Century of Endeavour

In Search of Techne

Ch 3.1 Engineering and Manufacturing

(c) Roy Johnston 1999

(comments to rjtechne@iol.ie)

August 19 1970

The July/August Technology Ireland carries an article on numerical control of machine tools; this is of interest because the type of engineering works which uses machine tools in Ireland is usually concerned with small job-lots. Numerical control is a means of using machine-tools flexibly; this involves an approach to design basically different from that associated with the large-scale production-line. This article, taken along with another one by Dr Garrett Scaife of TCD on engineering design in Irish manufacturing industry, strikes a hopeful note for the future of a nationally-based engineering industry.

Dr Scaife raises very pertinently the question of the export tax concessions, grants etc given to foreign firms. He suggests that instead we should put the money into a national-based industry, with a production process based on subcontracts and licences from abroad, to earn the bread and butter, and to provide a working basis on which to develop and build more locally-designed products.

He feels that the State should intervene to '...reduce the risk of our becoming hewers of wood and drawers of water'.

September 2 1970

The relationship between physics, chemistry and engineering is subtle and complicated. Traditionally the engineers used to take as given the properties of the materials that they worked with, and left to the physicists and chemists the task of elucidating why they are as they are.

There has been a trend from within engineering towards a more fundamental approach.....which can be labelled 'engineering science'; this seeks to develop new materials or modify existing ones in the light of an understanding of the basic reasons for their properties.

In the form of metallurgy this has been with us for many years; the development of alloys has gone hand in hand with the study of the solid state, unravelling of crystal structures by X-ray diffraction analysis, and so on.

The development of synthetic materials by the chemists has extended this field, so that the engineers are now as much concerned about the fundamentals of non-metallic solids as they once were about metallurgy.

Developments in this have tended to come from the engineers rather than from the physicists, largely because of the preoccupation of the latter with particle physics. This is a world-phenomenon which is leading to redundancies among the physicists...

There is a nucleus of a good engineering science tradition in Ireland; it is developing between TCD, UCD and the Dublin colleges of technology; it has an unofficial, informal corporate identity expressed in a meeting every Saturday morning during term-time. It has been building up since about 1962 around the work of the Scaife brothers in the TCD Engineering School. The two basic themes have been dielectrics and high pressure.

'Dielectric effects' is a term which covers the behaviour of non-conductors under electrical stress. They have considerable economic significance in our daily lives; why, for example,should we pay for electricity to heat up the oil in which the ESB transformers are immersed?

Dielectric effects tend to be dominated by impurities in small quantities. In the semi-conductor field, the study of very pure germanium, with the introduction of tiny controlled quantities of other elements, led in the late 40s and early 50s to the commercial development of the transistor..... The technology of extreme purity is now spreading from semi-conductors to dielectrics. Pye of Cambridge have donated an induction furnace used for germanium work to the TCD laboratory, where they have begun to use it to grow extremely pure crystals of alkali halides for use in dielectric experiments. ....in a cubic crystal lattice...the behaviour of a dielectric under mechanical stress can be studied in a manner uncomplicated by other factors.

One of the significant relationships in the study of dielectrics is the behaviour of the 'permittivity' (this is a measure of the amount of electrical energy which can be stored per unit volume in a dielectric) as the density varies. This must be done at constant temperature otherwise the density effects tend to be masked..... one is therefore led to develop an experimental technology of high pressure...

Dr Garrett Scaife has developed a system where by the use of hydraulic jacks it is possible to subject a specimen to 5000 atmospheres pressure, while making electrical measurements of high precision on it. The pressure itself is measurable to within 0.1%.

The existence of this equipment has enabled diversification to take place. The behaviour of liquid under high pressure is of interest in lubrication..... a link with Queens University Belfast has developed; there Professor Crosland had been measuring viscosities of liquids by observing the speed of a falling plate by electrical methods; this presupposed a knowledge of the permittivity of the liquid under high pressure.....available from the Dublin work. A link also exists with University College Dublin where Tom Gallagher has been working on the electrical breakdown of solid argon of high purity, introducing impurities in the form of helium atoms (alpha-particles) from a radioactive source.....Brendan Scaife and Tom Gallagher had worked together in Queen Mary College, London.

The link with the Kevin St College of Technology is two-way: Val Rossiter(1), from Kevin St, did his MSc in TCD; Dr V Kanath, who did his PhD in TCD is now at Kevin St., where works also Tom Ambrose, who had previously worked with Brendan Scaife. There is a link with the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, in that Brendan Scaife worked there for a period on the theoretical basis of dielectric phenomena. This link extends (rather tenuously, perhaps) into biology via the ideas of Frohlich(2) (who) is trying to understand the functioning of enzymes in terms of 'long-range order'; one of the experimental techniques he has in mind involves the measurement of dielectric effects in biological systems at various frequencies.....

There is also possibly a bridge to be built towards the polymer chemistry people in Dublin....there seems to be the makings of a useful 'centre of excellence' in this integrated yet diversified group.....constituting a potential economic asset to the nation.....

April 7 1971

On April 2 the Minister for Industry and Commerce was presented with the first volume of a directory produced by the IIRS which enables one, at last, to find out who in Ireland can do a particular operation, and who can produce a specified product (in the engineering field).

For example, if I want to know who has a universal grinder I look it up and find that I have to go to Holmes of Monasterevan, Cavan Engineering, Tool and Guage Co (Tubbercurry) or Shannon Diamond and Carbide. If I want honing/lapping I go to Colliers of Bunclody, Hayes Bros or J Kelly in Limerick. Fabrication in stainless steel in the Republic is done by APV Desco in Drimnagh, and apparently by no-one else.

This promises to be a useful directory. All the other stainless steel fabricators who are not in this first edition (because they didn't reply to the questionnaire which was sent out, dismissing it as another piece of administrative bumph) will without doubt leave no stone unturned to get into the second edition.

There is also a section where each firm lists its total capability. I am impressed by the large number of small firms away from the main urban centres which have specialist engineering capability. The existence of this directory cannot fail to get them appreciable sub-contracting business.

This directory is the first of a series to cover textiles, non-metallic materials, paper and printing products, and 'food, drink and tobacco' (the latter being the triple group beloved of statisticians, of which the disaggregated economics, for fear of embarassing particular firms, must never be unscrambled!).

August 11 1971

Professor Hanrahan has sent me some material relating to current UCD work on soil mechanics. I also have received a copy of the Scaife monograph on complex permittivity, and some material on the Byrne-Lacy electric car, as developed in the UCD Department of Electrical Engineering, and reported in the February issue of Technology Ireland.

The UCD Civil Engineering work is a pattern for the development of the relationship between the applied research institutes and the universities.

Practical civil engineers are interested in the physical properties of complex materials such as soil and concrete. From years of experience they establish rules of thumb, empirical relationships, margins of safety. Physical scientists have have developed measures of properties of pure materials, such as the various moduli of elasticity, creep coefficients etc, which can be used to describe the behaviour of laboratory specimens under stress conditions.

It has long been recognised on both sides that measures such as these are not adequate to describe the behaviour of many complex substances of practical importance. There remains a wide gulf between the laboratory and the construction site. This gulf is partially bridged (in the case of complex substances for which the liquid phase is important) by the science of rheology. This has illuminated the fundamentals of the design of pumps and flow systems for slurries such as liquid cement, or viscous liquids such as mayonnaise. One of the key ideas in rheology is the existence of a viscosity (ie resistance to flow) which is dependent on the rate of flow. One can have liquids which become solid if you try to stir them, and others which become solid unless you stir them.

Professor Hanrahan and his UCD group have looked at the 'nearly solid' end of the spectrum and have carried out some fundamental work on the stress/strain/time relationships in two-phase systems nearly at rest. Waterlogged soil, and the movements in it due to the weight of a structure, constitute such a system. They have managed to unscramble effects due to change of shape under stress from those due to change of volume. The latter being non-linear (ie equal increments of stress do not bring about equal increments of strain), it follows that the behaviour of a sample buried deep in the earth and under pressure from the overlying material will be quite different if it is taken out and tested in the laboratory.

Despite this, a system of measurement has been devised which enables a set of conditions for 'zero lateral strain' to be established. Theoretically this arises when the lateral displacement due to 'change of shape' is exactly balanced by the volume decrease. The system of measurement enables, from laboratory tests, specifications to be laid down which will give zero lateral strain on site, with considerable practical importance for the practicing civil engineer and architect.

