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Engineering for Dummies 7/1/15 Updated 7/2/15, 9:46 PM

Back when I was working for a hydraulic device manufacturer, the company developed a motion control valve that could be programmed from a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA).  This was a big deal because none of our competitors had anything comparable.  So the company decided to feature the PDA-controlled valve at a trade show in Las Vegas.  The show was six months away when we started preparing a hands-on exhibit. 

The Marketing group set a simple goal to create a demo unit that would demonstrate two features: a. easy programming via a PDA, and b. consistent valve performance.

Three months before the show, Engineering hadn’t done anything to develop the demo unit.  They were trying to incorporate additional demonstrations (four, as I recall) for other features such as ramped motion (start gradually, reach top speed, slow down gradually), and both mechanical and digital representations of valve performance.  We had arguments.  Finally the boss caved in, and told Engineering to do it their way, but get it done on time.  The demo unit came in at 300% of budget, about two hours before it was to be shipped to Las Vegas via very expensive direct freight, since it hadn’t been available for shipping with the rest of the trade show paraphernalia. 

Of course, because it arrived so late, there was no time to test anything.

Our trade show staff unpacked the demo unit at LVCC, and put it in its’ featured place at the front of our booth.  They plugged it in, turned it on, and found the only thing they could demonstrate was . . . noise.  Our demo unit spent the first day of the show with its’ covers off, and engineers poking at its’ innards, trying to make it work.  This is really impressive to potential customers, and really humorous to competitors.

I believe the demo unit was never used a second time.

Then there’s Oriental Nicety, formerly Northwestern, Exxon Valdez, Exxon Mediterranean, SeaRiver Mediterranean, S/R Mediterranean, Mediterranean, and Dong Fang Ocean.  She was an example of state-of-the-art engineering when she was launched in October of 1986 – a shining example of what the best maritime engineers could produce.  Alas, in March of 1989, her third mate ran her aground on Bligh Reef.  Investigation showed that several key collision avoidance devices were not in use when the ship hit the reef – because Exxon considered them too expensive to repair.  You know the rest of that story.

You may not know this remarkable piece of engineering, under the name Dong Fang Ocean, collided in the South China Sea with the Malta-flagged cargo ship, Aali, on November 29, 2010

Remember Wernher Von Braun?  He is reputed to have said regarding the launch of the first rocket attack on London “The rocket worked perfectly.  It just landed on the wrong planet.”

So, where am I going with this?  Sometimes (not always) engineers get so taken up in solving problems, they lose sight of bigger issues.

On June 24th, the Star/Tribune Business Section carried a story under the following headline: “Proposed PolyMet mine in northeastern Minnesota moves one step closer”

“With the proposed engineering controls, the water quality model predicts that the NorthMet Project Proposed Action would not cause any significant water quality impacts,” according to the preliminary report. (highlight is mine tb)

The link is here: http://www.startribune.com/proposed-polymet-mine-in-northeastern-minnesota-moves-one-step-closer/309408341/

Will the proposed engineering controls still be effective one hundred years from now?  The mine pit will still be there.  Will the proposed engineering controls solve today’s problem of getting the mine up and running, while ignoring tomorrow’s problem of long term pollution?  Does the water quality model predict the impact of a greedy foreign ownership consortium?

Here’s Mud In Your Eye
Again from the STRIB, June 29th, in the SouthMetro section we see this.
“Jordan Brewery plans still buried a year after mudslide
$100,000 from state will pay for study of fallen hillside that has Jordan in limbo.”

The link is here:

Most of the story is a rehash of details about the mudslide that burst through the back of the historic Jordan Brewery.  You know most of those details.  What I found interesting was this snippet from Tim Roets, the man with the plan for beer in Jordan:
“Roets is now in the same position as last June, working toward his taproom’s debut. He hopes to have a flagship beer and a few seasonal choices on tap in a couple of months. But he won’t say when it will open

“I’m not saying any more dates, because the last time I did, we had a landslide,” he said.” (highlight is mine – tb)

Last fall Mr. Roets was projecting that his brewery would be operating in the old library by early spring.  Then he pushed his start date back to mid-June.  Now he’s unable to predict when he might be ready to sell beer brewed in Jordan.  How much of the delay is due to the inability of the City to finish remodeling the interior of the old library is uncertain.  What I know for sure is that the City Council I sat on voted significant money for the remodeling, based on the premise that regardless of how the building was used, improvements were needed.  Why the remodeling has taken eight or so months, I have no idea

And what, precisely, the bluff stability study will accomplish remains to be seen.  A cynic might say it will mainly accomplish enriching some geological engineering firm, since the study is only intended to discover whether the bluff behind the old brewery is unstable.

Well, duh!

