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Working Outside Your Specialty

Working Outside Your Specialty

Working Outside Your Specialty

My background is structural, and I have my PE (took the Civil-Structural exam). I recently took a job as a full time employee at an industrial facility. 98% of my work is structural - maintenance platforms, slab repairs, building additions, condition inspections, etc. But occasionally, I get requests that are a bit more mechanical in nature. For example, I've been asked to help solve a problem of rotating a large piece of machinery to ease a maintenance task. It's essentially a hydraulic piston connected to a cam driving a really large diameter ratchet.

In this or similar cases (basic applications of simple machines), what are everyone's thoughts on performing this work so long as I make it clear to management that it is not within my wheelhouse nor "covered" under my license? The relative motion isn't difficult to work out, and the stress calculations are essentially the same as those used in structural engineering (if slightly more thorough). Bear in mind, I'm not offering this as a service from a consultant; I'm an employee of the owner/end user. If this does rub somebody the wrong way, where would you draw the line? Moving parts = no go?


RE: Working Outside Your Specialty

As an employee of an end-user, any task that you can carry out competently is fair game. Nobody builds competence without taking on things which stretch their competence.

Many engineers in industry are involved in multi- or inter-disciplinary roles. Myself, as a chemical engineer- I'm doing work related to mechanical engineering in a more than casual way every single day. The key so to know when you are good to do the work yourself, and when you need the help or review of a specialist. It's a judgment call. And your conservative approach in your OP indicates that you a) take your licensure responsibility very seriously and b) are circumspect about practicing even marginally outside your competence. I have no concern therefore about you becoming a "cowboy" and doing something that's going to get somebody hurt.

RE: Working Outside Your Specialty

I think it all depends on your ability and comfort. For non PE's such as myself, I get asked to do many things as the "Engineer" that are not necessarily chemical engineering related. If I know I am competent enough and am comfortable doing the work, I have done it. If I know it is beyond my capabilities or something I am simply not qualified to perform, I've stepped back and stayed in my own wheelhouse.

My word of caution: if you have any serious doubts and there are safety implications, pass it to someone more qualified than yourself.

Andrew H.

RE: Working Outside Your Specialty

Thanks, guys. I appreciate the input.

RE: Working Outside Your Specialty

I would say that if you're confident that you're able to handle the task, despite it being 'outside' your explicit area of experience/education, and you've notified management of this fact, I would just go ahead and do the job. And as you say, you're not offering your services as an expert in this field, but rather as an employee responding to the needs of your employer, whom I assume, hired you based on your professional abilities in an albeit broad discipline where it's not always obvious as to where the boundaries are. As I said, as long as you feel you can do the job and everyone's aware of your position, via-a-vie it not being covered by your license, I think you're OK.

Anyway, that's my personal opinion, which is tempered by my own experiences working for many years in multidisciplinary environments.

John R. Baker, P.E. (ret)
EX-Product 'Evangelist'
Irvine, CA
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The secret of life is not finding someone to live with
It's finding someone you can't live without

RE: Working Outside Your Specialty

I think that the situation might be radically different. As a PE, you ostensibly have trained, and continue to train, to be a subject matter expert; as an employee of a company, it may be incumbent on you, and management-encouraged, to be competent in a broad array of subjects, since that might ultimately benefit both your employer and yourself.

I majored in EE, but now cover whatever can be deemed to be covered by "systems engineering," be it EE, optics, sensors, heat transfer, image processing, sensor testing, neural networks, etc. This benefits my employer because they don't have to keep an SME for each subject, which they couldn't afford anyway, and, it benefits me by maintaining job security as well as making my job more interesting, since each day is, "Now, for something completely different."

TTFN (ta ta for now)
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RE: Working Outside Your Specialty

Quote (phamENG)

...so long as I make it clear to management that it is not within my wheelhouse nor "covered" under my license?

Since you are qualified to do the work, don't even mention that. As moltenmetal stated, you are an employee now, not a consultant. Don't seal any drawings or other documents... it is not necessary for in-house projects.

www.SlideRuleEra.net idea

RE: Working Outside Your Specialty

Notice the word is "competence" not "specialty." Can you do the work competently? If not, can you gain the competence to do it?

RE: Working Outside Your Specialty

stevenal - that's a good point. The difference is certainly more substantive than semantic.

SRE - Thanks. I'm only sealing documents that have to go to the county for permit approvals (modifications to the primary structure of the facility or new outbuildings), and those are rare. Having my PE was a requirement for employment, so I made sure to outline the limits of what I could do "as a PE" when I interviewed since it was clear that they were looking for somebody to fill a more multidisciplinary role. (My background prior to getting my degree is much more broad with industrial mechanical and electrical O&M, so I'm not completely without experience - just not so much on the design side of those.)

