When I attended Caltech in the 1950’s, I worked summers at a large job shop in Riverside, California named Hunter Engineering. It was started by a man named Joe Hunter and did everything from machining custom parts, to welding, to manufacturing large lots of components, to designing and building complete custom machines. It had a small engineering staff, consisting of very talented people who had typically worked in the shop and did not have engineering degrees from four year colleges. The first summer I worked in the shop, and then since I was going to college and studying engineering, I was moved to the engineering function and earned my keep sitting at a drafting board and designing various things. It was great fun.
In the 1930’s the company had developed a process of continuously painting material, and during the years I worked there, the company designed and built a continuous casting machine, rolling line and heat treatment furnace, to go with the continuous painting process so that the stock began as aluminum ingots and ended as rolls of completed blind material. The company had joined Douglas Engineering in the 1940’s and eventually became Hunter Douglas and is now among other things the largest producer of venetian blinds in the world, employing some 17,000 people. When I worked there, it probably employed about 200. More details are here.
I had a problem, however, correlating the work I did at Hunter with the courses I was taking at Caltech. By then Caltech was renowned for the scientific and mathematical research its faculty performed, and my courses were heavily slanted in that direction. But the engineers at Hunter seemed to rely on rudimentary calculations, handbooks, finding information and methods of solving problems when they needed, and their experience. At Caltech we were not supposed to even read handbooks, but I found mine (bought for my summer work) valuable as a quick insight into what we were learning in detail. Needless to say I kept them well hidden.
Since those years, “leading—meaning ranked toward the top in polls” engineering schools seem to have leaned even more toward research, Ph.D. production, and visibility obtained through publication and awards (the Nobel prize is a good thing to have). This year, the very popular Product Design program at Stanford, which trades some science and math for more project-oriented courses, is trying to hire a tenure line professor or two. It seems to have accepted that the applicants should have Ph.D. degrees and are active in scholarly research. In my career with Shell Oil, the U.S. Air Force, General Motors, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and teaching and consulting at Stanford, the best working project engineers and designers usually did not have Ph.D. degrees and definitely did not do academic research. In fact they in general did not even read refereed scholarly journals. I tried to hide my Ph.D. degree at J.P.L. so that I could be involved in designing and building space craft rather than being a specialist, and the technology we used was not cutting edge—the game with robotic planetary-and-beyond spacecraft is reliability and long lifetime. That is usually obtained through experience, seeking simplicity, and lots of testing.
But science and mathematics have great appeal to the media. When I worked at J.P.L., the media never tired of talking about the brilliant young scientists who built these marvels. They were not built by scientists, but rather by engineers, who tended to come from schools like Iowa State and others who were less festooned with Nobel prize winners and National Merit Scholars than Caltech. In fact when I was there, although Caltech manages J.P.L., there were relatively few Caltech graduates working there. And mathematics and science fit well into the intellectual life of universities and attract money.
I am presently on the advisory committee of a project called Engineering 2030 Chile— an attempt to upgrade Chilean engineering schools through a competition that will shower funding on the winning schools. The large universities will probably propose producing more Ph.D. students and hiring more internationally renowned scholars. Is that what Chile needs? They would like to diversify their industrial base and have recently completed a very successful program named Start Up Chile to build a network of entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs in high technology need to be bright and well educated in the basic concepts of science and mathematics. But they also need to be driven and able to deal with money and understand such things as marketing, Ph.D’s ? It seems that Chile would benefit from more bright, motivated, creative, and up-to-date engineers in many fields, even if they are not top level mathematicians and scientists.
Science and mathematics are essential tools for engineers, and their basic nature and principles must be understood. But top mathematicians and scientists generally have specialist roles in industry, if they are there at all, rather than being involved in the non-rigorous and often pragmatic work involved in large projects.
I once became so annoyed by the tendency of humans to lump everyone using equations and scientific knowledge together that I wrote a whole book trying to explain what engineering is. The title is Flying Buttresses, Entropy, and O-Rings (Harvard Press). It is listed in the recommended book list on the left side of this blog. As I said in the introduction, If you disagree with my views, please write a better one. A bit more clarity is needed on what engineers are and what they do.