Friday 8 February 2013

What research means to building engineers

Nic Coombes’ recent blog post on the accessibility of academic research ( struck a chord with me and her advice about potential work-arounds was very welcome in a world where industry access to new ideas and concepts which might move us forward is certainly lacking.

As someone who hasn't ever been a researcher, but is involved in research (by way of being an industrial supervisor to another EngD, Nic's industrial examiner, lecturing etc), I wanted to explore this topic from industry's point of view – at least as far as building engineering is concerned.

Undoubtedly, we (I mean those in industry as opposed to academia) need research. However, the reality is that the results of most research are of passing interest and little else to engineers trying to design a structure, a ventilation system or a lighting solution. Most engineers never see or hear about most research and the small amount they do come into contact with is generally through their institutional journal – filtered by editors into what they think will be of interest and use to their members.

This is fair enough of course and the journals do a good job here; we can’t expect engineers to be abreast of every new piece of research which might be relevant to their particular discipline, but, this narrow channel of dissemination certainly hampers a broader awareness of new thinking in the field.

In addition, much of the research out there is largely irrelevant to an engineer’s day to day work. That isn’t to try and devalue research; it’s just the truth. New uses for a material which acts like the tentacle of an octopus may well have some future application in building structures (, but, a structural engineer isn’t likely to be able to specify it anytime soon.

Couple this with the commercial pressure and risk aversion abundant in most engineering companies and you have a recipe for engineers not experimenting on a live project even if they wanted to. And, when I say experiment, I don’t mean build a carpark out of marzipan, I just mean take a new approach to a problem.

This actually ties in to a blog post I wrote back in October on my internal company site – it discussed innovation and the ways in which it works. Research is one of those ways; it’s the long haul, big leap approach to moving things forward and whilst essential to getting us to where we need to be, it remains largely inaccessible to most engineers – at least in its raw, untested by industry, form.
The other way of being innovative (and I want to be clear here that I absolutely believe that setting out on a project with the intent of being innovative will only end in the dissappointment of all involved), is through marginal improvement. Ok, it may not be as sexy as a big leap but it’s successful far more often and, essentially, far more accessible.
In the context of everyday engineering (by far the lion’s share of what happens in industry), I think at least part of research’s job is to inspire engineers to make relatively small changes, leading to marginal (or maybe even not so marginal) improvements on the road to realising the potential demonstrated by the research.


  1. Thanks for mentions Kevin, I would be interested to hear whether you thought this type of incremental improvements would have happened anyway or does research speed up the process?

    Could researchers do a better job in terms of communicating these type of accesible improvements? I'll definitely bear it in mind when writing a paper next time.

    And for a bit of inspiration I can really recommend the story Mario Capecchi who strived for radical innovation in his research. I listened to it recently here - episode 1, it's worth a listen.

    Have a ncie weekend, Nic

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