Why Do You Want to Become an Engineer?

There is this cartoon that explains why one would aspire to become an engineer. It appeals to the Bill-Gates-junior-type geek who wants to build cool stuff, rather than musing about the foundations of “stuff”. I sympathize with all of these three roles, also with the philosopher.

I have also been inclined to philosophy, and I was torn between studying physics or philosophy. I went for applied physics though, reasoning that anything closer to engineering will keep career opportunities in the real world intact. Yet I could still think about philosophy in my spare time as an engineer or scientist – I reasoned back then.

The cartoon is not funny to me, as I believe that we need all three perspectives – ideally more than one of them combined in a single person.

It appears even less funny to me, extracting this message from the cartoon: Physicists and philosophers explore the foundations of the world. Engineers just utilize their results and make technical stuff better, which is at best fun because it propels you back to your childhood world of toys.

The world has been filled up with that better and better stuff, like plasma TVs and iPhones. We might get household appliances that will connect to the internet and use artificial intelligence to tailor their services to your needs. It is this kind of stuff that is considered too complex by many users.

I once thought my true calling was to unveil the secrets of the universe – as a philosopher or physicist. Later I switched to physics, attracted by lasers – the cool stuff. Now I think we simply need less stuff – not just nicer user-interfaces to hide complicated technology, but less ubiquitous tech stuff. I am aware of the inconsistency of creating this post using nice cool web technology.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. mcpletcher says:

    Elke, I have enjoyed reading your work and musings. I couldn’t agree more; so much technology anymore is equipped with lots of bells and whistles, but when it comes to the question, “Does it fulfill my needs?”, the answer so often seems to be a resounding, “Sort of.” All of the fancy interface screens, and automatic controls of modern gadgetry, hide the all too often fact that modularity is nonexistent, service is a nightmare, and long term support – unlikely.

    I too wish to build simpler technology, employing electronic control when suitable, but some appliances are not improved by complication, such as a toaster oven with a twitter account.

    My interest is in vapor compression heat pump technology. There is a great deal of room for improvement in that field when one considers the exergy destruction that goes into the manufacture and short lifespan of common household vapor compression machines like refrigerators and heat pumps. I am not a professional engineer like yourself, but I do enjoy designing and building these machines nonetheless. It is comforting to read the works of a well rounded individual like yourself.

    Best Wishes

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks, Michael! You do awesome work – I enjoy following your blog!

      Yes, such appliances with a Twitter account are pet peeves of mine, too. Like the toothbrush with bluetooth that stores your preferred brushing pattern to the cloud. Having worked in IT security for a long time, I consider the internet of things really scary. As a security guru recently said: Like the computer industry in the 1990s – who will ever patch the software on their cloud-enabled thermostats? (BTW, I have no formal education in IT security, yet did that for such a long time. There I value DIY and self-study – as you practice it – so much!)

      As for life time of heat pumps I believe there is a chance that electronics and ‘smart energy management’ and whatnot will break before the compressor. It’s always electronics breaking first – PV panels will last for decades, but the inverter should be replaced after 10-15 years. I also don’t like that vendors of heating systems or generators try to equip them with full home automation – not only for the security risks, but because software and control that is a blackbox for the user, though it is allegedly simply as you have this nice iPhone app.

      I am just working with off-the-shelf heat pumps – we just designed a special type of heat source and related control. Our clients are quite adventurous in giving that system a try already ;-), so I never considered tinkering with the inner workings of the heat pump. But this is also because I think that in most real-life installations the design of the heat source and the control logic do make such a great difference in performance, so that I am not sure how improvements in the refrigerant cycle would compare.
      We were searching for the most stupid brine-water heat pump – one that does not come with extended features for controlling everything. We need our own control for the solar collector and underground tank anyway, and we use a freely programmable controller with logic that is ‘open’ for the client.
      From anecdotal evidence I see that many installed heat pumps (if not many installed heating systems) suffer from non-optimal control and sizing of the heat pump and the source – e.g. installers often go for the very safe, but totally oversized heat pump. Heat pumps had a spike in popularity in the 1980s (after the oil crisis), but the got bad reputation as systems were not installed correctly. It took a long time to fix this.

      It has been interesting to discuss the usage of heat pumps in different countries on this blog as it seems in most countries heat pumps is mainly equated with air-air heat pumps. I often wonder if this is just due to a definitely warmer climate or due to good marketing by vendors. Here is is the latter: Air heat pumps are also on the rise, and geothermal ones (with better SPF) declining. I also attribute this to the fact that you don’t need to plan for or ‘build’ the source, so there is at least one contractor less in the project.

      1. mcpletcher says:

        I’m not a tech guy, so I don’t claim to know much of The Internet of Things. My friend on the east coast though has been ringing the alarm bells for some time, and I’m quite concerned as to what will lie ahead. Proprietary black box software and hardware means private control, which is very dangerous indeed.

        I’m quite supportive of your work to make your controller freely programmable; that seems to be all too rare in industry generally. It’s great that you’re finding clients that are supportive and willing to spend money on a system designed for long term reliability and adaptation. I joke with my friend about starting a business building modular, reliable heat pumps, but the only people I know who would buy such a thing are him and I!

        Although much of my focus is on vapor compression systems built from scratch, I’ve also given a great deal of thought to developing practical sources of heat source. In fact, I’ve considered the suitability of extracting heat from the latent heat of ice formation. So it was very exciting to see your system. Great job!

        I live in a more mild climate with humid winters, so air to air systems make a good bit of sense, but where I grew up in the hills of Appalachia, cold temperatures have stalled the implementation of air to air. Ground source was not uncommon there, but I find the energy and material cost of installation to be unacceptable in most cases. My friend acquired an air to air system from one of those improper installations you speak of (the air conditioning mode was fighting the resistive element – enormous electric bills – so sad), and with some tweaking and controls, he was able to achieve COPs over 1.0 well below the manufacturer claimed minimum outdoor temps.

        My electronics and software skills are practically nonexistent. That is one of the reasons I’m focusing on my interest of building largely mechanical heat pumps, with the intention of achieving considerably higher COPs than what is commercially available. When I reach the limits of what can be done on that front (such as switching between heat sources like you are doing), then I will call on the knowledge of a friend to help tweak it. I hope that my experience can in turn help him, and anyone who is interested. Open – Free.

        I have had a hard time finding others who share my interest in heat pumps by and large. It is proving to be a lonely hobby, but exciting nonetheless. I’m curious, have you had similar experiences in Austria? Are too many installers and technicians lacking in a fundamental understanding of the technology?

        This is getting to be quite long. If you are interested in continuing the conversation, my email is: praxis15501@yahoo.com

        1. elkement says:

          I dropped you an e-mail, Michael!

          Just to close this thread here, a quick summary for other readers: Yes, plumbers don’t deal with heat pump technology in depth – and I think the the main reasons is they have less and less time as
          1) they cover so many technologies in their businesses – from wood pellets stoves to bathroom design.
          2) they focus on fulfilling regulatory requirements and standards, as they are e.g. held accountable legally if the heat pump’s SPF does not meet the number expected and put down on paper.

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