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ReEngineering the Engineer: What Am I Missing?

Douglas Fitzpatrick on August 8, 2019 - in Articles, Column

Historically, the kickoff keynotes for the NASCC Steel Conference are a must-see, and the 2019 conference in St. Louis was no exception. Orzan Varol presented the keynote this year titled “The Power of Contrarian Thinking.” The gist of the presentation was the need to innovate to stay ahead of the game in today’s world. Although the discussion revolved around all types of different industries, the lessons presented had obvious application to the steel design, detailing and fabrication businesses.

One example that caught my attention (coincidentally because I happened to be reading How Not to Be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg that included the same example) was a story about an elite group of mathematicians assembled in New York City as the Statistical Research Group (SRG) during World War II. They opined on all sorts of statistical things, including mixing different types of ammunition on fighter planes or propellants for rockets. When they made recommendations, people listened.

One of the challenges of designing fighter planes during WWII was the need to armor them. Armoring adds weight to the plane and makes it less maneuverable and less fuel efficient; not having enough armor generally increases the likelihood more planes don’t make it back from a mission. Somewhere there’s a sweet spot in the middle, and it was up to the SRG to figure that out.

They were given some statistical data from the field. Planes that returned from engagements were littered with bullet holes, but they weren’t uniformly distributed. The data provided bullet holes per square foot for the engine (1.11), fuselage (1.73), fuel system (1.55) and the rest of the plane (1.8). The field personnel thought more armor should be added where the most bullet holes were and wanted the SRG to tell them the optimum amount of armor to add. That wasn’t the answer they received …

The key, as it turns out, wasn’t where the holes were reported; the key was where the holes weren’t reported. Where are the missing holes? The reason planes were coming back with fewer hits to the engine was that planes that got hit in the engine weren’t coming back. You could tolerate making Swiss cheese of the fuselage, but you had to protect the engine.

The Holes in Engineering

We engineers are confronted with project data all day long, every day, until we retire. Some of it comes from our architectural friends in the form of their design: renderings, plans, models, specifications, etc. Some of it comes from our MEP friends: equipment loading, piping distribution, electrical duct banks, etc. Some of it comes from our civil friends due to site constraints or drainage requirements. And a lot of it comes from our own analyses borne out of all this other data.

Our job—our duty—is to make some sense of all of this and get it right, every time. We have to look at all of it, like the data the field sent to the SRG, and see through the seemingly obvious and find the not-so-obvious. We have to uncover what’s missing. We have to interpolate between what we’ve been told and what we haven’t been told. It’s a lot to consume, a lot to think through and a lot for our young engineers to keep track of.

Find the Missing Data

One of the advantages of getting old (and there aren’t many) is figuring out ways to find the missing data. I’m not going to get preachy about self-help ideas here, but I can say from personal experience that changing the way you think can be a game changer. By asking yourself the simple question, “What am I missing?”, you change the way your brain works, and it starts helping you, subconsciously, find the gaps in your designs.

Check lists and a review by a senior engineer are designed to help you find the missing pieces to your design or project. However, the lists typically exist because someone missed something in the past, but you’re trying to figure out the missing pieces for this project. And although your senior engineer reviewer is certainly experienced, it’s very difficult to understand the minutia about a project without having been in all the meetings.

So steer away from the “I’m just going to do what they tell me” attitude and thoughts. Although you could argue the onus is on our teammates to clue us in on all the things we need to know and where the missing bullet holes are, I can tell you there are others out there already looking for the missing holes. They’re the true team players and the ones who get invited back to the dance; the trusted advisors; the ones who make projects go smoother because they’re looking ahead and trying to make sure their projects cover everything and are complete.

Did I miss anything?


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About Douglas Fitzpatrick

Douglas G. Fitzpatrick, P.E., is the founder, president and practicing engineer of Fitzpatrick Engineering Group, a 14-year-old structural engineering firm specializing in commercial and healthcare building design.

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