Source: Library of Congress. Children playing leapfrog, New York City. About 1908-1915. “No known restrictions on publication.”

What’s new?

In the 7 August 2021 issue of New Scientist, Jim Watson, research director at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources in London, argues that “Instead of developing energy infrastructures based on fossil fuels, low-income countries could leapfrog straight to cleaner low-carbon technologies.”

What does it mean?

Coal was king of the industrial revolution. All developed countries achieved their high standard of living by emitting greenhouse gases that are causing the climate crisis. Without just telling less developed countries that they should not follow that path, what can be done? Economic justice and environmental justice demand better approaches. Watson’s leapfrog may be an answer.

A leapfrog in technology is not a new idea, and is often applied to Africa, India, and elsewhere to describe a path using mobile and digital technology to fuel entrepreneurial ventures and social services. Financial Times quotes “Precious Lunga, a Zimbabwean neuroscientist who founded Baobab Circle, a health tech company,”

There are places where there’s still no running water, but you can stream a video,

and quotes “Calestous Juma, the Kenya-born former chair of the innovation for economic development executive programme at Harvard’s Kennedy School,”

The mobile handset in the hands of an ordinary African has become the symbol of leapfrogging.

Eliza Strickland in IEEE Spectrum presents evidence that African now leads the world in some digital applications.

Companies such as M-Pesa sprang up to solve a local problem—people’s lack of access to brick-and-mortar banks—and became a way for people not only to make payments, but also to get loans and insurance. “We’ve refined the concept of mobile money over the last 10 or 15 years,” says Kaabunga, “while other parts of the world are just now coming around to embracing it.”

She also reports that drones can deliver blood to hospitals that cannot be reached as quickly by poor roads.

But where does the electricity come from? Financial Times answers:

In the village of Sahabevava in north-east Madagascar, several hours down a bone-jolting road to the nearest town and far from the nearest electricity grid, Lydia Soa, a farmer, is the proud owner of a solar panel. It produces enough power to light her home — good for when the children do homework — power a boombox and, of course, recharge her mobile phone.

Jakkie Cilliers, in a chapter from his 2021 book The Future of Africa, describes more explicitly what the energy leapfrog might look like, with solar, wind, and ocean generated electricity, plus battery storage and transmission lines. Supplying cheap electricity will fuel the digital revolution, so the energy and digital revolutions are linked. He cautions, however,

A strong focus on technology can provide leapfrogging opportunities for low and middle-income countries, but governments must not lose sight of ‘traditional’ developmental issues, such as governance, infrastructure and skills.

Some actually point to a latecomer advantage, if the leapfrogging is done with careful planning.  Three authors at the Center for Strategic & International Studies state:

The lack of legacy infrastructure and entrenched vested interests could allow for the rapid adoption of emerging technologies, especially compared to developed nations that are forced to follow more incremental transition plans. This flexibility could allow developing nations to plan their policies, innovation ecosystems, and infrastructure with emerging technologies in mind from the start.

What does it mean for you?

While the idea of leapfrogging most often refers to taking a leap in the use of some technology, it can also apply to processes and softer improvements, although, of course, changes to technology and to processes go hand-in-hand. I always advise an organization to study a process thoroughly for efficiency (do all of those five people really need to approve purchases?) before automating.

Those, like me, who study and help organizations implement improvements often contrast incremental with dramatic improvements.  Continuous quality improvement using many small improvements throughout an organization can add up to large total improvement. Sometimes, however, a more dramatic leapfrog can be a better approach.

Benchmarking, according to ASQ, “is defined as the process of measuring products, services, and processes against those of organizations known to be leaders in one or more aspects of their operations.” How do the best performing organizations, both inside and outside of your industry, accomplish tasks? Combining best practices from many others can enable your organization to leap ahead.

However, for me, the biggest lesson is to focus on the goal, and then to think about different ways to get there, not just relying on the paths that others have already taken to that goal. Sometimes even the best ways to accomplish tasks can be dramatically improved by taking a fresh, innovative approach, not just tweaking the approaches that others already use.

Where can you learn more?

As I often do, I recommend my professional organizations as sources of information on how to improve: IISE (the Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineers) and ASQ (formerly the American Society for Quality).

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

A shot in the arm

Source: Wikimedia This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

What’s new?

On 11 August, National Geographic described improvements being made in the processes to make vaccines, especially vaccines for COVID-19.

What does it mean?

While the US has ample supplies of COVID-19 vaccine (and a shortage of people willing to have the vaccine), most of the world needs more of the vaccine (and has plenty of people willing to have the vaccine). In addition to policy issues, such as the licensing of the vaccine, the rate of production of the vaccine affects the availability of COVID-19 and other vaccines.

