Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Diesel Deception : An Ode to the Volkswagen Jetta

During my time in the United States, colleagues and I would greatly enjoy discussions on diesel cars. Like, why weren't there enough of them in the U.S already? We knew diesel fuel holds about 12% more heat energy than the same amount of gasoline. In general, that meant, a diesel takes you farther with lesser fuel than a similar sized gasoline engined car. The Jetta happened to be everyone's favorite postercar for these discussions.

A comparison of a 2013 VW Jetta, with a 2.0L turbocharged engine running diesel and a 2.0L turbcharged Mitsubishi Lancer running premium gasoline shows stark differences. For roughly similar curb weights and passenger compartment volumes of 94 cu.ft, the U.S Department of Energy tells us that Jetta gives a 32 miles per gallon in combined city/highway compared to the Lancer's 20 miles to the gallon.

It also takes $43 to fill up a Lancer compared to $37 to fill the Jetta. Over a 5 year life cycle, compared to an average new car, you end up saving $2000 in fuel costs with the Jetta but you end up spending some $3000 more with the Lancer. What this also means is that you won't be complaining about the Jetta purchase 3-5 years down the road, as you'll end up breaking even (initial cost to fuel savings) at some point in that time frame.

Another point we are told is that both upstream in the fuel development cycle, and downstream, at the tailpipe, GHG emissions are lower in the Jetta than the gasoline Lancer. Below is the comparison from that same year, in grams of CO2 equivalent emissions (CO2 + Methane + NOx).

The EPA Smog Rating represents the amount of health-damaging and smog-forming airborne pollutants the vehicle emits. New vehicles are equipped with a sticker that shows the relative level of smog causing emissions created by the vehicle compared to others on the market. Smog-causing emissions include unburned hydrocarbons (HC) and oxides of nitrogen (NOx). Scoring ranges from 1 (worst) to 10 (best).

Those against diesel vehicles like to claim that diesel cars are nasty smog emitters. However what I find is that both the 2013 and 2014 VW Jettas appeared to have achieved the U.S EPA Smartway certification for reduced smog.

The Lancer may not have been the most ideal car to compare with the Jetta but I'm much given to my salesmanship when I think about diesel cars. They just makes sense in a world of climate change!

And so friends and I would chat about why there weren't more diesel cars, about gasoline fuel subsidies, higher priced aftertreatment emissions requirements and so on and so forth. Made for a good water cooler conversation.

With cars like Jetta being somewhat of a jewel among a bevy of polluters on our roads, it must come as a shock that possibly everything I wrote earlier about it's emissions ratings might be wrong.

The NYT has been running the story as the "diesel deception", where admittedly, senior executives from VW told EPA officials, hot on the chase for over a year, that inconsistencies in emissions values between pre-sale vehicle testing versus on-road numbers was because of a software trick.

I'm not aware of what VW actually used but the engine software in question recognized the onset of a test cycle and kicked into action for a better behaved engine performance. Typically, this involves a manipulation of the timing of fuel injection relative the movement of the piston. In normal driving, this software can be deactivated, allowing the car to tradeoff fuel economy for more pollution.

From a reading of this article, an unlikely set of heroes have emerged in discovering the fraud - a group of ex-EPA officials from the International Council on Clean Transportation who elected a research group at West Virginia University headed by Arvind Thiruvengadam, an Indian PhD in Mechanical Engineering, to test a small bunch of diesel cars on the road all in the name of science.

The ICCT is lucky to have chosen 2 out of 3 vehicles it proposed to WVU to be Volkswagens. Thiruvengadam's team, knowing how diesels should perform on the road from past testing experience, raised the red flag when they noticed anomalous postings. According to the article, some emissions values were apparently greater than those from heavy duty trucks. A baseline testing by a group from CARB would confirm the fraudulent emissions values and give credence to the WVU observation.

In the United States, emissions standards are managed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to the Federal Tier II specifications. The state of California has special vehicle emissions standards (CARB limits), and other states may choose to follow either the national or California standards.

Around 14 U.S states have adopted the CARB standards. It's instructive to compare the Federal emissions limits against the CARB limits to see the difference in stringency.

