to the shape you want without wastage, but wood has the tendency to be grown tree-shaped and from there you need to chop, saw, shave, and sand it into something useful – all of which creates mountains of waste product (when I was a kid, timber merchants used to give away wood shavings and sawdust for free). So what happens to that?

How many trees occupying how much land are needed to build a 100m building, and how much waste is involved? And how much chemical treatment does the wood require? Some numbers would have been nice, but this is The Economist: when it comes to the environment they sound more like The Watchtower.

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What Makes an Engineer

Last June I wrote this in relation to Laurie Penny’s claims she was a nerd:

There was a time when to be a nerd you had to be good at science, technology, engineering, or maths (STEM) to the detriment of everything else. Or at least you had to be more interested in these subjects than most other people were, which made you socially inept as a teenager. Given that I studied maths, physics, and chemisty for A-level, did a Mechanical Engineering degree, and have (sort of) worked as an engineer for most of my career, believe me when I say I know what nerds are.

By claiming to be a nerd, Laurie is implying that she is highly intelligent and is respected in a field which requires a lot of hard work and dedication to enter.

I was reminded of this during a Twitter discussion initiated by yesterday’s post on pretending people with no maths and doing mostly group projects can be called engineers.

There’s a certain solidarity among engineers, and it completely transcends cultures and international boundaries. This obviously applies to other subjects too, but the fundamentals of engineering are universal. If a British, Brazilian, Japanese, and Turkish engineer all end up in the same room they automatically have an enormous amount in common having all sat through 20+ hours per week of the same stuff for three or four years. Without a doubt the courses will differ, but the fundamentals on which they’re based are the same. A Nigerian, Iranian, Australian, and Chinese structural engineer will draw bending moment diagrams and calculate second moments of area in exactly the same way. One of the most under-appreciated and understated bonding mechanisms in teams of engineers is shared suffering through university. It’s a bit like having gone through a war and you later meet some someone who was on the same battlefield.

Yesterday in a very pleasant Twitter discussion I made the point about how much of engineering is actually maths, in particular calculus. A typical lecture mid-way through a first or second year fluid mechanics module would start with something like:

“Take a spherical object of radius d and temperature t suspended in a fluid of temperature T. Heat loss from the object is given by dt/dθ….”

At which point I’d get hopelessly lost, which is why the above example is likely nonsense. Within a few minutes the lecturer would write an equation the length of the board containing all manner of differentials and half the Greek alphabet. If your calculus isn’t up to scratch (and mine wasn’t) you’re going to struggle. The main reason why my old friend Wendy did so well at Mechanical Engineering is because she found calculus as easy as breathing.

Then you had matrices. To this day I don’t know what matrices are for, but when it came to control systems and electrical engineering – both major components in a Mech Eng degree – they are very important. I vaguely knew how to multiply one configuration with the same one, but if they were different? Oh, who the hell knows? As I was contemplating this last night I got a horrifying flashback, similar to the repressed memories trauma victims lock in a vault somewhere, to what are known as complex numbers: square roots of negative numbers, which until then I’d been confident were impossible hence didn’t exist, involving liberal use of the letter i. They were again something to do with control systems, but I couldn’t tell you how I ever passed an exam containing questions on complex numbers. Actually, looking at my academic transcript I got 39% for Control Engineering and 36% for Signal Processing, so in fact I didn’t. Ahem.

My point is, the degree was bloody hard and Manchester University’s Mechanical Engineering course was by no means the hardest out there: some of the foreign Mech Eng courses were absolutely brutal. I have a friend who studied at the prestigious Middle East Technical University in Ankara in a non-STEM field, and she told me what the engineers were subject to there bordered on abuse. But then, places were extremely limited, applications many, and anyone who graduated had a rewarding career to look forward to.

When you’re working with a bunch of engineers there’s an appreciation that everyone in the room has gone through much the same mill, regardless of where they’re from. Surprisingly, they’re not in the habit of looking down on people who haven’t, but that’s probably because the vast majority have. It’s one of the reasons why female engineers are accepted rather well by their male counterparts, because they’ve proved themselves to some degree already. No matter who you’re put to work with, you can at least take comfort in the knowledge that they too sat through lectures on subjects they found utterly bewildering and somehow managed to scrape together enough exam marks to graduate. Looking again at my academic transcript, over 4 years I sat 32 engineering exams and did a project, a directed study, and an industrial placement. I know my colleagues of both sexes did much the same, probably even more (they might even have passed Signal Processing, but I doubt it). Yes it’s hard, that’s the whole point. It’s horrible, but it’s the same for everyone: nobody enjoys it. You just suck it up, and that’s what makes you an engineer.

This is why I find the proposal I wrote about last week rather offensive: either do the course and sit the exams like everyone else, or f*ck off. There are no shortcuts.

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