Your organization’s thermostat

What’s new?

Modern Machine Shop Online reported on 18 September that Rigibore’s ActiveEdge wireless boring bars (working in conjunction with sensors) automatically adjust the boring system to reliably produce holes within the desired tolerances for the hole diameter. The automatic nature of this system eliminates any errors due to human adjustments.

What does it mean?

Many parts require a hole to be drilled; the hole must be within a specified tolerance range, that is, the diameter must be greater than a specified lower limit and must be less than a specified upper limit. Reliably drilling holes within the tolerance is necessary for the part to function properly. With an in-process measurement system, each hole is immediately and automatically measured. The measurement is recorded and, if it is out of specified warning levels (that are within the tolerance range) the drilling system is adjusted. The warning levels mean that the most recently produced part is still within tolerance (and the part does not need to be rejected), but the part is nearing the upper or lower tolerance limit.  With the Rigibore system, that adjustment is done automatically; the measurement is sent wirelessly to the cutting system, which automatically makes the correction.

This system of measurement and adjustment is a negative feedback system. If the diameter is too large, the cutting diameter is made smaller for the next part; if the diameter is too small, the cutting diameter is made larger. A thermostat is the same type of system: if the room is too warm, the temperature is reduced by cooling; if the room is too cold, the temperature is increased by heating. You do the same when you drive: if your car is drifting right, you make an adjustment in the steering to head to the left; if your car is drifting left, you make an adjust to head to the right. This feedback is called negative feedback because the system is adjusted in the opposite direction of the detected measurement. A negative feedback system, if well designed, keeps a goal within specified limits.

The article reminds us that accurate measurement is necessary. The article quotes Rigibore’s president as saying “Gage accuracy has to be rock solid.” If your measurement says the room is too hot, but it actually isn’t, the correction made to cool the room may actually cause it to become too cold.

The article reminds us that randomness can occur; as mentioned in the article, a measurement might be inaccurate due to a piece of dirt in the hole. The Rigibore system makes an adjustment only after detecting two measurements outside the warning limits. Feedback systems, if poorly designed, can chase random effects, creating more rather than less variation. Dr Deming’s funnel experiment was designed to illustrate the ill effects of tampering with a system.

The article reminds us that the timing and the amount of adjustment have to be selected carefully. Rigibore has designed the system to make adjustments without increasing the time it takes to bore a hole. The system is also designed to make very small corrections. Overcorrection in driving is well known to lead to accidents.

While the article doesn’t remind us, feedback systems work only if the system being controlled is well understood. The goal must be clearly stated (a hole with diameter within tolerances), the measurement to be made must be clearly defined (the diameter), the measurement system must be accurate (“Gage accuracy has to be rock solid.”), and the action to be taken to correct the system must be well understood (if the diameter is too large, reduce the size of the bore by a small amount).

Negative feedback control is a simple model but its concepts underlie much of engineering. Control charts, one of my areas of expertise, are based on the same concept of monitoring a key performance variable and taking corrective action when measurement indicates the system has deviated from ideal settings. Control charts add the interesting concept of also monitoring and controlling the variation in that key variable.  Reducing variation is a valuable strategy for keeping the variable within limits.

What does it mean for you?

The most important part of negative feedback control is that it is closed control, that is, the system itself is measured before a decision is made on what control to implement. That simple concept may need reinforcing with some who think they can steer without first finding out where they are currently heading.

If an the organization identifies a goal to be kept within certain limits (for example, growth rate in sales, the number of product design changes being implemented, or the amount of emails and other communication being sent in the organization), the organization’s leader can ask for a clear statement of the goal, a clear definition of the measurement, an accurate measurement system, and – the most difficult part – a clear description of the system for controlling the goal. What are the factors that can be used to heat up the room (increase sales) or to cool the room (decrease sales)? What is the time scale on which each of these factors operate? What are the levers that the organization can use to affect those factors? No organization can probably answer all those questions, but the discipline of asking them focuses discussion and research.

The need to have that clear understanding supports the idea that the role of leadership is to study and understand the system that is their organization and the system within which the organization works. Workers work in the system; management works on the system.

The metaphor of control in this simple model may lead some to think that the lesson is top-down management, but the Rigibore system is so successful because the measurement and corrective action have been delegated to the lowest level of control, the actual tool. The people and sensors closest to a key variable must have the authority to measure and control that variable.

Finally, this MMS Online article on Rigibore highlights the importance of definition and measurement. You cannot control what you can’t define and measure. See this explanation from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics on the definition of the unemployed and the employed and, while they are correct to state that the basic concepts are simple, the details are devilish. The BLS itself reports the values of several measurements not just of unemployment but also of underemployment.

Where can you learn more?

The mathematics of negative feedback control is simple and elegant, but also leads to more complicated models. See, for example, this explanation from chemical engineering. Then there is the textbook used for the course in control systems at my former university (Colorado State University-Pueblo), Feedback Control Systems by Charles L Phillips and John Parr, now in its 5th edition.

Feedback control goes by other names. Deming describes balancing loops. Senge’s fifth discipline is systems thinking and his first systems archetype is balancing feedback.

Metaphors are powerful. Contemplating their use can lead one down numerous deep rabbit holes. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says: metaphor “has attracted more philosophical interest and provoked more philosophical controversy than any of the other traditionally recognized figures of speech.” Gareth Morgan is the best known proponent of the use of metaphors to understand management, as described in his book Images of Organization, first published in 1986 and revised in 2006.

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A picture is worth a thousand words

White clinker after kiln exit.
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hot_Clinker_2.jpg
This photograph is in the public domain.

What’s new?

Thyssenkrupp is a large German construction company that specializes in designing and building production facilities for the chemical, cement, and mining industries. As described in this recent article on their website, thyssenkrupp engineers in Germany recently completed remotely the commissioning of a clinker production line in Guatemala; also thyssenkrupp engineers in India and Germany remotely performed a performance test on a plant in Kenya. Usually these tasks would be done on site, but COVID19 concerns led to remote completion instead.

