Sunday, August 28, 2011

Transforming the Image of Engineering: Part 2

Following from the previous post, Transforming the Image of Engineering: Part 1, this post is about showing an existing side of engineering that is far more interesting and attractive to women.

My dad is a doctor and I grew up in a rural Kwa-Zulu Natal town in South Africa. It was my dream to be a doctor and work for Doctors Without Borders. When my dad asked me why I wanted to follow that path, I said simply, "Because I want to help people, Daddy."

Back then I had no idea about what an Engineer was. Buildings, roads and machines just appeared. You picked up a sewing machine, or a washing machine from a shop and sent it in when it broke. My medically-orientated family were not much help in this respect. I used to get into a world of trouble for taking apart the vacuum cleaner and sewing machine. When I figured out how the damn thing worked and started making my own clothes at 12, my parents were not impressed. They wanted me to become a doctor, not a dress maker!

They looked a little like this:

Okay, my parents look nothing like that. But they were strict Indian parents nonetheless so you get the picture!

Looking back now, I laugh at how much engineering actually goes into making clothes. You have to design for manufacture and assembly, considering the fabric properties: texture, flow, pattern. Then you need to cut the shapes leaving enough space for machining (sewing seams). Finally, you have to use logic to determine what order to assemble the pieces together to create a seamless and neat finish. Sound familiar? 

I was an engineer, it was clear as day. But my parents just didn't know enough about engineering to recognise this. And my father wondered how I was going to match my philanthropic dream up with a technical career. I wondered too. But I stuck to my guns and it wasn't until my final year of engineering that I figured out how I could help others and be and engineer! An opportunity to lead an Engineers Without Borders project landed on my lap (by some miracle and thanks to the wonderful ex-chair of EWB-UCT Brennan Hodkinson) and everything started to align. The project involved finding cooking alternatives for people trading in Nyanga Informal Settlement in Cape Town. (Their methods were harmful to their health). After countless site-visits where we sought to understand people's needs, we came up with high-efficiency stoves. (These were developed by our Technical Head MD together with Honeycomb Homes in Durban who develop green technologies!)

From there, I discovered that instead of a purely technical thesis, I could propose my own thesis project that sought to improve process-flows within a public hospital on the notorious Cape Flats. I used techniques developed in car manufacturing to ensure critical medical equipment was available to patients when they needed it.
(My dad was very proud and started telling everyone he could that his daughter was an engineer!)

I was incredibly lucky to have an awesome supervisor who understood what I wanted to do and helped me realise it. Not all universities allow this, but that too is changing. EWB-UK operates a program for undergraduate engineering students where external community development organizations and NGO’s submit research projects to universities. Those projects that pass the bar are made available to final-year students who work directly with these agencies – benefiting from the real-world experience this offers.

EWB-Australia has implemented a similar program, introducing all first year students to development through their “EWB Challenge”, and to a full research project based on community involvement in their final year. Each year, more female students than males take on these final-year projects. This amazing initiative was itself implemented by a woman - EWB-Australia’s CEO Elizabeth Webb Brown, who was then Director of Education, Research and Training.

 So I say, why not?  Why not make this unconventional but increasingly important side of engineering visible to students? Why not teach them that design isn’t confined to the little book of Shigley’s Machine Component Design? Why not give mechanical engineering students the opportunity to design a solar-powered, Ghandian-Engineering torch rather than another battery-operated one, for a fraction of the price. Why not highlight in our university brochures the fact that civil engineering students are busy designing storm-water drainage systems for informal settlements?

Why not make developmental projects and opportunities available to our students, teaching them early on that engineering isn’t only about space ships and fast cars? (which, let’s face it, are traditionally masculine). Why not show that engineering is as much about designing high-efficiency wood stoves by understanding community needs, and still involves thermo-dynamic design for the heat transfer, fluid mechanics optimization to channel air to the combustion chamber and smoke away from the user and a good dose of materials science for insulating the combustion chamber against the elements during cold, rainy Cape winters. If we showed this picture of engineering, how many more females would want to choose engineering then?

A transformation is happening in engineering: a transformation towards sustainability and an increased emphasis on the role of the engineer in alleviating poverty.  This picture of what a engineering is, is not only far more appealing to women, but when introduced to engineering students has the potential to improve their communication and leadership skills whilst developing them into socially-conscious, change-agents - something my country can use a lot more of.