When The Fire Dies, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”
This from the July 1st STRIB SouthMetro section:
“Jordan City Council nixes plan for prairie grass at middle school

City officials raised concerns about appearance, hidden dangers and fires after superintendent suggested prairie grass instead of sod at renovated middle school.” 

The link is here:

According to the story (and a similar story in the Jordan Independent) Council Member Will thinks there’s a chance a deranged student might hide in the grass with a gun.  He, and other Council Members also think the neighbors will object to the appearance of a the prairie grass plantings, which resemble weeds – heck, the plantings are weeds if you have cash crops or manicured lawns nearby.  And then there’s the idea of controlled burns, which are the preferred means of controlling and rejuvenating prairies.   Then there’s the idea that maybe the prairie grass should have been part of the original (Council-approved) building permit site plan.  And finally, there’s the part of the zoning code that specifies natural plantings are only permitted where needed to stabilize slopes.

Ho-kay – let’s look at some if this stuff.  Some of the concerns I agree with.  Others seem specious.

Armed, crazed shooters will find a place to shoot from if they’re crazy enough to shoot in the first place.  If it’s not from the tall grass, it’ll be from behind parked cars, or on balconies. 

One controlled burn every three years or so is nothing compared to the impact of all the barbeques and fire pits in the area. (Or, dare I say it? – the impact of thrice weekly cremations.)  In fairness, the smoke from a controlled burn could be very uncomfortable to someone with asthma or other respiratory afflictions.

Weeds?  Many homeowners around the schools use such a toxic mix of herbicides and fertilizers that weeds don’t have a chance.  In fact, the School District itself laces its’ property with stuff homeowners should be concerned about.  It never ceases to amaze me how many people are more concerned about their lawns than they are about the effects of the stuff they spray on their grass.  Barefoot kids, dogs, pollinators, and insect eaters all get a dose of poison every time they use the lawn.

Code enforcement?  Now here’s one concern I could get behind – if we had any code enforcement in Jordan.  Frankly, I sometimes think the City should simply throw away the code book.  In Jordan, exceptions don’t prove the rule.  In Jordan, exceptions are the rule.  The School District is asking for a variance for landscaping, a homeowner is asking for a variance for a deck that infringes on lot line setback standards, a business owner is asking for a variance because there’s not enough room on his property to provide appropriate drainage for storm water, a business owner is asking for a variance because he doesn’t want to put in the required sidewalks in the property he’s developing.

And all these people expect to get their variances, because Jordan so routinely grants them.

Pound Sand

It has come to my attention that Shakopee Sands (formerly under various names) has ceased silica sand mining in Louisville Township.  Apparently, all employees have been let go, and all mining is done.  Low demand for silica sand in the petroleum extraction industry - especially at the Bakken Shale Formation was cited as the cause for the shutdown.

A Reader Writes
With the 169/9/282 project mess is there any plan to improve ped/bike crossing?  Seems to me a tunnel was talked about, doesn’t look like anything of that sort is in the works. A crossing was high on the list for the old PRC and the council??

Just by looking at the work being done, it was obvious no ped/bike accommodation was being made. To me it looks like the net result of all this taxpayer money spent, loss of business in the triangle, aggravation to motorists, accidents, is just smoother roads for a short distance.  

The lights will still be there, there won't be any better way for pedestrians or bikes to cross 169, the 2 sides of Jordan will still be separated. So does any thought ever go into doing what's right for Jordan? Are the city council & staff asleep? or maybe they just don't give a rip snort?  We know MN DOT is not.

I sat on the PRC for 8 years and this crossing was a top priority project--unfortunately all hot air. Does anyone think MN DOT will ever re-do this intersection?  Sorry folks, this will be what we'll get for the next 50 years or more.

Tim Bischke

My Response
Folks who’ve been paying attention know the Council, acting on the advice of the old PRC, made the pedestrian tunnel under 169 the highest priority.  Our City Engineer even provided some visuals of various options.  But no one seized this opportunity to dig the tunnel.

The engineers at MnDOT probably would require two or three pedestrian fatalities at the 282/169 intersection before they would deem it a trouble spot.  Our City Engineers have shifted their priorities to a (much more expensive/lucrative) SouthWest Sewer Interceptor.

Decide for yourself whether you’re happy with that.  I’m not.

The Quote:
“The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men, / Gang aft agley,”
Robert Burns


I welcome public comment on this topic. Anyone willing to give his or her name is welcome to respond here. Thom.Boncher@gmail.com  No anonymous responses will be posted.  No obscene language will be permitted.  Threats, personal attacks, and spam will not be posted.  My house, my rules.  But if you have something to say, and if you are willing to put your name on it, I won’t refuse to let you be heard.