What does it mean?

A contract to build a large production facility often includes, as one of the final steps, a demonstration that the facility works according to all the requirements in the contract; this step is called commissioning the plant. In addition, the contract may include a bonus payment if the facility can demonstrate its ability to meet a goal substantially beyond the minimum production rate specified in the contract; this step is called a performance test.

The production of Portland cement involves crushing rock of a certain composition, combining it with other material, heating the resulting mix to drive off undesirable gases, thus producing marble size material called clinker. Clinker is ground and mixed with other ingredients to form the final product, cement powder. Some plants may stop at the production of clinker, which can be shipped to locations near where cement is needed and ground into cement there. Shipping clinkers instead of the finished cement avoids “the difficulties of carrying cement powder.”

COVID19 has curtailed travel drastically and made many meetings move from face-to-face to online. People have had to adapt business practices in many ways. Some speculate that business travel may permanently decline, as methods are refined for better remote communication. What does it take to remotely commission or test the performance of such a complicated plant?

In full disclosure, I love Zoom. Being able to attend (and host) meetings with people from all over Pueblo (and further) without having to drive to town (and leave my wonderful home on 53 acres 10 miles down a dirt road) is fantastic. I meet twice a week online with my colleagues Elliott and Bill from EJB Partners; I can’t remember the last time we met in person (probably in March).  But doing well at online meetings requires the right tools. As someone who wears hearing aids, clear sound at sufficient volume is important; I am still experimenting with speakers and microphones and I haven’t found the right headphones that work well for me. Many of us have learned to share screen and to use the chat box for public and private discussion to support the auditory channel during the meeting.

In this case, the thyssenkrupp engineers had to be able to observe and control the operation of the plant in some detail. In the first example, “A virtual control center was set up in Neubeckum, where thyssenkrupp’s commissioning engineers had the same picture in front of them as the customer’s operating personnel in Guatemala.” And similarly in the second case, “In virtual control rooms in Neubeckum, Germany, and Pune, India, the control panel of the plant in Kenya was projected onto huge screens.”

I have reproduced below a portion of the picture at the top of the thyssenkrupp news story.

Source: https://insights.thyssenkrupp-industrial-solutions.com/story/cement-production-remote-performance-testing-and-commissioning-a-successful-first/

While not clear (and perhaps deliberately blurred by the company), the screen on the left can be seen to show a systems diagram for the plant, showing the flow of material and probably also displaying real time values of certain settings controlling the plant (for example, the status of valves) and real time values from certain sensors (for example, temperatures at different points). This systems diagram presents an overview and is probably be supported by more detailed views of portions of the overall system.

What does it mean for you?

A clinker production facility is a complicated device. The picture above represents the shared understanding of how the plant works, including how the material flows and how the parts interact with each other. This understanding reflects the knowledge of engineers and enables them to understand what is happening as well as share that understanding with each other. It is hard to overestimate the importance of this diagram in the ability of the thyssenkrupp engineers to communicate with those in the room with them as well as with those thousands of miles away. The icons, the colors, the lines, etc., all have specific meanings that all the engineers know immediately. Since the team involved in the performance test certainly included native speakers of at least German and Spanish, this diagram is written in a shared language that all understand.

What is the shared diagram for your organization? Creating such a diagram is hard work, even for a physical system such as a production facility; the creation of such a diagram is even harder for a system involving more than physical flows. At its simplest, the system diagram should show how objects (physical or conceptual) move through your organization, but you should also seek to understand and represent how your organization is placed within a larger system.

Creating that diagram will require making explicit knowledge that is already shared by the members of your organization, but it will probably also require unearthing implicit knowledge and reconciling the conflicting views of people in your organization. While chemical plants, circuit diagrams, and medical family trees, for example, already have standard icons and rules and you may be able to borrow some ideas from such sources, you will probably need to develop your shared language of symbols. You may find that no one in your organization understands some parts of your system, and you need to do some research or experiments to achieve that understanding. My first professional job (while I was in graduate school) was for the corporate planning officer at a major medical organization; I did many studies for him in order to support the organization’s understanding of its various systems. The goal is not just to support remote work, but to support more productive work in all forms.

Where can you learn more?

This free course on systems diagramming from the Open University is a great starting place for understanding the purpose of and techniques for systems diagrams. Tools that are useful for creating systems diagrams include process maps, mind maps, force field diagrams, and many more.

Companies offer tools to help you such, as the Business Model Canvas. The Object Management Groups has created a standard for Business Process Model and Notation.

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Draw me a picture

Source: author

What’s new?

In an article published 2 October 2020 on the website of NIST (the US National Institute of Standards and Technology), KC Morris (leader of the Information Modeling and Testing Group in the Systems Integration Division of NIST) describes the new ASTM standard E3012-20, “Standard Guide for Characterizing Environmental Aspects of Manufacturing Processes.” This standard describes and builds on a Unit Manufacturing Process (UMP), which is shown in the following figure.

Source: https://www.astm.org/Standards/E3012.htm

What does it mean?

The simplest model of any manufacturing process involves identifying the inputs, the process, and the outputs, as shown at the top of this post.

Thus, when I make my breakfast, I use inputs (soy milk, yogurt, CBD oil, hemp protein powder, and frozen fruit), which I blend in a food processor to create the output, my breakfast smoothie.

There is a long history of modeling manufacturing process in such a way, with more details. My first faculty office at Purdue University was next door to the office of Alan Pritsker, one of the founders of the field of computer simulation, and from him I learned about the development of IDEF, Integrated DEFinition Methods in the 1970s, which in turn had been developed from SADT  (Structured Analysis and Design Technique). Much of the work happened in the Air Force program ICAM (Integrated Computer Aided Manufacturing, which aimed to create standard data models. The basic element of IDEF0 (IDEF zero) is shown in this diagram:

Source: author

This diagram is the same as the simple Inputs-Process-Outputs diagram with the addition of Controls, which are the inputs that are used to direct the process, and Mechanisms, which are the inputs in the form of the resources and tools used to do the process. In my breakfast example, this expanded diagram allows the explicit identification of the recipe as the Control and the food processor as the Mechanism.

