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What’s So Good About Being An Engineer?

Saturday 2nd January 2010

An Engineering Problem in Disguise

A funny thing happened to me the other day during the Christmas shopping rush at our local shopping centre in Endeavour Hills. Our daughter had purchased some clothes for her nieces for Christmas and used the self serve checkout. When she got home she discovered she had not had one of the security tags removed so she asked for my help.

OK, I might be an Electronics Hardware and Embedded Software Engineer but I did do a year of Physics and Chemistry at Deakin University before switching to Engineering and I have had a role in the design of Multidisciplinary Systems with Electromechanical Actuators and Variable Frequency Motor Drives including Multi-Axis Robotic Handlers. So I thought, “How hard can this be?”

The first step was to review the problem and identify the information. Those familiar with Edward De Bono‘s Six Thinking Hats will recognise this as the White Hat stage.

I had:

  • circular plastic sealed tag with an alignment feature – a hole through it to accept a tapered pin
  • a metal pin with a large head inserted into the centre of the plastic disk
  • no other visible connection points

So assuming the tag was made at a minimum price, needed to be aligned correctly to be released and could be disconnected without an external power source; I concluded that the release mechanism was probably magnetic. So I got a magnet and did some experiments and I could hear something click inside the security tag as I moved the external magnet around. Now I am very confident that it is a Magnetic Latching Mechanism. But no orientation of a single magnet released the pin.

I got 2 magnets and worked around the unit until the pin released and the problem was solved.

Having released the tag I gave the garment to my daughter to wrap in Christmas paper and put the tag with pin inserted back into it by the front door. Since we were shopping the next day I thought I would return the tag. At the very least it would get recycled.

What’s so good about being an Engineer?

At the shops, I went to the help desk and offered them the tag. They were very confused. I explained that it had been accidentally left on one of the items we purchased so I took it off and was returning it to them. The stunned reply was, “You took it off yourself”? “Yes” I said. “I’ll have to call security” was the next reply. So I said, “It’s all right, I’m an Engineer“. “Oh, that’s fine then” was the reply and I wandered off to collect some final groceries for Christmas dinner.

So apparently there was a connection in the shop assistants mind that made being an Engineer something special. They may not have know what that connection was. And that got me wondering about Engineers and what is so special about us. Here is a bit of a list of my initial thoughts if I ignore specific Engineering Disciplines:

  • we create the future by designing and constructing the machines and systems that it requires
  • we routinely solve complex problems that others do not know even exist
  • we do all of this because we want a better world and are prepared to do our part to achieve it
  • we have learned that covering up a symptom is not the same as solving the underlying problem

You might have some thoughts of your own so please leave a comment.

And of course, I hope you had a Merry Christmas in 2009 and that 2010 is a very good year for you all. Happy New Year!

Ray Keefe has been developing high quality and market leading electronics products in Australia for nearly 30 years. For more information go to his LinkedIn profile. This post is Copyright Successful Endeavours Pty Ltd.

4 thoughts on “What’s So Good About Being An Engineer?

  1. Ray, I am amazed you were able to remove that tag. We were there when you were just starting to experiment with the magnets.
    Engineering must be a fascinating vocation, it is certainly useful!

  2. Pingback: Engineer learns to blog like a pro at Australian Blogs Blog

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