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.

October 5, 2014

What’s wrong with wind power?

Filed under: Articles + Blogs,Technology Development — smeyer @ 5:32 pm

There are great expectations of wind power.  Untold taxpayer money has been spent through Federal subsidy programs.  The technology has been touted as a major element of the energy supply system in the US and many parts of the world.  Wind power has some serious problems to overcome if it is to be everything it is expected to be.

Sometimes, they fall down



The blades can break off

impaled truck


They catch fire


For an in depth statistical analysis of failure, the Caithness Wind Farm accidents are summarized at; http://www.caithnesswindfarms.co.uk/accidents.pdf   This is not a world wide summary, but it very detailed and represents an accurate snapshot of a farm in the UK and how they are performing.


Boone Pickens

In his interview with CNBC last year Boone Pickens said “I’ve lost my ass in the wind market”


owen patterson

And UK Energy Minister Owen Patterson labelled wind power “a complete scam”.  Now he’s looking for a new job.


Wind power in it’s current form is not very profitable.  This is the result of a series of factors, mostly due to the fact that they are expensive machines that are only able to run 25-30% of the time due to the basic mechanical design.  What we have now learned, after several years of operation, is that the Operation and Maintenance cost (O&M) is twice to three times the projected amount, which effectively negates any revenue generated. Worse still is the prospect of someday having to remove these giant machines from the landscape.  No one wants to guess the cost of removal, because it’s probably going to be more than the initial cost of the equipment.  Which is huge.

Moving these machines offshore, which an extraordinary feat of engineering, is intended to increase the productivity.  But it still won’t help the return on investment (ROI).  If the offshore equipment costs double the onshore, and production of electricity doubles, the ROI remains the same.   (do the math)

Making horizontal wind turbines (HWT) bigger is an excuse to make them taller because there is more prevailing wind at higher altitude.  But we are already at the limit of what is possible in blade construction technology.  This means we are developing technology with increasing risk, not decreasing risk.  And cost.  Do we really want to go there?

Let’s start fielding some better ideas.  We know they are out there.