Obviously, in a manufacturing system the output from one process is input to the next process. IDEF0 blocks can be joined, resulting in a diagram such as this one showing the flow of physical objects and information:

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:IDEF_Diagram_Example.jpg.
This diagram is in the public domain.

These diagrams and concepts support thinking about processes and systems in manufacturing, resulting in systematic thinking (each process is documented and diagrammed in a similar way) and also systemic thinking (the relationship among processes is documented and can be studied).

The newly proposed UMP is obviously a new version (or reinvention) of SADT and IDEF – and probably of some other similar diagrams that I am not familiar with. An expanded version of the UMP is shown below:

As compared to IDEF0, Transformation is another word for Process, Product and Process Information plays the role of Controls, and Resources the role of Mechanism. The difference from IDEF0 is that the emphasis in this new standard is on being able to describe and measure the environmental aspects of a manufacturing process. The standards are meant to help manufacturers better understand these environmental impacts and thus  make better decisions about trade-offs among goals such as minimizing the use of resources and maximizing the speed of manufacturing.

What does it mean for you?

Systems thinking is a good thing. The simple step of drawing a line around a set of tasks and calling them a process seems trivial but it focuses one’s thinking on those tasks, it highlights the flow of material and information to support those tasks, and it supports the connection of those tasks to the previous and following tasks. With such thinking, a process then is a system, and it is part of a larger system.

Diagrams are good things. I always told my graduate students that we were well on our way with their work when we had a diagram that captured the basic ideas. As I have shown, the new UMP is not new, but the UMP diagram with arrows and labels is compelling: the concepts work, the words capture the ideas, and the lists associated with the major concepts make sure that the correct details are considered.

Finally, it really doesn’t matter which version of Inputs-Process-Outputs your organization uses. Pick a diagram, pick some words – even develop your own. Agree to use the diagram and the words throughout your organization and then get started on diagramming all the processes and systems. You will learn a lot about how your organization actually works if you make sure the results capture what is really happening and not just what is supposed to happen. You will certainly find that with some processes people don’t even agree on what is happening. A gemba walk (“gemba” is a Japanese word meaning, I am told, “the actual place”) will help; go and look at what is actually happening.

Where can you learn more?

Another example of the application of IDEF to furniture manufacturing is here. Dr Pritsker’s application of the IDEF methodology to modeling is described here.

Background on the issues that led to the development of the new ASTM standard are described in this 2016 paper.

ASTM, founded in 1898, used to stand for the American Society for Testing and Materials. Its name is now ASTM International.

There is so much available on process mapping that I hesitate to cite one or a few recommendations, but the ASQ (American Society for Quality) website is always a great starting place. Here is a good introduction from Netmind.

I’ll have a lot more to say about systems thinking in future posts.

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Charge me up

What’s new?

Bloomberg Quint reported two weeks ago that six Tesla batteries are now providing backup power to meet peak demand for electricity in a project in southwest England.   

What does it mean?

“[D]esigned for utilities and large-scale commercial customers,” a Tesla Megapack battery is an integrated package of storage of up to 3 MWh of energy with all the controls, cooling system, and inverters needed to connect the storage to an electrical system. Their modular design means they can be connected to each other to create large storage capacity. “1 Gigawatt hour (GWh) project provides record energy capacity—enough to power every home in San Francisco for 6 hours.”

Electricity must be provided instantaneously as users turn devices on and off, requiring electricity generation that can ramp up and down quickly. Stand by power for meeting peak demand is often the most expensive part of an electrical system because it is used so rarely but has to be present to guarantee meeting demand during the peaks. Typically peaker plants burn natural gas to generate electricity.

The sun doesn’t always shine, the wind doesn’t always blow, and the water doesn’t always flow, so renewable energy sources are at a disadvantage compared to using fuels to generate power, but energy storage technologies (such as batteries, pumped water, stored heat, etc.) are increasingly enabling the world to move electricity generation toward 100% renewable while maintaining reliability. By replacing electricity generated by fuel with electricity generated by renewable energy in base power (the generating plants that run all the time) and by using electricity storage for to generate peak power, a system can take advantage of renewable energy when it is available and still make sure the lights come on when the light is turned on. Charge the battery when the sun shines, the wind blows, and the water flows, then discharge it as needed.

Other changes in technology can support a system designed for 100% renewable including demand side management (utility company strategies that reduce the peak demand of users), integration of electrical grids (strategies to ship power from places with more than is needed to places experiencing shortages), and energy efficiency (strategies to reduce base power demand because the cheapest energy is still the energy saved). Improvements in manufacturing have already contributed to the decline in the costs of solar panels and wind turbines, and such improvements will also contribute to a continued decline in the price of battery storage.

Many large and small changes are contributing to these developments. For example, people are looking at how the batteries in electric vehicles can be used as storage devices not just to power transportation but also to feed back into the system at times of peak demand.

It’s all about the probabilities. Electric utilities measure reliability by SAIDI (system average interruption duration index), the total duration of interruptions as experienced by the average customer. The ideal is zero, of course, but some interruptions are inevitable during events such as hurricanes or earthquakes. Schools that have moved on line have speculated that snow days are in the past, but in my part of rural Colorado, the teacher and students may no longer need to get to the school in the snow, but they still need the electricity to be on so they can be online.

It’s not just the power, however, it’s also the frequency and voltage. I have oversimplified a bit by focusing on the provision just of the peak and base power; the electricity system must generate power  with stability in the parameters that matter in the use of the electricity.

What does it mean for you?

When you flip the switch on a light in your home or turn on a computer or a machine in your manufacturing facility, you want the device to come on and stay on. Because of developments like the Tesla battery, the future is bright – and reliable.