The next step is to develop a working system to be available on a routine basis to civil engineers from the Foras Forbartha laboratories.

The TCD monograph, just published, contains review articles covering the theory of dispersion in polar dielectrics, the experimental position as regards the effect of high pressure on dielectric properties, and a review of the experimental techniques. The authors are BKP Scaife, WGS Scaife, RG Pennett and JH Calderwood.. The latter two are in the University of Salford. Professor Calderwood(3) is the editor of the series. He delivered a polished philosophical lecture on engineering in Dublin some 18 months ago.

Let me attempt to explain to a lay readership what the problems are.. In contrast to the Hanrahan work, the Scaife work is concerned with electrical stress under vibratory conditions, rather than mechanical stress under static. As you increase the frequency of vibration, different effects become important (the inertia of the molecules, dipole coupling etc). One theoretical approach is to consider one molecule embedded in a uniform sea of its neighbours; this approximation however is no good at certain frequencies where collective effects, involving interactive groups of molecules, exist.

The experimental work consists in making accurate electrical measurements on specimens under high pressure. It has associated with it various levels of approximate theoretical treatment. The measurement techniques are adaptations of various classical bridge methods at the lower frequencies, with wave-guides etc becoming important at high frequencies. The gap between the infra-red and millimetre-wave RF remains the problem area.

It is good to see a theory-experiment interaction producing monographs for the international market emerging from a basement in Lincoln Place. The spin-off in terms of high-pressure technology in Ireland, however, is unlikely tobe of any great economic significance. More valuable is the output of trained applied physicists, or engineering scientists, who have been through a tempering-process in the research-crucible. Such people should be able to turn their minds to more generalised problem-solving, and in proportion as they do they can become an asset to economic life in Ireland.

The trouble is, however, that employers might think that they are 'high-pressure electrical measurement specialists' and be put off. The people concerned might even be themselves under this illusion. There is here a marketing job to be done.....

August 25 1971

...On August 11 owing to pressure on space (due to the Northern situation) the second UCD project got dropped.....I now return to the electric car as developed by JV Byrne and JG Lacy in the UCD Electrical Engineering Department.

There is nothing new in this; electric cars have been with us for 50 years or more, and are commonplace in the form of the milk float. The problem is to get an acceptable performance in terms of speed, acceleration and range.

The 'Byrne-Lacy Special', by dint of careful design, low-loss tyres (there is a skid-liability here) and an aerodynamic body, has shown itself capable of holding its own in moderately fast city traffic (32 mph). The key idea is the use of a thyristor-chopper control system, which is low-loss compared to the traditional rheostat, and allows regenerative braking.

This is excellent training for the research students, who will emerge knowing something about the practical problems of electrical control systems. It is not aimed at the marketplace. If an electric car comes on the market, in all probability it will be as a result of a decision by a major producer to go into mass-production.

It could be argued however that the major producers have too much capital tied up in conventional automobile production systems, and are unlikely to have their heart in electric car development. In this case, there may be scope for a flea-size manufacturer to jump in and survive, using readily available standard elements to produce a robust job with no frills and absolute reliability.

The market would be basically urban; it could be expanded by a State or municipality decision to ban noise and fumes in the inner city.

Much of the cost of conventional vehicles comes from the frequency of style-changes. According to Ralph Nader, only 3% of the so-called 'development costs' of the US 'big three' goes on improved performance. The rest is eaten up by restyling. It follows that a firm which tooled up for a 20-year run, and wrote off the plant over this period, could be viable on a substantially smaller scale than is customary in the industry. Such a firm could scoop the market if the design was aimed at durability rather than for obsolescence. The firm would recover its money by refusing to sell, only supplying on a lease basis with a maintenance contract. Old cars which continued to run reliably would be the cream of the contract, and the firm would have a visible vested interest in reliability.

A basic utilitarian unit turned out by such a manufacturer could be invested by the user with his or her own aesthetic ideas, either employing a craftsman or on a 'do-it-yourself' basis. Hand-carved interior panelling, psychedelic painting, anything goes. Students are already into this art-form with their bangers. The large manufacturers who go in for highly variable 'aesthetic' styling have missed the point.....all they succeed in doing is making an unreliable product, for the variable appearance of which the consumer is forced to pay.

The urban transport and amenity problem, however, will not be solved by unleashing another piece of hardware on it. It is a 'systems' problem. There needs to be positive control excercised, in the social interest, over the ratio of public to private seat-miles for the urban journey, and over the distribution of urban journeys. If everyone lived within walking distance of work there would be no problem. Transport cannot be considered in isolation from urban planning.

To return to the 'Byrne-Lacy special': there is a case for asking the IIRS to look into the techno-economics of an Irish manufacturing industry for a small standardised electric car, and estimating how the market could be influenced by tightening the environmental laws.

There is scope for the 'hybrid vehicle' in the public transport system. Consider: the average power consumption of a bus is about 10 HP; a small petrol or diesel motor running at a constant optimal speed could supply this power very efficiently, quietly and without significant pollution. An associated storage-battery/electric traction system, with regenerative braking, could be designed to carry the peak loads, buffering the variable power demand against the constant charge-rate. Such a system would be an immediate asset to urban transportation in Dublin. Over now to the electrical and mechanical engineers.

November 22 1972

...To give an example of the kind of problem solved by the SPS lab at Naas(4): consider a nut-making machine which cold-forms a slice from a rod into a hexagon, turns it over, positions it, drills it, taps it etc. This sequence of operations involves precision operations with mechanical 'fingers', interspersed with high-powered operations involving tool steel. Slight wear of moving parts can cause tool breakages, due, for example, to the machine attempting to punch holes in its own 'fingers' instead of the blank nut. The traditional (purely mechanical) system used to spend 25% of its time under repair.

The SPS people have linked up the system with some electronic position sensors, feeding the signals to an on-line computer, which works out continuously the statistics of the deviations of the movements of the powered moving parts from the norm. By a feedback system, the settings of the power tools are continually adjusted so as to allow for wear. Thus an old machine, with 'intelligent' control, can be made to look like a new one.

Another machine counts nuts and bolts as they pass through a multi-channel sensing system, in a veritable avalanche, hundreds per second; this is a further example of harnessing electronic tricks in mechanical problems. The technique of pulse-counting, with a proportional principle to allow for 'doubles'and 'trebles' was developed by the nuclear physicists in the 50s and 40s; the embryonic principles needed existed in the 30s in the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. Engineering systems like this became practicable in the 60s, when the widespread availability of solid-state devices made the circuitry reliable. Thus physics continually feeds engineering.

This machine was a prototype developed in Naas for use in SPS factories. No doubt it would have a ready sale on the market.

Other projects involve noise-reduction in machines (for health reasons), automatic tensioning of nuts and bolts: anyone who has tightened a small nut with a large spanner will know the problem. SPS have invented a device which tightens until it feels the onset of non-linear strain. They also have non-destructive testing of surface plating thickness and quality (by electronic means), fracture analysis, analysis of alloy composition and so on.

May 16 1973 I publish today an article by Dr W J Chambers(5) which outlines some of the technological implications of the scanning electron microscope.....

Some may complain that Dr Chambers' article makes hard reading. It is no harm that this is so; it will perhaps help to bring home to people the fact that there is a big gulf between the level of technological potential in Ireland, and the level of understanding on the part of the industrial managers who have to make the decision to devote resources to the use of new technologies. This cultural gap is the central problem of Irish economic survival. People are increasingly aware of it, but no decisive moves are being made to bridge it.

This awareness shows up in events such as that sponsored on May 8 by the IEI Electrical Division.... Here a panel of young engineers gave their preliminary impressions of their jobs, with comments by more senior people....

I detected a suggestion that the way to take up the potential of the trained engineer was to broaden him(5a) away from pure professionalism and get him into management. The young engineer who does not shirk a foreman-type assignment in his early days is more easily able to make the transition. The engineer in management is at the core of Continental technological superiority; British decline is due to gentleman-amateur managements keeping their trained expertise in professional boxes.

An engineer trained in systems theory should have no difficulty in identifying a balance-sheet with a state-vector and a profit-and-loss account with the associated transition matrix. If he turned his mind to it, he could revolutionise the accountants' craft and make it scientific.

Our industry will be unable to take advantage of the type of expertise displayed by Dr Chambers until there is a substantial increase in the technological knowledge of, or available to, those responsible for industrial decision-making.....

