Taking the Train: Minding the Mental Gap

Nicholas Hill - Chief Executive Officer

By: Nicholas Hill
Chief Executive Officer

5th October 2018

Home » Engineers

Where do you do your thinking and contemplate the bigger problems that need a clear head?

If you are like me it will rarely be in the office, full as it is of distractions and interruptions. I find being outdoors is productive, especially when running, as it just you and the road – no phone, email, internet or conversation. It enforces a sort of mindfulness, and I quite often come up with a solution while running that has been eluding me. However, it does have the limitation that you can’t read source material and take notes, so only helps for certain types of problems.

For the sort of thinking that requires a combination of reading, deliberation and scribbling of notes, I find the very best place is on the train – particularly one that doesn’t stop often and isn’t overcrowded. And you must get a window seat. Something about seeing the landscape slipping by is great for clearing the mind, and giving thoughts free reign to come and go. It goes without saying that the phone and laptop stay in my briefcase to avoid distraction and ‘busy work’.

It seems appropriate that from a train carriage the landscape is mostly seen in the middle and long distance. You observe the shape of the woods, not the detail of the trees. The arrangement of colours in a station car park, not the individual cars. The way a river bank gradually changes in shape as you cross paths with it over time. The small, hypnotic meanderings of the adjacent, silvery railway tracks, the sleepers and ballast blurred out by speed as you rush by.

This is just what is needed to make sense of the problems of a business – some distance and perspective, and some random stimulus to prompt new thoughts. This is particularly needed at a time when information is becoming ever easier to obtain, but the time to figure out what it means ever more scarce.

Of course you can find yourself down a mental rabbit hole due to something observed through the window. For instance, who decides on the colours of the cars we all buy? A couple of years ago we seemed to have reached ‘peak monochrome’ – all car parks were a dull sea of white, grey, silver and black. Over the previous decade or so all the coloured cars gradually disappeared.

Happily (for someone who loves colour) bright spots of colour have started to appear again in the acres of grey. Small numbers, but very eye-catching. Having observed this very slow cyclic process, I can’t help wonder at the cause: is it driven by fluctuating consumer taste, or by car manufacturers controlling the availability of colours?

Fortunately, for the most part the mind picks up on the problems at hand without any conscious effort, and you reach your destination with the satisfaction of having successfully got to grips with an issue that’s been eluding you.

So next time you have some quiet thinking to do, pack a pad and pen and jump on a train.

Must stop now, I’m approaching Liverpool Street station.

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Where do you do your thinking and contemplate the bigger problems that need a clear head?

If you are like me it will rarely be in the office, full as it is of distractions and interruptions. I find being outdoors is productive, especially when running, as it just you and the road – no phone, email, internet or conversation. It enforces a sort of mindfulness, and I quite often come up with a solution while running that has been eluding me. However, it does have the limitation that you can’t read source material and take notes, so only helps for certain types of problems.

For the sort of thinking that requires a combination of reading, deliberation and scribbling of notes, I find the very best place is on the train – particularly one that doesn’t stop often and isn’t overcrowded. And you must get a window seat. Something about seeing the landscape slipping by is great for clearing the mind, and giving thoughts free reign to come and go. It goes without saying that the phone and laptop stay in my briefcase to avoid distraction and ‘busy work’.

It seems appropriate that from a train carriage the landscape is mostly seen in the middle and long distance. You observe the shape of the woods, not the detail of the trees. The arrangement of colours in a station car park, not the individual cars. The way a river bank gradually changes in shape as you cross paths with it over time. The small, hypnotic meanderings of the adjacent, silvery railway tracks, the sleepers and ballast blurred out by speed as you rush by.

This is just what is needed to make sense of the problems of a business – some distance and perspective, and some random stimulus to prompt new thoughts. This is particularly needed at a time when information is becoming ever easier to obtain, but the time to figure out what it means ever more scarce.

