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Is catalogue engineering the future? (Part 1)



By Michael Young

The world of engineering is constantly changing, but does that mean catalogue engineers are the future?

The world as we know it has changed. Technology has advanced, and the way businesses are run and the markets respond is very different to the markets that were present before the invention of personal computers.

Advancement in technology has altered the way we think, the way we interact and the way we do business. But how has it altered the way students think and perceive the real world when they complete their tertiary education?

I graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand in 2008 and I thought the working world would require me to apply first principles in the fields of mathematics and physics. I was mistaken. Every calculation and the design of all equipment was performed by a computer program.

After working for three years, I noticed that I had become lazy. I’d forgotten most of the first principles we were taught at university. It reached a point where the computer became the brain and I became the slave. As I gained more exposure within the industry I had become what they call a ‘catalogue engineer’. Everything was designed, selected and installed as per a catalogue and computer program.

This exercise taught me that you must understand the entire system, not just the operations of one working component.

Initially, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with this, as computer programs are always correct and I was told to use existing equipment that had been designed and built. “Never reinvent the wheel,” was the phrase used.

This thought process worked until things went terribly wrong one day. The refrigerant pipe runs were longer than the specified value, and the vertical distance between the condenser and compressor was 12m. The compressor kept failing due to poor oil return, the expansion valve was constantly hunting, and the unit was underperforming.

Initially I thought the brand of equipment that had been purchased was of poor quality but, after conducting an investigation, I realised that we’d followed everything as per the catalogue. The catalogue refrigerant pipe sizes were installed, and the selected unit should have performed to the correct capacity. So what had gone wrong with this design?

After completing my investigation, I discovered that oil traps had not been installed and the recommended refrigerant pipe sizes from the catalogue were too small. This exercise taught me that you must understand the entire system, not just the operations of one working component.

It took me many years to fully understand the workings of an entire HVAC&R system. I now have an appreciation for the operations of each component and I have realised that engineers must apply their first principle knowledge when performing designs and not be transformed into catalogue engineers.

The demand to produce quotations and complete designs in the fastest time has become a new trend. Computer programs have been used to improve the overall efficiency of a business. They’ve modified job requirements and the way the next generation of engineers will think.

So how will the next generation of engineers solve problems? Will they ever use advanced mathematics or use a calculator? Is understanding the principles of mathematics and physics enough to survive in an ever-changing competitive market? Discover the answers in our next publication.

Wishing you a successful month ahead.

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