May 8 1974

A new type of co-operative venture between university and industry is at present under way. The firm is the Pennsylvania-based Standard Presses Steel Corporation, which has two plants in Ireland, one at Shannon and the other at Galway, as well as a research laboratory at Naas. There are also plants in England and Germany. The university component in the venture is the Trinity College Engineering School.

Some time ago SPS decided that it needed to recruit a group of engineers to work in its various plants engaged in the forging process. Engineers with suitable academic training and relevant practical experience are not easy to find, so it was decided to train a group specially for the purpose. As plans were worked out, it became clear that SPS itself could handle the practical technological element on the training programme within its own resources in Ireland, but some help was needed in the teaching of the fundamentals of process metallurgy, metal forming and fastener design.

It happened that at the same time the TCD Engineering School has initiated a new form of masters degree, the MAI (recurrent enducation), which was especially suited to the needs of engineers working in industry.

Discussions took place between Dr W G Scaife, Registrar of the Graduate School of Engineering Studies (TCD) and Dr Paul Wallace, Director of the SPS Research Laboratories. In a very short time it was possible to supplement the lecture courses normally available for masters degree students with specialist lecturers from other institutions.....(such as) the universities of Salford and Manchester, the National Institute of Higher Education in Limerick, and the College of Technology, Bolton St.

Altogether twelve students are taking this course...each of them jointly supervised on their project reports by one engineer from the university staff and one from the SPS Laboratory at Naas. Three of the 12 are US graduates, two from Britain, one from Northern Ireland and the remainder from the Republic.

So far this novel venture has gone smoothly(6)..... Moreover it is felt that the way has been shown whereby other industries could have access to a programme of advanced technological training based in Ireland, of a calibre normally only available at Institutes outside the State.

May 22 1974

..Griancloch Acla Teoranta is a small firm manufacturing quartz crystal units for frequency standards and telecommunications filters. It is located in an old schoolhouse at Dooega, Achill.

The firm is a joint venture between the directors and Gaeltarra Eireann(7). The managing director, Jim Gilson, learned the technology of growing high-quality quuartz crystals in the US, where he worked with Western Electric. The process involves a closely controlled 3-month operation at high temperature and pressure, starting with seeds correctly cut along the appropriate crystal planes, a step requiring X-ray techniques. A power failure of more than 20 minutes would be disastrous; in Achill this means standby generators(8).

When grown, the crystals are cut (again using X-ray techniques to determine the alignment) into wafers, lapped to a close tolerance and in some cases given a bevel edge. The modes in which the crystal will oscillate are determined critically by this edging procedure, as well as by the dimensions.

Electrodes are deposited on the surface by vacuum-evaporation of silver. The fine-tuning of the frequency is done by etching away some of the evaporated film, or by electroplating on some more.

The crystal oscillator finally is mounted in a little can, in an atmosphere of nitrogen.

All this rather crafty technology is done by what Jim Gilson readily admits are 'cook-book' procedures; these however have been skilflly and effectively absorbed by local labour. Mr Gilson's own background being in crystal-growing, he is dependent for know-how about the frequency control unit on Mr Earl Clark, who is the retired president of the Clarke Crystal Corporation....

A link with the University of Dublin (Trinity College) has begun to develop....through the TCD Industrial Liaison Office(9).

Dr Malcolm Stephenson, who has a prior interest in quartz oscillators from the angle of ultrasonics, spent an overlap period with Earl Clarke; now they are looking for a physicist to join the team, working at Achill initially on basic management and quality control, and ultimately on various related technologies which will branch out from the present base. He or she would register for a masters degree with the TCD Engineering School..... a sort of graduate apprenticeship scheme.......a good means of solving the problem of the honours specialist graduate surplus.

September 25 1974

The sale of 90,000 worth of feed-mix computer to Japan, announced on September 9 by William Marshall, Chairman of Qeleq ltd, constitutes a further success for this dynamic Dundalk firm(10).

Also the current issue of 'Export', the Coras Tractala(11) journal, notes the installation of a Qeleq feed-mix computer in Winnipeg, at the International Grains Institute. It also carries a photograph showing a Qeleq machine being evaluated by the Mixed Feed Industry in Sofia, Bulgaria.

The secret of the success of this product is that it was tailored to fit the needs of the person with the problem (the feed-mix compounder). The level of electronics techology in it is not high; in principle the machine could probably have been made prior to world war 2, and certainly in the 50s (depending as it does on simple analogue circuitry).

The lesson to be drawn from this success is that people in the electronics industry should not necessarily always be making cleverer devices to do existing jobs faster, but instead should be seeking new applications where electronic systems are currently unknown, or else have a name for unreliability due to a premature false start. Also, that the art is not in the electronics itself, but in the structure of the interface between the user and the machine, which must reflect the structure of the problem.

April 15 1975

The IEI seminar 'Prospects for the Electrical and Electronic Industry in Ireland' (April 10) constitutes a useful entrepreneurs' guide...

Joe Beirne (IDA)...led off with a survey of growth in Ireland against the world background. Currently in Ireland the sector has an annual growth rate of 40%....

Electronics is intensive as regards labour and skill; most of its capital in in the form of research and development.....indigenous spin-off of linked industries is becoming increasingly possible as the range of products manufactured increases....

Mr C Hyland (Unidare ltd) gave an electrical equipment manufacturer's view.....a greater need for strategic planning at the firm level and at national level, the link being the national housing programme...

Mr L Murtagh BSc (Ecco, Dundalk) covered the electronic manufacturing field.... it is bad strategy to price low so as to get volume, in the hope of recovering profitability by reducing unit-costs. The component-appliance system has exhibited classical cyclic behaviour, due to interaction of stock levels and order lead-times. (Forrester's 'Industrial Dynamics' is good background reading for understanding this phenomenon; farmers familiar with the 'pig cycle' will also recognise it!)....

Mr Murtagh called for national laboratory support for the industry, including providing means for qualifying to European standards. This means, in effect, developing the IIRS electronics capability. He also called for expenditure on expertise in the universities and colleges, including R and D activity on components.. Support could come for this from the industry itself.

Mr P H O'Connor (ESB) deplored the tradition of having 'one-off' control packages 'thrown in' with mechanical systems, without adequate electrical engineering expertise, and suggested '......that the branch of electrical engineering based on the assembly of control equipment had the potential for a very bright future....'

Mr Don C Platz (Jacobs International) usefully gave the large prime contractor's view of sub-contractors tenders: '....a proposal which is incomplete receives only a cursory glance......we are not happy to extend closing dates.....real shortage of qualified sales engineers...who can answer engineering questions...'

Mr MJ McSweeney (McArdle, MsSweeney, O'Malley and Associates) produced a useful list of import substitutions.....

Mr A Mullen (Department of Posts and Telegraphs) predicted a switch to 100% digital systems by the year 2000(12)....

The proceedings contain a survey of the assistance available for the development of the industry, prepared by Mr NF Meghen of the Confederation of Irish Industries....covering fifty or more services, including technical assistance which is 'exploded' in the following section by Tom O'Connor of the IIRS....

In the session on export marketing, initiated by Mr PJ Delaney of Coras Tractala(11), there followed a discussion in which two distinct philosophies emerged: (a) don't sell the know-how, keep it dark and sell the product (Winn Technology, Cork) (b) sell the know-how (Cantrell, Unidare; this tradition is also well-established with Aer Lingus, Bord na Mona etc, and is currently developing with the ESB.

A straw poll by Russell Winn, who chaired the session, showed that only about four people in the audience of 60 had been abroad to meet their customers this year. Perhaps this reflects the gulf between the engineers and the market, rather than their firms and the market.

There was a strong reaction against the 'customs clearance racket' and the paper barriers which were impeding the alleged free trade system.

Finally Mr WIB Macken, of NIHE (Limerick) launched a polemic against the Irish educational system: '...an artificially created dividing line between....training and education delayed the birth of the industrial revolution.....there are still institutions which claim to be involved in, and strive for an exclusive commitment to, one or the other...'

He instanced cases where he himself had earned consultancy money trouble-shooting in a situation where an electrician, if properly educated/trained would easily have done the job.....

Mr Macken called on employers to stop requiring City and Guilds qualifications and to support our own NCEA(12a) awards, lending weight to the Regional College programmes, over which Irish industry had influence...

The Electrical Division of the IEI is to be congratulated on...a historic and significant event....a seminal point in the growth of a cohesive Irish electrical and electronics industry....

