November 30, 2014

Technology and Evolution

Filed under: Articles + Blogs,Technology Development — smeyer @ 5:29 am

NCR N-530 Bombe Enigma Decryption Machine

Technology is a term that is broadly used and highly misunderstood.  It is the art of, or skill that is based on the underlying principle of a certain field of knowledge.  This results in the creation of tools or machinery that are appropriate to manipulate the system in question.  In electric motors, it is understanding the principles of electromagnetic induction leading to the creation of the electric motor, and all the tools and equipment that goes into making these devices.

The subject could be anything.  In computing, the underlying field of knowledge is the ability to render complex problems into binary code and writing processes that solve the desired problem.  In primitive architecture it might be the skill or art of forming bricks and understanding the appropriate building shapes that can be constructed to create safe shelters.

The application of technology is an entirely different matter.  Technology has a limitation based on value.  The usefulness or importance of technology defines how widely it is applied.  The cellphone is very widely used and has spawned giant industries to supply the demand for this technology.  This is due to the value that society places on the usefulness of the cellphone combined with the low cost that producers have been able to achieve.

There are many technologies of human transportation based on personal use and mass use.  Electric cars, however, are not achieving the mass acceptance that is consistent with how we value clean transportation.  This is because the cost of electric cars, and hybrid buses for that matter, have not fallen to the competitive level that can displace combustion solutions.

In this regard, the economics of the situation are perfectly consistent with an “evolutionary” model of the technology.  New technology displaces the old when the cost of the new tech falls below the old tech or is low enough to promote widespread adoption.  Anyone still own an analog watch? or a watch at all? Remember floppy disks?  or tube monitors?  Anyone have a phone booth in their neighborhood?  Of course not, all these things have been displaced by the new tech because the new stuff is so much less expensive and more convenient.

November 2, 2014

Design Integration and the Future of Design

Filed under: Articles + Blogs — smeyer @ 8:17 pm



There are a number of definitions for the word ‘design’.  A broad definition is based on conceiving or planning something.  The object of the design could be anything, a building, a park, a homestead, an electric vehicle, you name it.

Design can also include the process of fabricating the item, so all of the techniques necessary for the production of the design must be considered. The materials used for the design will also drive the requirements to make the item.  Wood is very different from metal, and both materials have incredible diversity and specialization in order to get the best performance for a given design.

Design involves the underlying scheme that governs function.  This aspect of design deals with intent and purpose of the candidate design.  Functionality and engineering content required to achieve the purpose become another dimension to consider.  In the technology world we live in, there is frequently a control requirement as well.

Design can also be the arrangement of elements and how they perform together.  The process of bringing two or more parts together is integration. So when we talk about design integration we are focusing on this aspect, how the different parts come together to serve the design.

In a car, the body and the chassis are two separate systems, but they have to be designed in an integrated way because the body attaches to the chassis and the chassis supports the body.  To the extent that the chassis has to support the engine, drive train and passengers as well, the chassis integration is a much more complex design activity.

In the age of 3D part manufacturing the integration process takes on a whole new meaning.  3D part fabrication gives the designer the flexibility to incorporate features that cannot be produced by machining.  Hidden passages within a part, complex geometries, reinforcing features are all possible within the same process.  The fluid nature of the manufacturing not only offers the design freedom, it conserves material, since there is no waste.

Our understanding of design has to be changed from the training we have based on a manufacturing world where casting and stamping processes come at very high tooling costs.  Computer numerical control machining is not the only option in part fabrication.

In a recent effort GE Aviation developed a new approach to the jet fuel mixing and atomizing nozzle.  The old design required 20 individual parts that are replaced today by a single 3D printed part in chrome steel.  The implications of this very successful design integration is revolutionizing manufacturing.

It’s also going to require a change in our understanding of design.

October 17, 2014

Not ‘Industrie 4.0’, Work 7.0 (Intro)

Filed under: Articles + Blogs — Tags: , , , , , — smeyer @ 8:41 am
 NGS Picture ID:1350248It sounds impressive, was started by a bunch of doctors of philosophy, and it’s imported from Europe.  Industrie 4.0, is very fancy and all the rage around in the press that covers the world of industrial automation.

Personally, I think it’s just a giant marketing campaign to stimulate sales of automation control systems.  Alleging itself to be a systematic definition of the generations of automation, Industrie 4.0 is not a useful framework.  It omits several important historical facts, possibly in an effort to be brief, and misses major areas of focus like labor.  Work is a human endeavor, and even if you try and engineer out the labor in production, which we are obviously trying to do, some human being has to design, oversee and maintain the systems. 

The real focus of Industrie 4.0 is the convergence of Manufacturing and Information Technology.  But the resulting conversation is still very narrowly defined in the “Big Data” and “Analytics” hype.  This is really what Industrie 4.0 is about, but it’s couched in historical context to make it appear more important.

Large manufacturers have seen this coming for some time.  The forces are compelling.  Big budgets for automation and IT are expenses that can be leveraged and reduced, so there is a lot of incentive for blending the two roles.

However, Industry (as we spell it here in the US), in it’s proper context, is about work.  If we frame the conversation in terms of how we do work, everything makes a lot better sense.  Work 1.0 was when a guy went fishing to feed himself and his family.  Or cleared a field and tilled a row of crops with a hoe.  Manual labor.  We need to remember Work 1.0 because there is always labor involved, craft, artisan, technician, expert, a human being is always involved at some, or many, stages.

