Friday, March 14, 2014

Systems Failures : Lessons from Aviation

The F-16 was the first fighter aircraft purpose-built to pull 9-g maneuvers, all by Fly-By-Wire

Mysteries pull the human mind. And few things can be so mysterious as a 777 airliner that is roughly 200 ft long and weighing around 600 tons disappearing from the radar without a trace. Six days into the MH370 disappearance, investigators from more than 10 countries have not located it physically but they are chasing clues.

Searching for premature answers is understandable in aviation disasters. An airplane is a highly valuable asset to any nation and a tool for international development and international diplomacy. It is an agent of globalization, like trucks and ships and helps build economies. The passing of a flight from one country's borders into another has behind it possibly thousands of pages worth of treaties, policies and communication protocols.

In a post 9/11 world, the world is sensitive to another Mohammad Atta turning off an airplane transponder and steering it into buildings of economic importance. The image of an aircraft being used as a suicidal missile to launch fundamentalist propaganda remains fresh in the mind.

Aviation Accidents As a Systems Failure

The days since MH370's first disappearance plays out unsurprisingly like the Air France 447 saga. People said lightning caused the carbon composite body to rupture.  Some others revisited bomb threats made against the air liner months before the incident. A few entertained catastrophic electrical system failures because of the thunderstorm it flew through. The aircraft had flown through a military territory, did it get accidentally shot down?

Of the various root causes leading to the death 228 people, few imagined that an airspeed indicator (pitot tube) that was designed rigorously to certification tests would fail its function. Fault Code "34111506" had drawn first blood.

Discussion of the AF447 ACARS reading shown on French television

But the accident, they say, was still preventable. After ice crystals began developing on the pitot tubes, instruments began giving erroneous readings inside the cockpit. Autopilot gave up, turned off and the aircraft was in manual fly mode.

Making matters worse, at the time around this circumstance, the captain was in the back on his customary rest period and the least experienced of the three pilots had primary command of the airplane. Both co-pilots didn't recover from their lack of orientation, let alone practice proper flying etiquette. The pilot who had first command failed to recognize impending stall and refused to let go of the side stick. Without valuable airspeed, the aircraft lost lift and plummeted into the black ocean with three confused pilots and a whole lot of lives on board.

After the series of investigations came to a close, most experts today agree that it was a systems failure. A failure that began with international regulatory bodies not mandating a proper training rigor which commercial airplane pilots required to act in the face of rare but dangerous circumstances. A failure that involved a sensitive cockpit control stick issue that is unique to Airbus, explained here very well by Capt.Sully Sullenberger. Mixed with the cocktail of other occurances such as bad weather and instrument malfunction, it was the perfect storm for an accident.

The crash of the Concorde 4590 was another systems failure as well. The ground level entities failed to clear the runway off sharp metal debris which had the potential to do harm. Flight's tires runs over said debris leading to a violent tire disintegration. Tire impacts the fuel cell. Fuel cell ruptures and throws fuel into two engine intakes subsequently leading to stall and flameout. Fuel ignites, starts a fire and renders two engines useless. This leads quickly to violent loss of life and property.

Finally, one more quick example from the much celebrated "Cactus" 1549 landing in the New York's Hudson River. What everyone knows by now (hopefully) is that the plane hit a flock of Canadian geese at around 2800 ft, leading to both engines losing thrust and a decisive moment from the captain to land in the river.

However, a Congressional Hearing after the incident saw Florida Republican making statements about old and inadequate number of Air Traffic Control routes to get planes out of La Guardia, a complaint of radar screen settings to "dumb down" clutter which may make it possible to block out information, such as a flock of birds. There were even remarks about the possibility of an inexperienced and unqualified Air Traffic Controller making decisions for routes in the absence of more experienced personnel.

Can you always control the flight path of Geese so they don't hit your plane? No. But if take off routes from the runway are inflexible and you combine that with the lack of information management, that can be a problem which could lead to a safety issue later down the line. This highlights a systems challenge.

Review Design Redundancy 

Aircrafts are basically complex computers into which redundancies are built. But does that answer for safety every time? A million times probably yes. One or two times, possibly no. But how do you try to widen the Yes-No probability divide so you know that you're operating in safe region for almost all of the time?

That's where a second eye on your systems design helps.

Consider the example of the F-16 air combat fighter developed in the mid-1970's by General Dynamics. At the time, it was state of the art in fighter jets, incorporating the first "fly-by-wire" mode of operation, which means any or all of the mechanical cables that moves flight control surfaces were replaced by servoactuators controlled by electrical signals.

The F-16 development engineers designed quadruply-redundant signals to each servoactuator, the reasoning being that the probability of losing all four electrical signals all at once was extremely remote and that no single-point failure condition could induce this condition.

Well, it turns out that after the design exercise, General Dynamics called together a separate group of engineers to analyze this design. This team found out that although the F-16 included quadruply-redundancy, should any of the common electrical connector plugs that these signals used fail or should the harnesses carrying the signals be cut, all signal paths would be lost. The development engineers had missed that one.

Was it a significant increase in cost to go back to the drawing board and correct that design? Yes. But it didn't cost as much as a life.

In the late 1980's, Boeing decided to do away with a heavy and obtrusively large pair of plug type 9ft x 9ft cargo doors on the starboard side of the 747 jumbo jet's belly. The original thinking of this design was that since the plug doors open inwards and wedge into the passageway, it would be an extra measure of safety against the possibility of breaching the integrity of the fuselage while the aircraft was pressurized.

But it was heavy and it had wide tracks. The new design would be a lighter weight gull wing design, that is, they would swing out and up.

To make it function, they built into it three rotary actuators and a complex system of aluminum C-shaped latches to allow the door to open/close and lock. An operator could depress the close button and have the door shut in about 15 seconds. Manually depressing the latch lock handle in the middle of door would be the final step in locking it. This final step would also isolate the opening/closing control circuits from electricity. Should the motors malfunction, a worker could manually operate the latching mechanism using a socket drive.