Of the three types of COVID-19 vaccines (messenger RNA that conveys instructions to help the body fight the virus, inactivated virus to prime the immune system to produce antibodies, and a cold virus as a vehicle for immunizing material) each has its own method for production; the latter two are produced only in large batches.

A batch process requires weeks to grow host cells and then days to grow and process the vaccine.  The vat of cells eventually stops making product of sufficient quality; the vaccine eventually kills off the cells. Then the tanks must be properly cleaned and prepared for the next batch.

While the idea of change from a batch to a continuous process has been pursued since 1965, those approaches have still used large vats, seeking to siphon off the vaccine continuously. Recently an approach described in the National Geographic article has used 300-meter-long tube; it has been successful in a prototype. In this approach, fresh cells are continuously fed into the opening of the tube, another tube feeds in small quantities of the vaccine, and a pump keeps the fluid moving through the tube to the end where the vaccine and cell debris are separated. The new process is smaller and can be rapidly scaled-up when needed.

What does it mean for you?

The biggest point to understand from this article is that advances in product technology are always coupled with advances in process technology. Engineers work constantly to develop new products and to improve the design of existing products – and engineers do the same for processes, that is, they work constantly to develop new processes and to improve the design of existing processes.  The National Geographic article’s description of the new tube based process is an example of a new manufacturing process.

The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are mRNA vaccines and these are new products. As Chemistry World states, “Large-scale production of such a vaccine has never happened before.” That article also says that Moderna and BioNTech have not released details on their manufacturing processes, but the processes is apparently not complicated: “The mRNA synthesis takes two hours, while making the vaccine takes a couple of days.” However, some of those steps are tricky.

The mRNA situation illustrates the interconnection between product design and process design. A new product may require a new manufacturing process. I can confidently predict that the world will continue to need new vaccines. It seems likely that mRNA vaccines will be an important tool in our capacity to counter new infectious diseases, so engineers will need to improve the processes for making mRNA vaccines. I am sure there are engineers busy on that task right now.

Manufacturing processes for different products can look similar. The National Geographic article describes how the inspiration for using tubes to manufacture vaccines can from observation of an oil refinery.

Product design and process design interact in many ways. Some changes in processes may enable higher quality also and the quality of vaccines is a crucial consideration in their manufacture. Different manufacturing processes can be harder or easier to scale. Some, as in batch processing, have an inherent scale, while a continuous process may be able to scale up or down more easily.

Once a product has somewhat stabilized, incremental product improvements and incremental process improvements continue to be developed. The cost of the technology for solar and wind power continues to fall dramatically largely because of advances in manufacturing processes.

Where can you learn more?

I am an industrial engineer. Most industrial engineers work in manufacturing, working on continuous improvement of manufacturing processes. The Institute of Industrial & Systems Engineers is the professional organization for such work.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

I told you so

What’s new?

In a 28 July article at New Scientist, Jeff Hecht says that fully autonomous cars are still in the future. In fact, “Some observers are now openly saying the dream of full autonomy is a mirage: creating robot vehicles able to tackle any kind of road or traffic situation is just too tough a nut to crack.”

What does it mean?

The article cites SAE International, formerly the Society of Automotive Engineers, for its six levels of automation, as shown in the diagram at the top of this post.  Fully autonomous vehicles, at level 5, are still in the future, with vehicles working at levels 0, 1 or 2 now.

The New Scientist article does a good job of reviewing problems with getting to fully autonomous vehicles: safety or the perception of safety; the predominance of computer engineers in autonomous vehicle development with their “move fast and break things” style (I can hardly write that phrase without shuddering); and the inability of human to quickly take over driving if needed (the article cites research that it takes an average of 5 seconds – an eternity in a fast moving vehicle).

The article notes that, skipping over level 3 and  moving to level 4 or 5 autonomy might make sense so that the human never needs to engage, but then points out that computer vision stumbles over simply situations that humans can easily handle: “We can instinctively tell, for example, whether lane markings are complete or dashed lines even if they are partly covered by snow, or that a stop sign remains a stop sign even if partially obscured, and instantly recognise the implications of an emergency vehicle heading our way.”

A level 2 driving system, according to the SAE classification, GM’s Super Cruise option in premium Cadillacs, is described by Cadillac as “the first true hands-free driving-assistance feature for compatible roads.” When engaged, the technology controls both speed and direction of the vehicle, staying in the lane; it can also change lanes when the driver turns on the turn signal. A Driver Attention Camera system makes sure that the driver is still paying attention. Its ability to drive is limited: “If equipped with Lane Change on Demand, you are able to prompt the system to change lanes for you. However, Super Cruise will not steer to avoid safety situations. You need to take control to steer around a traffic situation or object, merge into traffic, exit the highway, make a turn, or stop for crossing traffic or a traffic light, stop sign or other traffic control device. Super Cruise does not steer to avoid construction zones.”