May 27 1975

People attending the Telecommunications/Pye(Cambridge) exhibition on May 8-9 may have picked up a brochure entitled 'cost-effectiveness of radio telephones', in which after some reasonable arithmetic it emerges that twelve minutes of time saved per day, for a 2-tonne lorry, pays the cost of the radio.

This interesting statistic underlies the proliferation of VHF communications systems now to be seen on taxis, buses, lorries, vans. Telecommunications in its Finglas factory have established a creditable niche in the world market for this type of equipment.

One piece of equipment originally developed in the Finglas laboratories and now manufactured by the Pye/Philips group is the RZ502, which is a 1kW single sideband HF transmitter. This has widespread civil, marine and aviation uses in Africa and Asia, where reliability and ease of maintenance are important. Another Finglas development is the A100 Transmitter/TC8 Combiner, which constitutes a system capable of driving eight non-interfering discrete channels, at 25 watts per channel, through a single broad-band antenna. This, as well as keeping down structural costs, is kind to the urban sky-line, which, now that piped TV is coming in, has a chance to revert from its present prickly appearance towards its pristine uncluttered roofscape.

What the Finglas people are most excited about, however, is their new 'low-profile antenna' for vehicles.

As a consequence of the Unidare connection, and the ready availability of aluminium alloys, Telecommunications have established themselves as antenna specialists. There is a series of vehicle-mounting antennae with the trade-name 'Finglas'.

Two problems are (a) car-washing and (b) vandalism. A partial solution to the first is to slope the antenna, or make it easily removable. The latter expedient, of course, adds to the second problem.

Sloped antennae are, however, biassed as regards direction. Communication fades as you turn a corner.

The new low-profile antenna works on a different principle: it is, electrically speaking, a radiating slot, which sits flush with the roof, housed in a PVC radome. It gives true omni-directional radiations in the horizontal plane, and has a band-width 165-174 MHz. Below 150 MHz it will work on two distinct adjustable frequencies. This is a qualitatively new principle in VHF antenna design, the first in many decades. CIE have purchased 100 units for their Cork bus fleet; export orders are booming.

June 24 1975

Electronics firms in Ireland will be interested to learn of the establishment at Craigavon of a subsidiary of the Andus Group, which originated in 1963 in Berlin as a final-year student enterprise, and now consists of seven associated companies.

The financial side of the operation has been covered by Ronnie Hoffman on June 18; it remains for me to fill in on the technology, mainly from the point of view of potential purchasers of printed circuit boards (PCBs) in the industry.

The process begins by translating the wiring of a development engineer's 'breadboard' prototype into a realisable design for a PCB. This is a non-trivial problem, to the solution of which the branch of pure mathematics known as topology has contributed. It is usually resolved with the aid of a computer....

The prototype development work is done in Berlin, mainly; there is however some capacity for it at Craigavon.

The design is easier if you are allowed to use both sides of the board, although then the production becomes more exacting, as you have to drill holes through the board and establish an electrical connection.

This more exacting technology is carried out at Craigavon....

....Quality-control procedures are important; unless there is error-detection at a number of crucial stages, each board would have, on average, about one fatal flaw, rendering the bulk of the production useless.

The draughtsman's art-work is photographed.....the film is touched up manually, under magnifiers, and then used as the master for the photoprinting process. A copy is also taken and used to produce a computer-tape for controlling the drilling of the holes.

The production of this computer-tape, which carries numerically the co-ordinates and dimensions of the required holes, is carried out on a device which can trace a direct line of descent from the high-energy nuclear physics laboratories of the late fifties(13), an example of 'spin-off' from basic science into industrial technology. Using an optical display of the circuit print (the latter being mounted on a servo-controlled stage), an operator homes in on the positions of the holes, pressing finally a key which causes the co-ordinates to be written on tape. With this information on tape, it is possible for a numerically-controlled drill to complete all necessary holes in a typical board in about 20 minutes; a man working by hand would take about 14 hours.

The drilled board is then given a close visual inspection; any fault in a hole would interfere with the subsequent deposition of a conducting layer on the inside.

Plating then takes place; initially copper is deposited chemically, then electrically. This is to provide through-hole conduction only; the circuit is not yet on the board. A blank PCB consists of a thin sheet of phenolic or epoxy resin, coated on both sides with copper (and of course on the insides of the holes).

A negative of the circuit is then deposited on the board, covering all the conducting surfaces except where the final circuit will be. The board is then placed in a plating bath, depositing a tin-lead mixture on the exposed copper. Subsequently the printed surface and the exposed copper is etched away, leaving a circuit of which the 'wires' consist of copper strip with a layer of tin/lead on top.....

....We can welcome the establishment in Ireland of this important technology which is contributing to the reduction of the cost of the basic equipment for satisfying human needs.....a board about one foot square with 1000 holes and countless interconnections in an order of 1000 would cost about 17 per unit....replacing some tens of man-days of traditional wiring. In prototype lots of 5 the cost goes up to about 45; this goes up to 100 if you want a 3-day delivery. This year in May the minimum order was 50, the maximum 2000 and the mean order size was about 400. So we are not dealing with huge-scale production, such as to be above any interest in the Irish market.

Normal order-times are 6-8 weeks; rapid deliveries of small orders are possible at increasing premiums....

I think the electronics industry in Ireland will find it useful to have this service on its doorstep.

July 1 1975

Arising from last week's feature on the Andus PCB factory at Craigavon, I have had a communication from MJ Doherty, of CESCOM electronics, London, pointing out that they are supplied with excellent PCBs by Shannon Circuits ltd in County Clare, at a more competitive price than suggested in my final paragraph for the Andus product.

This suggests to me that we are in the presence of one of the consequences of the 'export tax relief' and 'tax haven' policy which has supported the Shannon development.

These policies, while appearing to help the balance of trade, militate against the development of cross-links within the Irish economy.

...A man with a lorry could make a good living driving Andus products to Shannon PCB users, getting full return loads of Shannon PCBs for users in Northern Ireland.

I wonder how much of this is going on, to the advantage of the container-handlers(14)?

September 2 1975 The news that an Bord Gais propose to engage the British Gas Corporation as consultant, and possibly as main contractor, for the construction of the Gas Grid has incurred the wrath of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers, who have written a sharp letter to the Minister....urging that this work be carried out by the ESB, whose engineers have accredited consultancy status with the World Bank and have done consultancy work abroad.

The letter points out that the tendency is for foreign contractors to sub-contract to firms that they know, passing over local engineering firms who would be competent and known to an Irish-based prime contractor.

In the present recession, the letter points out, the sending abroad of a major engineering contract well within the competence of the ESB engineers would be a national scandal.

The project would not be a major one by ESB standards, and most of it would be conventional engineering practice. The ESB has considerable engineering experience in related fields (British and international codes, surveys, wayleaves, advanced pipework technology, welding quality control......)

One of the ESB's transmission projects involved the laying of a ten-mile gas pressure pipeline from Poolbeg to Carrickmines, across part of Dublin Bay and built-up parts of Dublin City. Also, the penstock in Turlough Hill, which is sixteen feet in diameter and laid in a tunnel through a quarter of a mile of solid granite, was engineered, purchased and quality controlled by ESB staff. Current engineering work being undertaken by the ESB includes a pressure pipeline one and a half miles long across the Shannon.

The ESB might possibly require specialist consultancy services on areas like safety codes and specialised instrumentation; these would be a small proportion of the total project, and could easily be acquired...

September 23 1975

A report by James Kenny of the UCD Science Policy Research Unit at Belfield has come to hand. I have seen no evidence that this has been studied or acted upon by any section of the ailing vehicle assembly industry, but it seems to me that the Kenny Report, if taken up by the latter, could be used as a guide to the redeployment of a labour-force with relevant skills.

In 1970, 17M worth of agricultural machinery was imported and 2M worth manufactured in Ireland, by an industry employing 940 people. Eight firms account for 80% of this production; of these perhaps the best known are Pierce of Wexford, Kilkenny Products and Armer Agricultural Machinery.

If combine harvesters, tractors and powered equipment are excluded, the value of imports competing with home production is 5.8M (34% of total imports).

Comparing the agricultural machinery sector with total metals and engineering performance, the gross output of the latter in 1972 was 234M of which 60.7M were exported. Competing imports were 64M, giving an adverse balance of 3.3M. The adverse balance for the agricultural machinery industry was 17M, related to a miserable 2M home production.

Within this neglected sector one firm, the Irish Sugar Co, shows a good export growth, from 40,000 in 1967 to 468,000 in 1972, representing 56% of all exports.