I obtained the locking sequence from a video released by FAA and it is shown below.

Sequence of events in the opening of 811's cargo door

Unfortunately, trouble brewed after the design was put into operational flight. A number of warnings of failing or improperly functioning door systems did not prevent the tragedy that was to come on February 24, 1989. Around 2:00 A.M on what was a routine flight by United Airlines 811 from Hawaii, a thunderous boom shot 11 million pounds of pressurized cabin air past a gaping 13ft x 15ft hole in the fuselage. In the blink of an eye, nine passengers were sucked out to their deaths.

The plane was heroically landed by the pilot. A larger disaster was averted but finger pointing took place soon, directing blame at 14 separate instances of manual door operation by technicians which investigators theorized could have damaged the door locks on this particular aircraft.

The actual clues to what happened lay not just at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

After recovering the blown out door, investigators were alerted to a well timed incident at Kennedy International Airport in June 1991. It was discovered that just after initial door closure in a 747-200, a stray electrical signal was able to rotate the cargo door latch open and move the 800 pound door up! This corresponded exactly with observations from the recovered cargo door which showed that the latch cams were moved to their open positions and this had thereby deformed the C shaped aluminum latches which would otherwise try and stop the cams from rotating.

Aftermath of United 811 rapid decompression

The door was a complex electromechanical setup and the weakest link was the faulty electrical wiring which permitted stray signals to actuate the door in flight. Within this design system was the larger system scope of all maintenance personnel who operated on it day in and day out and expected their actions to be safe. When a few warnings related to those doors arose in the late 80's, all the OEM could do was to criticize the ground operators rather than pinning down where the stray signal came from.

Trying to design for all possible things that could go wrong is an exercise in futility. Anything more expensive than it needs to be won't sell.  But aviation's strategy of building in redundancies has worked out well for a number of years.

Design is rarely held in a vacuum. An engineer would do well to appreciate a system's level view of design and recognize that all the paperwork, documentation, procedures, its eventual use, intended or unintended and the complex Information Management System that manages it go with that design.

Numerous air safety incidents have given hard lessons that has changed the industry forever. Though these tragic accidents are rare, the consequences are very damaging. However, reviewing initial designs with well formed evaluation criteria and implementing any subsequent lessons learned into future designs can continue to make aviation safer.

Let us hope the very best for all families and people connected to Flight MH370.

Friday, February 28, 2014

On the Question of Work Experience vs Master's Degree in Engineering

The often asked question among young engineers seems to be whether experience counts more than opting to go for a Master's Degree in Engineering.

Watch out as this favorite question is designed in a way to elicit strong responses from both schools of thought. But what's worse is that it is also a misguided question, designed to make it look as if the pursuit of an advanced degree is necessarily a deficit from work experience. Must it really be one without the other?

A senior engineer who worked for GE once told me that the definition of competancy, atleast the way he thought about it, was knowing what you're not good at. A fine definition.

Consider the experienced engineer who has been working for a number of years in selection and application of machinery from catalog of offerings. If this is how he started his career, he is marked from day one and more often than not, this is what he'll do for a number of years. Perhaps he'll continue to do this while the technological engineering climate outside keeps shifting tides rapidly.

For this engineer, things such as the intricate business of design of the shaft or bearings or aerodynamics of an impeller blade are outside of the scope of work. Ethically, they have no business to offer professional advice to anyone on technical matters outside their line of work unless they possess good advice based on evidence.

So what is this experienced engineer to do if through they find out that computational fluid dynamics is really piquing their interest? Or that they like to know more about microcontrollers in the actuators they are familiar with? Or that they are pulled by the field of rotordynamics and feel they want to contribute?

You will find that in big engineering corporations, there is little scope to shift your line of work into something entirely new, unless you bring a deliberate disruption to your education or harder still, find people to recommend you into that department.

One launchpad into a new line of challenging engineering work is higher education. This comes back to our question on competency. If the new line of work features tasks involving sufficiently advanced technical skills, you will find out very quickly whether you have what it takes. Some skills can be gained through practical experience. But no one will sit down and teach you fundamentals. Knowing your gaps in your skillsets is knowing the limits of your competency.

Fortunately or unfortunately, an undergrad engineering education in places like the United States is still in line with key elements of a classical liberal education. When I was in undergraduate school, it was very obvious to me that out of the 130 odd credit hours that an aeronautical engineering degree would take, only roughly 30 credit hours were devoted to core engineering topics that fit outside of what you would define "liberal arts".

In the pursuit of educating the balanced engineer, some things are lost. It leaves you asking for more when you enter the workplace.

Some line of work would exclusively require a master's degree and some years of specific experience. Do you want to design exhaust manifolds for a leading race car company? Or work on the combustion aspects for an advanced line of engines? Do you want to work as an aerodynamics specialist with a leading aircraft manufacturer? A master's degree in Fluids & Thermal Sciences for instance might be a great addition to your educational portfolio. It tells an employer that you've sufficient skills and technological maturity to hit the ground running.

What I described above is a "necessity-based" education. You'll find is that in big companies, if you can sufficiently justify the reason for higher studies to management, chances are that they would fund your degree by paying a portion of the yearly tuition. Most big companies I know of have an official work-study program. They wouldn't keep this if they thought higher education was a waste of their resources.

There are always other ways to justify the need for a Master's Degree. Unfortunately, our world is changing so rapidly that new ideas spout in interdisciplinary fields and in less mature, nevertheless rapidly advancing fields that didn't exist in the days you went to school. After exploring the engineering market in countries like the United States, where very nice development work is being done in key engineering fields, it looks to me as if the master's degree in engineering is a great insurance policy. Especially when those entry level jobs are hard to come by.

