Every good engineer spends some effort working their way out of a job

Time changes technology

By Paul Studebaker

A young man I know is just beginning his career in engineering, finding himself in a windowless cube, running simulations for hours, surrounded by quintessential engineers—nobody talks and when they do, it’s about work or hitting a bar afterwards. He is constantly looking for the path forward—how can he improve himself to become the engineer/subject matter expert/manager he needs to be to become the human being he wants to be? Should he learn systems engineering? Read management or self-improvement books? Work more, or work more on work/life balance? What will his future bring?

Among his mentors is his group manager, who has been an engineer for many years. His manager told him, paraphrasing, “In engineering, you don’t know what the future will bring. I started as a draftsman. I poured myself into my craft, and became the best draftsman. Now, we don’t use draftsmen.”

Will the day come when you just say, “Computer, design our control system. Control system, commission yourself. Plant, make 100 tons of polystyrene.” On some level, we know the answer is yes, we just don’t know when.

Meanwhile, we toil away, each in our own environment at our own technical level. A few plants chafe at the limitations of the available technology, and push for better and more. Others invest in getting the most (the last?) from legacy systems that were never designed to survive so long.

Spring has finally arrived in the Midwest, so we can add the lawn work and exterior maintenance to our list of chores. Spring also means yours truly can further abuse you with tales of woe related to resurrecting a 1963 Studebaker Avanti from its 20-year sleep in my uncle’s garage.

Will the day come when you just say, 'Computer, design our control system. Control system, commission yourself. Plant, make 100 tons of polystyrene'?

Before it went into winter storage, I got it running well and identified its weaknesses. Now, my brother has decided he will keep it in the family, and wants to take it from its place here, near Chicago, to his home near Portland, Oregon.

So now, not unlike the readers tasked with relying on an end-of-life control system, my task has shifted from simply fixing what’s broken to making sure the car will perform reliably for at least a few thousand miles, and indefinitely thereafter. Work has centered around the engine front main seal, the power steering and miscellaneous items from the fuel and charging systems to the exhaust.

With every grimy, inaccessible SAE bolt, connection of brittle wiring and bit of barely post-World War II iron-based engineering, I’m reminded what automobiles were like 55 years ago, halfway between the amazing technology of today and the twilight of the Age of Steam.

For example, this car has factory air conditioning, and the York piston compressor is mounted to the iron block and heads with two brackets made from quarter-inch mild steel plate. Each adaptor weighs more than a modern compressor.

The radiator is solid brass and weighs at least 50 lbs; while the one from my 1991 BMW is plastic and aluminum, weighs about 12 pounds and handles half again the horsepower. The power steering uses a spool valve inserted between the Pittman arm and reach rod, a hydraulic cylinder tabbed onto the bellcrank, and about 14 feet of hoses to plumb them together and to the pump. The front end has 18 grease fittings, to be attended to every 1,000 miles.

Compared to a steam engine, a 1960s carbureted V-8 is a miracle of modern technology. You don’t have to plan an hour or two ahead of a trip to go out and fire up the boiler, but unlike that BMW, you probably want to warm it up for a few minutes before you put it into gear.

From the perspective of 1963, or 1991 or even 2005 (our newest vehicle), it would be hard to envision a modern hybrid or engine start/stop-equipped car, designed to deliver full power from cold in less than a second. Better yet, get a plug-in electric—it simply doesn’t care.

Or just hop in a self-driving car, and tell it where you want to go.