You and I can help move toward that future. Next week I am having my shingle roof replaced with a metal roof.  Then I will look at replacing the propane fueled heat in my house with an electric heat pump. Solutions that may have made sense 20 years ago when I had the house built need reexamination now. And I expect our upcoming purchase of a new refrigerator to reduce our energy consumption since consumer appliances continue to improve on this measure.

Where can you learn more?

Consultants abound to help you reduce your energy use in your business, but the place to start may be your electricity provider. They often have programs and incentives. Your next stop should be your state and local governments which may have substantial programs to reduce energy use.  Also, see this directory. Homeowners may be aware of the Energy Star ratings for home appliances; the program is also supports reduction of energy use in industrial companies.

Learning the language of energy consultants can help you find the right partner.  NIST (the US National Institute of Standards and Technology) has 51 Manufacturing Extension Partnerships (one in every state and Puerto Rico) which can help you find an energy consultant, as well help small and medium sized manufacturers with many other issues.

Energy service companies can design a performance contract to pay for changes through projected energy cost savings. The National Association of Energy Service Companies has a list of companies who have been accredited by this association. Thomas Net lists 855 suppliers of energy consulting services.

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I shall take the heart

What’s new?

In a new type of 3D printing researchers at NIST (the US National Institute of Standards and Technology) have developed a method to use beams of electrons or X-rays to grow gels in a liquid.

What does it mean?

3D printing is better described as additive manufacturing, as contrasted with subtractive manufacturing. In subtractive manufacturing a large piece of material is whittled away and reduced to the desired shape, inevitably resulting in wasted material. In additive manufacturing the desired object is built up by adding material exactly where it is needed; some waste may still result due to, for example, the need for scaffolding to support the object as it is created, but usually additive manufacturing enables the creation of objects we can’t make with subtractive manufacturing.

Two major processes for additive manufacturing are extrusion or jetting, where a substance, usually heated to make it flow, is deposited into the desired share, and solidification, where radiation is used to selectively solidify a liquid or powder material.

This new solidification method uses a liquid of polymers and results in a gel, which is a soft solid. Such methods for creating gels have been used before, but this new method uses X-rays, rather than ultraviolet or visible laser light and does not require the addition of special molecules in the liquid to initiate the formation of gels.

Types of engineering can be roughly distinguished by the branch of physics they rely on: for example, mechanical engineering on mechanics, civil engineering on statics, and electrical engineering on electricity. Chemical engineering is unique in relying on chemistry. Increasingly, however, all engineering areas, not just biological engineering, are realizing that biology is an important science, whether as a source of ideas through biomimicry or as an important area of application.

This new method of solidification relies on physics, especially the physics of electromagnetic radiation. Such radiation varies from the longest wavelength radiation used for radio transmission to the shortest wavelength radiation called gamma rays. Visible light is about in the middle of that spectrum, with ultraviolet and X-ray moving toward shorter wavelength. The important fact from physics for this new NIST method is that the shorter wavelength of X-ray radiation means that it can be focused more accurately and thus can create finer structures than those created using visible or ultraviolet radiation.

However, the use of such short wavelength radiation requires a vacuum, and the liquid of polymers would evaporate. The researchers applied their knowledge of chemistry to add an ultrathin barrier of silicon nitride, a compound of silicon and nitrogen with a very high melting point, making it useful in this application. The NIST article states: “The method enabled the team to use the 3D-printing approach to create gels with structures as small as 100 nanometers (nm) — about 1,000 times thinner than a human hair. By refining their method, the researchers expect to imprint structures on the gels as small as 50 nm, the size of a small virus.”

Finally, biology is the expected application area for this new technique. The NIST article concludes: “Some future structures made with this approach could include flexible injectable electrodes to monitor brain activity, biosensors for virus detection, soft micro-robots, and structures that can emulate and interact with living cells and provide a medium for their growth.”

Our human fascination for robots began with envisioning creations using mechanical and electronic components, based on physics. Think of real applications in prosthetic limbs and pacemakers and think of science fiction creations such as cyborgs in movies. This brief look at cyborgs in film argues that the Tin Man in the movie The Wizard of Oz was the first film cyborg.

But that article points out that the Tin Man wanted that softer piece of human anatomy, a heart. That desire points to the new frontier in human-machine creations. Beyond the notions of wetware (the human body is like computer software) or liveware (you need a human to run any software) lie the frontiers of transhumanism (we should consciously use technology to evolve new humans) and extreme forms of biohacking (you can change your body now to extend its capabilities).

What does it mean for you?

Physics plus chemistry plus biology equals exciting new developments that will eventually create new forms of robots and cyborgs. The new process NIST creates a gel, a soft solid, and such gels have many applications. New structures (for example sol-gel derived products, made from a solution and a gel) are being developed that combine hardness and porosity, stiffness and flexibility, and inertness and reactivity. Sensor and battery technology will benefit but so will the detection and cure of human ailments and frailties.

Another lesson for us all is that progress often occurs at the interfaces between fields. If I were starting over my career as an engineer, I would learn more chemistry and biology. In your career and in the people you hire, look for those who can span fields.

Where can you learn more?

I often recommend the magazine New Scientist if you want to follow developments in science, but NIST newsletters are also exciting ways to learn about these new frontiers. Unfortunately NIST doesn’t seem to have one place listing all its blogs and newsletters, but almost every topic area seems to have some subscription service, from forensic science to weights and measures.

The idea that people with multiple areas of expertise are helpful is obvious, but the idea takes many forms, from cross training to boundary spanners, and is certainly worth repeating.

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Do gooders

An image from the book Principles of mining – valuation, organization and administration; copper, gold, lead, silver, tin and zinc (1909), by Herbert Hoover. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Principles_of_mining_-_valuation,_organization_and_administration;_copper,_gold,_lead,_silver,_tin_and_zinc_(1909)_(14589950418).jpg

What’s new?

CNN reported that Puerto Rican architect Gautier Castro has designed a home that can be built within a shipping container.

What does it mean?

