The Other Kind of Engineering.

Us engineers usually like to work in controlled circumstances, taking our time to analyze the problem and develop a good idea about how the solution will look before diving in head first. Sometimes however we’re chucked in the deep end and we need to come up with a solution on our feet with the resources that are available immediately, leading to a term I like to refer to as field or ad-hoc engineering. I can’t tell you the number of times I would be working on my beloved first car trying to install some widget only to find the exact part I needed would be a good 30 minutes drive away. This probably explains why it has mostly fallen apart 5 years later, after all my various hacks disintegrated.

There’s also another side to ad-hoc engineering and that’s finding a novel solution from something that wouldn’t normally server its purpose. It was the following article that brought this all to mind:

During the holiday season, many people place toy trains on circular tracks beneath their Christmas trees.

This month, at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, physicists and engineers built tracks inside one of its fusion reactors and ran a toy train on them for three days.

It was not an exercise in silliness, but in calibration.

The modified model of a diesel train engine was carrying a small chunk of californium-252, a radioactive element that spews neutrons as it falls apart.

It’s really an ingenious solution to improving their calibration techniques, even if at first glance it seems rather silly. If you take a look at any major engineering project I’m sure you could find many more examples just like this, although I bet more than a few of them involve copious amounts of duct tape.

My university studies were filled with examples like this, especially the final year which saw me and 3 other students work on what was essentially a media PC running MythTV with a custom intuitive interface. The case itself was salvaged from an old instrumentation rack, the controller board for the front panel was actually an old keyboard that had been torn apart to fit the bezel and all of the PC parts were from one of the project member’s old PCs. I’d love to say that the whole thing was held together with hope, strings and bailing wire but it did turn out pretty well with us coming second in a university competetion. I’d have to credit the other members of the team with the success though as I had relegated myself to being the project manager (which in hindsight was a terrible idea, we should’ve done that stuff collaboratively).

Strangely its this kind of engineering I find most satisfying. I’ve wasted many hours scrounging through my garage for that one thing that will mostly do the job whilst I sort out a better solution. It’s also the reason why I find it hard to throw anything out as I know that the second I do some strange use will pop into my head and I’ll curse myself for throwing it out. There’s a good reason why we have a 3 car garage at our house with not a single car parked in it. đŸ˜‰

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