Work 2.0 was when we figured out how to harness animals like horses to do work for us.  Hence the term Horsepower.  Mankind also learned how to harness wind and water to use simple machines that help us do more work with less direct labor.  Wind mills to grind wheat and for lifting water to irrigate crops are major transformations that made larger populations possible.

Work 3.0 is the early an less obvious period of the mechanical revolution which has been going on for centuries,.  Depending on where you want to pick up the thread of history (pun intended), early mechanical knitting machines were making socks automatically in the mid 1500’s.

Work 4.0 is the classical Industrial Revolution in which steam power unleashes massive mechanical power regardless of location.  Steam powers all of the mechanical inventions of previous centuries and enables the invention of new ones.  The locomotive engine, steam powered ships on the ocean, create transportation systems that expand our civilization’s range.

Work 5.0 is the electrical age, which is full of irony since steam in one form or another, is the common means of generating electricity.  Under the electrical age two other very important improvements take place that wildly increase productivity.  The first was the factory method of assembly of the first Ford car plants which caused the car to become less expensive and accessible to a much larger group.  Secondly the use of electric relays became a widespread method of controlling equipment automatically.

More next week.

October 8, 2014

Manufacturing in the 21st Century

Filed under: Articles + Blogs — smeyer @ 7:08 pm

NGS Picture ID:1350248

Manufacturing is still the largest sector in the US Economy, notwithstanding the disrespect shown by some politicians who ought to know better.  Manufacturing accounts for 20% of all economic activity, about $5.8 Trillion dollars.  That’s big.

Even bigger is the change in manufacturing that is currently taking place.  There are several major trends occurring the will take us into new territory.  The future however near, cannot be accurately predicted, because it hasn’t happened yet.

The assembly line method and centralized manufacturing that created low cost automobiles for everyone has reached it’s limits.  There are a lot of complex issues to dissect, but the cost of transportation, the ability to scale manufacturing to massive volumes are guiding principles that are no longer as effective as they used to be.  Sometimes smaller is better.

Some markets will never be in the millions of units per year.  These markets suffer from dis-economies of scale in which it is hard to bear the capital equipment cost to serve smaller markets.  3D printing is a major force that allows new businesses to emerge by reducing the barriers to entry in many markets.  3D printing has already begun to scale to meet low volume, high complexity part production for aerospace and down hole oil & gas applications.  This trend will undoubtedly continue as machine costs decrease and materials become more diverse.

The convergence of Information Technology and Manufacturing Technology is another major force that will change manufacturing forever.  Product tracking from start to finish, the ability to connect manufacturing resources to order entry, cost control will become standard operating conditions.  With the more compute power available on the plant floor, control system cost and complexity will continue to decline, which will be a tricky issue for some large control suppliers.

All of the forgoing is driving manufacturing to become dramatically more efficient.  Less menial labor is required in the mix of labor and equipment required to produce most products.  This trend is necessary in order for the US to compete worldwide with low cost labor markets.  Declining costs in robots will impact this trend although precision, repetitive tasks especially in dangerous atmospheres will be the primary focus.

We need to understand the trends and create the new tools that will be needed to increase productivity, lower costs and simplify the transition from the 20th model of manufacturing to the new 21st century model, whatever that will be.

October 7, 2014

Alternative Energy and Storage

Filed under: Articles + Blogs — smeyer @ 7:06 pm

The alternative energy industries have been struggling to define how solar and wind power sources can become reliable sources of power in the context of the mainstream utility grid.  Hopefully everyone knows that solar and wind are energy sources that are only present when there is daylight and wind.  Kind of obvious, but the practical outworking is definitely not obvious or easy to deal with.

Solar power peaks in the early afternoon in most locations around the US.  This is great for big cities with big air conditioning loads that come on in the late afternoon.  The problem is partly that there is a 2-3 hour gap between peak solar and peak demand, when everyone is coming home from work.  This demand is mostly in the summer, and only for a few hours a day, so using solar to reduce peak demand is a potential strategy, but only if it’s really inexpensive.  Preferable half what it is today.  That’s not great news for the solar industry.

Wind, well, it’s only there when it’s blowing.  Given the limitations of the horizontal wind turbines that are currently being produced, wind is an intermittent source.  What’s really scary is the extremely high power units that are being engineered and the complexity of bringing this power on to the grid.  There have been some recent problems with large farms and the ability of the grid management to accommodate the intermittent loads popping up and surge currents causing switching systems to shut down.  Also not great news for the industry.

Both wind and solar would benefit from a good storage solution.  Intermittent sources of energy can be stored and used as needed with relatively steady output, unlike the sources.  Easy to manage, and in the case of battery storage, no moving parts.  Cool.

But battery storage is really expensive.  Consider the Tesla sedan with a $30,000 battery pack.  Big bucks, especially when a wind farm might require 5 megawatts of battery storage to store and level the output.  Even with increased manufacturing capacity and forecasting very aggressive cost reductions, it’s a huge price tag added to the already expensive equipment.  The biggest battery companies in the industry have tried and failed to scale up and reduce cost sufficiently to impact their market.  A123, once the leader in 2MW battery trailers, closed up and was sold to a Chinese investor.  Sad.

There are some great technologies in development that I expect will cure the battery situation in about 3-5 years.  But that will not help us solve today’s storage problems.

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