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Engineers Are More Than Just Good With Math

Oct. 1, 2020
As society becomes ever more reliant on uninterrupted supply of reliable electric power, we must continue to focus our best engineering talents increasingly on the anticipation side of our structural engineering problem.

Good math skills make good engineers. My high school guidance counselor told me so when I told her I thought I would make a good forest ranger. With slide rule in hand, off to engineering school I went. Mind you, I still dream of spending the night in a fire watchtower, but satellite imaging technology likely has displaced that job already. I chose wisely. What engineers ultimately learn from our career choice is that engineering is more than just being good with math. “Good enough is not good enough,” as the saying goes.

As a newly minted second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force when the Vietnam War was winding down, my mission as a young civil engineering officer was simple: Be a problem solver. During that turbulent time, there was never a moment I was not challenged to be just that. That mission for me, personally, never changed as I moved into the civilian world. Designing, manufacturing, inspecting and testing the tubular steel poles, lattice steel towers, spun concrete poles, and fiberglass composite and wood poles used in transmission, distribution and substations for our nation’s critical electric power grid infrastructure was a perfect follow-up for me. This industry is a collection of multidisciplined problem solvers.

We now are experiencing one of the craziest worlds, unimaginable just months ago at the start of 2020. The stresses and strains we easily can calculate for the structures, components and lines we design now are stresses and strains of a different sort. They are much more difficult to visualize and certainly infinitely less easily resolved into the delicate equilibrium of forces and resistance engineers love to make happen. It seems every day a new social or political challenge is front and center in our lives. Throw in a global pandemic and we have a trifecta of forces to address, overcome, improve on and, yes, change for the better how we may sometimes have behaved.

The Challenges Ahead

One thing is certain, the challenges ahead likely will be different than those we faced in the past. Much is changing around us. As society becomes ever more reliant on and demanding of an uninterrupted and continuous supply of reliable electric power, we must continue to focus our best engineering talents increasingly on the anticipation side of our structural engineering problem-solving mindset.

The electric power grid will continue to be subjected to an ever-increasing array of shocks and stresses in the form of floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, ice events, seismic events, premature deterioration and normal aging. As engineers, we can collectively make a huge difference by ensuring there are clear, performance-based design and loading standards that account for the latest research developed to predict the potential severity of such events and solutions for how best to survive them.

We also can’t be afraid to trust the training and experiences we have had to effectively be a voice to change the status quo when it is time to do so. The proverbial “this is the way we have always done it” solution likely will not serve any of our firms well, nor the public, as we work hard to anticipate and prepare for the shocks and stresses grid infrastructure must resist in the future.

The Next Advancements

Great advancements continue to be made in the study and probabilistic forecasting of severe weather events. The minimum design loadings that transmission, distribution and substation structures need to resist to achieve improved structural reliability will begin to look different over the next 10 years as we embrace those advancements. History may not be a good predictor of future severe weather events, nor a good predictor of the public’s tolerance for the damage they may cause.

As much as we are problem solvers, engineers typically are not identified as risk takers. However, I hope we won’t be slow to embrace the changes that will be necessary. There are several ASCE/SEI task committees within the Committee of Electrical Transmission Structures actively working hard to develop and keep the standards and manuals of practices we rely on current and reflective of the challenges ahead. Collectively, we also should insist they remain reflective of the high level of technical excellence represented by the professionals who contribute to them and peer review them.

Urge your employer to let you become involved and support the collaboration needed to keep these important industry standards relevant and useful. By doing so, you may become more than just an engineer who is good with math! You may play a critical role in the continuous improvement of the structural reliability and resiliency of our entire electrical grid infrastructure. It doesn’t get better than that!

I am so proud to be part of the amazing collective team who will continue to anticipate and solve problems before the public we serve even recognizes them. Stay safe, stay healthy and keep looking to the future.

Wesley J. Oliphant , P.E., is chief technical officer at Exo Group LLC. He is a life member and fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Structural Engineering Institute (SEI) as well as the current chair of ASCE/SEI’s Committee of Electrical Transmission Structures. He also is a longtime member of IEEE and currently serves on National Electrical Safety Code Subcommittee 5 for Strengths and Loadings.

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