So remember when I told my dad that I wanted to be a doctor because I wanted to help people? Wouldn’t it be great if little girls replied to this question with, “I want to be an engineer because I want to help make the world a better place?”

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Transforming the Image of Engineering: Part 1

Last week, I had the honour of being a speaker at the WESTC (Women in Engineering, Science and Technology Conference) in  Johannesburg, hosted by Melrose Training! This exciting initiative sought to bring women from around Africa together to discuss pertinent issues surrounding being a woman in engineering. It was an all-round great experience and I had the chance to network with some incredible young women who are doing amazing things in South Africa.  I will definitely blog about these soon.

My talk titled "Transformation in Engineering, Women and Changing the Face of Engineering", took at look at attracting and retaining women in engineering in a slightly different light than the typical, 'the numbers are just too low' approach. Women stay away from engineering because of two main reasons. 1. they are actively discouraged from the field by society and 2. they don't see any part of engineering that appeals to them. The number of high-calibre, successful and happy women who I met at the conference made it clear that this perception of society (and that of the young women being turned away from this highly rewarding field), is seriously warped.

Basically, engineering has an image problem:


 and worst of all ???

Small wonder why you don't just see women falling over themselves to be a part of this action?

What I’ve come to realize however is that the problem is not that engineering is a “man’s field” or that its “difficult and dirty”. These are generalizations, but they are true. In most engineering environments, there are still more men than women, and engineering can be very difficult and very dirty. But this is not the full picture. Engineers work in areas that the majority of society doesn’t even know about - that engineering students and graduates don’t even know about (shock, horror!) - and some of these are increasingly attractive and accommodating to women. If only the career-counselors, parents and mentors of young girls had a more realistic picture of what engineering was about, they would be able to help them make informed choices about their careers.

I suppose that is really what the Engineer-Chic blog tries to accomplish: transforming the image of engineering. Let me just say though that I’m not here to razzmatazz girls with pink icing or to make engineering look like a cupcake. Engineering is no more a cupcake than medicine or a competitive business-career is a cupcake. What I want to do is give women the right information – the full picture of the opportunities available to them as engineers - to help them make an informed choice.
A study in perception was done by the National Academy of Engineering in the US which was reported in the publication Changing the Conversation, (2008). What they did was come up with messages aimed at improving public understanding of engineering. These were markedly different to “old-school” attempts at this which sought to emphasize strong links between engineering and maths and science, whilst ignoring other more attractive characteristics including creativity, teamwork and communication. This was tested and broadly disseminated to school children and teachers.

The survey found that girls saw the following two messages the most appealing:

"Engineering makes a world of difference"

(Boys also rated this highly)

 “Engineering is essential to our health, happiness and safety”

(Boys did not rate this highly)

Not considered appealing by any of the survey populations was,

“Engineering connects science to the real world”

So girls find messages linked to 'helping others' appealing. Wow, what a shocking revelation (considering that women have traditionally been (with exceptions) nurturers: nurses, teachers, mothers!)  

So then maybe if more engineers worked in fields related to helping others; maybe if the field of engineering was more about effectively communicating with people and building relationships with them to fully understand their needs; maybe if engineering was about working closely with human beings and empowering them to have the most basic forms of dignity: a house, a car, a flushing toilet; maybe then more women would be interested in the field?

Hang on just a second...

and how about this? 

 and lets not forget frugal engineering:

More on this topic in my next post...

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Visualising through Drawings

The new project is getting more and more interesting by the day. I've been working on a very intial-stage budget and schedule and had a meeting with the metallurgists again yesterday to work through some of the details of the process.  We're drawing up some initial PFD's (Process Flow Diagrams) to get a visual idea of what we're going to be building. This is the very first step in making the plant come to life.

Did you know, engineers LOVE drawings? We're actually trained to love drawing. Its literally the very first thing they teach you in engineering-school. And no, I'm not talking about beautiful sketches, (those come later in the development of a product i.e. the marketing phase ;) ).  I'm talking about any simple, feable attempt to describe something you can see and feel, something 3-dimensional, on paper. Its the way we communicate. A picture really does say a thousand words and I never feel quite comfortable describing something to someone without a pencil in my hand! (As you can see I'm very brainwashed).

So what the PFD's do is they take the description (in words) of the process and convert it into simplified flow-diagrams like the one below.  Well, I cant really put up the actual PFD's of our plant, but I found this one on the net which is a good example.

