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The Flip Side Of Engineering Standards And Practices

The Flip Side Of Engineering Standards And Practices Dear All,
I like to keep myself abreast of the latest engineering standards and practices from international organizations (API / ISO) and from engineering / operating companies. The best thing about them is I don't have to overload my memory trying to remember established engineering and design practices which are generally well documented in these standards. These standards also help me save time when I am involved in engineering design, and often I quote these standards in the engineering design documentation that I prepare. So reading, knowing and remembering (depending on how good your memory is) these standards apparently seems to be the key for success in any engineering work.
So far, so good. Now here comes the flip side. These standards and practices have been developed by fallible humans and are not commandments from god. These standards and practices have evolved over the years and are still getting refined which is evident from the revisions that periodically appear for them. These standards are also written, reviewed and approved by a group of people and organizations who claim that they are the best and most authentic source of information on the particular subject. I am not saying that the credentials of these people and organizations are questionable. My point here is, that there can always be a difference of opinion amongst indviduals or groups on how things should be done (read engineering design). 
What "A" expresses as his opinion about the methodology to be adopted may not be agreed by "B" based on different experiences by "A" and "B". However, both "A" and "B" need to provide logical explanation of their ideas and be able to state benefits and disadvantages of their way of doing things. This is what we call as logical progression of any idea and the process of adoption / elimination of the idea based on the end goal to be achieved.
What I see today in the younger lot of engineers is the blind adherence to standards and practices without application of logic, functionality and end goal to be achieved. I do believe, that a lot of it has to do with lack of experience but to a certain extent it can also be attributed to finding a easy way out. It is there in the standard so who wants to take the pains to uncover the logic behind it.
When I mention all of this, I am not decrying the standards and practices. A lot of the engineering practices prevalent today and documented in these standards and practices have stood the test of time and have evolved and matured to the extent that trying to research them further is simply a waste of precious time, especially if you are an engineer. 
My advice to the young entry level engineers is that when you read a standard or practice, try to analyze the logic behind it. Ask questions about it to the more experienced engineers. There will be occasions where even the more experienced engineer may say "Hey, I reckon this is the way it always has been and I can't help you anymore". It would be easy to give up if you get such an answer, but then think that everything has a logic and somebody out there knows that logic and you need to have the resilience to find out that logic.
Good luck to all of you young engineers in making the effort to find out the logic on what is written as a standard or practice. I will be more than happy to receive comments on this blog entry.



Gracias por el aporte, mucho de lo que dices es verdad, recién tengo un año y medio laborando como Ingeniero de procesos y he podido observar cosas como las que mencionas, siempre he tratado de buscar la lógica a lo indicado en las normas, buenas prácticas o reglamentos, y en esa búsqueda también me he topado con personas (ingenieros mayores) que simplemente han venido haciendo las cosas por que nadie se las ha cuestionado y ellos tampoco a si mismos.

Aquellas personas que escribieron aquellas normas, recomendaciones, etc, han de haber tenido alguna razón y no es que haya sido algo tirado de los pelos (aunque uno nunca sabe).



Luis Ramos.

Well Said.

Yes, well said. As in market lot of software are available, hence young engineers used to forget the basic . 

Oct 15 2013 10:24 PM

Very True

True, Young engineers find easier apply standards strictly, than try to understand them.


I could not agree more with your comments here . I see young engineers resizing PSV's because the reached accum pressure in the vessel on relief  is 0.01 bar above the code max of 121% , resizing flare headers because the bP on a valve is 10.1%  of set pressure and therefore unacceptable !!

the advent and use of simulators generating 16 decimal places , fear of litigation against companies if they step away from figures published in codes and general lack of " common sense engineering"  has resulted  in a loss of practical engineering.

i remember when API520,521 were "Recommended Practices", allowing you some leeway on their use, with supporting justification obviuosy. Now however  they are "Standards " and must be followed to the letter  must not they ?