In September 2017, category 5 hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, bringing high winds, storm surge, and enormous amounts of rain, causing destruction of buildings, gaps in utility services (transportation, electricity, cell phones, and water), and human death and injuries, as reported by NOAA. In addition, earthquakes in January 2020, the largest of magnitude 6.4, added to the destruction.

The AP reported in July of this year (2020) that “tens of thousands of homes in Puerto Rico remain uninhabitable by modern standards, with damage ranging from total destruction to missing roofs. In the central mountain town of Villalba alone, 43 families still live under blue tarps as roofs. Mayor Luis Javier Hernández said one family used theirs for so long that it wore out and he had to give them a new tarp.”

Working as a FEMA inspector after Hurricane Maria, Ms. Castro saw the devastation and heard the anguish of unhoused Puerto Ricans, but also learned that many of the houses that were destroyed had not been built to withstand such storms, because many were built informally and not to required standards. She created a company called KONTi to provide affordable, safe, and comfortable homes from shipping containers, which meet the International Building Code. Add-on systems include solar electricity and water recollection and treatment.

Affordable housing is worldwide problem. Headquartered in Caldwell, Idaho, and cofounded by an engineer, the certified B corporation IndieDwell recently opened a manufacturing facility in my home town, Pueblo, Colorado. Using similar methods as Ms. Castro, IndieDwell manufactures modular homes. A former student of mine created Sadie Shelter to manufacture homes from cardboard, with an emphasis on housing refugees and unsheltered people.

What does it mean for you?

President Herbert Hoover was a mining engineer and businessman before becoming head of an international food relief organization, US Secretary of Commerce for Presidents Harding and Coolidge, and then President. President Hoover said about profession of engineering: “It elevates the standards of living and adds to the comforts of life. That is the engineer’s high privilege. … To the engineer falls the job of clothing the bare bones of science with life, comfort and hope.”

My first point is that being an engineer gives one the opportunity to work on exciting challenges and to make a difference in people’s lives. Hoover’s statement continues: “He comes from the job at the end of the day resolved to calculate it again. He wakes in the night in a cold sweat and puts something on paper that looks silly in the morning. All day he shivers at the thought of the bugs which will inevitably appear to jolt his smooth consummation.” The challenges and the responsibilities of the engineering profession provide amazing mental stimulation forever – and the rewards of success are great: “But the engineer himself looks back at the unending stream of goodness that flows from his successes with satisfactions that few professions may know.”

My second point is that doing good can be part of a business model. The indieDwell Model states: “indieDwell manufactures healthy, durable, energy efficient, sustainable modular housing with a mission of solving the affordable housing crisis.  However, the way we implement our model is far different from most companies.  We don’t go it alone, we partner with like-minded organizations and people to accomplish our mission in local markets.”

Certified B Corporations “balance purpose and profit” and include Ben & Jerry’s, Eileen Fisher, and New Belgium Brewing; B Lab is the organization that provides the certification. Somewhat similarly, but as a legal structure, not a certification, “[a] benefit corporation is a traditional corporation with modified obligations committing it to higher standards of purpose, accountability and transparency.” My home state of Colorado passed legislation creating benefit corporations as a legal structure in 2014. Colorado benefit corporations include Mid-America Pool Renovation, Fire Arrest Systems Technology, Soil Health Services, Acme Hemp Co., and Goal International, an online high school in my home town of Pueblo.

Where can you learn more?

Thank you to my colleague Elliott Ring of EJB-Partners for pointing out the CNN report on Ms. Castro.

The engineering profession prides itself on its honesty, integrity, and contribution to the public well-being.  “Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.” The desire to make a difference drives many engineers, especially younger ones.

Certified B corporations and benefit corporations provide two ways to bake social responsibility into a company.

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If it ain’t broke, it can still be improved.


“Lillian Moller Gilbreth, of Montclair, New Jersey was a pioneer in engineering and scientific management. She and her husband were the parents of twelve children and the subject of a book, about their application of scientific management principles to the home. Cheaper by the Dozen. This picture was taken in 1921.” Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lillian_Moller_Gilbreth,_1921.jpg

What’s new?

In July 2020, Production Machining magazine announced their 2020 class of 10 Emerging Leaders, including Morgan Miller, continuous improvement coordinator at C&A Tool, in Churubusco, Indiana. Her nominator, Ryan Miller, an engineer at the company, is quoted in the article as saying “In her short amount of time with the company, she has made the largest positive impact that I have seen in 12 years here.”

What does it mean?

According to her LinkedIn profile, Ms Miller graduated from Purdue University in 2016 with a BS in industrial engineering, a program in which I was a professor many years ago. How can such a new graduate make such an impact in such a short time?

The answer is industrial engineering, an often overlooked, and sometimes disrespected type of engineering.

According to the Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineers (IISE): “Industrial and systems engineering is concerned with the design, improvement and installation of integrated systems of people, materials, information, equipment and energy. It draws upon specialized knowledge and skill in the mathematical, physical, and social sciences together with the principles and methods of engineering analysis and design, to specify, predict, and evaluate the results to be obtained from such systems.”

I told my students that, because industrial engineering is not well known, they needed to have and practice their elevator pitch: what is industrial engineering and how can it help an organization.

Industrial engineering is about efficiency, quality, and safety. Industrial engineers help an organization produce a product or service with the least use of resources, to a high level of quality, while keeping people safe. Industrial engineers are the engineers who care the most about the people in the system.

The bumper sticker version is: Industrial engineers make things better.

I think a key word is “systems.” If you could see me, I start waving my hands when I use that word. Industrial engineers may focus on what they have determined is the root cause of a problem (that weld just isn’t being done right), but they achieve that focus by looking at the larger system and they generate, evaluate, and implement a change only after considering its effects on the system, including always and crucially the human beings in the system. Workers work in the system; industrial engineers work on the system.