Under the 2004-2014 California LEVII motor vehicle missions, vehicles are restricted to the following numbers :

EPA's Tier II limits for light duty vehicles are the categorized into bins as the following :

From the two charts, I notice that a LEV II certification (in NOx for example) is equivalent to Bin 5 certification from the federal Tier II chart, while California SULEV certification is approximately equivalent to federal Bin 2. This is truly the case. California is extremely stringent in emissons.

Several other news articles on the same scandal state that the that Jetta posted values exceeding the U.S. NOx emissions standard by 15 to 35 times. The VW Passat was 5 to 20 times the standard.

Going purely off these numbers, I can place a low and high end ranges for what the researchers may have noticed during testing. I will assume the Jetta and the Passat were both 2014 models :

If these ranges are correct, the actual emissions performance of the VW Jetta places it in between an older/expired Bin 10b-10c and a Bin 11 vehicle category at the low end and entirely off the emissons charts at the high end.  The Passat would be between a Bin 8 and a Bin 10a category at the low end and off the emissions charts on the high end.

A momentary reflection of the fact that the greenhouse warming potential of N2O is over 300 times that of CO2 and that VW cars emitting several times their regulated values were sold and operated throughout the world for several years now will bring the gravity of the matter to light.  

That VW was trying to attain more fuel economy on the road by turning off the software is not a big surprise to me.  Engine OEM's have been doing some ridiculous things in the recent past to meet the U.S Federal Tier II and CARB regulations. From personal experience in diesel engine design, exhaust gas recirculation to combat NOx flies in the face of everything they told us about positive engine delta P, which is one in several factors affecting brake specific fuel consumption.

Specific to diesel engines is the PM vs NOx tradeoff, where if you do one thing in your combustion process to reduce NOx (typically with cooler temperatures), you start to see PM increase and vice versa. This is just an example in modern diesel engine design of a balancing act between several different parameters. Today's diesel engines are several thousand dollars more expensive than older ones because of several aftertreatment devices and control systems crammed in between engine and tailpipe. Manufacturers have to keep getting innovative year on year to meet stringent limits.

However, short of feeling sympathetic, VW still deserves a wider explanation to it's audience. To me, there are several other engineering and management decisions that could have been taken as emissions strategies. A case in point was during the roll into EPA 2010 emissions limits, when Cummins choose to adopt Selective Catalytic Reduction in their diesel engines versus Navistar shunning SCR and sticking to EGR. Cummins won with their technology solution, while Navistar failed to comply with the limits and paid $3700 fines on each non-compliant truck engine.

Precisely who in VW signed off on rigging the tests out of all other options beats me.  How did they even justify the risks that this involved, both financially and market reputation wise? These and similar corporate responsiblity type questions were posed by two Schulich business school professors Crane and Matten on their blog as well. 

The fallout could be huge. Volkswagen Jetta, for a long time, has been a reasonably priced small family car running one of the most efficient combustion engines around. However several people are going to sell their Jettas after the recall. The resale value on this vehicle will plummet like a rock. 

You can't discount the fact that that people will start to lose a bit of faith in the diesel engine itself. A market that's already straining to make grounds on a stage full of petrol cars might be looking at more struggles ahead. At the moment, we have few breakthrough engine technologies to meet environmental limits while staying commercially viable. With the VW scandal, one piece of the solution turnS out to be no solution at all, atleast in the eyes of the average Joe.

The bright side to this news is that organizations like EPA and several others around the globe will find out a method to defeat violators on the road. Maybe some new working groups will be formed to formulate off-cycle engine tests to cross-verify with dyno results. Perhaps some new independant agencies will form to assist customers in this verification. The stage is open for discussion.

Automotive safety is closely linked to the formation of such groups. The very reason why Ralph Nader brought about the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act in 1966 was because of alleged design flaws in the suspension system of the 1959 Chevrolet Corvair. Before that fiasco in which a few people were even killed, the Corvair would go on to be named "Car of the Year" in 1960.

In another case with very close resemblance to the VW software hack, EPA had taken a group of diesel engine manufacturer's to task in 1998 for cheating during the FTA test cycle. What is strange to me is that the same problem has come to bite them now and it was a public university that first documented the issue. I fully expect a justice department hearing to call up EPA officials demanding an explanation to this oversight.

Perhaps now is the best time for some VW executives to read up on these pages in history.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

U.A.E Fuel Deregulation and Some Implications

July 28 Update : U.A.E Fuel prices committee has released revised fuel prices for August 2015.

