A few months ago, about 1,500 power engineers descended on Detroit, Michigan, U.S., for the IEEE Power & Energy Society's 2011 General Meeting. Once a year, this group gathers to share ideas, recharge their brains and network. I have been a card-carrying member of this group so long now that I have reached life member status, which means your combined age and years of membership total 100 — no tree comparisons; I get enough of that from my son, Adam.
This is a great conference, but many times, some really thought-provoking events occur during informal encounters. By this, I'm referring to those times when colleagues gather for coffee or breakfast, or perhaps passing in the halls on the way to a session. I have missed more than one such session by being caught up in a discussion that proved to be way too stimulating to leave. A perfect example happened over breakfast this year. A couple of us sat down with the intention of a quick bite, a gulp of coffee and a little visiting before dashing off to the first event of the day.
All were good intentions, of course, but then one of my friends said, “You know, engineers are on the wrong side of the balance sheet.”
Silence. Forks hovered in midair, coffee cups paused at partial tilt and conversation hushed as we waited for the other shoe to drop. He went on, “We are on the debit side of the tally sheet as far as management is concerned.” And with that, I missed the 8 a.m. working group session I had been scheduled to attend.
As we talked, a disturbing trend emerged. There are many new technologies out there that have the ability to improve our industry and make life simpler, if given a chance. They can add reliability, reduce maintenance and have a longer service life, but their first costs are higher than our deep-rooted technologies. So when the engineer tries to introduce a new innovation, those in charge react more like a parent in Wal-Mart: All they see is a kid wanting a new toy, and the typical response is, “No, we just bought you a new toy.”
There might be some validity. I hate to admit it, but I have been guilty of wanting that new gadget once or twice because it was shiny. Who hasn't? But whatever happened to engineering decisions in the procurement process? The engineering decision process has built-in safeguards against the overzealous kid in us wanting that shiny high-tech toy. It's called a cost-benefit analysis. If the benefits aren't there, in sufficient number, there's no justification to purchase.
There was a time when products were evaluated for what they brought to the table rather than just looking at how much they cost. This was really brought into focus investigating the latest technologies currently being used in the realm of towers and poles.
These are not your father's or grandfather's towers or poles by any stretch of the imagination. Change has been taking place in every aspect, but, for the most part, they look pretty much the same as they always did.
Materials science has combined with complex software to expand the designer's horizons, while computer-controlled fabricating machinery translates these ideas into actual products. Boutique metals have been formulated for improved structural performance. Genetically engineered trees grow faster than normal trees. Advancements in complex chemistry have provided what could be considered designer poles.
My friend Andy Stewart, president of EDM International, has been working with pole technologies for many years. He came up with this amusing list of requirements for the perfect pole.
It is doubtful that any amount of technology will be able to satisfy Andy's humorous criteria completely, but some new pole technologies are getting close to a few of them. We know inflatable poles aren't happening, but composites are getting light enough that a couple of linemen can carry and place some of them by hand. And new hybrids may not be infinitely strong, but their strength has increased to the point where they are able to stop cascading pole failures.
We will never achieve invisible poles unless we develop Star Trek's transparent aluminum. But some composites can be disguised nicely. A cell phone provider has several installations disguised as trees near my home. At first they are noticeable, but after a short time, the brain sees a tree. As far as maintenance-free, new coatings for steel have really improved their performance. Cast iron, concrete and composites have had promising results, as well.
So make me a debit-side engineer. That isn't such a negative part of the balance sheet if wanting to improve the industry using new technologies is the criteria. We need to look past those first costs so popular today and concentrate on the life-cycle costs before we can realize the significant savings these technologies can deliver.
Andy's Top 10
10. Lightweight and inflatable
9. Infinitely strong
8. Velcro hardware attachments
7. Impact absorbing, or better yet, replaces the need for air bags
6. Environmentally benign, or better yet, edible
5. Confounds the flow of electrons so that there is absolutely no risk when people do stupid stuff
4. Highly portable, no foundation required and hinged so all work can be done from the ground
2. Free, or better yet, increases in value once installed
1. Invisible, or better yet, so pleasing to the eye that everyone wants one in his or her backyard