I recall a friend who I  heard quote the following in a very brief meeting some years ago.  "Rules are for the guidance of wise men and the obedience of fools"






I recall a friend who I  heard quote the following in a very brief meeting some years ago.  "Rules are for the guidance of wise men and the obedience of fools"






Very well said.




@Gunnar, thanks for stealing mt thunder!!  ;-)


@Ankur, Very well said, and something I have been voicing more and more over the last few years.  The fear of prosecution and litigation is causing people to adhere to unproven "rules"; my current bug bear is the "3% Rule" for PSV inlet pressure drop.


Not everyone is a fan, but the blind adherence to rules without seriously engaging the brain, is what got Trevor Kletz started on process safety. 


I am not sure how we break this habit, until there is disaster that is caused by sticking to the rules.  It will be a ttragedy that we have to wait until we have a true tragedy were prosecution is avoided because the rules were followed, but lives could have been saved if "engineering principles" had been appplied.

This is indeed one of the best blogs I have recently viewed.


My recent experiences with the younger generation of engineers are that the majority of them are resigned to the written word, irrespective whether it is applicable or not.


The project compulsions of producing a deliverable in time, have, in most cases, overtaken the requirement of applicability of the produced design vis-a-vis the original intentions.


Though there are the few who are indeed exceptions to this malaise, it seems that the majority are inclined not to analyse or think at all. Furthermore, the new technologies of mass distractions e.g. smartphones, apps, social websites, emails, irrelevant websites, etc., have become the overriding preoccupation of most engineers.


The quicker he produces the design (as per written standards) and pass it on to the checker, the quicker can he have a 'life of his own' by immersing himself to those distractions. Professionalim even to oneself has taken a back seat!


The checker however is not much different either. To finish the checking asap and get on with his 'own life' he just checks the arithmetic correctness of the calculations without bothering to introspect on the assumptions the 'doer' has used.


Both doer and checker may also suffer from arrogance which will prevent them from 'bouncing' or challenging an idea with a very senior engineer. If in reverse, that same experienced person voluntarily approaches the doer or checker and asks about the basis of the assumptions, he could be easily pointed to a cut and paste from a previous job!  And the schedule driven management has always got their pet phrase of 'do not invent the wheel'.

(Never mind whether the vehicle is going to be used on water or in snow!).


IMHO, the more one feels that it is worthwhile to challenge an idea, discuss and refer to ones colleagues, the more does one get the opportunity of learning something out of it and becoming truly proficient. A quality which many in our industry do not much care for!


The excel spreadsheets we are lucky to use nowadays to simplify our  job has got two opposing effects.


The first is the quick and easy way it can help us to analyse the sensitivity of one variable at a time to understand what it does to the design and how important it is, and what engineering is all about.


The other effect, which is unfortunately sad, is that it makes the young engineer like the proverbial story of the monkey and the organ grinder. All sense of pride in producing an engineering deliverable supported with appropriate and applicable assumptions and calculations are gone!


Thank you Ankur, for your succinct and incisive write-up.

Well said Sir

I'm still an engineering student and I believe hearing this now will further strengthen my resolve to be an innovative engineer.

It was a great article, really broaden my view. personally I have encounter, in some cases, that some of these codes are based on simplifying assumptions that can be improved by more sophisticated model or description. of the system. In some other cases it seems to me these codes are prepared by some "stick in the mud guys" increasing the cost of the project. I personally believe that in some cases, knowledge of engineering and wise sanity would be more logical.

Whilst I agree with everything in the article, I think the reality of engineering today is that nobody is willing to take any responsibility. The safest thing to do in these situations is to follow codes and standards to the letter (and then place often over-demanding requirements on equipment suppliers).


When I say 'safe' I mean legally safe (no one will get blamed if things go wrong) - quite often the plant could be more hazardous or less efficient.


I think we are all of the shared opinion that this is a poor road to follow, but today's world has become over-litigious.

Great article. Knowing the logic behind the standards will help us save a lot of time in the face of situations where we must make an urgent judgment

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