There are given detailed comparative statistics of the relatively thriving British industry.

Product development policy of the industry is criticised, and the weakness of its design effort exposed (there are one or two promising exceptions). Few qualified engineers are employed. Only two firms have ever made use of the R&D grants available from the IDA.

There is a chapter outlining how the Polish industry was transformed by licencing-in proven designs from Germany and Czechoslovakia.

The report poses a number of explicit questions to the Department of Industry and Commerce, recommends study of the industry abroad as regards development strategies, vertical and horizontal linkages etc, and advocates licencing in powered unit designs for manufacture in Ireland.

There is a developed agricultural engineering section in AFT and a Department in UCD which has done good innovative work.

The initiative in drawing these elements together, and cross-fertilising them with the moribund vehicle assembly industry, could well come from the Institution of Engineers of Ireland.. The increasing pool of redundant motor assembly workers will no doubt view developments with interest.

_ September 30 1975

The automatic aerosol valve, which has been under development in the IIRS for some years (figuring in the annual reports as a promising line of development), has now reached the stage of being a fully-engineered useful product in search of large-scale production and marketing.

...The essential patentable elements in the device have been covered in fifteen countries.

The existing technology for dispensing automatically an aerosol into an environment at a controlled rate involves electric motors, cam-timers etc, a somewhat 'brute-force' approach which however has been implemented...

The IIRS 'Autosol' device dispenses with the electrics; it consists of a clever valve which clicks open or shut depending on the pressures in associated chambers fed by a bleed of vapour from the can itself.

The valve itself costs 35p; complete with charged can and filling for six weeks supply it could sell profitably for 1. This is comparable to the cost of the recharging operation for existing 'brute-force' systems.

Pilot manufacture of some thousands has checked out a production process involving precision injection moulding of plastic components.

A cash flow projection suggests that any firm having the appropriate production and marketing resources would be unlikely to be out of pocket by more than 100,000 pounds during the build-up phase; the market is estimated to build up to 3M units per annum.

The problem is to combine the production, marketing and finance. The production element, which would involve about 100 jobs, would require expertise in precision moulding and light assembly. The marketing element would invlve the ability to approach at senior level a relatively small number of service-type firms (eg hotel suppliers)... A consortium of two existing firms and a bank seems to be suggested....(15)

October 14 1975

Two significant recent events were the IEI conference on offshore engineering (October 2-3) and the launching by IIRS on September 23 of a Directory of Suppliers to the offshore industry.

The proceedings of the IEI conference are available..... I came away impressed by the account given of the art of fabrication and moving of 500-ton accommodation modules, by G van der Puil, mamaging director of Verolme Cork Dockyard ltd.

The loading of a 500-ton unit on to a barge, without a crane, making use of the tide, a winch and some calculations, came over as a remarkable feat of engineering craft.

Mr van der Puil made it clear.....that there was plenty of room for sub-contracting, even by inland firms.

In the discussion there emerged a sense of urgency with regard to the problem of job demarcation in the construction industry. This has, I understand, largely been resolved in Verolme, where there is developing a breed of multi-skilled shipbuilding technicians, on the continental and Japanese pattern, as distinct from the British pattern where the jobs are done by demarcated trades. This is a problem that the Trade Unions are ultimately going to have to face, as the supply of fabrications to an offshore system depends on meeting deadlines with precision. One deadline missed and you are 'out' for good. The firms listed in the IIRS directory must be uneasily aware of this; if they are provident they will be looking into how to use the various 'critical path' systems that are available from the management consultants, operations research people etc....

Justin Keating (Minister for Industry and Commerce) when opening the conference...pointed out a weakness: lack of experience in project management involving teams of complementary specialists. He also suggested that the need for 'undersea completion' constituted an opportunity....for developing the ability to work on the sea-bed effectively, a field to which Winn Technology in Cork has contributed.

Some weeks ago in 'Technology Ireland' BEW Dowse of London University put forward the concept of an oil rig consisting of a sand island enclosed in a flexible bag, kept stable by controlled hydrostatic forces. It would be capped by a concrete oil-tank carrying the usual modules; this would be floated out and the island built up under it, using suction dredgers.

This is an extension of the type of reinforced-polymer technology which is the basis of projects such as the Thames barrage and the level-control system for the Venice lagoon. Model tests are currently in progress.

In proportion as concrete plays a key role, Irish offshore work can utilise native resources. In current practice, concrete structures are essentially shallow-water, gravity-anchored (like the Kish lighthouse). Deep-water steel structures require a pile-driving operation which is highly weather-sensitive, tying up expensive equipment. If concrete top-structures could be combined with sand-island technology, we would bring most of the engineering within reach of Irish firms.

October 28 1975

One firm which reacted positively to the energy crisis was Duffy Insulation Products ltd of Ardfinnan, Clonmel.

Originally a mineral water bottling plant, this firm is now supplying the building industry with fibreglass insulating material, in densities ranging from board (96 kg/mcubed) to light-weight cotton-wool-like substances (10 kg/mcubed).

The idea arose out of the feeling that there ought to be some use for broken glass, an inevitable by-product of a bottling operation. So they bought the rights to a process developed in Britain, and set up a plant capable of melting the glass, blowing it into fibres with a blast of hot air; these then lie at random across a conveyor, like candy-floss. A resin bonding-agent is added, and the product is then compacted to the required density.

Although this is a relatively simple process, there is considerable know-how involved in achieving a consistent product of the necessary high quality....

Unfortunately the key factor is raw material composition, and it turned out that bottle-glass was too variable. So Duffy's Mineral Waters still throw away their scrap, and Duffy's Insulation products buy in scrap glass from an electric bulb factory; this has the necessary high quality.

Thus although the original objective of consuming waste has not been achieved, a viable spin-off industry has been set up which is riding the crest of the wave of consumer demand created by the energy crisis....

Another product on which they have their eye is rock-wool, made by applying a similar process (though at higher temperature) to basalt, which is widely available in Co Antrim. A little basalt goes a long way; rock-wool, like glass wool, is mostly air.

There is scope for invention to cope with the original desired raw material: broken bottles. Could not the quality variations be taken up with a feed-forward control system, based on signals from appropriate instrumentation? The technology for this is available, and the price of on-line computing is rapidly coming down....


I have to hand a report produced by NG Marchant of Kilkenny Design Workshops which makes the case for the establishment of an adequately staffed and equipped industrial design service orientated towards the engineering-based manufacturing industries.

It is still, apparently, necessary in Ireland to explain the distinction between industrial design and engineering design. The former art is is necessary for the translation of the solution of a problem into the specification of a system which will create the necessary utility at an acceptable cost. The latter, which is perhaps more of a science, concerns itself with the technical performance of the system so specified. There is more to industrial design than putting the engineer's 'gubbins' into an acceptable box. An industrial designer would normally work as a member of a design team, with special responsibility for the relationship between the product (or system) and its user.

In the report is a list of firms which would constitute a market for such an operation. This is compounded from various guides.... It emerges that the IIRS guide is about 60% complete, missing major firms like Telectron. (It is surprising the resistance that people have to returning a questionnaire, even when it should generate business!)

In the Marchant report there are 54 firms listed as manufacturing agricultural machinery; according to the Kenny report (see 23/9/75) eight firms account for 80% of the miniscule national production of this potentially important commodity. So there should be an appreciably market among small firms, unable to employ full-time professional designers, for a competent service at the right price.

The Marchant proposition, basically, is that the engineering industry ought to be prepared to underwrite the establishment of a design unit at Kilkenny, on the services of which it could subsequently draw, at a cost kept down by the build-up of continuity of experience which one gets in a viable organisation.

Firms who feel the need for an industrial design service could usefully explore what Kilkenny has to offer by putting to them a specific design problem.

December 30 1975

On September 23 I received a report by James Kenny published by the Science Policy Research Unit in UCD on the agricultural engineering industry. This report showed up a rather abysmal situation, with a ten to one imbalance as regards imports and exports.

Possibly in response to this, the IEI has arranged a two-day seminar on February 3-4 on this topic.....

The market for this should include trade unionists and managements of engineering manufacturing firms which are faced with declining markets and redundancies (eg the vehicle assembly business), as I suggested on September 23. The existing agricultural engineering industry, which has been allowed to decline to a level barely above the threshold of viability, can hardly be expected to recover without an infusion of some new thinking and talent.

