Training Engineers to be Adaptable for Future Needs


16 November 2015
Steve Dixey, Mechanical Trainer with HETA looks at training engineers for the future.

Do we train refrigeration engineers or do we train engineers who can be adaptable? Do you want a very specific set of knowledge and practical skills? Or, do you want adaptability?

Who do we train and how?

The dreaded question we get when one applies for a job; 

“Have you experience of Refrigeration Machine XYZ with multiple sprangle valves and plenty of what-nots”?

​Personal attributes of an engineer

What about the personal attributes that make a good engineer? Are engineers born with it, learn it or absorb it from mentors by some strange process of osmosis? The Royal Academy of Engineering produced a report titled “Thinking like an engineer - Implications for the education system” in 2014 that makes some thought-provoking points. The report identifies key engineering habits and summarises 6 key qualities;
Engineers make ‘things’ that work or make ‘things’ work better. But, they do this in quite particular ways. The report identifies six engineering habits of mind (EHoM) which, taken together, describe the ways engineers think and act:
  1.  Systems thinking
  2. Adapting
  3. Problem-finding
  4. Creative problem solving
  5. Visualising
  6. Improving

​Some of the best training providers and internal training departments such as Rolls Royce aim to turn out adaptable engineers who use their understanding of basic principles in a range of areas, allied with an engineer's’ mind-set to drive business forward. The report also has implications for the compulsory training sector. Feedback from companies in many sectors show that these key points of ability to problem-solve and adapt are not always being encouraged due to a focus on exams and knowledge.

In my journey from steelworks apprentice (rolling mills, diesel-powered mobile plant, plant services) to rolling mill fitter \ machinist to chemical plant fitter to food factory fitter to engineering system technician looking after pneumatic, hydraulic, refrigeration, steam, packing and process machinery in the food industry, I can identify with those six points.
Brazing - ACR Journal
Let us open up the above machine and look inside. What do we find? Bearings, slides, springs, a drive system, a lubrication system and assorted nut, bolts and gaskets. So, what’s new? Actually, very little.

What about operational principles? Has much changed since Newton, Charles, Kelvin, Boyle and the rest made those discoveries several centuries ago? Not much from what I can gather.

Now, Refrigeration Machine XYZ with multiple sprangle valves and plenty of what-nots may have been placed in a different system that was custom built to freeze apples instead of pears. The control system may also be custom designed. So, let’s take a look at that. In order to freeze apples we might tell a control program to complete a series of stages over a period and in order to freeze pears we take longer and go through more stages. 

However, let’s take the control system apart and what do we find? A programmable controller, temperature and pressure controllers, temperature and pressure sensors and several tens of metres of pipework. Individually again, is there anything new? I doubt it as those switches and sensors in a refrigeration system do not operate differently to those sensors in a hydraulic system, a steam system or a chemical production process.

In practice engineering is mostly taking existing stuff and existing principles and adapting it to meet new needs. A bearing is a bearing no matter where it resides. Gas still gets hot when you compress it and cools when you expand it. Basic physical and chemical principles apply anywhere you care to look, on Earth or on Pluto.

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