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Will the robots take over?

Istock 185323250 1 cropped

I was surprised by the Comment in the last issue, especially the assertion that, “having a robot that can run countless iterations of a complex structural conundrum…has to be another good thing”.

It appears that the obvious lack of understanding of the spectrum of a structural design engineer’s input has not been allowed to get in the way of a slick statement.

One thing engineers learn quickly is that setting any steelwork analysis and design software to “optimise” is a great way of wasting time and money. The resulting recommendation will suit only one loading criteria, usually a final idealised condition.

An experienced engineer, when faced with any problem, will typically assess within the first few minutes: available section grade and sizes, workshop constraints, lifting points, transport sizes and weight constraints, possible warping effects of welding, waste, ease of erection, optimisation of sections, connection interface options along with assuring access for welding or bolting, the corrosion protection system and application concerns, and there are more.

That level of software is still some way off, if even possible.

I always roll my eyes at calls for engineers to be given more respect, but when the editor of a leading industry journal disses his peers; well!

  • Peter Fensome (M)

Reading between the lines of the subject of increasing automation in June’s issue I see a raising concern about loss of jobs to robots and other forms of automation.

As I see it, the increasing automation of the construction industry should not be seen as such a dreadful change. I think we should look back through history a bit to see the big picture. Take the beginnings of railway construction for example. At the time, most of that work (if not even all of it) was carried out by manual labour. Now some might argue that, at the time, technology was not advanced enough to tackle this in any other manner, and I agree. But how many people would be eager to take on manual jobs like this nowadays? I can’t think there are too many.

I realise this is an extreme comparison, but maybe it will be an eye-opener for those who are afraid their jobs will be taken over by machines.

In my opinion, human beings are by nature curious and inquisitive. We are constantly innovating and evolving. Machines will play a crucial role in our further evolution and development as a civilisation, because they are taking away the repetitive tasks, leaving us with more and more time on our hands which we could put into more productive activities, like research into new, better ways to solve problems.

I also think that the idea that one day our boss will come one morning to a construction site and announce everyone will be laid off due to the adoption of automation is purely wrong. I think that this idea comes from a primeval fear of the unknown and a deep unconscious concern for our very own survival.

The gradual nature of the implementation of automation in the construction industry will allow us the time we need to get our heads out of the day-to-day tasks and start thinking about new ways in which we might contribute and improve the industry. This in itself will open the way for new activities (if indeed our previous ones have been automated).

But it comes with a price: people need to be open minded about this. It is much easier to say: “I will do my job as I did before” rather than: “Let’s see what I can do to change things”.

It is up to us to keep an open mind for new technologies that will fast-track our evolution.

  • Andrei Popa,

Chris Douglas’ article on autonomous vehicles and freight (New Civil Engineer, last month) potentially opens up debate on the way forward.

Currently we have 40t trucks everywhere, especially on the motorways, and large container trains on the railways; aircraft freight comes in much smaller packages and almost none of it is moved with clean power or in an environmentally friendly manner. Is there an opportunity for this (post Brexit) country to take the lead in the development of a new system which is more environmentally friendly and which makes good use of new technology?

From a bottom up perspective we could look at the initiatives to improve air quality in the Capital and the development of electrically powered London taxis. Surely this technology will develop and we will soon see electrically-powered skip lorries and small buses. But this does not fit with the large loads which we currently see at sea, on the roads and on rail. The key to moving forward would appear to be the development of a smaller container, say around 7t to 10t which can be moved on an electrically powered vehicle with the potential for autonomous control. These containers would double up when carried aboard ship to fit existing loading facilities and would fit existing road vehicles and rail bogies.

  • Peter Styles, Kingsbury, Warkwickshire


When it comes to robots applying for jobs,  can we anticipate a panel of specialist robots interviewing prospective robots; something along the lines of present arrangements, but perhaps with improvements?

  • Colin Davies (F) Heath Road, Potters Bar, Herts

Why pick on diesel?

Leonard Rosten (Your view, last month) asserts the public have been hoodwinked into driving “filthy smoke ridden diesels” instead of “reliable clean petrol” vehicles, and furthermore that the error of our ways will be “blindingly obvious” to anyone stuck behind a stationary bus.

It just isn’t that simple. Spending roughly five hours a week cycling through central London traffic I get stuck behind all sorts of motor traffic, and often positively prefer the back end of a bus to other vehicles. Many of them run on hybrid power plants which seem quite clean when stationary, or pulling away. More broadly I think we should recognise that the issue of the “best” combustion engine isn’t proven. Global warming is not a phrase which appears anywhere in the Conservatives’ 2017 manifesto, but it still occupies the minds of Europe’s major car manufacturers, and continuing to sell diesel cars into the active fleet is a key part of hitting CO2 targets. I have owned petrol and LPG cars. These all consumed a lot more fuel than our current 55mpg-ish diesel. My brother meanwhile runs a small electric car. All of these pollute in different ways. In the round, none of them are clean or “sustainable”, and claiming so would be utter tosh. Let us accept that designing vehicles is much like designing bridges, buildings, and sewers, it is a balancing act between different evils.

  • Ralph Swallow

Starting to see sense?

Heathrow is a horrible place, a nightmare over-priced rip-off of its passengers, who will avoid it when they can.

Ground access by any means is complicated and congested: why exacerbate this by even more expansion? If the UK is to go it alone in a global economy it needs an efficient and welcoming airport gateway, not this over-expanded muddle.

Perhaps even British Airways is beginning to see sense.

  • Michael Thorn, posted online on article headed “Airlines refuse to pay for ‘£3bn’ M25 runway plan”

Celebrating women

Well done @ncedigital for their May edition. Entirely by, and about, female engineers – but without mentioning it!

  • Nick Francis @NickFEngineer via Twitter

Great piece @ncedigital explaining its unannounced women-only last edition ‘if there was no issue, then [we]…would’ve given up long ago’

  • Richard Kirk @Richard_Kirk_ via Twitter

Congratulations on producing the all female May issue. I only spotted it when I saw the advert for UK Transport on page 74 and was surprised to see an all female lineup of speakers. It made me go back to the beginning and look a little closer. Just goes to show that there are actually quite a lot of us out there!

  • Janet Nelson, posted online on the New Civil Engineer Digital edition

Congratulations on a good idea. I hope that the inclusion of lots of female contributors continues so, that one day it isn’t a special occasion and requires extra effort from the team.

I particularly like that you looked for engineers less frequently heard from.

  • Penny Gil, posted online on article headed “The Women Issue | Confidence conundrum

Getting a grip on High Speed 2 cost estimates

Your May issue of New Civil Engineer contains plenty of evidence of the difficulty of costing railway works.  Another example, of a different order of magnitude to those that you describe, is High Speed 2 (HS2).

Curzon street aerial final 25 04 13

Curzon street aerial final 25 04 13

HS2: Unrealistic cost estimates?

The government maintains that the cost of the first Phase to Birmingham is about £24bn and for the whole railway £55.7bn. Lord Berkeley, who is very experienced in railway work, doubted these figures and commissioned an independent cost analysis from Michael Byng, who is the author of the RMM suite of railway cost measurement commissioned by Network Rail. Byng estimates that the cost of the first phase will be about £54bn and the cost of the whole railway over £100bn. Both figures are about twice the government’s figures.  The government has so far been unwilling to agree to an independent assessment of the difference in these costs.

The first stages of work of the HS2 scheme are due to happen shortly, when fine trees will be cut down and buildings demolished. None of this should go ahead until the whole project has been reviewed. The independent assessment of costs is urgently needed, before more money is wasted on this ludicrous scheme.

  • Sam Price sam price







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