Of course you can find yourself down a mental rabbit hole due to something observed through the window. For instance, who decides on the colours of the cars we all buy? A couple of years ago we seemed to have reached ‘peak monochrome’ – all car parks were a dull sea of white, grey, silver and black. Over the previous decade or so all the coloured cars gradually disappeared.

Happily (for someone who loves colour) bright spots of colour have started to appear again in the acres of grey. Small numbers, but very eye-catching. Having observed this very slow cyclic process, I can’t help wonder at the cause: is it driven by fluctuating consumer taste, or by car manufacturers controlling the availability of colours?

Fortunately, for the most part the mind picks up on the problems at hand without any conscious effort, and you reach your destination with the satisfaction of having successfully got to grips with an issue that’s been eluding you.

So next time you have some quiet thinking to do, pack a pad and pen and jump on a train.

Must stop now, I’m approaching Liverpool Street station.

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Further Reading

Foreign Object Detection Clears Runway For mm-Wave

By: Clem Robertson
Programme Manager

19th September 2018

Home » Engineers

I find myself writing about an acronym that many people have never heard about but in certain safety-critical environments, particularly airports, it is an acronym that rings alarm bells.

Foreign Object Debris (FOD) on runways and taxiways causes a risk to passenger safety and costs airlines and air forces £millions each year from the damage to aircraft. The most notorious incident was the Paris Concorde accident in 2000 where a piece of metalwork fell of a DC10 upon take-off which minutes later punctured the tyre of the Air France Concorde causing it to crash in a field shortly after take-off. Threats from FOD can consist of anything from metalwork, tools, nuts and bolts, stones and wildlife where early detection of the presence of the item is paramount. In this blog I wish to talk about how Plextek is leading the way to deliver a cost effective and scalable solution which will meet the needs of airports around the world.

The conventional method for detecting FOD still employed by many commercial and military airports involves a periodic visual inspection of the runway either by a vehicle following an aircraft after it takes off or lands or by daily FOD walking exercises where a team walks in a line across the runway detecting and collecting FOD as they go. There are a number of commercially available solutions that are able to detect FOD on a runway but are often very expensive to deploy and have their weaknesses depending on the adopted technology.

 

Our revolutionary Millimetre-Wave Radar is particularly exciting.

In partnership with a South Korean partner, Plextek has been developing two market-leading radar solutions that provide a cost-effective, scalable platform for countering the FOD threat.

Utilising our expertise in antenna and radar systems design coupled with product design, embedded hardware, software and manufacturing expertise, the Plextek FOD radar solution utilises state of the art materials and mm-wave technology to provide a versatile cost-effective radar capable of detecting, discriminating and alerting the presence of a M5 nut and bolt (2cm object) to sub 10cm resolution at ranges of greater than 400m. When combined with our partner’s EO/IR and FOD detection command and control interface, the radar is capable of alerting the operator of new FOD within 1 minute of the FOD occurring.

So what is Innovative about the Plextek FOD radar solution?

Plextek has developed a common radar platform which can be deployed in either a stationary or mobile configuration.

The stationary radar setup is primarily aimed at high traffic airfield applications like commercial airfields where 24 hour, real-time and continuous surveillance for FOD is paramount to the safety and operational efficiency of the airport. Multiple stationary radar sensors along with EO/IR sensors are installed on towers down the side of the runway. Each stationary radar scans a portion of the runway looking in real-time for changes in the environment.


The mobile radar setup is designed to be installed on the top of a vehicle and driven down the runway between aircraft take-off and landings. The mobile radar sensor replaces the need for the person in the vehicle to detect FOD by visual inspections alone. This radar option is targeted at lower traffic airports like domestic airfields and military airports where there is not a need for 24h constant FOD surveillance or the necessary investment to install a stationary FOD setup.


Both Plextek FOD variants are presently performing extremely well on field trials in South Korea. Plextek is on schedule to start commercial field trials of both radar variants at Incheon International airport in Q1 2019 with both radars entering full operational service by 2020.

For me, it has been a pleasure to project manage such a groundbreaking piece of technology and I am excited to see the radar in operation at Incheon airport in the near future.