There is no evidence from the IEI programme of any input from the Kenny Report. There are many speakers to the main papers: four per paper; is this not too much?..... The main speakers are Dr Tom Walsh (Director, AFT), MC heehy (Irish Sugar Co) and Ir(16) F Coolman (Director of the Dutch Institute of Mechanisation)...... The closest to a farmers' spokesman, on the respondents' panel, is Mr A O'Grady of Mitchelstown Creameries.

February 10 1976

....At the Agricultural Engineering seminar last week (organised by the IEI in association with the Department of Agriculture)...I formed the impression that there was unresolved conflict between individual and national objectives. Despite this, the elements of an integrated system within Ireland were discernible, requiring State initiatives to draw them together.

Let me explain what I mean. At present, whether in agricultural engineering or food technology.....there are two key elements in the system (a) the suppliers of equipment (b) the users. In both cases, the users of equipment, on balance, prefer to deal with the world market, excercising their judgment in the matter of choice of supplier.

The result is a wide variation in types of equipment, and problems in maintenance, spares, training etc. The alternative would be for an association of users to organise consciously to influence the design of appropriate standardised equipment, produced by the agricultural engineering industry in Ireland, who theoretically could be organised as a suppliers consortium, financing developments in the universities, colleges and research institutes, and ultimately breaking into the export market.

A conscious, organised, technically competent group of equipment users could feel its way towards an optimal mix of home-produced and imported equipment. An obvious sector to specialise in is grass-harvesting, in terms of a total silage or dried-grass system. There is, perhaps, scope for the development of clever grass-drying systems without extravagant energy inputs, as an alternative to accepting the comparatively heavy losses which accompany silage.

The key equipment users are the contractors and the co-op machinery services. This is where the qualified agricultural engineers ought to be concentrating; a pattern seems to be emerging of technicians turned out by Clash (this Tralee VEC College is rapidly upgrading to Regional College status) going into this work, but not so much the graduates. There is a clear role here for the co-op machinery services: to support a development-minded management, trained to graduate-level technology, capable of understanding the principles and specifying innovations, rather than a routine management that takes care of technicians trained to operate existing equipment.

With what body of engineers concerned with design and modification ought our hypothetical 'users group' to be dealing? The clear front-runners at the moment are the Sugar Co and Bord na Mona. The former has a substantial export market with its Armer beet-harvester, while the latter is a world-leader in the type of soft-ground heavy equipment necessary in peat exploitation. To date both have kept clear of the equipment market outside their own sectors; the private sector, however, with names like Peirce of Wexford and Keenan of Bagenalstown springing to mind, clearly lacks the resources to stage an innovative come-back, and is likely to remain in this condition unless it gets State support with development work.

James Kenney, in his report published by the UCD Science Policy Research Unit in March 1975, made a strong case for strengthening the State sector, building on existing reserves of skilled manpower in the Sugar Co and Bord na Mona, in a manner such as to help the private sector rather than to displace it.

Given that the technological know-how and initiatives are concentrated in the State sector, it is possible to visualise the private sector getting in on both sub-contracting and marketing. There is no need for the private sector to worry about an expanding State sector; we are far from 'creeping socialism' and nearer to a situation of State-supported R&D in the interests of the private sector.

There is a long tradition in Britain of this, for example in relation to the aircraft industry. Insofar as we have adopted the principle in Ireland, via Bord na Mona and the Sugar Co, we can claim that our State-supported R and D has been more socially useful.

To summarise: as regards agricultural equipment, the elements of the system are mostly there.. We have the UCD agricultural engineering department (which incidentally has soldiered on without a professor for more than ten years!), the machinery evaluation centre at Oakpark (Brendan Cunney), the existing State firms with a developmental tradition; the missing link is an organisation of those equipment users who are prepared to pool their experience, to specify their needs and exercise decisive influence over producers of equipment in Ireland, re-establishing a healthy home market.

On the food technology side, the prime centres of graduate training and innovation are the UCC department of dairy and food science, and AFT (Moorepark). The UCC graduates are all in the food processing industry, occupying key positions. The demand for innovations is beginning to emerge, and the lack of a production-orientated centre for technological innovation beginning to be felt. The industry is at the mercy of equipment-suppliers abroad, and innovations researched and developed at Moorepark are being taken u by foreign firms.

Thus, between the Sugar Co, the creameries and the milk processors there ought to be scope for a national food processing equipment industry, the key technologies being stainless steel fabrication, refrigeration, process control instrumentation, laboratory instrumentation etc.

This field was rather out of place in an agricultural engineering seminar; it deserves a conference in its own right, with the initiative in the hands of the equipment users, and a presence of actual or potential suppliers. Perhaps this will follow.

February 24 1976

I am prompted....to remark on the rigidity of the thinking of the Post Office as regards the provision of services in remote areas. They think in terms of an urban-standard telephone service, requiring a microwave link, costing perhaps 10,000. What is wrong, in the case of the Black Valley problem, with the concept of a radio link for emergency use only, with a continuously sensitive listening unit in Killarney Post Office? A daily checking routine, whereby the transmitter in the Black Valley was activated at random times by its custodian, would ensure that the link was kept alive. Two or three key people in the Black Valley could be trained in the use of the system, which need be no more sophisticated than that in use among fishing boats.

Systems like this are the norm in the Australian outback. The total hardware cost should be of the order of a few hundred pounds at most. This system should be applicable in many other remote areas, including islands.

The same principle has held up for decades the provision of piped water in remote communities. Why insist on urban standards, which lay down that you must wash and flush your lavatory with drinking water? As I have mentioned before, 19th century technology, as applied in the Ascendancy big-houses, provided piped unfiltered water from the river by means of a hydraulic ram. People knew better than to drink it. A bucket of well-water, drawn at infrequent intervals, provided the necessary dilution for the whiskey.

March 16 1976

It is probable that if Gibbon had gone in for the technological history of the Roman Empire, rather than the political and social, he would have noted the progress or regression of the status of the engineer as a measure of imperial growth or decay.

The situation in Britain today as regards the engineering profession is little short of disastrous. On January 11 I noted an article by Peter Paterson in the Sunday Times which bewailed the fragmentation of the 300,000-strong corps of professional engineers, who between them support no less than sixty professional specialist Institutes. The fifteen largest of these form a Council of Engineering Institutions, of which the threatened split was the stimulus for the article. This is taking place despite the best efforts of the Duke of Edinburgh in his 'Prince Albert' role.

The issue is related to a unifying electoral reform plan. The political details are outside the scope of this column, but the situation of which it is a symptom is clear: engineers in Britain are at the bottom of the league as regards status.

The type of status conferred by Royal patronage will not help them. What they need is the type of status, based on recognised competence, that gets their French and German counterparts from the Ecole Polytechnique and the Technische Hochschule into the leading positions in industry on the continent. In Britain the key positions are taken up by 'gentlemen-amateurs' from the 'public-school' network. The social structure in Britain is such that it is rare for this to be challenged by the engineering profession within the management structure.

In some cases where engineers have got to the top, as for example in the Rolls-Royce debacle, they get blamed for having a narrow concern with technical excellence, to the exclusion of social or economic considerations.

The British educational system (which we tend to ape) has traditionally steered the best brains towards scientific excellence via Oxbridge, with the result that while there may be more Nobel Prizes per head of population, the technological follow-up takes place abroad and the British have to buy back the fruits of their own discoveries. Meanwhile, the splintered engineering profession muddles on with its 'standard practice' approach, or else allows itself to be drawn into sterile prestige projects via the (now moribund) military aviation industry.

I am drawn into this harangue by the January issue of the Chemical Engineer (a progressive professional sector, with healthy influences from the US) which has a Jeremiad by IA Glover, who is a sociologist working at Heriot-Watt Univerity (Edinburgh).

I quote: '...lack of collective unity....due in part to....practitioners.....employed as technician-managers rather than as generalists.....misleadingly defining practical skills as specialist....an over-supply of diffident practitioners.....elites of gentlemanly amateurs and overpromoted book-keepers....in stark contrast to the situation in Europe...'

Elsewhere in the same issue is a quote from Lord Bowden, Princopal of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST): '...we used to have the biggest undergraduate school of chemical engineering in Europe. For a decade or more it recruited 90 Englishmen and half a dozen foreigners each year. This year it admitted 23 English and 25 foreign students...... Englishmen no longer want to study any discipline which would fit them for a career in productive industry...'