To find the joy of engagement, disrupt your career a little bit and continually expand your mind, I believe it is wise for the young engineer to take the courage to expand their competency. The worst feeling is knowing that at some point, you're an old dog who can't be taught new tricks.

It's funny how in your professional and personal life, you will meet a number of people who will not hesitate to tell you that more learning isn't good. That more theory isn't what you need. "Forget school, get to work lad, the money is (apparently) there'. What a short sighted load of rubbish.

To end, my chauvinism is strong on the specific question. If selected wisely, an advanced engineering degree should only augment engineering work experience.  A good theoretical grounding in engineering can only supplement the know-how you have, besides those added years of learning add to your maturity as a practicing engineer. Might I also include the fact that a Masters may become a consideration element in your promotion to management positions? 

Friday, February 7, 2014

Possibilities in Automobile Hacking

Image courtesy : Koscher, Checkoway et al

Last month, I sat among a crowd of about a hundred at the Dubai Silicon Oasis HQ listening intently to a technical presentation from Audi Middle East on the technologies that go into their cars. Though the presentation had much more of a marketing component to it than the engineering type technical, you immediately got a sense of how dramatically Audi is transforming the car as we know it into a near autonomous system that augments the driver's limited capabilities.

Then I managed to get up and ask the presenter a question : "Does Audi really believe that more systems automation is the way to go in this age of vulnerabilities?" I didn't get a clear answer, and I think he replied something to the effect of 'we have been testing this extensively, it is reliable, safe' yada yada.

Car manufacturers have enough technology in the books to be able to clutch the control from you if you slept over your wheel and shifted lanes by accident. or to monitor the full 360 degree spectrum around your car ultrasonically to regulate vehicular distances, or to auto-pilot a parking maneuver into a very tiny space without you ever having to be present inside. Some technologies are deemed too immature to release yet, but manufacturers have already done a chunk of the thinking work. Implementation could be a few years away.

 How Stuff Works : Car Electronics
Last year, while traveling on an interstate trip across the eastern United States, I wondered what the car I
was driving would be doing deep inside it without my knowledge. I imagined the millions of lines of software routines flickering as they ran, hundreds of packets of information being driven on information highways from one control unit to another, the systems watching with precision every sensor on the car and taking in information to decide what to do. Wheel speed, steering angle, in-cabin temperature, door locks, air bags, lights, tire pressure, radio volume, exhaust temperatures....nothing was not known.

The longest trip I ever made in those days was a 10 hour straight slog with one rest stop. I'm not boasting about it. It came out of necessity to get to a certain place quickly. It tested the very core of endurance of my mind and with some hesitation I must admit I closed my eyes momentarily on more than a few occasions only to wake up with a split second bang realizing that I'm still in control of a 3000 pound vehicle moving at 70 mph.

This is the American way for hundreds of people and making use of the vast road networks to drive from one state to the other is a matter of pride and heritage. Flying is objectionable to many, even if it sounds an odd idea to be hauling your disheveled self from one time zone to the other surviving on highway Burger King. I can't blame them as a foreigner. You actually tend to like having this libery to travel far and wide and if you will allow me, its probably the most enjoyable way to see America.

Some select few have a job to do a trip across the entire continent in 5-10 days. They are called truck drivers and they haul hundreds of millions of dollars worth of cargo to make the Walmarts and Office Depots work. When diesel fuel picks up its pump price, guess who gets hurt most? Yes, its that fleet of semi trucks who are helping fire up the economy indirectly.

Back to the episode when I shut my eyes while driving. Boy, did those instances frighten me that I had to stop and get coffee. Sitting in a 24 hour Dunkin Donuts at midnight sipping the damn drug and looking at my watch, I invited possibilities that this wheeled machine should be automatically controlled from time to time. Or maybe all the time while I could catch the Z.

Sounds like a far fetched idea but OEM's know what I've already been thinking, except they started the thinking decades back.

But every good story needs a villian and drumroll, then came along the hackers. We owe it to these guys for making a mockery out of systems and exposing their security flaws. There is hardly any sarcasm here because if hackers didn't do what they did, perhaps I wouldn't be sitting with the 11th step in evolution of the Windows operating system. I could have the most secure piece of software there ever was, or I could be wrong. I'll wait till I get hacked.

However, unlike computer operating systems which have matured over several decades, vehicles do not apparently have a parallel idea of access control rights in their CAN protocol. Or they don't implement the full spirit of the automotive standards. I was surprised to glean this information while going through paper on the security analysis of a modern automobile.

The authors of the said paper manage to experimentally verify that anybody could reflash, i.e load a piece of potentially malicious code into a car's telematics unit without the need for authenticating! They also showed how it was possible to drive a car on an airport runway at 40mph and do various things to it remotely while it was moving, like killing the engine or preventing the brakes from activating regardless of foot pressure on the pedals.  Fewer than 200 lines of code added to their software, which they creatively named CarShark, could activate a door lock sequence and kill the engine.

It may sound scary. To me, it sounds like a fantastic theme for a short sci-fi story.

This occurred to me while I was driving to work. I imagined the plight of a private detective in a bustling metropolis bulging with traffic on the primary arterial road connection who had to sit waiting in his car on most days for hours in slow moving traffic...until one day he asks himself why on earth are these accidents happening on very select times, i.e rush hour. He decides to investigate.

He had heard various things that the cities coffers were drying up, the metro line wasn't making money, tourism had gone down and a new wireless toll system was announced by the state department. Connected? Sure.

Through a maze of cover ups and paper trails, he discovers that an unknown branch of the city's huge police department had an interesting tie-up with a technology startup known for industrial automation who as it turns out operated under a strange name purportedly selling softdrinks. Together, they entered into a undercover program wherein ordinary looking cars on the roadway would be wirelessly made to crash timing it flawlessly with the peak rush hour. The accordion effect would extend many kilometers down causing a traffic jam and while everyone stood still in their spots until the roadway cleared, the city made thousands from the automated toll gate.