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I find myself writing about an acronym that many people have never heard about but in certain safety-critical environments, particularly airports, it is an acronym that rings alarm bells.

Foreign Object Debris (FOD) on runways and taxiways causes a risk to passenger safety and costs airlines and air forces £millions each year from the damage to aircraft. The most notorious incident was the Paris Concorde accident in 2000 where a piece of metalwork fell of a DC10 upon take-off which minutes later punctured the tyre of the Air France Concorde causing it to crash in a field shortly after take-off. Threats from FOD can consist of anything from metalwork, tools, nuts and bolts, stones and wildlife where early detection of the presence of the item is paramount. In this blog I wish to talk about how Plextek is leading the way to deliver a cost effective and scalable solution which will meet the needs of airports around the world.

The conventional method for detecting FOD still employed by many commercial and military airports involves a periodic visual inspection of the runway either by a vehicle following an aircraft after it takes off or lands or by daily FOD walking exercises where a team walks in a line across the runway detecting and collecting FOD as they go. There are a number of commercially available solutions that are able to detect FOD on a runway but are often very expensive to deploy and have their weaknesses depending on the adopted technology.

 

Our revolutionary Millimetre-Wave Radar is particularly exciting.

In partnership with a South Korean consortium, Plextek has been developing two market-leading radar solutions that provide a cost-effective, scalable platform for countering the FOD threat.

Utilising our expertise in antenna and radar systems design coupled with product design, embedded hardware, software and manufacturing expertise, the Plextek FOD radar solution utilises state of the art materials and mm-wave technology to provide a versatile cost-effective radar capable of detecting, discriminating and alerting the presence of a M5 nut and bolt (2cm object) to sub 10cm resolution at ranges of greater than 400m. When combined with our partner’s EO/IR and FOD detection command and control interface, the radar is capable of alerting the operator of new FOD within 1 minute of the FOD occurring.

So what is Innovative about the Plextek FOD radar solution?

Plextek has developed a common radar platform which can be deployed in either a stationary or mobile configuration.

The stationary radar setup is primarily aimed at high traffic airfield applications like commercial airfields where 24 hour, real-time and continuous surveillance for FOD is paramount to the safety and operational efficiency of the airport. Multiple stationary radar sensors along with EO/IR sensors are installed on towers down the side of the runway. Each stationary radar scans a portion of the runway looking in real-time for changes in the environment.


The mobile radar setup is designed to be installed on the top of a vehicle and driven down the runway between aircraft take-off and landings. The mobile radar sensor replaces the need for the person in the vehicle to detect FOD by visual inspections alone. This radar option is targeted at lower traffic airports like domestic airfields and military airports where there is not a need for 24h constant FOD surveillance or the necessary investment to install a stationary FOD setup.


Both Plextek FOD variants are presently performing extremely well on field trials in South Korea. Plextek is on schedule to start commercial field trials of both radar variants at Incheon International airport in Q1 2019 with both radars entering full operational service by 2020.

For me, it has been a pleasure to project manage such a groundbreaking piece of technology and I am excited to see the radar in operation at Incheon airport in the near future.

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Further Reading

What I Did This Summer

By: Kevin Jones
Senior Consultant, Embedded Systems

22nd August 2018

Home » Engineers

The title might lead you to believe this blog is about a holiday to some far away sunny paradise. That post will have to wait for another day; instead, this article is about my recent experiences working with students.

The Next Generation

Plextek has always invested time in energising the next generation of engineers. Each year we employ undergraduate engineering students who join the consultancy for a summer placement that typically lasts twelve weeks. One of this year’s undergraduates worked with Plextek’s software group and I was offered the opportunity to oversee his placement. He was tasked with investigating a novel method to count moving vehicles in real time using audio signals. His work in this project has been successful and is still being used as a technology and capability demonstrator.

Work Experience

This summer Plextek also invited two sixth form students to join us for a work experience week. They spent time with staff from various departments to gain an overview of how the many roles collaborate to form a successful consultancy. This included one day spent with me giving them the opportunity to learn about embedded software and software development processes.

