Three Examples of Invisible Engineering

Greg Wheeler
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Engineering is sometimes referred to as the invisible profession. This is because, if engineering jobs are done right, invisible engineering is never noticed. When ordinary people happen to notice what should have been invisible engineering, it's usually because something has gone wrong. Invisible engineering is about more than that, however. As a concept, invisible engineering refers to the sort of in-the-background processes that modern life depends upon.

Invisible engineering doesn't get much more invisible than nanotechnology. Engineers who work on the scale of individual molecules are pushing the boundary between engineering and physics. Their work has applications in every field imaginable, from materials to medicine. The invisible engineering marvels of this miniature world are quickly becoming the fabric of reality.

One related field of engineering that has recently taken a turn toward the world of the nanoscopic is materials technology. In the past, metallurgists and chemical engineers had to arrive at their materials by way of trial and error. Carborundum, the material that makes Kevlar so hard, was born of an attempt to synthesize industrial diamonds, while the long-chain molecules of nylon were a similarly accidental discovery. With modern materials technology, it's possible to devise processes that will assemble new materials from their constituent atoms. The invisible engineering genius driving the field promises batteries that weigh less than feathers, seat belts that never break, and circuitry that can handle billions of interactions across a global computer network.

That very network is also an area in which invisible engineering has been at work. In any given year, some 2.5 billion people make contact with each other over the Internet. That's billions of computers with billions of users operating in hundreds of languages for purposes as diverse as telecommuting, shopping, and sharing videos of cats. The architecture undergirding this network is so complex that it has called into existence an entirely new class of specialist¾that of the network engineer. When the invisible engineering holding up this system shows the slightest flaw, service providers are routinely deluged with complaints. The fact that the general public's standard for Internet service is "perfect 100 percent of the time" speaks volumes about the skills of the engineers behind it.

Engineering jobs have never been easy. The first time a stone hand ax failed, it's likely the user was just as annoyed as a commuter whose call is suddenly dropped by a phone company. All day long, feats of invisible engineering keep the world humming along.


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