Wishful as it sounds, you don't need a lot of money to do this as we learn that Spanish hackers manage to do such things on a car with just $20 dollars worth of parts. Gulp hard.

It is a given that the development of any technology must harbor a strategic element about what to do when that piece of technology is made to act in off-design conditions. Could it damage property? Could it injure, maim or kill someone?

Given that computers are an all pervasive phenomenon whether it be a watch or a washing machines, whether they are at home, in your cars, in a chemical refinery or a nuclear power plant, unscrupulous elements will tirelessly work at taking advantage of loopholes to disrupt its function.  Let's appreciate the time and costs of developing and testing such systems to perform in the most safe way possible. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

My 2013 : A Year of Healthy Turmoil

2013 was a year of healthy turmoil for me. A sea of interesting events had to happen and trying to make sense of it all now is not an easy task. Nevertheless, I'll try to venture into some key areas of my life that did get affected and toss some of my own photos into the mix. We'll leave the rest of the adventures for another time.

1. Travels 

Michigan : In the early part of 2013, I was traveling to obscure parts of Indiana and Michigan in a car called Chevrolet Impala (its the best getaway car for a reason). The first day of January 2013 was spent in Brown County State Park watching the heavy snowfall.

A few days later, a long Imapala drive to Michigan along the interstates I-69 and I-75 gave me a chance to enjoy my first skiing experience at Boyne Highlands. Basically, that was 4 hours of skiing to my heart's content.  I had great fun trying to angle the skiis inward and try to balance myself. A few times, I tumbled on steep descents and I became a sorry excuse for a winter athlete.

And it was so cold up there in MI that entire lakes were frozen to the core. As you can see below, this is Crooked Lake, which is so solid that you can see people actually camping for the evening on the ice. That's America.

One memorable moment was passing through a tiny town called St. Helen. Seriously, this place has just a few thousand residing there. I remember dropping into the Hen House Restaurant for a coffee after seeing a handful of snow mobiles parked outside. That night, there were a few local residents, mostly seniors sitting and chatting the cold night away. I think I alarmed everyone a bit when I asked shamelessly if there was WIFI available. "One coffee, and wifi password please...."

On another day, I had a chance to visit The Henry Ford in Dearborn. As I remember it, atleast 5 hours were spend walking around tracing the history of the automobile from single celled, I mean single cylinder organisms to modern day family sedans. The HF also has a neat aviation history display. 

It was nice to learn how the Wright Brothers, two bicycle mechanics, struggled with controlling their aircraft (actually, the optimum degree of inherent stability of an airplane was not even obvious until 30 years after the first flight of Kittyhawk). Or the fact that Boeing's early years were spent delivering mail cross country. The Boeing C-700 would become the first plane used for international mail delivery. Humble start for a household name.

Another memorable moment was getting to climb and stand next to a huge water turbine-electric generator from 1903, basically a 4000 HP Stillwell-Bearce turbine and 1300 kW generator made by GE. Similar machines were installed at the Niagara Falls to produce power for a bustling new city. These machines helped America in her heyday. 

Chicago : Chicago hosted North America's first Auto Show that year. Being the car enthusiast, I made my way to Detroit and luckily had a chance to survey GM's new Chevrolet Corvette. GM's Tadge Juechter and team did a great job on the Stingray Project. Everything from the tires to the heat ex-changer air ducts to the cylinder deactivation that works for a manual transmission were revolutionary items. Fuel efficiency was a marketed item too. For a sports car? Go figure. EPA can do wonders. Good stuff anyway. I stood and stared. 

Kentucky : I've been down to Kentucky quite a few times but in February, I couldn't miss the calling of the UCI World Cyclocross Championship. For those who don't know what this is, cyclocross is a traditionally European discipline of cycling where you get to race in off-road terrain on a special bicycle (with a higher bottom bracket than other road bikes) in some spectacularly brutal weather. I mean, these guys ride through hail, storm, mud, water you name it... and this sport is a race right from the gun. It requires a tremendous amount of power and endurance, as it not only involves the skill to ride a bike through undulating off-road terrain but having to dismount, carry the bike and jump across obstacles before having to remount and keep racing. I think the greatest experience was being inches away from these professionals on the sidelines, watching them blow past me with expressionless, weathered faces. And that day, the whole of Belgium could have been there in Louisville supporting Sven Nys, the reigning UCI World Cyclocross champion. 

I can brag that I was there at America's first hosting the UCI Cyclocross championship.

Americans like to give others a sense of place. They presented Sven and the rest of the podium winners with baseball bats. "Thanks for visiting folks!"

I thought I'll bless a resident from Louisville with some of my own love as well. When the job situation turned bad and I knew I couldn't stay much longer in the United States, I sold my beloved fixie to a local resident. 

Believe me, this bike in its special Ferrari Red was a rare gem. I have indelible memories riding it in college, through hail, snow and storm to get to work so I could make it to the sorry $ 8/hour part time gig. I mean, it seriously was a means to earn livelihood as a poor college kid. And then, I rode it 100 miles one day across all sorts of roads in Western New York, crossing some memorable spots like the bridge into Grand Island. I thought at the end of that ride I would have to be amputated, because I don't ever remember coasting my legs. It was a fixed gear bike on a 44 x 18.

It was Valentine's Day when I decided to sell this bike. If you are in a humorous mood,I gave him a discount on the promise that he would ride this bike hard; I cant stand mediocrity with my prized possession. I hope that in 2013's Ride Across Indiana, he did ride the 160 miles on my bike as he had promised. Oh, and he said he planned to do it at an average of 19 mph. 

