Engineer – What’s in a name? Everything…


In the UK we have a misunderstanding of what it is to be an engineer.  The feeling seems to be that engineering encompasses every physical job.  Is it a van driver? A mechanic? Etc…. I’ll try to explain using an incident at my workplace.

In an office in Maidenhead, a company of highly skilled and highly educated Telecoms Engineers work.  Some delve into the latest Telecoms standards and innovate to provide cutting edge solutions to address the requirements of BT, Vodafone and others.  Others sit analysing code and hardware specifications to determine the optimum deployment scenarios for their products.  Customers arrive at the building on a regular basis, dressed in suites and anticipating informative and imaginative presentations as well as half decent coffee. The coffee certainly is half decent.

On a break customers and staff alike make use of the conveniences.  On several occasions they have walked into the toilets to see a note displayed on a cubicle door, loudly announcing that ‘This toilet is out of action, an engineer has been called’.  In this of all buildings, even in the UK, you would expect that it is known that engineers don’t fix toilets!

Taking us back the beginning the first modern flushable toilet was designed in 1596 by Sir John Harington, however, it wasn’t widely manufactured until the industrial revolution. Since then many alterations have been made to the design of the toilet.  Let’s have a think about an imaginary scenario where an engineer, presumably a mechanical engineer, was called and what might happen…..Stages where an engineer would provide input are highlighted in BOLD.

  • Define Design criteria and the essential design features – the goals of and wish list for the toilet design.
  • Defining and securing Budget – Understanding the market value of the toilet and the costs of producing it.
  • Risk assessment – Have you secured orders to cover your commercial risks?  Are there any risks to the design where you may not meet the customer’s requirements?
  • Conceptual design – Agree on an initial design both internally and with the customer/s and make any suggested improvements.
  • Final Design – Obtain agreement for the final design from your team and customer/s. 
  • Material selection - Suppliers of material for the toilet are selected.
  • Manufacturing plant selected.
  • Prototype constructed.
  • Order Received.
  • Production – The toilet is produced.
  • Delivery – Product delivered to customer’s site.
  • Toilet installed. 
  • Customer accepted.

Now, while all of this process is taking place, and it may take more than a year, a building in Maidenhead is without a working toilet.  When it eventually arrives, the cost of this shiny new toilet would likely have run into millions of pounds.  

Alternatively, they could have called a plumber to fix the toilet in a few minutes for minimal cost!!!

This scenario highlights the confusion, in the UK, of what an engineer is.

Oh no!  Another sign has appeared in the building.  The photocopier is down and a note has been attached to it stating ‘An engineer has been called’. 

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