MechChem Africa

In this new quarterly column, Gary i. Crawford of Mettle Strategic Creativity talks about increasing integration in engineering, the creative value of interactions across disciplines and the value of breaking out of the ‘silo’ mindset.

Gary CrawfordThere was a time when the world consisted of discrete compartments. As a 'tradesperson’, one was expected to be an expert in a particular discipline. Even the questioning of the Renaissance of the 14th to 17th centuries failed to convince the masses of the need to be proficient in more than one field.

The term, 'calling,' comes to mind. True Renaissance men were few and far between. These cultured men who were knowledgeable, educated and proficient in a wide range of fields are exemplified by Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo who, in today's terminology, thought ‘out of the box’.

In art, this new way of thinking resulted in the development of perspective in oil painting. And, in the less lofty world of construction, the recycled knowledge of how to make concrete. Plus, of course, Gutenberg's introduction of metal movable type to Europe, which sped the dissemination of ideas from the late 15th century.

While it is true that many so-called professionals adopted avocations – activities that someone engages in as a hobby outside their main occupation or vocation – it wasn't until very recently that the 'compartment' (or 'silo') mind-set was challenged. Tertiary education generally meant concentration on one discipline, which, when hopefully mastered, would become the key to later life success.

With hindsight I can now understand why there were quizzical looks when I admitted to studying languages, law, economics, mechanical engineering and architecture alongside my stated major of psychology. Nobody mentioned 'renaissance' in describing me. Rather, I'm sure, the monikers of 'unsure' or even 'spoilt' came to their minds.

I'd have been happy to be called an 'all-rounder,' but I'm sure that even in my first corporate position as a management trainee at Unilever, I was still seen as the 'Jack of all trades ... master of none.' For, in those days when every desk came equipped with a crank-handle-driven Facit calculator, the latest desktop computers had cathode ray tube green screens and you interfaced via MS-DOS, the norm was still to confine yourself to your specific functional 'silo.'

It was only with the advent of the graphical user interface (GUI) that the computer became mainstream and the world of personal communications opened up to all. This gave birth to the second 'renaissance' ('rebirth' in English) ... encouraging concepts from different disciplines to be brought together in 'constructs' never before contemplated.

More than anyone else, we can thank Steve Jobs for facilitating the ease of use of laptops, enabling communications and helping to dispel the long-held belief in the sanctity of functional silos.

First came the Apple ll (1977), the world's first mass-market personal computer. Home, offices and schools around the world would never be the same. Then, the all-in-one iMac computer in 1998 – marketed as being Internet-ready out of the box. In 1991, the high-end, business-friendly PowerBook laptop line was launched; followed by the iBook in 1999, with  Wi-Fi technology; the iPod in 2001; and the iPhone in 2007.

By 2010, Steve Jobs was confident the world was ready to embrace a new type of device, a tablet computer. He was right. The touch-sensitive iPad was an instant success after its introduction, with 15 million of the devices sold in the launch year.

The phenomenal Apple success story was not, however, without its hiccups.

Apple’s handheld PDA, the Newton, went on sale in 1993, at the time that ex Pepsi-Cola’s John Sculley usurped control of Apple. The Newton could take notes, store contacts, manage calendars and send a fax. With it, Apple didn’t just set out to create a new device. It wanted to invent an entirely new class of computer, one that could slip into pockets and go out into the world. In fact, the pocket size was a core design requirement.

At the time, it was extremely difficult to get component manufacturers to build any sort of custom parts. Trying to pull off a design referred to as ‘the Batman concept’, a sleek black pocketable unit, proved difficult.

Famed positioning strategists, Jack Trout and Al Ries, with whom I was interacting at the time, called the Newton “the world's most expensive paperweight."  At a time when most people were still battling to set the time on a VCR, they concluded and recommended to Apple that the world's first palm-held, portable computer “was too far ahead of its time”.

Doonesbury's cartoonist creator, Garry Trudeau, made fun of it. But, Newton had an enemy much bigger than Garry Trudeau. Steve Jobs hated it. He raged against the device for its poor performance and novel input mechanism. “God gave us ten styluses,” he said, waving his fingers. “Let’s not invent another.”

So, when Jobs wrested back control of his company, he scuttled it. As he explained: “My gut was that there was some really good technology, but it was messed up by mismanagement. By shutting it down, I freed up some good engineers who could work on new mobile devices. And eventually we got it right when we moved on to iPhones and the iPad.”

Despite its relatively short life, the Newton and the thinking that went into it still resonate, existing in the devices you use today.

New approaches to disciplines

In the 6 June 2012 Princeton Alumni Weekly, the university stated that it “has long held that the study of engineering should be firmly embedded in a liberal education and that prospective engineers should have broad exposure to the humanities and social science disciplines before they graduate. At Princeton, we expect our undergraduates to think deeply, but we also want them to roam widely, exploring a broad range of questions and approaching them from as many angles as possible.”

 In the words of Dean Vince Poor, “The most inventive and effective solutions often come from unexpected interactions between disciplines. Today, the engineering school is more likely to frame its work in terms of four broad areas of social need – energy, the environment, health, and security – than to define its mission using departmental metrics.”

'Blurring' is not isolated to engineering alone. The phenomenon is increasingly impacting on virtually everything in our business and social lives. 'Renaissance' thinking is gaining strength in the construction industry. Take, for example, the building of a typical middle-class South African residence.

Trench foundations are dug and filled with concrete. Two-brick thick walls are built, with apertures for doors and windows being 'bridged' by reinforced lintels. Thereafter, a roof structure is erected, followed by a waterproof covering of tiles or sheeting. Commonly, doorframes and window frames are of wood, the latter fitted with single glazing. Composite board ceilings are installed and painted.

Walls are plastered then painted or tiled. A floor screed is laid, with a final surface finish of tiles, wood or carpet.

When I returned to South Africa in 1994, after a stay of more than a decade in the United States, I paid a visit to the then head of a steel construction association. I asked about the type of home he owned. His reply was something like “a typical brick and mortar building with a tiled roof.”

I posed the question why he did not live in a building with a steel structure; seeing that he managed an industry group whose major objective was the increased use of steel as the major structural component. I never received a satisfactory answer.

However, there are, thankfully a growing number of architects, materials manufacturers and builders who are embracing new construction technologies such as light steel frame building. Not to be confused with 'prefabricated' or 'kit' building, it can be described as 'off-site' building as a good deal of manufacturing takes place off site. Structural wall panels and trusses are assembled from cold formed, light gauge steel sections, which are taken to site for erection, typically on raft foundations, and cladding with weatherproof materials. The final result is an environmentally friendly and structurally sound building.

From being virtually non-existent in 2012, light steel frame building technology is fast finding favour. It is now the fastest growing sector of the South African steel construction industry.

And, it was heartening to note that the previous steel association head I visited now lives in a bespoke steel and glass home using light steel frame technology.

Many other advanced construction materials and techniques are currently being researched or applied, with universities such as University of Johannesburg and University of Pretoria leading the way. Materials range from membranes for building envelopes to aerated light-weight concrete, fibre-reinforced concrete, multi-use conduit, wall construction methods and virtually every product with potential to offer structural integrity, environmental friendliness, ease of construction and economy for the life cycle.

Interest is so fast-growing that an industry association has been planned to promote and guide development of this strategically important movement. And in most cases involving modern physical products, advances being made incorporate multi-disciplinary engineering components.

Gary i. Crawford.

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