I am indebted to Derry Kelleher, who used to be secretary to the Irish Branch of the Institute of Chemical Engineers, for sending me these extracts.

I must say that the Irish engineering scene, though numerically weaker, seems to me to be basically healthier. There do not seem to be the same barriers to entry into the top management that exist in Britain, except perhaps in the older Anglo-Irish firms. But the situation is far from healthy as regards interaction between science and engineering. My recipe for the future career-profile is to start off as a scientist, become an engineer and then end up managing what you have developed; this cycle to be repeated two or three times in a career. Is this visionary?

March 23 1976

As a follow-up to last week's 'cri de coeur' on the status of the engineering profession in the UK, I note that the working party of the Council of Engineering Institutions.....has recommended.....that professional engineers should join Trade Unions. This is a new departure, in that hitherto the Engineering Institutions have been trying to combine the functions of Trade Union, Learned Society and Professional Institution in one system.

However well the latter two mix, the first is clearly an outsider. Most engineers being employees, a Trade Union is closely relevant to their interests. Many of their employers, if also engineers, could also be members of the Institution, so clearly the Trade Union function is pre-empted. The fact that this has only now been recognised in the UK is a contributory factor to the engineers' low status.

The January/February issue of the ASTMS Journal reports the above intelligence with visible relish. The ASTMS in Ireland organises the majority of scientists and technologists working in the State sector. The AEUW-TASS is strong among engineering technicians.

September 9 1976

I have previously drawn attention to the potential for an agricultural engineering industry in Ireland...... Recently the IEI published the summarised conclusions of the February conference; there was a reception at Clyde Road to mark the occasion, to which the Minister for Agriculture was invited, but which was attended by a substitute, in the form of Mr Oliver Flanagan TD. This event received no press coverage of any significance.

The IEI report contrasted the positive attitude of the industry in the USA, Holland, Britain and New Zealand to the employment of agricultural engineers with the fact that most of the UCD output of these were working outside their specialities or else abroad. It called for the employment of agricultural engineers in the advisory services, in food processing, in research, and, especially, in a renascent agricultural engineering industry.....

The response of the Minister to this report, as evidenced by the departmental script read by Deputy Flanagan, was anything but encouraging. There appears to be little appreciation in the Department of the potential role of engineers in the development and adaptation of equipment to a state where it is suited to Irish needs, despite the experience in this field of the Sugar Co and Bord na Mona. More agressive engineer-entrepreneurs are needed, if this road-block is to be breached. A viable system might have inventive graduate engineers, with adequate technician support, working for the co-ops. AFT Oakpark and UCD would then be in a position to respond with enthusiasm with solutions to problems defined with precision by trained specialists in the front line of the action.

The output from the UCD/Oakpark system would be working prototypes, or prototype 'mods' to existing systems, developed to local consumer specifications, suitable for licencing out to local manufacturers. This was the conception behind the IEI conference which prompted the publication of the report. Regrettably there are no signs of support for the concept either from the Department or from the equipment purchasers.....who prefer to shop in the world market, where they have variety of choice but no control over the specifications.....

October 12 1976

(Regarding the IEI conference in Sligo) I feel I should remark that I see danger signals in the North-west in the general area of science-technology linkages; for example the North Western Scientific Council was not much in evidence round the fringes of the IEI conference, despite the attempt made....to build the bridge. Conversely, when the NWSC ran a seminar in Sligo on finite-element methods, which was attended by about 30 participants from all over Ireland, including from the North, there was little or no interest shown by local IEI members.

Hopefully when the Operations Research Society meets in Sligo on November 4-6 there will be some local support from both scientist and engineers, as this discipline was invented specifically to help quantify the steps involved in the introduction of new technologies, fresh from the scientific boffins, into an engineering (or 'operational') environment....

October 19 1976

I must now fill in on the annual conference of the IEI which took place on September 30-October 1 at Rosses Point. In last week's passing reference I touched on the problem of science-engineering interaction..... This problem underlay the conference itself, which was on the theme 'The Engineer in a Developing European Society'.

The IEI executive....clearly is aware of the implications of the increasing rapidity of technological change for a profession which, in Ireland, is dominated by local authority engineers whose methods of work are traditional. The roots of technological change are in science. So the IEI invited two heavyweight spokesmen from the scientific community to come and rock the boat.

The first was Manfredo Macioti, who serves the EEC in the Directorate for Research, Science and Education. The second was Colm O h-Eocha, now President of UCG, who is completing his lengthy spell of office as Chairman of the National Science Council.

Macioti took a world-view of the innovation process, producing figures showing trends in patents per annum, illustrating the decline of the US, the stability of the EEC and the buoyancy of Japan and the USSR. This related to the period 1965-72.

The crude numbers however are misleading; if you split the figures into 'high, 'medium' and 'low' technologies, the US leads in medium and Japan in high, while the EEC is more interested in low technologies.

(Typical 'high' technologies are electronics, applied microbiology, nuclear engineering, instruments; soap, glass, metallurgy and food count as 'medium', while low technology areas are dyes, paints, building and construction etc. These divisions are somewhat arbitrary, but they reflect factors like how long the technology has been around, the level of qualification of those who control the technical decisions, and other such factors.)

The worrying fact for the EEC is that as well as being dependent on imported fuel and raw materials, it is in a weak position as regards balancing the trade in technology. Many of the third-world countries are themselves becoming strong in the low-to-medium technologies, in which the EEC is pre-eminent.

The way in which EEC technology is reacting to this problem is not so much to force-feed the high-technology sector as to transfer attention from 'products' to 'systems' and 'services'. Thus the way forward for the engineering profession is towards the development and maintenance of total systems, which may be quite complex, of which the components are medium-to-low technology.

The closest traditional engineering discipline to this concept is that of the production engineers. Justin Wallace's 1973 paper on the technological needs of the Irish engineering industry, with its emphasis on the need to recruit and train graduate engineers for jobs in manufacturing, needs resurrection....

Macioti spent some time on scenarios for the year 2000...... One proposition is the compulsorily renewable professional engineering qualification; in other words your degree lapses after 7 years unless you go back to college to update it......

I come now to O h-Eocha, who gave as an example of the trade-off between raw material and technology the replacement of 175,000 tonnes of copper by a communications satellite weighing less than a tonne. In Ireland the industrial pull for new technology is weak, there being too few qualified technologists in industry; consequently the State must 'push', and this the NSC has been doing with its university-industry schemes.

Professor O h-Eocha also touched upon a basic weakness of the Brussels connection: '...we must often rely on the jack-of-all-trades to service important committees where larger countries assign well-briefed experts....' There are two solutions to this problem: one is to pull out and establish an independent national economy like Norway, replacing membership of the EEC by a trade agreement with it. The other is to break the stranglehold of the professional civil servants on the EEC linkages, and to put in well-briefed people who know the problems and the significance of the matters discussed. There are some areas where this is beginning to happen, but others where important techno-economic decisions are made without any knowledgeable contribution by the Irish contingent.

If we adopt the second solution, is is likely that the EEC committees will dull and break the spirit of our most creative people, and the pace of creative innovation at home will be reduced to a negligible level. So we are in a national dilemma, brought upon ourselves by the national capitulation which took place in the 1972 Referendum. Those of us who constituted the 17% residuum of unrepentantly national-minded people who voted 'no' to the EEC can say, with sorrow, we told you so...... People are realising the fragility of our claim to be a nation at a comparable level of development to France or Germany.....the analogy with the 1800 Act of Union is becoming increasingly evident.

October 26 1976

On October 6-7 a seminar took place in TCD under the title 'Towards High Quality Welding'; this was organised by the TCD Graduate School of Engineering Studies, the College of Technology (Bolton St) and the Irish Institution of Ingineering Inspection.

Topics included: prominent weld failures, welded joints in structures, the Nodus Joint System in space frames, the role of the resident engineer, etc. The final paper on 'the Conflicting Requirements of Quality and Productivity in Welding' was by Professor R L Apps of the Cranfield Institute of Technology.

The 43 participants were mostly from engineering consultancy and manufacturing firms.

This seminar represented the fruits of extended efforts by Ken Eng, lecturer in welding at Bolton St, to establish that quality welding knowhow is a reality in Ireland and that it is no longer necessary to import it....

I listened to NT Burgess of the British Steel Corporation on 'prominent failures' and picked up....that 80% of failures are due to management and not to the quality of the actual weld. In the case of the Flixborough disaster, no engineer was responsible and no drawings existed of the replacement piping. Pressure vessel failures can be due to poor temperature control at the heat-treatment stage. Scale-ups which took place in the sixties have given rise to unexpected elements becoming critical, like lifting lugs.