The world has moved on since I was at sixth form so I found myself contemplating the best method to introduce these younger students to my professional world. In the end, I settled on using two identical Arduino development boards, two prototyping boards (“breadboards”), a handful of resistors/LEDs/switches and a couple of laptops.

We started the session discussing the simple inputs and outputs that can be implemented with these basic components then moved on to illuminating LEDs, flashing LEDs and using the switches to control the LEDs. Along the way, we covered coding standards, static analysis tools, documentation tools, integer storage size and how microprocessors represent whole negative numbers.

After lunch, we completed a short consultancy exercise starting from requirements through to implementation, bug fixing, testing, requirements clarification and enhancement proposals. The sixth formers covered a lot of ground in one day and I hope they found at least some of it rewarding!

Professional Development

Yet the undergraduate and the sixth form students weren’t the only people to learn from their placements. Plextek is committed to personal and professional staff development and there were plenty of new skills that I either learned or improved upon too.

From a personal point of view, I learned many new soft-management skills such as leadership, mentorship and communication to a different demographic. From a professional point of view, I hope I passed on plenty of useful tips that will help them flourish in their future careers. I’m rarely in a teaching role and this summer has helped me to better understand and appreciate the great work undertaken by all teachers preparing young adults for their future careers. Who knows; maybe some of the summer placement students might opt for the same path I chose and become a chartered engineer.

Kevin joined Plextek in 2008 and first worked on 3G telecommunications projects. He is a Chartered Engineer and is a member of the Institute of Engineering Technology. His recent projects include AIMS (the embedded software and the Android application) and a variety of high volume, low-cost consumer devices.

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The title might lead you to believe this blog is about a holiday to some far away sunny paradise. That post will have to wait for another day; instead, this article is about my recent experiences working with students.

The Next Generation

Plextek has always invested time in energising the next generation of engineers. Each year we employ undergraduate engineering students who join the consultancy for a summer placement that typically lasts twelve weeks. One of this year’s undergraduates worked with Plextek’s software group and I was offered the opportunity to oversee his placement. He was tasked with investigating a novel method to count moving vehicles in real time using audio signals. His work in this project has been successful and is still being used as a technology and capability demonstrator.

Work Experience

This summer Plextek also invited two sixth form students to join us for a work experience week. They spent time with staff from various departments to gain an overview of how the many roles collaborate to form a successful consultancy. This included one day spent with me giving them the opportunity to learn about embedded software and software development processes.

The world has moved on since I was at sixth form so I found myself contemplating the best method to introduce these younger students to my professional world. In the end, I settled on using two identical Arduino development boards, two prototyping boards (“breadboards”), a handful of resistors/LEDs/switches and a couple of laptops.

We started the session discussing the simple inputs and outputs that can be implemented with these basic components then moved on to illuminating LEDs, flashing LEDs and using the switches to control the LEDs. Along the way, we covered coding standards, static analysis tools, documentation tools, integer storage size and how microprocessors represent whole negative numbers.

After lunch, we completed a short consultancy exercise starting from requirements through to implementation, bug fixing, testing, requirements clarification and enhancement proposals. The sixth formers covered a lot of ground in one day and I hope they found at least some of it rewarding!

Professional Development

Yet the undergraduate and the sixth form students weren’t the only people to learn from their placements. Plextek is committed to personal and professional staff development and there were plenty of new skills that I either learned or improved upon too.

From a personal point of view, I learned many new soft-management skills such as leadership, mentorship and communication to a different demographic. From a professional point of view, I hope I passed on plenty of useful tips that will help them flourish in their future careers. I’m rarely in a teaching role and this summer has helped me to better understand and appreciate the great work undertaken by all teachers preparing young adults for their future careers. Who knows; maybe some of the summer placement students might opt for the same path I chose and become a chartered engineer.

