The Grey Chronicles


To Engineer is Human

Great American Railway

Great American Railway

Humanity cannot be what it is today without ancient and modern engineers: from civil, mechanical, electrical to aviation, geodetic, sanitary, electronics, computer, nuclear, etc. The grand structures of the decades past are testaments to what engineering could achieve. Without engineers, the Suez and Panama Canals would have not shortened the age-old longer sea routes. Without engineers, the Great American railways would have not crossed the Central Plains, nor would the Australians telegraphic route traversed the bush lands. Without engineers, London would still be languishing on the ever-present miasma which killed thousands in 1880s. Without engineers, the Empire State Building, Petronas Towers, PAGCOR Tower or Burj Dubai would have been stale dreams of piercing the sky.

Dr. Petroski (2007), however, writes:

“Engineering may be defined as the achievement of success through the avoidance of failure. When engineers properly anticipate the possible failure modes of a structure or system, they can obviate them by design. There is thus a strong interrelationship between success and failure in engineering.”

In another article (2001), he states:

“Failure is a central idea in engineering. In fact, one definition of engineering might be that it is the avoidance of failure. When a device, machine, or structure is designed by an engineer, every way in which it might credibly fail must be anticipated to ensure that it is designed to function properly.”

Tacoma Narrow Bridge: Before and After

Tacoma Narrow Bridge: Before and After

We all have heard and seen what failure in design, or unfortunately engineering failure, could do. Titanic sank after scraping an iceberg. The World Trade skyscrapers shattered to a jumble rubble after terrorists drove airplanes into it. The Tacoma Narrow Bridge, the third longest span suspension bridge in the world in 1940, undulated with then succumbed to the wind. Other prominent cases where dissent sounded by certain engineers but ignored at Chernobyl and Bhopal, and on the Challenger Space shuttle programme.

Moreover, with advances in the fields of needs assessment, reliability engineering, system safety and fail-safe technology, failure avoidance became a new mantra for engineers.

Fault Tree Analysis [FTA] was conceived in 1961 by H. A. Watson of the Bell Laboratories to evaluate the safety of an ICBM launch control system. Witkin (1977) defined FTA as an operations research technique used to analyze the most probable modes of failure in a system, in order to redesign or monitor the system more closely in order to increase its likelihood of success. FTA, a top-down approach, later evolves into Failure Avoidance [FA], a decision support technology based on the concept that success in human endeavors can be increased by identifying, analyzing and prioritizing the most likely conditions for failure.

FA further specialized into Failure Mode Analysis [FMA], pioneered by Ford Motor Company as part of their business turnaround strategy, is a new paradigm aiming to deliver a step change in the effectiveness of business and engineering processes associated with product creation, from product definition to launch.

FMA, nowadays, is better known as Failure Modes and Effects Analysis [FMEA], a bottom-up technology using forward search, initiating events—failures of individual components, developed by reliability engineers by performing a qualitative analysis of functions, failures and risks vis-a-vis failure effect, cause, avoidance and detection (Kowalewski, 2007).

In another front, particularly the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC), the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) and their affiliated state organizations focused on joint and several liability reform and more specific state reforms including (a) statutes of repose, (b) sole source worker’s compensation statutes, (c) certificate of merit statutes and (d) good samaritan statutes. Many states have recognized this liability threat and have enacted laws which provide immunity to some professionals for their voluntary performance of services (ACEC, 2003). Unfortunately, some countries have yet to do the same.

Beder’s The New Engineer (1998) stresses the positive attempts made in the form of legislation and ethical rules adopted by engineering societies, rather than lamenting the failings of engineers. She is careful not to antagonize or denigrate engineers but rather to encourage them by pointing at world-wide initiatives taken at various levels to improve engineering practice, as well as broadening of engineering education to cover the social, ethical, professional and management material.


American Council of Engineering Companies [ACEC] (2003). Model Architect and Engineer Liability Laws, 2003. 13pp. back to text

Beder, Sharon (1998). The New Engineer: Management and Professional Responsibility in a Changing World, Melbourne: Macmillan Education Australia, 1998. pp. x + 346. back to text

Kowalewski, Stefan (1977). Safety and Reliability Engineering; Part 9: Fault Trees and FMEA, 3, 1977. pp. 71-85. back to text

Petroski, Henry (2007). Success & Failure: Two Faces of Design. The Bent of Tau Beta Pi, Fall 2007. pp. 27-30. Picture of Tacoma Narrow Bridge from this article. back to text

Petroski, Henry (2001). Success and failure in engineering. Journal of Failure Analysis and Prevention, Springer Boston. 1:5, October, 2001. pp. 8-15. back to text

Witkin, BR (1977). Fault Tree analysis as a planning and management tool: A case study. Educational Planning, 3, 1977. pp. 71-85. back to text

Disclaimer: The posts on this site does not necessarily represent any organization’s positions, strategies or opinions; and unless otherwise expressly stated, are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Philippines License.


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