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Old 06-07-2017, 01:34 AM
Francis Vaughan Francis Vaughan is online now
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Location: Adelaide, Australia
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Modern supercomputers are really nothing special at all. Basically enormous numbers of high end PC processors, some with top end GPUs, and a very few with FPGAs. All off the shelf components. The communications networking is more custom on some, but that really typically comes down to a single custom chip. You could buy all the bits that go into a typical supercomputer from any on-line computer store. You just need the money to buy lots and lots of them.

As noted above "highly engineered" is not well defined. It is probably not the same as "well engineered" or "best possible engineering". Maybe it means the largest application of the engineering arts. It gets really hard to include distributed artefacts like the power grid or phone network.

The ISS would probably be the front runner for that. More engineering man hours have vanished into that than just about anything else. But it is also a lump of bits that has accreted parts over time.

Engineering isn't construction. The Burj Dubai was largely constructed by cheap labour and cranes. The engineering component is the mix of design and project management. Burj Dubai is just another big building. A team of civil engineers working with CAD systems will design the base building. The fit-out will be done by another sets of engineers - again mostly working with CAD systems, working out the electrical, lifts, water, safety and so on. Probably the biggest challenge is coordinating the construction. There are specialist engineering companies that do that. But again, it is just a very big building. Much of the design and construction is just cookie cutter repetition with small changes.

Cassini was built in a regime where every component, just about down to every nut bolt and screw was individually specified and analysed. Almost every component will have been bespoke in some manner. A great many parts will have been designed from the ground up for this one purpose. And they will have been designed to perform new jobs at the edge of scientific capability in a very hostile environment and yet be as light as possible. The manner in which such systems are built is engineering at its finest and hardest. And it takes a lot of very skilled people a very long time to perform. Extreme engineering techniques are needed. Semi-skilled workers wielding gas axes need not apply.

I suspect the WST might count as a higher level of applied engineering now.
The LHC probably deserves a mention too. But LIGO and Gravity Probe B are some of my favourites.