Kevin joined Plextek in 2008 and first worked on 3G telecommunications projects. He is a Chartered Engineer and is a member of the Institute of Engineering Technology. His recent projects include AIMS (the embedded software and the Android application) and a variety of high volume, low-cost consumer devices.

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Further Reading

Women in Engineering and the STEM Flaw

Nicholas Hill - Chief Executive Officer

By: Nicholas Hill
Chief Executive Officer

9th August 2018

Home » Engineers

Well yes, I’ve read a lot of commentary on this topic too, and I find much of it quite annoying. The latest one I’ve seen, by the IET, is typical in ascribing the whole problem to gender stereotyping at an early age: girls are irretrievably put off all STEM subjects by the age of 7 because of the role models they see.

What I find annoying about this is the recommendations proffered are always soft actions around fixing the gender stereotype issue itself: improving outreach, information, awareness, role models, status and so on. This seems to me to be a task of a similar order to stopping global warming, or other ‘us against the world’ challenges. And you just know that means nothing effective will be done, and we’ll all be reading the same commentary ten years from now.

However, I was intrigued to see recently some statistics on the number of degrees being awarded in various engineering disciplines, with gender split out of the graphs. Just to baseline how bad the overall problem is: the UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe, with females representing just 16% of UK undergraduates across all engineering and technology subjects.

Source: www.engineeringuk.com


Electrical and electronic engineering, the most common disciplines in our organisation, are faring particularly badly. Total graduate numbers have flat-lined for ten years, with a total cohort of around 500 females entering higher education courses. With numbers like that you’ll be lucky to see a single CV from a female engineer, let alone fix your organisation’s gender imbalance. But wait a minute, the equivalent figures for ‘all engineering disciplines’ show a doubling since 2007, from 2,500 to over 5,000. This might just reflect the strong growth in overall numbers in some disciplines, such as mechanical engineering, which has also doubled since 2007.

This in itself is interesting, considering that total numbers in electrical and electronic engineering have barely grown at all in the same period. Could it be that, of all engineering subjects, mechanical engineering is the most accessible to the layperson? It’s the only discipline where what is going on is frequently in plain sight. You can see ‘how stuff works’ every time you build a tower with bricks or ride a bike or build a Lego model. Most of the other engineering disciplines, and especially electronics, are getting ever more esoteric and obscure.

Try explaining to any (young) person what is really going on in their smartphone, at a level of detail where you’re tackling the electronics, not the apps that sit on top. Could it be that young people, in general, have less and less idea what electronics is? There is no meaningful exposure to the subject in schools or anywhere else unless you happen to do physics, and even then the coverage is elementary.

Let’s get back to the point. I meet a lot of people working the electronics industry, for companies large and small, in many sectors and locations. When I ask “what is your biggest obstacle to growth?” the ability to find enough young engineers usually tops the list. Indeed, Engineering UK report that 46% of engineering employers feel this way. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to grow the economy through designing and making things that society needs?

Influencing Change

What to do? Well for the sake of our industry it needs to be something more direct and fast acting than taking on humanity’s baked-in gender stereotyping. How about influencing market forces, as there’s something clearly broken in the ‘market’ for graduates?

We have huge demand for electrical and electronic engineering graduates, which has created intense competition amongst employers and seriously pushed up average starting salaries. At the same time, we have graduates in other subjects who are ending up in minimum-wage jobs because they can’t find a vacancy.

Source: www.engineeringuk.com


However, these factors don’t seem to be influencing the decisions A-level students are making about subject choices at university, presumably because the market signal is too weak. Let’s say the government identified the degree subjects that the country’s economy was most in need of. Once identified, they offer to pay the tuition fees of students in those subjects, either fully or partially – and even add a cost of living grant on top.

This is more than a financial incentive for people to take particular subjects; it would be an important signal that the government deeply valued these skill sets and that they are essential for a healthy economy.

In a purely academic sense, all degrees are as worthy as each other and how ‘useful’ they are shouldn’t be a factor. But let’s get this into perspective: the UK is woefully short of electronics engineers, especially female ones. And having the government create incentives at the academic level for the next generation to follow this hard but rewarding profession, in my eyes, would be a good place to start.