United Arab Emirates : I fled the United States in early March to look for a new means to put bread on the table. I was frustrated, tired but brimming with new hope. As I flew away from Atlanta International Airport, I looked down and wondered how 10 years in a foreign land had come to this. All the memories with different people, trying new experiences, falling in love, breaking up, getting an education.... I was ready to leave a piece of myself there, right among the American clouds. When I reached Dubai, it was night. Nothing but the characteristic yellow street lamps down. As I stepped out of the plane, the humid air greeted an "Ahlan".

I'd been to Dubai before and honestly speaking, the great outdoors became the great indoors as I arrived at a time when the temperatures were soaring. Sitting at home for the first 2 months looking for a career online wasn't easy. Eventually, a man with big connections to the American Petroleum Institute hired me for an Malaysian Oil and Gas related engineering company. After he hired me, he joked that he thought I was Scottish when he came across my name for the first time. It made me feel good about my name actually.

I got down to visiting some key places in Dubai. Actually, let's say I got to wear a hat and move around taking photographs! The following pics were clicked at The Marina, the Walk, whilst riding the Creek on a boat and visiting the Miracle Garden where I really had to play around with colors to show the UAE emblem made with flowers as we were greeted that day with a terrible sandstorm! 

I greatly enjoyed moving to Al-Ain one day and riding the steep ascent up Jebel Hafeet on my bike. 9.2 km at 7.2% average grade. For the uninitiated, that's a lot of pain in the midday heat. 

I think I made it in time to the peak just to watch the sunset on the U.A.E's second highest peak (or maybe the tallest mountain road?) And if you stand on the mountain and move your frame of reference a bit, you can see the Sultanate of Oman.

It can get so hot in these parts that you get a feeling even the desert shifts places to cool itself from baking into a crisp. And when treading on baking sand in slippers, its not fun. Camels may only like you if you call in Arabic.I didn't have an experience of a camel charging at me. I think they are docile, bit shy creatures for the most part. 

And a desert babeque is something to be experienced, but I learned that you cannot light a fire easily with big lumps of charcoal and lighter fluid makes the food taste like crap. Hopefully, I'll try some changes in my next outdoor grill. 


The career took a shift from one continent to the other as I have alluded to in an entertaining post last year. Do read it because it will give you an idea of things head hunters do to get you until they find out they can't have you. Perfect catch 22.

Fortunately for me, the career in Jebel Ali Free Zone's Oil Field Supply Center has given me another opportunity with gas compression, only this time its reciprocating compressors as opposed to those nasty dynamic types with huge impeller wheels and crazy pressure ratio-flow diagrams. Actually, I enjoy both machines. But like engineering thermodynamics is often first taught using the concept of a cylinder and control volume, maybe this is me returning to the roots of compression by having to focus on perhaps the most basic of compressors. Either way, this new job has reminded me that I need to be proficient with API 11P and 618 to be a better application engineer. 

Understanding the beloved "recip" wasn't so hard. All it is a wonderful big bicycle pump that keeps pumping gas as long as suction pressure and flow feeds it. Its another on-skid scheme where well-head natural gas is taken into a gas engine driven compressor after knocking out fluids (water is in-compressible!), cooled in between stages to below API constraints before being pumped to the discharge outlet. 

These machines are typically used in deserted sites close to natural gas well head manifolds. They are supervised very little, so the machine needs to be instrumented and crudely smart to carry out the compression task.

Some neat tricks to manipulate flow are given by the adjustments to the clearances inside the cylinder. An operator can increase or decrease the clearance pocket manually and increase or decrease the flow accordingly. Other crude means to control flow are by using a bypass line to divert some of the compressed gas back to the suction side and using valve unloaders.

The job has actually provided some healthy tension as it forced me to adopt a complete systems engineering mindset to learn the interrelationships between choices in one facet of engineering to another. 

My first few months on the job were actually involved delving into a huge spare parts list for 16 compressor units. I imagined that such lists could be made standard for any job and then a subset could be derived off it depending on the specifics of a bespoke project. 

The next month or two were spent diving deep into the selection and sizing of recips. I learnt that it was an iterative process but the experienced application engineer could have a hunch that a certain compressor frame with a certain engine would do the task. It cuts down the exploration and more time can be devoted to sizing the cylinders and the rest of the pieces of the puzzle, such as scrubbers, pulsation bottles etc. A lot of this has an appreciable impact on cost. The inexperienced can quickly contribute to why a bid is lost, I think.

Which comes to the interesting part unique to recips - there's a certain intriguing aspect behind unsteady flow dynamics and vibration. A lot of the upfront sizing is done by the application engineering without being able to predict the dynamic nature of pulsation and what it can do to resonance, pressure drops in the system etc. This is the uncontested territory of specialized consultants such as Beta Machinery and I really like their work. Its a great wish that I get a chance to talk to a BM specialist to understand what his job and experience has been like looking at various projects across the world.

Another important aspect, besides the sizing of compressors and pressure vessels, is the design of the piping systems for conveying the gases in this package. This too is a bit new to me but I'm surprised in a good way at the complexities involved in piping design, especially when it comes to designing for something like thermal flexibility. Take a hot exhaust pipe between two anchor points flowing gas at almost 900 deg F for instance. How do you make sure you design it right and place the right components in the right place so it behaves predictably, the stresses are below the ASME B31.3 code, deflections are minimal etc? I was able to understand specialized components such as bellows and teach myself thermal analysis on an FEA package to predict how such pipes would behave when hot and stressed. It's taking a lot of the guesswork out of the equation and helps ensure that there is in-built capability in these systems. 

I continue into 2014 developing standards for the company and hoping for a new challenging project that will help me apply all the great things I have learned. I do have to say that its fortunate to work with people who are more experienced than you and are willing to share their insight into a problem. Any workplace that harbors a feeling of mutual respect, teaching and learning will grow. Others who enjoy hiding insights, spreading mistrust and degrading culture will fall. Its how evolution works. 


