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Speaking the Engineering Language

March 20, 2015 By: Patrick Cunningham

I was recently invited by Dartmouth College to present at the Nuekom Institute's Winter 2015 Donoho Colloquium with my co-worker Michael Bak to discuss our contribution to the Metropolitan Museum's restoration of Tullio Lombardo’s Adam statue.  We had a great time fielding questions from a host of different personalities and areas of expertise.  One question in particular that struck a chord with me came from a individual who specialized in 15th century Italian art. He asked me if the greatest challenge we faced in the restoration was translating the "language" of the conservators to engineering terminology that we could apply. As I considered my answer, it occurred to me that this actually came to us quite naturally and was not very different from working with any new consulting client.  

As engineering consultants, the first thing we need to overcome when working with new customers is the inevitable “language” barrier. Although the base engineering principles are fairly universal, every industry has its own lexicon of product names, component nomenclature, specifications, testing methods, and so on. As consultants we come in from the outside world. We cannot expect our clients to adapt to our terminology, so we must adapt to theirs. This is often the most immediate concern because in order to win the job we have to show that we understand the needs of the clients and can deliver results that will be meaningful to them. We are often competing for these jobs so we have to learn to speak the language faster and more eloquently than our competitors.

Like with most things, practice and experience can hone certain skills until they become second nature. Tools like WebEx come in handy and enable the use of shared graphics to bridge the language divide. At CAE Associates we often rely on each other to review our communications internally to make sure we are hitting the mark. So we start out sounding like strangers in a foreign land, but rest assured we'll be speaking your language before long!

We were privileged to receive the following testimonial from conservator Carolyn Riccardelli of the Sherman Fairchild Center for Objects Conservation at The Metropolitan Museum of Art:

"Pat and Mike were extremely adept at explaining complicated structural and computational issues to art conservators who were initially unfamiliar with many of the concepts of finite element analysis. While they had never worked on a sculpture project before, they worked closely with the MMA team to understand our very specific goals and the ethical requirements of art conservators. In this way, the Tullio project was ultimately a collaboration between art conservators and engineers, each group bringing their expertise to the table. CAEA’s analytical contribution was critical to the Tullio conservation team, allowing them to make difficult decisions that would have a major impact on the treatment of the sculpture. We are indebted to them for their excellent work on this challenging and unusual project."