In what's most likely a watershed moment in the U.A.E economy, from August 2015 petrol prices will no longer stay regulated at $0.47/liter as has been the case for many years. Diesel prices will decrease. The decision is, as I see it, in line with several precursors steering the U.A.E towards a realistic existence amidst our 21st century issues. Let's take a look at some of these.

The U.A.E government's strategy for a "Green Economy", a vision launched in 2012, aims for a reduction in domestic consumption of oil by 7-10%, natural gas by 7-20% and electricity by 11-15% year on year through to 2030. An 18.4% CO2 emissions contribution from the transportation sector (2011 World Bank data) doesn't appear to support that vision.

The Dubai Strategic Plan 2015 had the Road and Transportation Authority (RTA) setting a target of 30% of the population using public transport in 2020, compared with 12% in 2010 (UAE State of Green Economy Report, 2014).

To cope with the ever-rising traffic volume and road congestion in Dubai, the Salik toll collection system was rolled out in 2007. In October 2013, car-pooling was legalized.

Lots of money was pumped into the vitalizing a metro and the tram system. Biodiesel was investigated for the public buses. In Abu Dhabi, a park and ride system was started whereby someone from the outskirts could park their car and take a shuttle into the interior of the city for free.

Charging stations were introduced in a move to build an infrastructure for electric vehicles.

A Dubai Bicycle Plan aims at providing 850km of bikeways in strategically located areas and other cycle tracks have already been developed for the sports minded.

The U.A.E GDP grew 27 times since the 1975, largely supported by oil and gas revenues. In a double whammy, $50/barrel oil price not only squeezes that share but also discourages the proliferation of renewable energy technologies. It gives an opportunity for everyone to sit up and take notice of the gorilla in the room - regulated pump prices. If you ask me, this has been long overdue.

What might some of the implications be from new fuel prices to be announced soon?

1) Firstly, people taking long trips are going to obviously going to think twice. Let us suppose gas price in U.A.E increases to $1/liter, a 113% increase. Driving a car with an average fuel efficiency of 25 mpg (9.4 L/100km, a figure representative of my 2 year old Mitsubishi), a round trip to :

a) Sharjah (22.08km away) and back would cost 4.2L of petrol and 4.2 x $1 = $4.2 = 15.79 AED versus 7.52 AED with current price of $0.47/L.
b) Abu Dhabi (152.4km away) and back would cost 28.66L of petrol and 28.66 x $1 = $28.66 = 107.76 AED versus 51.74 AED with current price of $0.47/L.

In both these cases, one can expect roughly the same % increase in travel costs as the 113% increase in fuel costs.

2) I see more people investing in GPS units (best "Ecoroute", that kind of thing) and utilizing smart driving services like apps, which give real time traffic information. Trip planning could take more prominence.

3) I hope this sets in motion a massive awareness for fuel efficient vehicles. It makes promise for vehicles such as the Toyota Prius, Nissan Leaf or the Tesla BEV's. It also makes promise for diesel cars. While their first costs might be a bit on the high side, the lifecycle operation costs of using a higher energy density fuel will be low.  I'd like to see these vehicles in U.A.E showrooms ASAP. A hybrid or a diesel should be choices that people can make without having to resort to importing. I'm a bit upset there has been a vacuum in the UAE so far for these models.

4) I hope it allows people to think about methods to economic driving as well.  Less displacement is really better. Turbos are not just for sportscars. Driving slower is good for your pocket. Lower engine RPM's are good. This has the benefit of reducing speeds on Dubai roads as well. And does a family of 2 really need a towering 4x4? An Aston Martin to go to Carrefour? How about a Toyota or a Kia for that purpose? Retailers and showrooms have got some work to do to in educating the masses about these things.

5) I suspect the fuel price hike will change the trend for people to clog up toll-free roads. The difference between money saved by avoidance relative to the extra fuel needed to go the longer toll-free distance will most likely vanish.

6) Bicycle commuting lanes on the roads? Anyone? I'd champion this any day. We'll have to wait and see if the RTA plans on introducing dedicated lanes on the roads so that those who don't wish to drive or take the public transpo have an option. While it's easy to say this, I imagine a single bicycle track, an artery, running from the innards of Deira all the way to Jebal Ali along the Sh. Zayed Road would be just awesome. It could have multiple take off points so people could divert to key locations along the way. I don't see this happening any time soon but I eagerly await a more comprehensive picture of the Dubai Canal works to see what we can expect come 2017-2018.