On the side of my day job, I also attend evening classes at Rochester Institute of Technology Dubai for a Master's Degree in Engineering. 

I don't know how it is that things fall into place so perfectly but it so happened that one of the two courses I took in my first semester had to do with the design and optimization of thermal systems, which essentially is a superset of what I do at work. 

The course began with a fundamental insight into thermal systems, the techniques to model thermal components and then simulate them using numerical techniques. The kinds of problems we took to solving involved pumps and piping systems, fans and ducts, gas turbines, compressors and heat exchangers. Fortunately, Dr. Ghalib Khawaji, our lecturer ground his teeth on compressors early in his career. I was able to do a final project in Reciprocating Compressor modeling and simulation. I included a sensitivity study of cost , as in how it was connected to design parameters connected with the compressor, engine, air cooled heat exchanger and so on.  My final exams and project presentation got me an A in the class.

The other course was Advanced Engineering Mathematics I. The course dived right into the techniques of solving differential equations of linear and non-linear systems, followed by a survey of matrices, Laplace transforms and Fourier Series.  This is where I met my nemesis. Being out of school for 6 years has proven to challenge me now as I had forgotten some of the basic concepts in differential and integral calculus! What a shame. I worked quite hard for the class, playing catch up most of the time as I needed quite an intensive refresher in many of the fundamental calculus concepts. Fortunately, I limited my losses in the final exam and got a B, when I actually thought I'd end up with something even worse.

Basically, the GPA at the end of the semester read 3.5. Not a bad start. I look forward eagerly to Finite Elements and Advanced Math II next semester. I've always wanted to try and master Finite Element Analysis, including an semester long chance to sit and play with ANSYS. I hope that time is here (rubs palms).


After my breakup with my ex-girlfriend (a relationship that spanned 8 years, the golden period of my college years), I wondered if I'd have any hope at all to find a more certain companion. What I did know is that I wasn't ready for a short term relationship any longer. I think every boy has a time in his life when something inside is knocking and saying 'Look buddy, this is it.... you need to settle down'.

In the midst of dodging countries and picking up a job and going to school, I can say that I somehow managed to meet a very fun, simple and loving girl through a matrimonial website. We chatted for 6 months until I gradually came to know her. She is cute, creative, not one of those sophisticated complex girls whom you'll have a tough time to understand. She, like me, enjoys the simple things in life and yearns for companionship. I can't honestly say whether or not this was all written in destiny, but what I can say is that sometimes you just have to make a decision and fight for it. I gradually informed my folks about her and we will soon travel to a happening part of India to visit her family. Actually, that's going to happen in let's see, 48 hours?!!

I long to tell you folks about that intimate part of life but we'll have to keep the wraps on it a bit longer I'm afraid. Till things are a bit more certain. 


As one of my cousins recently joked, 2013 was my last year as a bachelor. A lot of my peers will go through similar life experiences as me. I hope you all the best and if in doubt, there's always a brother next door to throw some deep questions at. 

Having said that, when I began this post telling you that 2013 was a year of healthy turmoil, I really meant the turmoil bit. Your mind and body dances across different moments, different experiences. For me, it all happened in the short span of 6-8 months when I learned a whole slew of new things and met other challenges. The mind wasn't at ease. It still isn't. I think in a few more months, when I have a feeling of certainty that this is the way things are going to be, I can finally call myself "settled". Until then, it will be a bit of an abstraction really.

Friends ! I wish you all a rocking new year! Make love, climb trees, explore like a child, save money, keep learning something new or you will get obsolete pretty soon, because that's how evolution works. OH...and use up your annual vacation days please!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Engineering Could Use Some PR

I love this startling image.  Powerful, keeps you spell bound. It shows the late Polish surgeon Zbigniew Religa as he painfully monitors the vital signs of a heart transplant patient with outdated medical technology. The photo was shot in 1987 by National Geographic photographer James Standfield. The operation which apparently took 23 hours became the first successful heart transplant ever conducted. His assistant seems to be more wiped out than the patient and is huddled in a corner trying to sleep.

This must have been great PR for Polish medicine. With an iconic image like that, you can't help but wonder how important a surgeon's job must be to society. His role is one free of prejudice and partiality. He offers his services to society regardless of caste, color, creed or financial status. Everyone knows what a surgeon does.

Interestingly then, how can a surgeon be effective if he can't administer the highest quality health care with the best equipment? This actually became the focal point of the photograph. It drove home the need for the Polish government to do something serious about its ill-equipped hospitals which had evidently become something of a national crisis in the 1980s. 

With the help of a single photo, not only could people know what a surgeon did, they knew he was really struggling without the right technology! Some calculated risk taking and a lot of focus turned this feat into a successful operation after 23 hours, but surely the tables could have been turned.

Technology amplifies the human. A man with the right tools for the right job is powerful. Its a great concept I borrowed and adapted from Mark Sanders, a well respected bicycle designer from the UK who said the same thing for bicycles - that it was a human amplifier. Extending this to the heart surgeon, this man wouldn't have been able to do his job without the engineered tools at his disposal. 

While a good number of medical technology was invented by medical professionals (and that helps every bit), a good bunch more were spurned by engineers. The Computed Tomography (CT) scan is one of the immortal tools at the doctor's disposal. Interestingly, tomography was invented by an electrical engineer Sir Godsfrey Hounsfield who was a weapons and radar specialist by profession. That's knowledge transfer for you. 

In a certain college class during my undergrad years, a well-known local resident by the name of Wilson Greatbatch was invited to come and speak to us (standing in the left photo in the blazer). This individual, an electrical engineer with some 300+ patents under his name, was a master's degree holder from the same institution I attended. Apparently, he had invented and brought to market the world's first implantable cardiac pacemaker many years ago which was considered one of the greatest engineering achievements in the U.S.

