Monday, December 30, 2013

Should Engineers Be Registered?

In December 2013, I was asked to provide an overview of Aircraft Engineering to the Piedmont Chapter of the South Carolina Society of Professional Engineers. Recently, the legislature in South Carolina was petitioned to change the law exempting aircraft companies from the requirement of registration for their engineers. This stirred up a lot of questions in the PE community, particularly how aircraft engineering is regulated and accountable. Hopefully, these reflections will provide some clarity. And, of course, this is flavored with my opinion, too.

To be clear up front, I support certification of all engineers. When I go into a doctor's office, I am always appreciative to see that my doctor has been board certified and has demonstrated having met at least a minimum set of requirements. I encourage all our employees to take and pass the PE exam. At a minimum, a certified engineer should oversee and approve completed engineering. However, the PE exam is not the only way to be certified. In fact, I will go as far as saying, a PE certification may not be appropriate for aircraft design approval.

Next to the medical industry, arguably there is no other industry more regulated than the aircraft business. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) provides oversight for both the design and production of aircraft. Through the delegated authority process (FAA order 8100), qualified engineers assure that the regulatory requirements are met and that the aircraft type design is approved. Authority is delegated based on demonstrated abilities. Designated Engineering Representatives (DER) are the equivalent of a PE in the aircraft engineering business.

So, should states exempt aircraft companies from the legal requirements for state registration? I believe the answer is YES, provided that the aircraft company follows the FAA process. Many professional engineers fear that the aircraft exemption will lead to exemptions for other industries. Perhaps other exemptions are appropriate. But, a qualified certification program that demonstrates a minimum level of competency should always be a requirement. In most cases, state registration is the best choice.

The Drive That Captured The Moon

It's hard to imagine. 110 years ago, the Wright Brothers took their first flight. Consider how much has changed in 110 years. In fact, consider what took place in the first 60 years. From December 17, 1903 to July 20, 1969, roughly two generations, the industry went from the primitive powered flight to putting a man on the moon. What a great time to be an engineer. Think about how many technological advancements that came out of the space program.

Arguably, the 1960's was a decade of aerospace technology advancement like none other. In September, 1962; President John F. Kennedy made his famous moon speech at Rice University. The following is an excerpt from that speech.

"We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."

The Cold War fueled our drive to the moon. The Russians said that they would be the first to the moon. They planned to plant their flag to claim the moon for Russia. This increased the pressure to reach the moon. After Kennedy's death, Lyndon Johnson committed to continue the drive to the moon stating, “I do not believe that this generation of Americans is willing to resign itself to going to bed each night by the light of a Communist moon."

Does it take fear and war to drive American engineering? It's been 44 years since the first moon landing. Still, the United States is the only country to send human beings safely to the moon. Our engineers did it without the computing capability we enjoy today. They did it with slide rules, controlled testing, planned development, but most of all a drive that galvanized the nation. My question: Could we do the same thing today? What's happened to our spirit?

High school students aren't interested in engineering anymore. American students are more interested in writing gaming software, studying political science, or protesting for social justice. Meanwhile, foreign students are the overwhelming majority in graduate engineering programs and China is developing plans to send human beings back to the moon. What kind of challenge will revive American engineering? We need to recapture that spirit that put the first man on the moon.