TRIUMPH AND DISASTER: MEMBERS SHARE BIGGEST ACHIEVEMENTS – AND WORST FAILURES

Article Source: IMechE

IMechE members share stories of their proudest engineering achievements – and tales of times when things didn’t go quite to plan. What were the keys to success, and how did they react to disaster?

Greatest achievements

Global cooling

Many engineers are most proud of their efforts to tackle climate change in the future. Michael Reid, the engineering director of Solar Polar, is working on a new type of solar refrigerator. “It will bring refrigeration and air conditioning to the millions that don’t have mains electricity, and replace the CO2-emitting cooling of the rest of the world,” he says.

Another engineer helped to design and build a ‘flat pack’ diesel generator that could be transported around the world in shipping containers to quickly provide power to developing countries.

Riding the waves

Tom Heath was involved in building and operating the Limpet wave-energy plant on the Scottish island of Islay. “This was the first wave-energy plant to be grid-connected and operate autonomously for an extended period,” he says. Although the technology ended up being uncompetitive in terms of cost with offshore wind energy, he says the challenge of building the plant in the hostile marine environment was “both thrilling and rewarding”.

Inspiring the future

Plenty have taken delight in creating the next generation of engineers. Bob Rainbow assists on the Ffestiniog heritage railway in North Wales during its Young Volunteers Training Week. “Three dozen teenagers are taught a wide range of the practical skills necessary to run a self-sufficient railway, carrying many hundreds of thousands of tourists a year,” he explains. “When the young are good, they can be VERY good!”

Meeting impossible deadlines

“Many years ago Rank Xerox made photoreceptors for copying machines,” says Chris Jones, recalling a “very satisfying” project that left him exhausted and forced to sleep on site. “They were coated on huge vacuum machines. One Friday night, just packing up for the weekend, as a young man I was going caving in Wales – but, oh no, I was summoned to the clean area to be met by a row of zoot-suited dignitaries looking very serious. One coating machine was open, and its planetary cage holding the work had collapsed.

“The CEO stepped forward, pointed to the mess, saying that the whole factory resource was under my direction, I could ask anyone to assist, I could have anything I wanted, but I HAD to have it repaired and back in production by Monday. We did it by Tuesday: the repair design, the sourcing of materials, the skills needed, the lifting gear, the re-commissioning. It was a very intense undertaking, the success of which made my name common knowledge.”

Iconic projects

From racing cars to supersonic jets, IMechE members have worked on some of the most iconic engineering projects in history. Some, like Malcolm Tilley, helped build nuclear power stations, while others have set up factory lines that are still in operation decades later.

Robin Stafford Allen started out developing cars, before working on MRI scanners (“getting the magnets to work”) and ending up in nuclear fusion. Others did important work and found “great solutions to tricky problems,” but they’re not allowed to talk about it. Some of the biggest engineering triumphs are still top secret.

Career progression

Other engineers are simply proud of rising through the ranks. J R Uttley started as an apprentice and worked his way up to become a research engineer. Others, like Mark Lee, are at the start of their journey up the ladder – he’s just been promoted into his first technical management position, and leading a problem-solving team in the marine industry.

Alison Owen is proud of being accepted for her skills in a predominantly male environment, while Fred Bunce says that just becoming a chartered engineer ranks highly given his academic background. “None of it has been easy, but I can’t think of anything I would rather do,” he says.

Convincing the community

For Chris Jones, communication can be just as important as the technical stuff.  When building a new access road to a sewage works near the green belt, he met stiff opposition from local residents and pressure groups, and found that the key to success was “going the extra mile to convince activists and just ordinary worried people that we were looking after their best interests,” he says. “Very satisfying.”

Biggest disasters

Look out below

Malcolm Tilley was called in to help at a copper mine in Zambia, where the winding ropes kept breaking, causing a skip to crash to the bottom of the shaft. “The shaft had to be recovered and the installation repaired to allow production to be resumed,” he remembers.

The wrong hand

“As an apprentice, I milled 200 large Sandvik boring bars to left hand on the second operation,” recalls J Turner. “Much swearing followed as we thought they were scrap.” But there was a happy ending: “I thought about it, reversed the fixture and milled the first operation last and even got a ‘well done’.”

Turner isn’t the only engineer to fall foul of that particular problem. Robin Stafford Allen “spent ages sorting a new ‘cranked’ cast water transfer tube on a cylinder head only to realise that the drawings were of the wrong ‘hand’ when they turned up”. That effort didn’t go unrewarded, though: “We mounted one on a wooden plaque and it was presented for the cock-up of the month. We had to change the drawing and go back to the foundry pronto.”

Mind the glass

Passengers waiting for their train at Doncaster station got a nasty surprise one morning, says Robin Lumb. “I had inherited a fleet of Class 91 electric locomotives that had a history of failing bolts,” he says. “This resulted in traction arms being thrown off with a high risk of derailment due to a connecting-rod becoming detached with the possibility of a bogie ‘leap-frogging’ off the track.”

Soon after he started his job, a traction arm shattered two huge windows at the station. “The issue had to be dealt with,” he says. “I joined with the manufacturer and the owner of the locomotives to set up a panel to determine the cause. While an emergency checking regime was put in place to detect loose bolts, the committee examined the evidence but the cause remained a mystery.

“After several months and almost in desperation it was decided to witness every stage of manufacture and assembly and this resulted in the cause being found. A fitter involved in the assembly of sub-components of the drive was required to carefully align a thin rubber pad before pressing the bolt into place.

“The operative had not been properly trained or supervised and just dropped the pad into the hole where it was often pressed not flat, allowing a very small movement of the bolt to develop in service. This resulted in metal fatigue and eventual failure of the bolt.

“The process was corrected and the potentially fatal problem was engineered out of the fleet through checking and replacement when any looseness was detected. A simple cause but with a potentially disastrous outcome!”

Quick thinking saves day

On a cold night at a whisky distillery in the Scottish Highlands, a newly installed steam system ran into trouble when the controls on the boiler froze solid, remembers D Cormack.

“The boiler could not be shut off, steam was roaring through the safety valves, and the boiler water supply tank was also frozen,” he remembers. Quick thinking saved the day – he was able to supply water to the boiler through a fire hose until he could shut it down.

It was a similar story in India, where Tom Heath was commissioning a high-temperature furnace for graphitising carbon, at 2,400°C. “The site suffered a total power cut, which also stopped the flow of nitrogen to the furnace, which is used to exclude air and prevent the graphite elements of the furnace burning.” They needed to find a way of keeping air out of the furnace without power, and came up with the solution of packing the ends with oxidised acrylic fibre, which gave off gases that did the trick and “saved the day”.

Installation problems

When Michael Reid introduced a change to his range of solar-powered refrigerators, he found that the new components kept breaking during assembly, and struggled to figure out why. “The assembly workers weren’t carefully and gently placing the components on, they were just thumping them into place in the same way they did the previous component,” he says. “From then on I always took how it is done before the change into account in the design of any new component.”

Managing expectations

Jonathan Knew got a valuable lesson in the early 1990s. “I offered 39 people a choice of two options for a particular facility,” he recalls. “They unanimously agreed one particular choice. Funding was raised and a mock layout produced. I then found out that nobody liked the choice. They had only opted for it because it was the least bad option.

“I got a different layout agreed, at considerable expense. We suffered a delay of three months and went 30% over budget. Thankfully I had very understanding stakeholders!

“Since then I have always asked more open questions – for example, ‘do you think one of these layouts would work?’”


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