ET EXTRA: Unintended Consequences

13 Jan

Engineering Thinking Extra Is A Short Review Of A Current Hot Topic

An essential Engineering Thinking principle is thoroughness. This involves not only checking the details, but also exploring nooks and crannies to be sure that all the details were indeed checked. The best engineers will do this, plus will stand back and look at the big picture to try to spot unintended consequences; particularly when dealing with critical safety issues.

There is nothing more disheartening than thinking you’ve done a great job, only to find out later that you missed a subtle but important flaw, and you’ve made things worse instead of better. Despite our best efforts, this does on occasion happen to all of us, sooner or later.

A recent example of unintended consequences is the switch to efficient LED lighting to replace older incandescent bulbs used in traffic lights. Municipalities have found out to their chagrin during the recent snowy weather that LED lights do not emit enough heat to melt off any snow that may cover them up, resulting in traffic hazards and expensive manual maintenance to keep the lights uncovered. By contrast, the older inefficient incandescent lights gave off enough heat to melt any snow, so “snowy weather maintenance” was not required.

(Ref. “LED Traffic Lights Don’t Melt Snow,” by Mark Frauenfelder)

-Ed Walker


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