What was inspiring to learn in that talk was his acute awareness of society's needs, a trait highlighted by his willingness to tinker, to step outside traditional single minded engineering and study interdisciplinary areas such as medical electronics, agricultural genetics and the electro-chemistry of batteries. 

I'm sure anyone can dig up more examples like this given a bit more time but the point is that engineers are responsible for a lot of technologies that help other professions do their work. This importance of the profession and this symbiosis of tools and technology transfer is unfortunately living trapped in the whitepapers and webinars of engineering companies. 

Which gets me to a related topic which I believe don't sink much into a majority of people.

Someone who cobbles up a gizmo in his basement from spare parts, then goes to a bunch of local vendors asking them to be partners whilst calling himself an engineer is over- stepping the bounds a bit. What about the engineering profession teaches you that creating a one-off piece in your basement is the same as producing a million of those a year for a real market need with a balanced structure of cost, performance and reliability? 

A starting invention is a proof of concept. Engineering obviously starts from proof of concepts but but there's a whole slew of engineering analysis, validation and judgment calls to make before a product can be deemed fit for market. So someone isn't an engineer and his invention is not ready for prime-time yet. This isn't elitism, more so an important distinction made between tinkerer and the spectrum of activities that constitute the engineering profession.

Its also just as bad when the average Joe thinks that just because you're an engineer, you can fix his car. I think a fair number of us got that question more than once - "do you fix cars?" Well I would love to work on cars, but my profession doesn't teach me to fix cars or toilets. Its not what my job entails. I may have some insight into why the car isn't working if I had designed it, but I didn't design it. Besides, a very complex electro-mechanical machine like a car these days need its own army of specialized technicians who would know how to repair it. Engineers offer their services only where their expertise lies.

Engineering will be helped by some honest PR. I'm not just talking about the "cool" gadget shows on TV that gets an anchorman to spend a bit of time talking about stuff or companies promoting the great works they hath done, like this new Volvo commercial with Van Damme and two trucks to highlight the safety of directional steering stability. Rather, something at a more grassroots level to highlight the work of engineers as we all seem to be a modest bunch who like hard work but don't like to take credit.

But engineers could start with some evangelism themselves. At a recent chartered engineer's meeting in Abu Dhabi, IMechE president Patrick Kniveton who was the guest of honor really drove home the need for us engineers to start talking about who we are and what we do at any appropriate opportunity. This bit is possibly essential if we have to correct people's thinking about what we do and at the same time, inspire them to an extent. Anyone can read Mr. Knievton's Presidential Address titled 'Proud to be an Engineer'.

With IMechE President Patrick Kniveton (right) after his Abu Dhabi speech (Nov 2012)
If you have any experiences to share on this interesting (but oft beaten to death) topic, do chime in. 

Friday, November 8, 2013

A Fundamental Lesson in Running

Running is technical as much as it is simple and everything is relative.

For the elite sub 2:10:00 marathoner, trying to claw away one or two seconds might be the hardest thing they've ever done. For the newbie into running who's losing weight and making good improvements in short or middle distances, things may not be that difficult. Everyone is looking for ways to improve and have their own battles to fight.

While there's so much advice and fluff out there on how to run and how not to run, fundamentals rarely change. Let me tell you what I've found.

In my younger high school days, I was a somewhat of a runner and excelled in fast running, perhaps because the 100m dash was the most popularized form. Being of skinny stature, I could pick myself up and move quite briskly, enough to irritate bullies.

Running competitions in Physical Education class pit boys against boys in a mad dash on a mud ground. No one told us about tying our laces, wearing the right shoes, hydrating our bodies for hot weather, proper running form to avoid injury. Instruction was next to terrible.  But one thing sure was obvious to us as kids.

Old or fat folks just couldn't run.

If you were a "fatty" or a "budda" (old in Hindi), you were slow! They would never catch you so you had a warm fuzzy feeling that you had the upper hand in mischief!

As years passed, I went into more serious running in college. I entered 3K's, 5Ks, 10Ks, half marathons and subsequently the marathon. During those races, some shameful experiences opened my eyes and forced me to rethink hard ingrained ideas.

First, I wasn't as fast as I wanted to be. Fine, that's a given going into any competition. But here was the deal - I was getting passed by 50 year+ Caucasian men in the marathon. I was getting passed by a heavy set 40 year old in the 5K race.  And how is it that this wrinkled female of 60 perhaps was enduring this race longer than me? I stopped. She didn't. Wait a minute, I'm skinny, I'm fast right? I'm doing 7 min/mile for chrissake.

I couldn't have been more blind.

The physics in running is pretty simple. Physiologically, if you can run at the same speed as me but with lower oxygen demand, you are more economical. You have more margin if you have to pick up speed than me since I'm hopelessly near my red zone. I will tire. You will not.

The human engine differs from the internal combustion engine in that not only do we adapt and repair quite well, multiple energy systems ensure we have energy at the right rate for the right time. The carbohydrate system gives you lot of energy at fast rates but reserves are limited - maybe about 2000 kcal. The more ample fat based energy system, about 80000 kcal gives you energy at low rates but for longer times.

So the key to endurance is as simple as it sounds - to train your engine to operate in an area as far away from the line that turns an aerobic effort into an anaerobic effort. If you are genetically predisposed to operating in this manner, all the merrier.

This fundamental lesson didn't strike me as important until I went to an exercise lab to undergo testing. Using data conducted by qualified exercise scientists, I can show you what a typical metabolic profile looks like for running. I say typical because this is what an average person might show.

On the x axis is running speed in kmph. On the y axis is Energy metabolism in kcal per hour.  The plot tells me my base resting HR, the slope at which HR climbs relative to running speed, the ball park heart rates corresponding to running speed, the % share of energy from carbs and fat for the load under consideration and point beyond which my engine is only burning carbs - my red zone.

The data is indicative of why you run the way you run, excluding mental and other factors. The perspective is powerful and can be applied to tailor your workout zones.

