What is engineering?
We can say it is a branch of science and technology concerned with design, building and use of engines, machines and structures (from Oxford). As an engineering student, I am always told, engineering is about coming up with solutions; about making people’s lives easier. And how exactly do we take these two definitions, combine them and do this ‘engineering’? Let me give you two different approaches in my explanation.
Just a few days after Covid-19 was no longer something that happened in China, I saw a few kids on Twitter came up with a soap dispensing ‘machine’ that squeezes soap onto your hands without touching the bottle of soap. In this innovation, an ultrasonic sensor was placed next to the bottle. All you did was wave one of your hands close to the sensor and voilà; soap on your hands. An ultrasonic sensor is used to measure distance and is made up of 2 parts; a transmitter and a receiver. The transmitter sends a sound signal (you won’t hear it due to the high frequency which can’t be perceived by the ear), the signal hits a barrier (the object from which you want to measure distance), and then the sound bounces back where it is received by the receiver. This sensor then converts the time between transmission and reception into distance. These children had set a particular distance which causes the squeezing of soap in your hands.
I found one similar invention in my prowling of the internet. This one was done by Agostino Samanya from Taita-Taveta County, Kenya. His machine uses thermal sensors that detect human-palms and releases sanitizer or water onto your hands. A thermal sensor measures temperature. Since our normal body temperature is about 37oC, these sensors can sense when you place your hand close to the tap or the soap dispenser.
On the other side, there’s the small boy from Western Kenya who has been trending for a while. In fact, when I first came upon his video, it was aired on BBC. In this invention, one steps on a water lever and there’s another lever that moves up, tipping the water tank which causes water to flow. This same process applies to the hand-washing soap.
There have been many other similar innovations, where one steps on a lever or pedal which causes water to flow. Before looking for this video, I had just heard about a similar invention in the evening news. The piece was about a guy from a different part of Kenya who had come up with a tap that turns on when you stepped on a lever. His innovation had an elaborate drainage system and was all gleaming metal.
When you search for taps that are turned on by use of pedals or levers on Google, one of the results are tippy taps that are mostly used in rural areas. Tippy taps use a plastic jerry can with a hole on the top hanging on a horizontal beam. A strong rope is tied to the mouth of container on one end and the other to a piece of wood on the ground. When one steps on the wooden beam on the ground, the container tilts and clean water flows through the hole.
I’ve chosen this one line of innovation, specifically, because it is relatable during these times (Covid-19 pandemic times) where we are required to regularly wash hands and avoid touching surfaces. As you may have noticed, the first two projects use sensors. In these projects, there’s an input, which is the presence of hands or the distance of the hands from the sensor. These inputs cause an output, the squeezing of soap or turning on of a tap. The decisions that cause these outputs, including the setting up of the sensors are programmed on a microprocessor.
The other projects mentioned are purely mechanical, using levers to turn on a tap or tip a water tank. Here, one steps on a lever that pushes a different lever causing tipping, thus the flow of water and soap. These projects do not, in any way, use micro-processors or sensors.
We have to agree that both these types of projects are solving the same problem, albeit in different ways. These projects, though different, are both doing this ‘engineering’ we mentioned above. Going back to our definition of engineering, all the projects above involve designing, building and use of machines or structures no matter how simple or complex. In addition, they are both about finding solutions to problems.
So, what is my point here? Engineering can be about using sensors and microprocessors, even a bit more complex solutions such as Artificial Intelligence or Internet of Things. Engineering can also be about using levers and such other mechanical systems. It can be about finding the best material for building. It, really, can be about anything; but with the thought of coming up with a solution to a problem. Just like engineering courses are numerous: electrical, mechanical, mining, civil, marine among others, so are the solutions to our every-day problems.
My main point, which I hope you’ve taken from all this, is that engineering is about finding solutions to problems. There is no particular solution that should be used but it is up to you to decide what’s best. With whatever skills you have, you can always solve problems. And, you don’t have to have an engineering degree to see problems and come up with solutions. Therefore, today, I appeal to you to be an engineer. Make people’s life easier.