Engineer teaches success of failure

By Robin Pircher

Earlier in his career, Henry Petroski never thought of writing a book because “it’s just not something an engineer does.”

Since then, Petroski has written 13 books. The nationally recognized expert in engineering and structural failure said that writing helped him to discover a lot about his profession.

“The writing process is really a process of discovery,” Petroski said during a speech in the King Alumni House on Friday.

Through his books, he has been able to explain to the public and to himself some of the engineering failures of recent past.

“In order to make a successful design, you’ve got to have failure,” Petroski said about his best-selling book “To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design.”

Petroski said past engineering failures such as the 1981 collapse of the walkway at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City, Mo., that killed more than 100 people, problems with satellites in space, and reoccurring airplane crashes have left the public with more questions than answers.

These occurrences have seemed to have no explanation as to why they have failed and many people assume that engineers don’t know what mistakes they are making, Petroski said.

“People wanted context and they wanted to know where the fallibility was coming into play,” he said.

Engineering is complex when dealing with complex systems, Petroski said. “Failure is what causes things to change and designs to evolve. (Engineers) change (the design) and decide after trials what works the best.”

Petroski stressed the importance of collaboration in the engineering field and the similarities between engineering and writing.

“Writing is design and design is writing,” Petroski said. “Writing a book is designing something.”

Chuck Davis, a civil engineering senior, said hearing Petroski talk about solving problems through error was encouraging and that Petroski taught him that engineers design to avoid failure rather than designing for success.

“I enjoyed that he told us to approach writing as design, and the entire writing process is helpful for a better outlook,” Davis said. “It’s always good to get new ideas and different opinions about engineering.”