Assume you're the average runner going into a head to head long distance run with a well trained but sub-elite 60 year old.  This person with an operational engine that is mostly aerobic and needs lesser oxygen for the same running loads is a better runner from the get go.  In the diagram above, that individual's % fat metabolism line might be remarkably flatter for long distance running with a suitably positioned point at which that % decreases, going into anaerobic.  You on the other hand rely on carbohydrates way more than they do, and since those stores are less, you won't be able to keep digging for a long time.

As the body produces various metabolites, you begin to fatigue.The end result is that you enter a region of no return, when you have to swallow your pride and either stop or slow down to bring your heart rate down.

The same idea may extend to people with "bigger' bodies who are seamless high intensity, short distance runners. My theory is that anyone who can store more glycogen in his muscles and use that efficiently is a better runner than those skinny types.

The doc has prescribed that I return to my fundamentals. The advice is sound. I'll be emphasizing aerobic training in my workouts for the next few weeks and will go in for another bout of testing to see what changes have happened.

Meanwhile, be comforted in the fact that the "old" and "fat" can in fact become good runners. You just have to go out and see how your body performs, so there's really no substitute to knowing yourself. Age is just a number and running is fascinating to me as it forces you to leave behind pre-conceived notions about anyone. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Novel Idea Generation Through Synectics

Its not very satisfying to read romanticized biographies of inventors and geniuses such as Edison and Rudolf Diesel. These works tend to completely ignore the group-think, group creativity in solving practical problems. The coffee place banter and irrational elements that may have led from one idea to the other to the final solution is an often missing element.

In-fact, after reading a certain in-depth biography of Diesel by Grosser, I was convinced that Diesel's assistant who toiled with him to build, test and repair the first working prototypes of the diesel engine must have been a similar genius as Rudolf. If it weren't for this vital collaboration of two minds, we'd have been short of the diesel engine for a few years, perhaps even a decade into the early 20th century.

These subtle and important details are left behind in romanticized books about the "lone-inventor genius" who one sunny morning chances upon an important idea that changes the world.

On a related note, I casually began reading a very interesting classic text on Synectics written by inventor and psychologist William J. Gordon. It was the first book of its kind that put forth an operational theory of creativity, extracted from numerous tape recorded group experiments in vivo, i.e, as they happened, which gave new insight into the underlying psychological factors at work in the formation of new, workable ideas.

The need for an operational theory is to increase the probability of success in problem stating, problem solving in technical groups. The idea is that a "Synectic" group can be more powerful than an individual acting alone to generate ideas. This study of the creative process to extract some hypothesis about the process is based on the assumption that the very process of examining a group of individuals in creative action will not demolish the creative process.

As the book states, Synectics theory holds the following hypotheses :

1.Creative efficiency can be markedly increased if we understand the psychological process by which they operate ;

2. in creative process the emotional component is more important than the intellectual, the irrational more important than the rational ;

3. it is these emotional, irrational elements which can and must be understood in order to increase the probability of success in a problem-solving situation.

Traditional design philosophies in engineering pontificate a step-by-step schematic of design and problem solving. The first step is to state the problem. Then you understand the constraints. Next, you brainstorm multiple alternatives that are workable. Last, you optimize and select the best one on a figure of merit, such as cost, efficiency, weight, etc.

Synectics is particularly interesting because it lays the groundwork for employing psychological mechanisms for problem solving. Its a deliberate sequence of steps to maximize group-think time instead of going around in circles.

Consider problems such as the need to invent a new, elegant and practical constant speed mechanism. Or a new jacking mechanism that should fit within certain limited dimensions yet be able to lift 4 tons. Or a novel can opener mechanism.

The carefully chosen Synectics design group, comprising of a group of people with diverse backgrounds and child-like qualities, then takes them apart and start looking at them differently. They could lose themselves for a few hours and make the problem strange, describe it in their own words, using analogies and metaphors to attack it.

They may focus on particular words such as "open", "lift", "turn" and think of different ways to describe them. Its a play with language. What can you associate with "open", or "close"? They may imagine themselves to be the element or component under consideration and think of forces and expected behaviors on them. "What if I'm this shaft, and this force is acting on me in this direction?'

Its purposeful banter. Its fun. There is an accident in this banter that is waiting to happen, an accident that could yield the next best solution. There is a heavy play of irrational elements, not as an end to themselves, but having a purpose to come up with new solutions. You have to dislodge your mind out of the laws of physics for brief moments and start to look at problems in new ways to gain new perspectives. With your compatriots, you form associations with other branches of knowledge.

These mechanisms of employing Synectics are validated. For instance, one mechanism of making associations, called Direct Analogy, took its course during the invention of tetraethyl lead. A passage from T.A Boyd's biography of C.F Kettering wrote thus : "Speculating then on why kerosene knocked worse than gasoline, as it was known to do, the two men reasoned that it might be because kerosene did not vaporize as readily as gasoline. They recalled that the wild flower, the trailing arbutus, with its red-backed leaves, blossoms early in spring, even under the snow. If only kerosene were dyed red, they speculated, it might - like the leaves of the trailing arbutus - absorb heat faster, and so vaporize quickly enough to burn in the engine like gasoline."

What did a flower have to do with Tetra-Ethyl lead? 

Synectics research is concerned with the idea that you can select a group of individuals carefully and train them in such a way as to employ psychological mechanisms and apparent irrelevancies to unearth new perspectives and solutions. This Synectics group can be a dedicated design team in a corporate or industrial setting,  setting up a program akin to Lockeed's Skunkworks, working off-hours in a dedicated meeting quarters complete with its own shop and lab facilities and immune from bureaucracy. Sounds like a whole lot of fun! 

Like the introduction of any program such as Six Sigma, companies looking to avail Synectics to evoke new technical ideas should consult Synectics experts such as this one. And don't miss out on the book I mentioned either.