My role at this stage is not really to draw up the PFD's. I need to take the PFD's and create what we call a Scope of Work and a BOM (or Bill of Materials). This is a list of all the materials needed to put the plant together - all the different components that make up the plant. Although the metallurgists may specify that they need a ball mill (for example), the mechanical engineer (thats me) job is to specify all the equipment that make the ball mill operate. It needs a system of gears to drive it, a shaft and motor, bearings to hold the shaft up etc.

At this very early stage of the project, we need to put together an estimated budget and schedule. For this, the Project Engineer (thats me too), needs to estimate the costs and quantities of not only the mechanical parts, but also the steel to hold them up, the concrete for the civil foundations, the electrical and piping requirements etc.

Now if you think this is a daunting task, you are right. I have no idea how to estimate costs and quantities. In fact, there are companies that specialise in Quantity Surveying and Cost Consulting. They will come into the picture soon, but right now we've just got to get an estimate.  Its really quite interesting - especially the schedule. You have to think about each task in the project and what tasks need to happen before this task can start. There is a lot of problem solving, but I have had great help from everyone from suppliers to our Procurement and Construction Managers. (Remember - although you may be a smart young engineer, you still will learn the most from experienced people. Asking for help may be the greatest tool you will ever learn to use at work).

Hanna Rosin: New data on the rise of women | Video on

Now this is one of the most interesting TED Talks I've seen!

Hanna Rosin: New data on the rise of women Video on

Friday, August 5, 2011

Loving the Job You're In

Work has been really slow the last couple of weeks and that's been really frustrating to be honest. I had some concerns about whether I was really happy in my job and getting valuable experience. I was actually really low for a while and highly stressed but then I decided that instead of cowaring in my office and bemoaning my fate, I was going to step up and do something about it. So I made an appointment with my Project Manager to discuss my concerns.

Rather than getting angry at me, or thinking my problems were unimportant, he listened to everything I had to say and I felt that he really understood where I was coming from. It helped that it took me about a week to build up the courage to go and see him, and by then I had my emotions under control and had thought through exactly what I was going to say. He asked me to summarize everything in a short email for him to think about overnight.

The next day he gives me a ton of small tasks to do (including putting together an information document explaining how a project unfolds to semi-skilled/ unskilled labourers in order to manage hiring expectations-this was really interesting because is sometimes difficult to make things really simple and requires understanding and empathy-and loads of pictures!). The next day was even better-my PM calls me in and tells me there is another project just starting up involving the build of a beneficiation plant a mine up the road-and that he thinks it the perfect opportunity for me to get all the design experience I need!
The project involves the design and construction of a mini-plant that will upgrade the chromite ore we mine to the correct size and concentration before sending it to our smelting plants to melt into Ferrochrome for sale.

Today was the kick-off meeting with the mine's engineers. A colleague of mine, A.N. who works on our smelting plant next to our Projects offices is a metalurgical engineer graduate who did a very detailed anaylsis and optimisation of a crushing and screening plant at the smelter. The (incredibly impressive) work he did is really similar to the beneficiation plant we're building on the mine, so we managed to smuggle him into the kick-off meeting too (yay, friends!).

The project is really intersting-both mettalurgically and mechanically-and has many exciting design-features. The schedule is super-tight though, which means I am going to be working my cute butt off pretty soon (I honestly cant wait - I've been in withdrawel). The topography (lay of the land) is also quite a challenge and it was fun visiting the site and joining in the brainstorming session about what should go where to maximise efficiency. The project is really in the concept-generation phase still (which is totally the best and most creative part!) and the site is a green-field (completely untouched hillside).  After the meeting and the site visit, the (senior metalurgist) engineering manager invited A.N. and I to his office to give us more background into the plant. I've realised that information-transfer between experienced and young engineers is so important. I love listening to these old dudes go on about how things that we take for granted (the plant we work on/ the process that governs it) were developed (by them) and the awesome things they have achieved over the years. Its very inspiring. It was great, although trying to follow the conversation between metalurgists was challenging. I'm learning a new aspect of engineering though, which is great.

I am once-again really happy with what I do and feel lucky to have such an amazing job that lets me create, solve problems and colaborate with great minds. I am really glad that I addressed my issues with my Manager. I cant believe how much your working environment can affect your happiness and how easy it was to set things right again. My advice to anyone who isn't loving what they're doing-don't just quit. Calm down and have a good, clear chat with your boss. Try and sort it out before losing hope - you'll never know if you don't try.