• Question: What's the hardest thing you've ever been asked to design/construct?

    Asked by DrProfessorKit to Tim, Wallace, Steve, Sarah, Peter, Paul, Mousumi, Mina, Linda, Fi, Danielle, Benjamin, Ben, Andy on 13 Dec 2014.
    • Photo: Peter Green

      Peter Green answered on 13 Dec 2014:

      Good question. The hardest thing I have every constructed is probably my first computer – a Gemini Galaxy (http://www.computinghistory.org.uk/det/11357/Galaxy-1/). I built this in the evenings whilst I was at studying my A-levels, soldering 1000s of individual joints over many months. My mom checked them all with a meter and a copy of the circuit diagram! I remember switching it on for the very first time; no smoke, but no image on the screen! I then remembered to turn the monitor on, and there was the command prompt. It was a great feeling. It is amazing to think that the Raspberry Pi delivers so much more computing power for a fraction of the cost, size and power of the Gemini!

      Many years later I was asked to design a wireless communication system which could transmit a data signal between England and Sweden by bouncing it off the cloud of electrons (the ionosphere) which sits hundreds of kilometers above the surface of the Earth. This was the most complex design I had ever attempted, but the confidence I had gained from building my first computer from scratch kept me going. Seeing the first signal arrive in Manchester was great.

    • Photo: Andy Hearn

      Andy Hearn answered on 13 Dec 2014:

      I think it was 8 or 9 years ago, when a customer’s requirements were for a machine to switch between very complicated states, by the minimum amount of button presses. It would have been easier if we were able to write the software from scratch, starting it all again, but no, I had to add onto and change their existing code without breaking anything! That really stretched my thinking and figuring out, a *lot* of drawing diagrams on paper – when I managed to get it all working, and passed all their very strict testing, I just had to walk out of anyone’s earshot, throw my fists in the air, and mutter “YES!”!

      Other hard stuff sometimes is coming up against old huge code, written by someone else, with very little or no documentation, no notes to explain why the code has to be this or that way. It is like trying to unravel long pieces of string from a crazy, massive, pile of tangled up mess. But when all the important strings have been laid out straight, and the rest just thrown away, it is a brilliant feeling 🙂

    • Photo: Steve Cox

      Steve Cox answered on 31 Dec 2014:

      I spent many years working on the engineering of car doors. They’re something that you take for granted as you get into the car, but the next time you do think about all of the different functions the door has to be able to carry out, and all of them in a wide range of conditions (heat, cold, wet, dust etc).
      Designing and testing them is quite a complex business.

    • Photo: Wallace Viguier

      Wallace Viguier answered on 4 Jan 2015:

      I think the hardest and most interesting thing that engineers get asked to do is to create “something new and exciting”

      My last company relied heavily on innovation and we had some freedom to experiment with new idea during the job. This is both very rewarding to be able to developp new ideas and also quite difficult to find something that can enhance an already very optimised product.

      A good example would be to decide to use orientation sensors data to optimise the use of antennas on a smartphone.

      The more common version of this is to simply get asked to solve an issue that no one really know where it comes from. It require both strong techhnical knowledge and problem solving skills.

      A good example would be why my prototype phones keep randomly catching fire?

    • Photo: Fiona Dickinson

      Fiona Dickinson answered on 6 Jan 2015:

      I work on a much smaller scale than everyone else, in that I work with molecules, I wanted to design an experiment that would cut DNA in a particular place when you shone light on it. It is a classic example of ‘I got lucky’ in that I thought I would need to have two reactions (DNA has two long strands called backbones that go down the length of the chain) but the molecule I used did it in one go! Awesome!