7) Status boosting is the itch to buy a gas guzzling V8 and a 4 digit number plate to go along so you look good at the water cooler in the office. Well, I for one do hope the fuel degregulation makes a strong attempt to demolish this trend because it borders on discourteousness to the rest of the economizing society.

8) What I would also like to see is a massive turnaround in the trucking fleet in the U.A.E. This is one of the other low hanging fuits for improvement in terms of fuel efficiency and emissions. To see clean stuff coming out of the tailpipe from a rickety Volvo or a people carrier is, I suspect, what many people would also like to see while driving on Sh. Zayed Road. It's about time people in the trucking fleet community started talking about EGR, SCR systems, clean combustion diesel, things of that nature. Educate the drivers as well, especially about proper tire pressures! Why? Because it eats into fuel efficiency!

I'd like to conclude that if you're one among the bunch looking for a vehicle in 2015/16, knock yourself out and go through this handy EPA dataset of vehicles listed according to fuel economy. While I hope there's a datasheet more representative of vehicles in the U.A.E, it should at the minimum give someone a clue about what is the state of the art in fuel economy numbers these days. Thanks.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Human Power at the Tour de France

To technically appreciate bicycle racing in the Tour de France is to fundamentally appreciate Newtonian physics, although purists will disagree to such bland reductionism. If you want to race up a steep mountain road, you need a net human power exceeding the retarding effects of tire rolling resistance and gravity.  When the road is a bit more nice and flat and where you tend to reach higher speeds, you need a net human power exceeding the retarding effects of aerodynamic drag. 

If you have large pockets, have your own bike fitted with a cycling power meter and inspect the wattage as you pedal. If you're savvier with numbers, fire up an MS Excel and program a little spreadsheet based on the math described in this paper by Martin et al titled "A Mathematical Model for Road Cycling Power". It should give you numbers that are unsurprisingly close enough to the reading from a power meter (exception to high windy days) because as mentioned earlier, cycling is Newtonian physics. 

The figure of merit for a Tour de France cyclist can be represented in terms of speed, absolute power, or power to weight ratio. Since the Tour is always decided in the mountains, being able to ride a bicycle uphill for long periods of time at somewhere between 10-15 mph (16-24 kph) is top class. During a sudden acceleration, a strategic move called an "attack" in cycling, being able to punch 18-20 mph (29-30 kph) for 10-20 seconds at a time is sheer top class. 

Power wise, being able to maintain between 330-350 watts for 20 or more minutes is great, somewhere around 380-400 watts or greater is top class. Power to weight ratio wise, a figure between 5.8-6.0 watts/kilogram is what it takes to deliver serious firepower in the mountains. Therefore, it doesn't assist you if you weigh 100 kilos rather than 70 kilos, because 70 x 6 = 420 watts is easier than 100 x 6 = 600 watts to do the same job.

The power to weight ratio allows for comparison between different riders. Since margins at the Tour is over minutes and seconds on a climb, a difference of 1 watt/kilogram between two riders makes the difference between sitting overall in top 10 or sitting overall in top 20 spot. In terms of money, that's worth something to a guy who earns his bread racing a bicycle. It's really as simple as that.

Riders often "warm up" on stationary bikes before the start of a stage, particularly before the start of a time trial, which is an individual race against the clock. They have a warm up routine, an instruction telling them how many minutes to spend at specific power levels.

Below is such a warmup sheet pasted on Alberto Contador's bike during a recent Tour de France. Alberto is a top tier professional cyclist and rides for Team Saxo Tinkoff. Inspect the numbers. He is asked to warm up at less than 150 watts, ramp up his output from there 30 watts each time all the way to 420 watts, followed by an easy spin at less than 150 watts. For an average individual, reaching 380-420 watts for extended periods of time can involve profuse sweating, high heart rates and dry-as-bone breathing.

A recent video posted online (see below) by hackers shows power and speed data of Chris Froome from Stage 15 of the 2013 Tour de France. On this particular day, Froome became the first British rider to win on the high mountain road to the summit of Mont Ventoux. Known as the "Giant of Provence", this road has a staggering average gradient of 7.6% for 21 kilometers. Froome would go on to win the 2013 Tour de France.

