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Engineers Reimagine the Possible Every Day

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“Engineers solve problems. They use chemistry, physics, and math to figure out the best way to create new things or to improve a product. The goal of engineers is to design things that can solve economic, environmental, or social problems.” 

Definition of engineer on Britannica Kids website

Chocolate. Cold medicine. Paperclip. Swiss Army knife. Are these the contents of your bag? Or maybe, it’s what’s inside your desk drawer? Probably not (but maybe they should be). How else would you plug a leaking tank of sulfuric acid, use potassium to blow a hole in a wall, or do so many other ingenious things in a pinch? As an oh-so-impressionable youth in the 1980s, I quickly became a huge fan of the original MacGyver television series that ran from 1985-1992. His resourcefulness and ability to see how to re-purpose everyday objects into a means to achieve the seemingly impossible were always impressive. I tried to imitate his sense of “applied imagination” in my own personal (and far less dramatic) life from that point forward. Next to being an operative for MacGyver’s fictional Phoenix Foundation, becoming an engineer was one of the best choices possible to reimagine the possible each day as a career.

Engineers are often those people most involved as our cities and our society tackle everyday challenges of modern living. While it can be difficult enough to simply focus on maintaining what we already have, engineers often look for innovative ways to use what resources are available to solve problems. Engineers also invent entirely new products and processes to protect people, accomplish tasks more efficiently, encourage new economic activity in an area, or let us do things we couldn’t do before.

Tall buildings no longer require steel and concrete to support themselves. Engineers have now made it possible to use trees to build buildings hundreds of feet high. Timber has been used to build bridges for hundreds of years, but now renewable wood can be used to help build our cityscapes more sustainably. Who’d have imagined that?

We’ve gained a new appreciation for the value of having high-speed Internet at home, school, and work over the past 2 years of quarantine and distancing. That new way of life, combined with implementation of the faster 5G standard of wireless communications, means that all that fiber optic cable that makes up the Internet’s “backbone” is going to have to handle hundreds or thousands of times more data in a day than it does currently. Fortunately, engineers have reimagined how data can be packaged when being sent down these optic networks and how to transmit that data more efficiently. The technology is advancing to increase the capacity of a fiberoptic cable from 1990 with a 2.5 Gb/s capacity to 2020’s systems achieving more than 75 Tb/s (an increase of 30,000 times over 30 years). Doesn’t that seem impossible?

Engineers also help to reimagine our downtown areas and the best combination of features to achieve safety for all travelers, overall efficiency of movement, a fair balance of use for all forms of transportation, as well as some level of aesthetics. These goals are illustrated in Vision Zero which is beginning to be implemented in Kansas City. This initiative aims to eliminate fatalities, especially among pedestrians and bicyclists, on our streets with better design and operation. By engineering intersections to lower vehicular speeds, increasing awareness of non-motorized users and other vehicles, providing safer places for pedestrians to cross, and other measures, this philosophy hopes to achieve a level of safety not thought possible since the automobile became the most common method of daily transportation.

Engineers are integral parts of these and countless other ongoing efforts to reimagine what is possible in our world, and soon engineers will have opportunities to apply their creativity to find solutions on other worlds too. The Moon, Mars, and more will hold new challenges and new possibilities in the decades ahead.  So, prepare for takeoff because thanks to the imagination of engineers, the sky is no longer the limit.

This article was written by Randy Gorton, P.E., PTOE, Public Works Group Director at BHC. This article was featured in the Engineers Week supplement of the Kansas City Business Journal.

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