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Well yes, I’ve read a lot of commentary on this topic too, and I find much of it quite annoying. The latest one I’ve seen, by the IET, is typical in ascribing the whole problem to gender stereotyping at an early age: girls are irretrievably put off all STEM subjects by the age of 7 because of the role models they see.

What I find annoying about this is the recommendations proffered are always soft actions around fixing the gender stereotype issue itself: improving outreach, information, awareness, role models, status and so on. This seems to me to be a task of a similar order to stopping global warming, or other ‘us against the world’ challenges. And you just know that means nothing effective will be done, and we’ll all be reading the same commentary ten years from now.

However, I was intrigued to see recently some statistics on the number of degrees being awarded in various engineering disciplines, with gender split out of the graphs. Just to baseline how bad the overall problem is: the UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe, with females representing just 16% of UK undergraduates across all engineering and technology subjects.

Source: www.engineeringuk.com


Electrical and electronic engineering, the most common disciplines in our organisation, are faring particularly badly. Total graduate numbers have flat-lined for ten years, with a total cohort of around 500 females entering higher education courses. With numbers like that you’ll be lucky to see a single CV from a female engineer, let alone fix your organisation’s gender imbalance. But wait a minute, the equivalent figures for ‘all engineering disciplines’ show a doubling since 2007, from 2,500 to over 5,000. This might just reflect the strong growth in overall numbers in some disciplines, such as mechanical engineering, which has also doubled since 2007.

This in itself is interesting, considering that total numbers in electrical and electronic engineering have barely grown at all in the same period. Could it be that, of all engineering subjects, mechanical engineering is the most accessible to the layperson? It’s the only discipline where what is going on is frequently in plain sight. You can see ‘how stuff works’ every time you build a tower with bricks or ride a bike or build a Lego model. Most of the other engineering disciplines, and especially electronics, are getting ever more esoteric and obscure.

Try explaining to any (young) person what is really going on in their smartphone, at a level of detail where you’re tackling the electronics, not the apps that sit on top. Could it be that young people, in general, have less and less idea what electronics is? There is no meaningful exposure to the subject in schools or anywhere else unless you happen to do physics, and even then the coverage is elementary.

Let’s get back to the point. I meet a lot of people working the electronics industry, for companies large and small, in many sectors and locations. When I ask “what is your biggest obstacle to growth?” the ability to find enough young engineers usually tops the list. Indeed, Engineering UK report that 46% of engineering employers feel this way. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to grow the economy through designing and making things that society needs?

Influencing Change

What to do? Well for the sake of our industry it needs to be something more direct and fast acting than taking on humanity’s baked-in gender stereotyping. How about influencing market forces, as there’s something clearly broken in the ‘market’ for graduates?

We have huge demand for electrical and electronic engineering graduates, which has created intense competition amongst employers and seriously pushed up average starting salaries. At the same time, we have graduates in other subjects who are ending up in minimum-wage jobs because they can’t find a vacancy.

Source: www.engineeringuk.com


However, these factors don’t seem to be influencing the decisions A-level students are making about subject choices at university, presumably because the market signal is too weak. Let’s say the government identified the degree subjects that the country’s economy was most in need of. Once identified, they offer to pay the tuition fees of students in those subjects, either fully or partially – and even add a cost of living grant on top.

This is more than a financial incentive for people to take particular subjects; it would be an important signal that the government deeply valued these skill sets and that they are essential for a healthy economy.

In a purely academic sense, all degrees are as worthy as each other and how ‘useful’ they are shouldn’t be a factor. But let’s get this into perspective: the UK is woefully short of electronics engineers, especially female ones. And having the government create incentives at the academic level for the next generation to follow this hard but rewarding profession, in my eyes, would be a good place to start.