In 2005 and 2015, I wrote two articles reviewing the content of industrial engineering programs in the US (about 100 such programs), and the Purdue program is typical, with foundational courses in the sciences (especially physics), and math (through differential equations, linear algebra, and probability and statistics), and other branches of engineering (electrical engineering, mechanics,  thermodynamics, and computing). Most industrial engineering programs include a core of courses on work methods, operations research, simulation, manufacturing processes, production systems, and engineering economy. As with all engineering students, they also complete courses in English, humanities, the arts, and social sciences. All engineering programs require students to work in a team to complete a senior design project. The Purdue catalog states about the senior projects: “Teams have taken on full-scale projects like designing floor layouts for factories and hospitals, designing operations to improve system efficiency, reducing time and waste in processing, allocating resources to optimize system performance, and developing a safety plan for preventing work-related injuries.”

In all industrial engineering programs, such courses will help students learn about lean manufacturing, six sigma, root cause analysis, optimization, simulation, ergonomics, safety, project management, facilities layout, supply chains, and information systems.

I love being an industrial engineer. One of the founding fathers of industrial engineering was a founding mother, Lillian Moller Gilbreth, and I was the first female industrial engineering professor at Purdue University after Dr Gilbreth.

What does it mean for you?

Industrial (yes, that is a clunky word) engineers work for large, industrial manufacturers, but also for hospitals, insurance companies, financial institutions, logistics companies, retail companies, and non profits. The Disney parks,  McKinsey & Company, Allstate, and Victoria’s Secret  hire industrial engineers.

More and more organizations are realizing the value that industrial engineers bring and the job outlook is excellent: “Employment of industrial engineers is projected to grow 10 percent from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations,” according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The goal of industrial engineering is continuous improvement. I like to say “If it ain’t broke, it can still be improved.”  I also tell students: being an industrial engineer means you are always unhappy because something always needs to be improved. When I saw the article in Production Machining about Ms Morgan, especially her colleague’s statement about the difference she had made in a short time, I bet myself that she had an industrial engineering degree – and I was right.

The message is: whatever product or service your organization produces, an industrial engineer can help you do it better.

Where can you learn more?

The Institute of Industrial & Systems Engineering (IISE) is the lead professional organization in the field. The Body of Knowledge for industrial engineers is outlined on their page here. Their page on What Industrial & Systems Engineers Do is also helpful. I’ve written an introduction to industrial engineering for undergraduate students. Hire a graduate of one of the ABET accredited programs in industrial engineering.

How am I doing?

“A bull, whose owner hopes he’ll be a prize winner, gets his moment in the spotlight at the [2015] Colorado State Fair in Pueblo.” 
Source: https://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/highsm.35879/, Gates Frontiers Fund Colorado Collection within the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

What’s new?

On 1 September 2020, Modern Machine Shop (MMS) announced the winners of its annual Top Shops competition.

What does it mean?

MMS magazine focuses on machining businesses, in particular, businesses that offer machining services using CNC (Computer Numerical Controlled) machines. This year, 298 CNC machining businesses filled out a detailed questionnaire including items such as “spindle utilization, labor turnover rate, order lead time and so forth.” Selected measurements are weighted to create overall scores in four categories: machining technology; shopfloor practices and performance; business strategy and performance; and human resources. The best shop in each category receives a Top Shop award.

Rimeco Products won for the business strategy category through a combination of focus on a new line of customers and development of new tools to improve efficiency. They are now selling those new devices to other shops. Senior editor Matt Danford commented that the winner in each category is also strong in each of the other three categories. “The honors program is reserved for top shops, and becoming a top shop requires excelling in all four categories.”

Each participating company also receives a customized report showing where they stand on specific metrics as well as attributes of shops that scored well on that metric and that might drive performance. For example, companies that performed well on gross sales per machine tended to have quality certifications and to use 5S.

Usually the results are presented at the International Manufacturing Technology Show in September, but, like many conventions, the IMTS is online this year. The Top Shops presentations will be online each Tuesday in October including findings from the survey and a panel discussion of people from the top shops.

Certainly there are many industry awards. I like the Short Line of the year, awarded by Railway Age in 2019 to the 106-mile Louisville & Indiana Railroad Company. My favorite short line is the 13-mile long San Luis Central Railroad, which carries agricultural products in the San Luis Valley of Colorado, the largest alpine valley anywhere. I rode the train at the 2016 San Luis Valley Potato Festival.

What makes the MMS Top Shop competition different from other awards and so valuable is that it isn’t just a competition, it’s an educational event. I am not fond of competitions (see Alfie Kohn’s great book No Contest: The Case Against Competition), but I spent 40 years as an educator, and I like to think I am still doing that. The MMS Top Shops program reminds me of state fairs. Yes, you can eat funnel cakes, turkey legs, and corn dogs, but the state fair was created in the mid 1800s to exhibit agricultural products and, from the start of 4-H in the late 1800s, competition was linked with youth education at the state fairs. At the Archuleta County Fair in Pagosa Springs in 2019, I heard the sheep judge award prizes, but also give an amazing explanation of what he looks for in a top sheep, as well as how to raise sheep to that standard. The MMS awards are in that great tradition, a combination of benchmarking and education.

The Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, run by the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST), presents another model in which the journey is the point – applying for this award can lead your organization on a journey of quality improvement.  The American Health Care Association’s National Quality Award Program for providers of long term and post-acute care services is built on the Baldrige model. It’s the application process that is the benefit.

What does it mean for you?

The first lesson is obvious. Competitions and benchmarking are useful to find out how well your product and processes compare to others. Find an association like MMS in your field. Find a way to benchmark in your industry. Find a way to combine that benchmarking with learning and improvement.

The second lesson is that you can learn from organizations with totally different missions and technology than yours. MMS cites the Top Shop in machining technology for how it has adapted to change, the Top Shop in manufacturing processes for its use of lean methods, the Top Shop in business strategy for its focus and new products, and the Top Shop in human resources for how its culture helps it attract top talent. I challenge you to read those four articles and NOT come away with some ideas for improvement in your organization.

Where can you learn more?

