Bridges and Distillation Columns

Distillation columns are very common in chemical engineering. Bridges are very common in civil engineering.

In chemical engineering, the design of distillation columns have to a very substantial degree been incorporated in software platforms. While students need to understand the key assumptions undergirding the calculations in these software platforms, it has become no longer necessary to do hand calculations. The opportunity for novel research in distillation is low, except as novel materials may require considerations above and beyond those embodied in software platforms.

In civil engineering, design of bridges (except for the very small number of high performance or “signature” bridges) has become routinized with embodiment in codes and standards, and by the use of structural analysis platforms. While students need to understand the key assumptions undergirding the calculations is these codes, standards and software platforms, it has become no longer necessary to do hand calculations. The opportunity for novel research in bridge design is low, except as novel materials and highly unique situations may require considerations above and beyond those embodied in codes, standards and software platforms.

With increasing automation of engineering design, it becomes essential that students be educated for the non-routine problems that will go beyond the capability of extant software, codes and standards. While they must know about the codes, standards and software, this should not be the strong focus of their education. More and more the design and maintenance of the routine, while important (perhaps more so in civil engineering where systems must last a long time) will become the purview of technicians and automation. The role of engineers in these circumstances will be to be alert to, characterize, and modify activity for the unusual.

PS – as an environmental engineer specializing in water, I would say much the same thing for activated sludge, rapid sand water filtration or primary sedimentation. Though there is important work in optimization and in the automated design of resilient systems yet to be done in these contexts.

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Code of Ethics and Sustainability

The ASCE Code of Ethics, Canon 1 states :

Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public and shall strive to comply with the principles of sustainable development in the performance of their professional duties.

Point f under this Canon states:

Engineers should be committed to improving the environment by adherence to the principles of sustainable development so as to enhance the quality of life of the general public.  

A classical definition of “sustainable development” is the Brundtland commission of 1987:

“Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

It is an interesting to ask what is the obligation of a civil engineering professional who seeks to uphold Canon 1 and clause f given the definition.  I ask a number of rhetorical questions:

  • Is it unethical to accept a job in which there is an inordinate consumption of non-renewable resources when alternatives (perhaps in the short term more costly) are available?
  • Is there an affirmative ethical obligation to do a life cycle assessment of a project to determine what alternative(s) most closely meets the Brundtland definitions as operationalized? This may require excluding others (even requiring going beyond narrow requirements under particular RFQ’s or RFP’s of clients — making the problem bigger).
  • Do engineers have an affirmative obligation under Canon 1d (“Engineers who have knowledge or reason to believe that another person or firm may be in violation of any of the provisions of Canon 1 shall present such information to the proper authority in writing and shall cooperate with the proper authority in furnishing such further information or assistance as may be required.“) to report others who may not be considering the principles of sustainable development in the performance of their duties?