Statistical engineering

Written by Oz Flanagan on . Posted in Features-OLD

Tim Davis reports on plans to promote closer collaboration between the RSS and the Royal Academy of Engineering, aimed at improving the statistical education of engineers, raising the profile of statistical science in engineering generally and encouraging more statisticians to get involved with engineering problems.
In the August 2011 edition of RSS NEWS, Jim Morrison (more of whom later) appealed to the Society to look at collaborating with the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng) to figure out ways to produce more statistically literate engineers to tackle the challenges of a manufacturing economy in the 21st century.
Following Jim’s piece, I spoke to my colleague Richard Parry-Jones, who is an honorary fellow of the Society as well as being a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering. We revisited a pamphlet we had written together in 1999 called Engineering for Corporate Success in the New Millennium and which Richard had delivered at a high-profile Academy meeting, and we concluded that what we had said in that lecture with regard to the role of statistical science in engineering was still very relevant.
In September of 2011, Richard and I went to see Phillip Greenish, the chief executive of the Academy, and he kindly invited me to present the case at a meeting of the Standing Committee on Education and Training (SCET) at the Academy, which I did last November.
At around the same time, in her presidential address, Valerie Isham highlighted this collaboration as an important initiative for the Society.
As a result of this activity a small group of fellows from both the RSS and RAEng has now been formed to progress the initiative. The group consists of myself, Steve Gilmour, Felicean Campean and Roeland Beerten from the RSS and Peter Goodhew (University of Liverpool), Bernard Weiss (University of Sussex), Rob Best (Engineering Professors’ Council) and Matthew Harrison (education director of the RAEng).
The group has met twice – once at the Royal Academy of Engineering in Carlton House Terrace in July and once at Errol Street in August. We have formulated our terms of reference as follows:
  • to support the Strategic Plan (2011-2015) of the Royal Academy of Engineering which identifies that a primary challenge ‘… is to create a system of engineering education and training that satisfies the aspirations of young people while delivering the high calibre engineers and technicians that business needs’
  • to support the vision of the Royal Statistical Society (as laid out in the presidential address of November 2011) to better engage with the RAEng to promote the use of statistical science in engineering
  • to identify the value of developing such skills in ‘statistical engineering’ to give UK plc a competitive advantage in the manufacturing economy
  • to identify how such skills could be better developed in engineering education and formation (eg university courses/ examinations, CPD materials, joint RSS/ RAEng conferences and reports, advice to the Engineering Council), recognising that such an approach needs to focus on the engineering context first.
Motivated by the Accreditation Board of Engineering & Technology (ABET) definition of engineering(1), the RSS members of the group are developing an arrangement  of useful statistical topics (together with a recommended bibliography) that reflect the temporal flow of information and physical material in engineering activity, emphasising among other things, the following points.
  • Engineers need to understand the basis of any statistical analysis and any software used to implement such an analysis. It is important that teaching of the fundamental principles is not squeezed out.
  • Graphical techniques should be presented, taught and used alongside analytical and numerical methods.
  • Prerequisite knowledge (principally, but not entirely mathematical) for the application of statistics should be recognised.
  • The list of statistical topics needs to reflect the wide diversity of context in engineering applications, and the teaching of statistics should avoid artificial constructs such as shuffling cards and rolling dice.
From the RSS perspective, as a next step we would like to compile a contact list of RSS fellows who have experience of supporting engineers to solve real-world problems and who would be willing to engage in this initiative by contributing with one or more of the following initial tasks identified by the group.
  • Talk to the engineering department at their particular university (if they are an academic) or their local university (for consultants and industrial statisticians) on the benefits of applying statistics in engineering.
  • Be willing to ‘buddy-up’ with an engineer at their university or other local institution to assist with the statistical education of engineering undergraduates. The aim would be to try to influence engineering departments to include more, and appropriate, statistical methods, ideas and concepts in their syllabuses.
  • Be prepared to write up an industrial case study which could be used in teaching, or in talks to local engineering societies.
This initiative now has the formal endorsement of our Council and from the RAEng SCET and we are now looking to plan a joint conference in the new year to progress the actions so far outlined and develop further ideas amongst the wider fellowship of both the Society and the Academy.
Jim Morrison has been championing the role of statistics in engineering since WWII, when he worked in a radio valve factory and was given the task of improving the yield of the production process. This work led to his seminal 1957 paper, ‘The study of variability in engineering design’, published in the Journal of Applied Statistics, and Jim has been tireless in his efforts to promote statistics in engineering ever since.
I first met him in 1986, just after I joined the Ford Motor Company, and we have been friends ever since. Inspite of his age (he is now 95 years old), he published a book on engineering statistics in 2009. In 2007, to my great delight, he was awarded the Society’s Greenfield industrial medal.
Jim might be regarded as the father of statistical engineering, and it is now surely time for the next generation to take up the challenge, and help to push forward what Jim started all those years ago. If you are interested in getting involved, contact either Steven Gilmour (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) or myself (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) for more information and background on what we are planning.
1. ‘Engineering is the profession in which a knowledge of the mathematical and natural sciences gained by study, experience and practice is applied with judgment to develop ways to utilise, economically, the materials and forces of nature for the benefit of mankind’.

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