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Further Reading

The New Shamans? - Part 2

The New Shamans? – Part 2

Nicholas Hill - Chief Executive Officer

By: Nicholas Hill
Chief Executive Officer

6th December 2017

Home » Engineers

We can view the engineer today as someone who has special powers to control or influence the spirits of technology; a guardian of the magic of electronics and software; someone who can be looked to for a vision of what can be achieved if the spirits are willing, and someone in whom we must have faith that the spirits will be successfully harnessed and the vision delivered (on time and to budget).

I signed off from the first part of this blog wondering what it means for the engineer whose job it is to provide the technology under the hood, for companies who wish to bring new and evolving products to market, when the end user knows (and perhaps cares) less and less about how it all works. This engineer is in a position of considerable power and influence and needs to use that power both wisely and ethically.

Of course, we can use this power for ‘good’, or not, as we choose. There have always been ethical considerations for engineers, with some being uncomfortable working in certain fields, motivated by aspirations, such as working for peaceful ends or protecting the environment. Most people will have a red line somewhere about the intended applications of the technology they are working on, depending on their personal beliefs. However, the ethical aspect that I wanted to highlight is different to this. In a way, it is about who the engineer is actually working for, in the widest sense. If I buy a product, I might reasonably expect its designers to be ‘on my side’. Is that a reasonable assumption? It feels to me that, increasingly, it is not.

With technology becoming so obscure to the lay person, it is becoming easier to create the proverbial ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’. At the headline news end of the scale, we have seen engineers working for an automotive manufacturer designing ‘features’ into the engine management system to enable the vehicle to pass emission tests, even though the vehicle would be way over the limits in normal road driving.

As an engineering task, exploiting the way that emissions tests were performed wouldn’t have been hard once the well-specified test procedure had been studied carefully. Sadly, a collection of individuals, including the engineers involved, decided that implementing this feature was the right thing to do. Who was the beneficiary of this feature? Clearly, it’s the vehicle manufacturer and not you, the end customer.

For a much less high-profile but more pervasive case example, think of the engineers in the smartphone industry who are working with psychologists in the field of ‘behaviour design’. That desire to keep looking at your phone is not simply due to your lack of willpower. You are responding to a carefully developed rewards system that has been built into applications with the express purpose of keeping you on the phone. In receiving these rewards, such as incoming photos, messages, ‘likes’, and other notifications, we are given a dopamine-induced kick, enticing us to stay engaged.

And because they do not occur on a fixed schedule, we are encouraged to keep looking just in case. More time on the phone means more likelihood of exposure to advertising. You, the end user, are not the beneficiary of this ‘feature’ either. Concentration, once lost, takes a long time to recover, so the loss of productivity through these constant distractions is enormous. And yet many engineers are engaged in developing and refining (I hesitate to say improving) such features. Perhaps it is not surprising that the loaded term ‘WMDs’ has been appropriated in some quarters to refer to Wireless Mobile Devices.

The VW case created a major upheaval, with both the company and whole emissions testing regime under close scrutiny as well as massed legal actions, multiple resignations, and one of the engineers responsible in jail. The damage to trust meant that the discussion quickly moved on to wondering which other manufacturers had been doing the same. In all cases, as technology gets more and more sophisticated, it will become easier over time to incorporate features that work against the end user.

Whether it is the car that they drive, their smartphone, a voice-activated personal assistant or any sort of connected appliance, these users may wish to evaluate for themselves whether the product they are purchasing is likely to be working for their benefit, or for the benefit of the company selling the product, or for someone else entirely. Unfortunately, the complexity and obscurity of the technology involved means that they are not in a position to make this assessment. After all, even the professionals conducting government emissions testing were fooled.

So the end user can only rely on trust and, if this trend continues, they may start to lose faith in the engineers and technologists who are designing the products that they buy. And that would not be a good thing for the engineering profession, which is having a hard enough time with its image already. As engineers, we all have a responsibility to our employers, but we should bear in mind that we also have an ethical responsibility to the users of everything that we design.

Try this test: if the feature that I am working on right now, and the reason for its existence, was printed on the product label rather than buried in a black box, would the customer still buy the product?

