November / December 2006
Engineering education has undergone radical changes in content, objectives, and delivery during the last 20-30 years. The approach has increasingly been to emulate science teaching and train engineering scientists, researchers, and technology developers to the detriment of developing skills required to engineer, design, and manage increasingly complex and often large engineering systems and infrastructures. Some schools, such as MIT, are filling the resulting gaps by introducing “Systems Engineering” or “Engineering Systems” offerings, often taught by instructors who have extensive experience in real engineering projects.
While the U.S. has made tremendous progress in advancing so-called high technology and remains at the forefront of information technology, control imaging, and other technologies, it seems to increasingly lag behind or even fail to maintain capabilities in engineered systems or projects, and even in manufacturing engineering. This is becoming more and more evident considering the conditions of our electricity transmission network, highways, railways, ports, electricity generation, water supply, and other public infrastructure systems in America, as well as public services such as wireless telephony and others
Few other, if any, developed countries distribute electricity and land-line telephone service by wires hanging from forests of wooden poles.
Their maintenance and failure costs could easily pay for placing these services underground. Our highway and rail systems are not only outdated and in many parts of the country decrepit, but are mostly incapable of accommodating or serving advancing transport technology, traffic, and service demands. Our ports are at least 20-30 years behind modern Asian and European ports and are incapable of accommodating large modern ships, many of which must transship their cargoes at foreign transshipment ports to feed U.S. ports at added costs of billions, if not tens of billions of dollars per year. None of our airports is among the top of the world’s terminals in terms of efficiency, operations management, or architecture. Similarly, many of our water, sewage, and other distributed systems are not only antiquated, but in serious disrepair. Even our wireless telephone systems technology in use is probably 10 years behind that in place in much of Europe and Eastern Asia.
Probably most importantly, is our real or perceived inability to effectively plan, engineer, design, and even manage engineering projects. While the Big Dig may be an extreme example , there are unfortunately many other examples of inexcusable budget and schedule overruns, failures of quality management, and quite often inadequate supervision, engineering, or design.
Serious schedule overruns are of particular concern, as they not only dramatically increase financing costs, but also introduce inherent technological obsolescence. In the not too distant past, American engineering firms and contractors were considered world leaders and played important roles in many of the world’s most important large engineering projects. This is no longer so, and most large engineering projects in the world are now planned, designed, and managed by foreign, mainly Asian, engineering firms. For example, China built the world’s first high-speed Maglev train system in Pudong on schedule and budget, and its Three Gorges dam project, the world’s largest, is both on budget and schedule. There are similar examples in large tunnel and costal construction projects in Japan and Europe.
During a recent MIT Brunel lecture, President Emeritus Charles Vest laid out his vision of Engineering Education for 2020, and among other objectives emphasized social responsibility of engineering. Brunel, who over a hundred years ago advanced tunnel and coastal construction, shipbuilding, and large infrastructure engineering, all the while making engineering a true renaissance profession, would probably be disappointed at the increasingly narrow focus of today’s engineering education and inadequate social concern. This was also shown in my recent involvement with the Katrina disaster, where we uncovered disregard for engineering quality and a resulting failure of public safety in the design, construction, supervision, inspection, and ultimately maintenance of the levee system protecting the city of New Orleans. And this is not an isolated example, but often represents the norm in this country.
While there are many factors contributing to these increasingly common failures in American engineering projects, the need to implement some basic steps seems clear.
Among them are a reintroduction of more professional engineering education with mandatory life-long professional training in advanced engineering technological and project/risk management subjects, and establishment of more effective certification/licensing and inspection requirements. These may go a long way toward reestablishing American engineering and giving it the global status it once proudly held. This may require a cultural change and assignment of more responsibility, prestige, and rewards to engineers, but unless we start to redirect our approach toward engineering and engineers and give it the proper prestige, before long we may find America in the condition of India, a country with a highly-educated professional elite, a decrepit infrastructure, and a largely defunct social system.
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