The Tour is especially interesting because of these dramatic incidences, where a community of rabid fans view extraordinary cycling performance and begin to have their own doubts about them. While there are people who can make careless mistakes with statistics, a simple understanding of physics and the records broken in the past Tours can tell any average Joe what might be possible in the realm of "ethical" sporting. I leave any judgment of Froome's performance aside and simply enjoy the action.

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Decline of Naturally Aspirated

For several years now, the writing has been getting clearer on the wall. NA engines are becoming niche, and there's little evidence that automakers are running off to design new NA engines from scratch apart from a few modifications year on year.

A casual look at this year's 2015 Ward's 10 Best engines shows that 8 out of the 10 winners are forced induction and 6 are specifically turbocharged engines. (Incidentally, my favorite "sports" car is on this list with its fine 6.2L supercharged V-8... actually this makes it twice in a row as it had won in 2014 as well).

An article in June's Engine Technology International puts some figures to the case for turbos. Apparently, even the worst turbocharged engine will get you an honest mean effective pressure of 15 bar. Put into other words, these low end turbocharged engines already put out a specific power of 100 kW/liter, which is roundabout the same figure the best NA engines muster today.

There's really no competition, or is there ? What can possibly compete?

Electric superchargers are independent of parasitic losses but lose a ton of power in energy conversion. Further, they are only transient devices. Commercial entries to "electric boosters" have been labeled a scam. They don't work.

PHEVs offer promise, since they supply instant torque on startup and eliminate the need for turbo assisted low speed torque. Hybrids also cut back on range anxiety since you can technically always fall back on an IC engine. However, battery costs are looking prohibitive for most people right now. In countries like the U.A.E where I live, the electric infrastructure is only starting to pop up, and in minuscule amounts.

At some point in the next few years, I'll buy a new car and it won't be special to tell others it's turbocharged.  I'll most likely get disgusted looks if I say it's NA.

*  *  *

Ward's 10 best engines of 2015 (link) :

127-kW Electric Motor (BMW i3 electric vehicle)
6.2L OHV V-8 (Chevrolet Corvette Stingray)
6.2L Supercharged OHV V-8 (Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat)
1.0L Turbocharged DOHC 3-cyl. (Ford Fiesta)
100-kW Fuel Cell (Hyundai Tucson FCV)
1.5L Turbocharged DOHC 3-cyl. (Mini Cooper)
3.0L Turbodiesel DOHC V-6 (Ram 1500 EcoDiesel)
2.0L Turbocharged DOHC H-4 (Subaru WRX)
1.8L Turbocharged DOHC 4-cyl. (Volkswagen Golf)
2.0L Turbocharged  DOHC 4-cyl. (Volvo S60)

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Earthquakes Highlight Need To Review Masonry Practices In Developing Countries

Dharahara or Bhimsen Tower, a famous 62m high historical structure in Kathmandu, has been toppled today by a 7.9 Magnitude Earthquake. For an average fee of a dollar, visitors could climb its spiral staircase and view the skies over Kathmandu. Given it's popularity, tourists from several countries might have been there today. Any number of guesses can be taken at the casualties from the disaster. 

I borrowed a pic floating on Twitter taken in the aftermath of the quake which show nothing much but 1/8th of the Tower left and a diagonal cut terminating at its end.

Masonry is poor in tensile strength but great in compression. The diagonal cut is characteristic of masonry when the earth suddenly moves sideways but the inertia of the structure has no "give" to react. This causes the upper parts of the structure to slide over lower ones, and the shearing force eventually cuts a crack at this interface. Repeated shaking of the earth back and forth opens up the diagonal crack in both directions, somewhat like an X and the structure eventually crumbles. 

An example of X shaped crack formation can be seen below from another residential building in Kathmandu. The pic was posted by CNN-IBN.

How could masonry structures be improved in developing parts of the world?

This paper published in Future Trends in Structural, Civil, Environmental and Mechanical Engineering, estimated in a lab test that for a mortar thickness of 3/4 inch and shear loading rate of 1/2 ton, an average deformation of 0.140 inch was noticed before the sample failed in shear.  The corresponding shear force was around 14000 lbs and the failure strain was 0.375 inch/inch. Another sample, with only 1/2 inch of mortar in between the bricks showed slightly more deflection but failed at approximately 13000 lbs of shear force at something like 570 inch/inch of strain. In general, the study shows that bricks with higher mortar thickness and higher cement ratios in the mortar show lower tensile stress on loading.