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We can view the engineer today as someone who has special powers to control or influence the spirits of technology; a guardian of the magic of electronics and software; someone who can be looked to for a vision of what can be achieved if the spirits are willing, and someone in whom we must have faith that the spirits will be successfully harnessed and the vision delivered (on time and to budget).

I signed off from the first part of this blog wondering what it means for the engineer whose job it is to provide the technology under the hood, for companies who wish to bring new and evolving products to market, when the end user knows (and perhaps cares) less and less about how it all works. This engineer is in a position of considerable power and influence and needs to use that power both wisely and ethically.

Of course, we can use this power for ‘good’, or not, as we choose. There have always been ethical considerations for engineers, with some being uncomfortable working in certain fields, motivated by aspirations, such as working for peaceful ends or protecting the environment. Most people will have a red line somewhere about the intended applications of the technology they are working on, depending on their personal beliefs. However, the ethical aspect that I wanted to highlight is different to this. In a way, it is about who the engineer is actually working for, in the widest sense. If I buy a product, I might reasonably expect its designers to be ‘on my side’. Is that a reasonable assumption? It feels to me that, increasingly, it is not.

With technology becoming so obscure to the lay person, it is becoming easier to create the proverbial ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’. At the headline news end of the scale, we have seen engineers working for an automotive manufacturer designing ‘features’ into the engine management system to enable the vehicle to pass emission tests, even though the vehicle would be way over the limits in normal road driving.

As an engineering task, exploiting the way that emissions tests were performed wouldn’t have been hard once the well-specified test procedure had been studied carefully. Sadly, a collection of individuals, including the engineers involved, decided that implementing this feature was the right thing to do. Who was the beneficiary of this feature? Clearly, it’s the vehicle manufacturer and not you, the end customer.

For a much less high-profile but more pervasive case example, think of the engineers in the smartphone industry who are working with psychologists in the field of ‘behaviour design’. That desire to keep looking at your phone is not simply due to your lack of willpower. You are responding to a carefully developed rewards system that has been built into applications with the express purpose of keeping you on the phone. In receiving these rewards, such as incoming photos, messages, ‘likes’, and other notifications we are given a dopamine-induced kick, enticing us to stay engaged.

And because they do not occur on a fixed schedule, we are encouraged to keep looking just in case. More time on the phone means more likelihood of exposure to advertising. You, the end user, are not the beneficiary of this ‘feature’ either. Concentration, once lost, takes a long time to recover, so the loss of productivity through these constant distractions is enormous. And yet many engineers are engaged in developing and refining (I hesitate to say improving) such features. Perhaps it is not surprising that the loaded term ‘WMDs’ has been appropriated in some quarters to refer to Wireless Mobile Devices.

The VW case created a major upheaval, with both the company and whole emissions testing regime under close scrutiny as well as massed legal actions, multiple resignations, and one of the engineers responsible in jail. The damage to trust meant that the discussion quickly moved on to wondering which other manufacturers had been doing the same. In all cases, as technology gets more and more sophisticated, it will become easier over time to incorporate features that work against the end user.

Whether it is the car that they drive, their smartphone, a voice-activated personal assistant or any sort of connected appliance, these users may wish to evaluate for themselves whether the product they are purchasing is likely to be working for their benefit, or for the benefit of the company selling the product, or for someone else entirely. Unfortunately, the complexity and obscurity of the technology involved means that they are not in a position to make this assessment. After all, even the professionals conducting government emissions testing were fooled.

So the end user can only rely on trust and, if this trend continues, they may start to lose faith in the engineers and technologists who are designing the products that they buy. And that would not be a good thing for the engineering profession, which is having a hard enough time with its image already. As engineers, we all have a responsibility to our employers, but we should bear in mind that we also have an ethical responsibility to the users of everything that we design.

Try this test: if the feature that I am working on right now, and the reason for its existence, was printed on the product label rather than buried in a black box, would the customer still buy the product?

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Further Reading