I found several lists of trade associations, from the Planning Shop, from Wikipedia, and from ANSI. The Rutgers Library has a list of lists of trade associations. The Directory of Associations has various ways to search their list.

Many state fairs are cancelled or scaled back this year. The Colorado State Fair has its eye on the important stuff with the Drive Through Fair Food event.

The sixth element

What’s new?

The magazine Additive Manufacturing reported on 14 August 2020 on the use of graphene in 3D printing, also called additive manufacturing. Additive manufacturing uses filaments of plastic sometimes with embedded with other materials, often fibers, to increase the strength or improve other properties of the printed object. In this case, the ability of graphene to carry heat means that the resulting object cools more uniformly, reducing the tendency of layers to separate after printing.

On 24 August, the company Paragraf reported in the online journal EE Times, that Paragraf ”has developed an innovative method of producing graphene at scale.”

What does it mean?

Graphene is an arrangement of carbon atoms in connected six sided shapes, as shown in the picture above. The arrangement is only one carbon thick, making graphene a two-dimensional sheet of material. In 2004, two researchers at the University of Manchester used sticky tape to peel off layers of carbon from graphite to create graphene. They shared the Nobel prize in physics in 2010 for their research on the material.

Graphene has useful properties. For example, it is very conductive, that is, electrons flow easily through graphene. This property is important in Hall effect sensors, which use the interaction of magnetism and electricity to detect position, for example, to detect the level of a floating magnet in a gas tank and thus the amount of gas in a car. Graphene is also extremely strong for its weight, it is transparent and flexible, and, as mentioned above, it conducts heat well.

Research on new materials holds great promise, usually research on composites of different elements. Graphene, carbon nanototubes, and buckminsterfullerenes (also called fullerenes or buckyballs, but not these dangerous small round magnets) are fascinating to me because they are just carbon, which is also the building block of all life on planet Earth (and, memorably, the signature of infestation in the 1979 movie Star Trek: The Motion Picture). Do an internet search on “my favorite element is carbon” and you will be rewarded with fascinating information about the element with atomic number 6. Not to mention carbon’s use in that old, old communication device, the pencil.

I should have known better, but I thought we would be farther along by now in practical applications of graphene. Graphene was hailed as a miraculous substance with great promise, with the 2010 Nobel Prize citation predicting that “a vast variety of practical applications now appear possible including the creation of new materials and the manufacture of innovative electronics.” A 2012 article in New Scientist was more cautiously optimistic: “Hundreds of applications have been suggested to take advantage of graphene’s remarkable properties. Some are more realistic than others, and difficulties remain to be overcome with all – but from computer chips to touchscreens, there are some promising ideas in the pipeline.”

Progress has been slow. However, even recognizing that graphene had been noticed before 2004 (the term graphene dates from 1961), the time scale of discovery, research, and application is typically very long. My favorite example is the fax, which was invented in 1843.

The Paragraf article that I cited at the start of this post discussed one always present barrier, difficulties in manufacturing: “These challenges mean there has been a lack of contamination-free, transfer-free, large-area graphene available in the market, and adoption in mass-market electronics remains slow. New solutions are clearly required if graphene is to make its mark in the electronics sector.” You cannot study a substance and, even more, you cannot apply it widely until the substance can be manufactured at a reasonable cost with high quality.  

What does it mean for you?

Progress in technology is often slower than we want but also sometimes slower than we perceive it to be – many an “overnight sensation” in any field is actually the result of years of hard work. Graphene is fitting into that usual story very well. Progress is happening, with Patentscope showing 64,126 worldwide patents containing the word graphene at the time I am writing this sentence. But the University of Manchester, the birthplace of graphene, even says: “There are many thousands of patents relating to graphene. Many of these are unlikely to become reality.”

One key is improvements in manufacturing; another is that graphene may be useful when added to other substances (as in the additive manufacturing article cited at the start of this post) or when traces of other substances are added to it. On 29 January 2020 New Scientist reported that the addition of guano, yes, guano, improves some properties of graphene. The New Scientist delights in the title of the paper it cites as the source of this information: “Will any crap we put into graphene increase its electrocatalytic effect?” Thus it seems that, again, alloys or composites of different materials are in our future. A great deal of our technological past can also be interpreted as learning about the importance of mixing substances, as in the development of steel from iron, which depended crucially on the percent of carbon in the recipe, and learning about the importance of specific manufacturing methods, such as temperatures and methods for heating and quenching steel.

A 2019 article in Digitaltrends lists potential applications of graphene in flexible electronics, solar cells/photovoltaics, semiconductors, water filtration, and mosquito defense, a list that that make graphene seem poised to solve several of the problems facing our world goals of sustainability. As with any new substance, we need to worry about potential safety hazards, and the answer to the question “is graphene safe?” seems to be that we don’t know yet if it is safe in all formulations and uses.  

You are likely to see new products that incorporate graphene, such as in the Hall effect sensors I described above, indeed, you may have already, but you are also likely to be unaware of the presence of graphene in those products. The history of technology is the discovery of new materials and then the painstaking and slow development of applications. I am eager to see what the future holds for graphene. Also, with graphite, diamonds, fullerenes, carbon nanotubes, and now graphene, I am eager to see what other tricks carbon has up its sleeve.

Where can you learn more?

Graphenea has a good technical description of the properties of graphene.

Wikipedia has a good list of potential applications of graphene.

Many state fairs are cancelled or scaled back this year. The Colorado State Fair has its eye on the important stuff with the Drive Through Fair Food event.

I made an app for that

What’s new?

JD Shadel of the BBC recently reported on the company AirDev. In 2015 entrepreneur Vladimir Leytus used Bubble, a drag-and-drop tool, to create a clone of Twitter; he accomplished this task in a week with no previous knowledge of how to program.  In 2020, he repeated the exercise, creating a new clone of Twitter, using updated tools, called no code tools. Leytus founded AirDev to help companies use these no code tools.

What does it mean?