Certainly this sets stage for several questions. Might studies like the above indicate a need to review and control these parameters in masonry? Are more standards required for contractors to meet exacting specifications so structures could be more resilient?  Should renovation of heritage masonry structures be the perfect time to revise the underlying structural makeup?

Indeed it is surprising to learn that the Bhimen Tower is no stranger to earthquakes, having been extensively damaged in an earlier quake and rebuilt in the 1930's. I have no technical details of the structure since the renovation, however one wonders if improved construction practices may have changed the outcome of today?

Interestingly, there's a story of Bristish naturalist Brian Houghton Hodgson, who on horse ride ride with Bhimsen Thapa past a rebuilt 9 story Bhimsen Tower, was to remark on the "necessity of applying either practical knowledge or improved scientific practices in the constructions of this type". I hate to take that out of context but it may offer some clues as to what Hodgson thought of structural practices followed by the Nepalese.

Let me know if you know anything more. Meanwhile I'll update as I see technically relevant things.

Bhimsen Tower after the 1934 Earthquake

View from the 8th floor of the Bhimsen Tower, pic taken by Emily Sharples on Nov 22, 2009

The Tower after the 7.9 magnitude earthquake in Nepal on April 25, 2015. Notice the diagonal cut in the structure roughly 1/8th of the way up from the base.

 Another angle of the destruction, from the Washington Post.  It indicates lot of brickwork in the debris. 

An interesting video shown below is from a 2011 upload by Al-Jazeera, where the Joint Secretary of the Home Ministry is seen decrying the local non-compliance with building codes.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Programming Yourself in an Engineering Career

Below are a few topics I feel needs addressed, some areas where you can go wrong very easily in the engineering workplace. Unfortunately for me, it has come from some of my worst observations working at different companies. Fortunately for you, you can take home some lessons or get you at-least thinking about issues discussed below.

1. Female engineers : Unfortunately the engineering world is male dominated, and in 9 out of 10 cases, the engineering offices you're dwelling in has one female , and she happens to be the receptionist! In 1 out of 10 cases, you might land in an exceptional company with a diverse workforce where a pool of bright women are leading project meetings or pioneering Six Sigma projects. And then you wonder what is wrong with the other 9 companies where approximately one half of our other population is missing in action? This is an extremely important HR issue that companies have to address not later, but NOW.

For those companies that do have a few females in the junior ranks, you'd be plenty surprised by the questions they ask, the speed with which they execute and how quickly they learn. In my experience, they have an equal penchant for technical matters and getting hands dirty. Therefore, as a male engineer, there really should be no place for sexist attitudes and indifferences towards women. 

As an engineering manager, or as a senior engineering colleague, you must take some time off on a weekly basis to sit with a female and encourage them to explore the different areas of interest within the company. Answer their persistent questions. If they are ambitious, show them where they could go forward in their careers in a few year's time. With time, start empowering them with tasks where they take the lead in chasing down engineering issues and closing out action items. 

Chances are, this female engineer is going to like working there and will most likely be successful at some point after learning the ropes. The is a potential that some of her juniors in college or just friends or cousins are going to see her enjoy this career choice and follow suit. This could bring in more women into the field and turn around the void in gender diversity that engineering is sadly notorious for.

2. Engineering Documentation, Reporting and Recommending Actions : Smaller companies, where you maybe working, perhaps don't have a culture of documenting work and storing it in a safe repository. Bigger companies tend to have excellent systems in this respect, where they believe that accurately capturing the "what was done" becomes not only a learning tool for those wishing to replicate the same successes in future, but also a tool to use in times when crap hits the ceiling. When hundreds of events happen every week, memory is a previous resource. People tend to quickly forget what they had done, what they stated, whom they talked to. Some will also tend to show selective amnesia. Therefore, my advice is to maintain a personal work diary at the minimum where work progress is documented by date and key findings are underlined. It comes to aid when you least expect it!

Something also has to be said about reading reports, especially test reports, which conveniently skip giving conclusions or recommendations based on the analyses. It often feel like the writer has led you down a road giving horror stories along the way and then traps you at a dead end. The difference between a good analyst and a mediocre one is made here, where the good analyst can use experience and expertise to provide a reader with strategies to minimize risks. A mediocre analyst knows how to use a software. And that's it.