I think I was just second guessing how it may reflect on me ethically (and how a regulatory body may see it if questioned). Thank you all for your sound advice - I'm much more at ease about everything.

RE: Working Outside Your Specialty


Since you are qualified to do the work...

He's not, hence the thread.

So long as you are doing the work under the supervision of someone with the necessary experience then by all means, do it. Otherwise, your employer needs to find someone else. As engineers the most dangerous thing is that which we do not know from firsthand experience.

RE: Working Outside Your Specialty

Thanks, CWB1. My approach to that sort of thing is this: if it's small and relatively inconsequential (safety is not impacted by a failure and cost of failure is not prohibitive), then I'm testing it after fabrication prior to releasing it to the O&M guys. If it is consequential, then I'm either sending it out immediately or doing preliminary designs to send out for final analysis and detailing. That way I can compare my design to the final and start learning a bit more about this side of engineering design. With that thought comes another - can you recommend a good book/reference for the practical design of simple machines?

RE: Working Outside Your Specialty

One way I have thought about it is that the math between mechanical engineering and structural engineering is actually pretty similar, and not that big of a leap. The practicalities on the other hand can be quite different, so if you are working with a mechanic or someone in the practical world you can avoid a lot of the gotcha's.

Obviously you do need to be pretty circumspect, but I also agree with moltenmetal about moving forward by trying things.

RE: Working Outside Your Specialty

My first two reference choices are usually Machinery's Handbook then Shigley's.

Your approach sounds good and is the common one taken whenever an exempt ME steps into a new role - essentially stepping back into a junior engineer's position. There's usually more than enough project management and grunt work otherwise in any office to keep busy and allow you to dip your toes into the unknown without being responsible for critical decisions. The only thing I'd add is to be cautious of not only safety critical tasks but also expensive or lengthy ones.

RE: Working Outside Your Specialty

I think you need to distinguish between problem solving and engineering, they are not the same. If I use a lever to pry or move something, am I practicing engineering? Certainly not. I am using problem solving skills to make a job easier. Now, if you modify a piece of equipment that would ordinarily require calculations to design, then yes, I'd say you're bordering on outside your area of expertise. While it may appear to you that performing such calculations are rudimentary and follow basic engineering principles, you are not necessarily competent with all of the nuances of that design (for example, code requirements). As a basic sniff test, I'd say that if calculations are required, that's engineering. No calcs required = problem solving.

RE: Working Outside Your Specialty

Quote (phamENG)

But occasionally, I get requests that are a bit more mechanical in nature.

The key is who is making these requests:

1) If it is management, who knows or should know your background and qualifications, see if the project is something you can reasonably accomplish. Management has a product to produce or a service to render (generation of electricity, in my case). "Engineering" is just a tool to accomplish that goal. Requesting a pass on a project because the engineering skills needed are on the fringes of your qualifications is not a position you want to be in. Besides, these can be the most interesting of all projects... there are probably very few other people, if any, in the company who are even close to being qualified.

2) If, instead, it is a low/mid-level fellow employee who asks without your management's knowledge you are on shaky ground if you proceed... even if your effort is successful. Management may have other plans, that you don't know about.

Some core portions of many industrial company's business are so fundamental that as much work as practical is performed in-house. In some (traditional) electric utilities, substation & transmission projects are frequently performed by consultants... generation, not so much. And when consultants are brought in for generation projects, the utility works (or should work) closely with the consultants for both cost-control and technical requirement reasons.

www.SlideRuleEra.net idea

RE: Working Outside Your Specialty

There is a lot of work which by its nature can be considered as falling into multiple branches of engineering.
If it helps any, with a BSME and MSME, I never took any classes on "rotating large pieces of machinery". So that's based on the same statics, dynamics, strength of materials type classes that you presumably took, plus maybe some research on shackles, cranes, jacks or hoisting equipment (which I also didn't study in college).
One thing I've noticed is that some of these fields are very poorly defined. Structural engineering is the design of structures. A structure is "that which is built". So by definition, that includes buildings, bridges, automobiles, airplanes, furniture, frying pans, you name it. Anyway, if you think you're competent to do it, go for it, and I don't think the field/branch distinctions would enter into it so much.

RE: Working Outside Your Specialty

I think as long as management know its not your area of expertise and the 'risk' of an error falls on them. Unless its a health and safety risk of course. The other thing or even you need to consider is their insurance. If your company by way of you carry out a mod or repair and it fails it may invalidate the insurance. I've seen people make decisions that may invalidate their insurance provision without realising it.

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