Every piece of software that you use on your computer required a programmer – actually a legion of programmers – who wrote, line-by-line, the detailed instructions to tell the computer exactly what to do based on the input from you, the user. The history of coding includes great progress in making that programming task easier and easier, building up from assembly language, through Fortran and similar languages, to modern languages now in demand: Python, JavaScript, Java, C#, etc.  Important concepts have been developed and applied: interpreters and compilers, typing of variables, object oriented programming, data structures, algorithms, graphic interfaces, and more. A key idea is that programming languages build on top of other programming accomplishments. For example, one step in the progress of programming was the ability to call functions even as simple as print – print(‘Hello, world!’) – instead of having to tell the computer step by step how to print. To print the document I am writing now I can click on an icon labelled print, which will start a cascade of calls to other functions and capabilities, about which I need to know nothing. I can print! Just as anyone can print, as coding languages have improved, anyone can code, or so this article would have you believe.

I have a troubled relationship with coding and I probably should get over it. To me, “girls who code” (“we’re building the world’s largest pipeline of future female engineers”) smacks of “girls who make coffee.” During my long career as a woman in a man’s field, I have avoided taking on tasks that someone may be trying to use to demean me. Hard work on unpleasant tasks is fine with me, as long as we are all doing it, but don’t single me out to make the copies or make the coffee.

But coding has changed – a lot – since I learned Fortran in 1965 on an IBM 360. A task that used to be merely the tedious implementation of an engineer’s vision and design now may be integral to the design process itself. E. M. Forster’s statement “how can I know what I think until I see what I write” now translates to “how can I know what I design until I see what I code.” Certainly in mechatronic devices (mechanical plus electronics gives you mechatronics) the logic of the control part of the device is often the most difficult part of the design. Being able to make prototype programs and test them out quickly is the central part of the process of design in some products.

The ability to code may be the key that enables you to be the lead person on a new project. I am reminded of my father’s story about getting an assignment involving a trip to Geneva because he was the only one in the room with an up-to-date passport. The ability to code has become the ability to travel far and fast. 

My other issue with coding is that many people hear “technology” and think only of computer technology when there is so much more to the word; engineering and technology are about how the world works and must be solidly based in physics, not just computers. I perceive the word “engineer” as having been stretched in the phrase “computer engineer” to include people who do not have that fundamental knowledge of how things work (the BS in Computer Science from the Viterbi School of Engineering at the University of Southern California does not require any physics courses). You are not an engineer because you wrote a new app.

Thank you, I do feel better now.

But, despite my issues, no code coding is very cool. Opening up the ability to create an app (application) without needing to know how to code is a game changer. As the article says, “… early no-code adopters saw a more radical future in which anyone could make their own apps, and a movement that could redefine what it means to be a developer and diversify tech entrepreneurship.” Someone with an idea for a new app can create a prototype and test it out with ease and without spending a lot of money and time for the coding.

But here is another important quote: “Leytus compares the no-code trend to the emergence of PowerPoint, which mostly eliminated the need for in-house presentation designers since everyone could design their own.” I probably don’t need to spell out to you that the emergence of PowerPoint allowed some people to design perfectly awful presentations. I – and probably you too – wish that some people had had to work with a designer. Do an Internet search for “death by PowerPoint” to find examples. Probably similar arguments can be made about WordPress for webpage design (guilty, guilty, guilty) and other tools that enable people to do work that we used to have to pay for.

What does it mean for you?

I’ve written before on the enthusiastic and helpful response that led so many people to make face masks for COVID-19 protection, but I cautioned about the need to respect expertise. Arguments are still underway about the best type of fabric of how many layers and with what construction that should be used for a simple face mask. Caution is in order here also. You shouldn’t – and wouldn’t – let your niece code your computer security system using a no code system just as you wouldn’t let her set up a Ring system from Walmart to provide security for your warehouse. The no code movement doesn’t eliminate your need to use experts where expertise is crucial.

The no code movement empowers the individual entrepreneur. The ability to take your new idea and code it into a working prototype, on your own, in a reasonable amount of time, and at a reasonable cost opens possibilities for entrepreneurs everywhere, or least those with access to the required computer technology and Internet connection. But the fact that Leytus, who coded Twitter twice in no code tools, founded a company to help you use no code tools certainly brings some irony to this vision, suggesting that expertise still helps. The best argument for no code tools for me is to eliminate the need to translate what I am thinking for someone else. I’m back to “how can I know what I design until I see what I code.” An entrepreneur can develop the idea while coding, instead of having to try to explain a complete idea to the person paid to do the code. Tinkering is an important part of invention.

I am excited by the use of the tools in social movements, nonprofits, and community organizations. Many communities are struggling to match food opportunities with food needs, housing opportunities with housing needs, and so forth. While many will have said “there should be an app for that” now more people can say “I’ll write the app for that.”

Where can you learn more?

Wired has more information on how the no code movement reduces start up costs for entrepreneurs. KissFlow argues for using no code tools in the IT department of an organization because it speeds up coding even for experienced programmers, and KissFlow will help you with tools.  But Bob Reselman makes a good case for expertise instead of no code platforms.

The no code movement is new for me, so I used an Internet search to find some lists of no code platforms. Webflow offers their own product but also this list. Same for budibase, which has a product and a list. Cenario doesn’t have a no code product and their list is the longest I found. The folks at App Development Cost made a list of the “top 12 native, open-source, hybrid, and rapid mobile app development tools.” They also offer a tool to help you estimate the cost of developing an app.

Different no code tools allow different types of functionality; you are limited by the types of tools programmed into the no code tools. The best tool to create a new game will not be the best tool for a new business app. BettyBlocks claims their integration with programming languages gives the best of coding and no code worlds. They also are clear about the types of applications that can be built on BettyBlocks.

Some argue that no code is still coding; just with a much friendlier interface. Others argue that even using a microwave requires a form of programming. And others that so much that programmers do is routine and no code tools make all that work much easier.  You can see some recent debate on this page at Quora.

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