3. Design Reviewing : One of the really cool things about engineering is this existential element of designing a variety of things while spending loads and loads of someone else's money. But no one said you should run away with that idea.

If you have ever heard history repeats itself, it couldn't ring more true in the engineering office where over and over again, the same mistakes get repeated and exorbitant amounts of money are spent correcting these issues. And then comes in the meetings, where they discuss the need for more checklists, more design reviews, more standards. Unfortunately, it's all talk and months later, there is still none of these in place.

When projects are in a financial or scheduling mess, the engineering office becomes an easy target for others to hurl blame at. As an engineer, you could be between a rock and a hard place if your name was on a drawing that you said you had checked before it got fabricated but the drawing was later found to contain multiple errors. 

What I would like to highlight is the fact that as an inhabitant of the engineering office, it is your duty to respect your company's finances. At the same time, proudly uphold the values of your profession and let no one else talk dirty about it. 

One way to ensure this happens is total quality control. Before something leaves your desk, you need to check it. How are you going to check it? Either you have a list of things to tick off against or you have a standard to compare a drawing or datasheet against. Don't hesitate to call a few experienced engineers in the room into a meeting and show "the plan" before you make the plan. Take some time off to do this immediately in some of the most common tasks and you'll thank yourself for the extra effort, especially when you see you've been personally responsible for saving lots of company money.

However, a more robust engineering situation is created when the design review gate is directly implemented into the department's engineering plan. This is a philosophy of Systems Engineering. Why engineering managers hold onto the old and tired ways, while failing to introduce this very simple step into departmental procedures, something that can have both time and cost benefits, is beyond me. If someone else likes to answer, please do.

4. In-house softwares : We all have, at some point, created some spreadsheet for personal calculations. Sometimes, we create them for someone else to use it. Years later, when you're long dead, some junior engineer will continue using this spreadsheet that sits loosely in a disorganized folder on the company's network drive.

There's a hornest's nest waiting to be stirred here. You can be extremely pleased with the results of your software without hardly taking the time to validate it. How can you ever be certain your program runs on a stream of inputs correctly at all times? The problem starts with this attitude of "machine complacency", that the computer is smart and knows what its doing, therefore it must be right.

Machine complacency pays negative results when the ISO auditor visits the office and asks the engineering manager to prove that these in house softwares are validated. If there's little in terms of an answer, the auditor smirks and marks you a point of "non compliance".

The point of this story is not to highlight the importance of scoring on audits. It is to highlight a very basic fact that engineers continue to neglect wherever I go. If its a spreadsheet you're developing, take the time to title the sheet and atleast provide the name and email of the author. Check to make sure cells are referenced correctly. Look out for division by zero possibilities. Run a range of values and see if the results you get agree with either theory or simple intuition. If it's a software that you're developing for others, ask those others if it's okay to try your program on their laptops in a meeting room. Observe them using it for sometime. You'd be surprised in getting back some of the areas you'd missed when developing the software. At the very least, you can learn something about what a proper user interface is!

5. Relationship with suppliers : If you've ever worked for a large OEM like I have, chances are that on more than a few occasions a month, a supplier wants to lunch with you while talking about their products and about your business.  

As a rule I like to follow, do not ever agree to consume alcohol during this lunch meeting, for which the worst consequence could be you running your mouth loose and letting out some facts about the company your supplier shouldn't really be knowing about.  On the same token, do not ever agree to accept cash gifts of any kind as an invitation to do more business. In the U.S, if you're caught doing something like this, you're committing an FCPA violation and you risk losing your job. If you don't know what FCPA is, do yourself a favor and look it up. 

In smaller companies where rules of supplier interaction maybe a little more loose, always keep in mind that it is no business of yours as an engineer to be initiating commercial discussions with any supplier. More often than not, this will tend to land you in unintended trouble. Talk strictly technical issues, those of specifications or drawings or how to solve a particular issue. Please leave commercial topics to the proper departments in your company. 

On the same note, whether you're at an expo meetup or in the meeting room of another company, you're first and foremost a representative of your employer. Second, you are part of the wider engineering body that has clear codes of professionalism. Therefore, always be ethical and sound in judgment and action towards your suppliers. This really means avoid the gamut of actions from kissing to threatening someone else's life!