Repairs should not be regarded as natural; if you spend twice the money on quality engineering the cost of failures is reduced by a much greater amount. One boiler-tube leak is equivalent to 10 days down-time. The statistical basis of sample inspection procedures is theoretically weak. Inspectors are often sopoorly qualified that they are not respected by the welders whose work they examine..... good material here for applications research.

...a paper by Dr NG Bunni, of TJ O'Connor Associates... (represents the Association of Consulting Engineers of Ireland at the Euro-Arab Export Group..) (dealt with) the Nodus Joint System which is a means of pre-fabricating wide-span roofs with standard components. The basic unit is a length of tube with welded end-pieces. The technique for doing this with precision and without flaw was the subject of the talk, which was supplemented by Ken Eng himself, who had a hand in the job. When the roof was assembled the calculated camber (4 inches in 70 feet) was achieved exactly. Welds were tested destructively by cutting and examining a 2% sample. For technical reasons non-destructive testing would not have worked (to find out why is another research area for the frontiersman).

The indications of this seminar are that the increasing co-operation among the centre-city colleges is paying off, and strengthening the links between science, technology and industry....

November 16 1976

The re-development of a viable agricultural engineering industry in Ireland will not take place overnight. It must be rooted in effective technology and directed at the solution of recognised problems.

The machinery division of AFT at Oakpark has developed an automatic milk cluster remover, which senses when milk flow finishes, using a vacuum signal. This device is produced by Mullinahone Co-op, which has already sold 500 units in Ireland and exported a further 1000 to Europe and the US.

According to Mr Brendan Cunney of Oakpark, the main bottleneck is market intelligence; to have someone in the problem area who can visualise an engineering solution to a problem quickly and effectively, without being hidebound by the traditional slow procedures of agricultural experimentation. Agricultural statistics are only one of the elements necessary for market assessment.

Although the size of the typical agricultural engineering firm is small, and qualified expertise still rare, this is being remedied and good agricultural engineering technicians are now increasingly available. It is the small firm, having good technical expertise, close to the farmers' problems, which is the most likely to deliver. The Mullinahone enterprise supports this contention.

The annual conference on agricultural development organised by AFT (November 25) covers the usual areas of interest..... The fact that there is no slot on the agenda for a survey of the equipment scene suggests either that the industry has no problem or has not recognised that it has. It is up to the suppliers of Irish-made equipment to persuade the industry that the present import-dominated market is not adapted to the needs as well as local enterprise would be, at least in certain specialist sectors. When the engineering industry breaks into the agenda of this particular AFT annual event, it can be said to have 'arrived'.

December 21 1976

I listened to Dr Percy McCormack of the NSC speaking at a meeting of the Royal Aeronautical Society on December 14 in Clyde Road, by courtesy of the IEI.

Dr McCormack, who spoke from a position of considerable direct experience, suggested that there were some 10-12 firms in Ireland which should be in a position, individually or in consortium, to get sub-contracts from the European aerospace industry. European Space Agency contracts, which were often of a manageable small size, would be a good way into this league.

He suggested that the Aer Lingus technical division was well placed to play a leading role in getting sub-contracts, mainly in the equipment and systems areas, and in airframe sub-assemblies, rather than in engines.

A pre-requisite for this, however, was the cultivation of R and D linkages with the universities and colleges of technology, where there were some significant (though isolated) linkages into world high-technology research.

Indications from the subsequent discussions, however, were that this (to my mind good) advice went largely unheeded, the Aer Lingus technical development people preferring to rely on their equipment suppliers as their main source of technological information.

This, I would have thought, was more typical of the small family firm than of the exporter of high-technology expertise which Aer Lingus now is, to the extent that they are helping to set up airlines and aircraft maintenance systems in some 20 developing countries.

Ultimately, any new electronic or other system, of which the prototype had been developed in Ireland as a result of an Aer Lingus university-industry project, would have to find its way into acceptance by Boeing, BAC or whatever major aircraft manufacturer was involved. This, however, does not preclude Aer Lingus from taking an open-minded and innovative attitude in the early stages. Whatever chance a university electronics group had of selling to Boeing an idea that had been developed in the light of the experience of a Boeing purchaser, the chance of such a group succeeding with a direct approach to Boeing is negligible.

Dr McCormack mentioned Shorts in Belfast as a firm worthy of cultivation in this respect; this firm is of course the only centre of direct experience in airframe and aerospace systems in Ireland; as such it could play a key role in any Irish-based consortium bidding for European aerospace sub-contracts.


1. Val Rossiter's interests developed towards infra-red spectroscopy. He invented a system for doing IR analysis on gas chromatograph peaks, and went on to found a firm, Accuspec ltd, to produce it for the market. At the time of writing, this firm is expanding into the US.

2. See Chapter 5.1 on 2/4/70.

3. Professor Calderwood was then at Salford University.. He is currently at University College Galway, having left Salford as a result of the Thatcher cuts.

4. For the Naas Research Park background see Chapter 1.2 (Structures and Institutions) on this date.

5. Dr Chambers went in some detail into the electron beam optics, and the nature of the secondary emission processes that give rise to the various types of image. The principal use envisaged in the IIRS was the examination of fractured metal surfaces, with a view to establishing the fracture mechanism. There was also potential for use with solid-state electronic devices.

5a. At that time the lady engineer was somewhat rare. The present trend of women into engineering is welcome and should have a humanising effect on the profession. For 'him' read 'him or her' etc.

6. In retrospect it has emerged that from the College's point of view it was under-priced, the administrative overhead necessary having been underestimated. There was no incentive to repeat the procedure in this manner. Custom-designed MSc programmes are still done, but at a more realistic fee. The TCD/SPS link has continued, and Paul Wallace spent some time as the TCD Professor of Mechanical Engineering; he has now returned to SPS.

7. The development agency responsible for the Western areas where the Irish language survives, precariously. It is now called Udaras na Gaeltachta, and has an elective component.

8. The Electricity Supply Board took a dim view of this enterprise, which put some hundreds of kilowatts of load at the end of a fragile rural distribution network. It would have made more sense to have located the enterprise near a reliable mini-hydro source, or in a town. The main reason for the location was that Jim Gilson liked the environment, and the supplier of equipment was an Achill man, who had emigrated to the US some decades previously. Also the Gaeltarra financial incentives were generous.

9. This was occupied at the time by the present writer. In retrospect it can be said that the analysis of the subsequent failure of this enterprise would provide many insights into the weakness of the Irish techno-economic infrastructure, as seen by the small high-technology firm. One factor was the dubious quality of the second-hand X-ray equipment, on which a key step in the process depended (namely the alignment of the crystals); this was not identified prior to purchase. A complication was the Achill link of the equipment vendor; he had the status of a local hero.

10. Qeleq over-reached itself in its marketing and foundered on cash-flow problems. A major customer took over the rights and the systems sold were maintained. Prior to collapse, they were beginning to go into the 'dedicated micro' business; there were signs that this would in the end open up new markets untapped by the minicomputers. They had developed what would now be recognised as an early version of the 'visicalc' system, or at least a system with the same philosophy. This they subsequently tried to market on a bureau basis. They had also developed an analogue approach to the production scheduling problem, and were beginning to digitise their approach to the solution of the linear programming problem, while keeping what the chairman of the company, William Marshall, called 'analogue feel', which users of the original feed-mix computer liked. Qeleq deserved to survive; it appears to have suffered from a fate common to many pioneers, namely, being just slightly too early, with the imagination leaping ahead of the technical feasibility.

11. The national export trade promotion agency.

12. Thanks to new digital technology and a radical change in State policies, we now expect to be in that position by 1990 or before.

12a. The National Council for Educational Awards. Prior to its establishment in or about 1970 all technician-grade qualifications were London-based.

13. The co-ordinates of bubble-chamber pictures of high-energy nuclear interactions were recorded in the 50s as digitised input to first-generation computers, in Stanford, Berkeley and elsewhere in the US, by an essentially similar technique.

14. For more on this anomaly see Chapter 3.5 (Biotechnology) on 21/4/71.

15. Nothing came of this. It remains an object-lesson to illustrate the priority of need.

16. The Dutch use the style 'Ir' to denote 'engineer' as 'Dr' is used to denote 'doctor', reflecting a positive cultural attitude to their status.

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