6. English, Please! : I end with this serious note : The engineering office is not a place where you should feel free to exercise knowledge of different languages. Stick to English, please! The old and established senior engineer who refuses to address your concerns in English should basically be made to take a trip to the HR department and sort out his linguistic deficiencies. I have this funny feeling that it's only a matter of time before somewhere in the world, in an industrial plant, an HSE related concern is conveyed by one engineer to another another in a foreign language [insert favorite choice here] , but the intent wasn't captured, ending up in something critical not being done while something else was done instead and shortly thereafter ---> BOOM. 

There are lots of additional things I can add about programming yourself in an engineering career, but I will choose to devote another post to those. Thanks for reading!

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Thoughts from "Meet D3" Opening Night for Dubai Design District

Dubai has had a slight love affair with zoning up the city into a myriad purpose built pieces. Those who like to do business, you can go there. Those who like academics, go here. Those who like IT and media, way over there. Perhaps fashion was the only genre left alone so far, with it's elements still spread among the 70 or so malls in the city and dotted into the landscape along Jumeirah Road, Bur Dubai and holes in the walls of Deira.

The noble idea behind Dubai's latest project, the Dubai Design District, is perhaps to change all that by providing a purpose built community dedicated to local design talent offering retail, office and residential spaces to those who are a little more art centric than the rest of the crowd. 

My wife and I happened to visit the opening day, or opening night rather, rightly termed Meet D3, setup in a cozy area nestled between Al-Khail and Oud Metha roads with a not so bad choice of Burj Khalifa looking over in the backyard. The parking was problem free, so we were able to walk into the festivities quite quickly. 

First sights and smells were these interesting half finished buildings with bold and unique facades. Down below, tents and stalls had been set up with music and street art with a generous provision for selfie cameras. We didn't have the time to check out the Chewing Gum factory but surely it was one of the biggest items of curiosity there. 

A quick visit to a music tent introduced me to Speed Caravan's electric Oud playing Mehdi Haddab who pretty much knocked my socks off. After an hour of walking around braving the sandy winds, we got some moderately priced Mexican food and sat down to have a talk with the owners of Not Just a Label, an interesting platform set up to nurture and showcase the work of promising contemporary fashion designers from all over the world. Mashrou Leila, a contemporary Lebanese rock band played along on the big stage ahead of us.

One of the things that came out of the conversation with the NJAL folks was our disappointment with the lack of sufficient job creators on the fashion scene in Dubai. It comes down to questions like what is a novice fashion designer to do when there's few design houses with the oomph and capacity to hire them?Not everyone can start off with a boutique right after school and those early years working under an experienced fashion designer is, I would argue, a crucial point in any designer's training.

The impression of Dubai as a fashion hub may certainly be correct, but the frustration to me comes when knowing that over 80% of the time, the hub is but a place for trading, i.e shipping product designed or made somewhere else out the door. And some of these clothes, because of brand names and import duties, are clearly for people with deep pockets. When you visit a store in Sunset Mall or a Design Shop in Jumeirah, you don't get the impression that much of the stuff being displayed is made in the Emirates, leave alone the fact that they aren't even selling that quickly.

What we would like to see more of is real industries coming up in Dubai that caters to the entire spectrum of activities in fashion - design, fabrication, marketing and selling with emphasis on design and fabrication. If Dubai can encourage local talent to setup such industries, prices can go down, more people will get to see and experience those creations and the younger design community will have something to aspire to for jobs and career networking. 

Its my opinion that the fashion ecosystem needs some kind of a balance. Let's step a bit away from this luxury boutique business culture which is a low volume business (might I add it even sounds ephemeral) to something that has more power and mass to it. We need more design firms set up in the Emirate which have good balance sheets and sufficient capacity to create new jobs. It'd be great if the Fashion houses and fashion consultancies can address these real issues. 

We left the opening night after a few pieces from the John Newman gig but I left with a little void in my head not knowing exactly what the big plans are for D3 in the upcoming years and who might occupy the space in this zone. And how exactly are they going to reach out to the community of designers? I imagine the dream is a promising new landscape for local design and local fabrication and that this is not just another business park venture.  What D3 could possibly flower into in 2017 or 2018 is something we'd just have to wait and see.