Then comes the beginning of my “I told you so” moment. The system is available for use only on designated roads. I studied the map (at the same link I gave earlier) and found that most interstate highways are included. Near my hometown of Pueblo, designated roads include I-25 and stretches of US-50 east and west of Pueblo that are divided highways. We drive to and from Columbus, Ohio, at least once each year to visit family, and I found that our first day of driving, which is not on the interstate or other divided highway, is not on designated roads, but I-70, which we join in Hays, Kansas, is, as is the rest of our drive on I-70, except for a stretch of I-70 west of Kansas and a few gnarly intersections with other highways (which I, as a human, know are pretty tricky). I expect that Super Cruise would not be useable in practice on some other stretches of I-70 where I know that construction was underway earlier this summer.

Honda claims to have a level 3 vehicle (recall that the driver must be ready to take over driving quickly). I found the disclaimers disquieting, including a diagram showing, I think, that the vehicle might recognize only the upper section of the cab of a truck pulling an empty flatbed. It might not detect the flatbed and, I think, your vehicle thus might follow the cab and could run into the flatbed.

The CEO of GM, Mary Barra, wants to have Super Cruise available “in 95% of driving scenarios.”  New Scientist points out that of the 6.5 million kilometers of public roads in the US, only 300,000 kms meet current Super Cruise requirements. “Of those that aren’t covered by the system, 4.2 million kilometres are paved, ranging from busy city streets and quiet, wide, well-maintained streets in affluent suburbs to lightly travelled two-lane rural byways without centre lines. The remaining 2 million kilometres are unpaved, lacking markings and often signs.”

Dr Missy Cummings is a professor at Duke University, director of the Humans and Autonomy Laboratory and Duke Robotics, and an expert in human-autonomous system collaboration. In an October 2020 interview with Forbes, she was blunt about the problems with sensors, testing, and lack of repeatability in performance of existing autonomous vehicles. She says, for example, “If you can’t get a single Tesla to repeat its behavior in the same conditions over and over again, then why are we letting these cars, in theory, engage in automated driving?”

Finally, in my “I told you so” moment, New Scientist says, “The need to upgrade those roads to be robot-friendly ‘is a hidden cost most people are not thinking of’, says Cummings.” The designated roads for Cadillac’s Super Cruise are designated because these are roads that have been designed and built in a way that is friendly to an autonomous vehicle: divided highways, clearly and consistently marked lanes, and so forth. The part of the system that is not carefully controlled in that environment is all the other cars on the road.

On 23 Jan 2021, I wrote: “One of the difficult parts of autonomous driving is to predict what other vehicles will do, especially ones being driven by humans. Limiting the environment to only automated vehicles provides an easier problem to solve. The word `system’ also suggests coordination among automated vehicles, in which they share navigation information, but also share information about their intentions.”

I will go further now and say that the best application of autonomous vehicles is in long distance driving using designated lanes with only other autonomous vehicles. I think that application will be very useful for long distance trucking. One could counter my argument by saying that I have described a train and I agree.

What does it mean for you?

Don’t be dazzled by the rhetoric. Another quote from Dr Cummings in the Forbes interview: “I’m not worried that China or Russia will pull ahead of us in AI technology. Everyone is really bad at it right now.” She also describes current facial recognition technology as “terrible,” and says about Elon Musk “I’m not bothered by him as a person, I just really want him to reconsider what he’s doing with Autopilot because I think it’s exceedingly dangerous.”

Don’t be dazzled by the big companies throwing money around. New Scientist mentions that Uber and Lyft both sold their vehicle development groups in the last year.

The New Scientist article concludes: “There is a growing sense that the phase of irrational exuberance that often characterises new technologies might be over for self-driving cars, replaced by a more limited vision in which automation doesn’t fully replace human drivers, but helps us drive better under certain circumstances. That’s still a revolution of sorts – just not the one, perhaps, we first thought was coming.” I think this conclusion applies to many other areas of automation.

Where can I learn more?

Because the phrase “artificial intelligence” has almost come to mean any computer application, my skepticism may seem to be countered by useful applications. I am not, of course, saying that computers are useless. But this article has a list of successful applications that includes two I have already dismissed (autonomous vehicles and face recognition) and also includes Gmail’s spam detector – which, I find, worked flawlessly until a few months ago and now fails regularly.

I admire the people working to further the capabilities of computers to make our lives better. I am old enough to be still thrilled by the existence of my laptop, my cell phone, cruise control on my vehicle, Supernatural on my Oculus Quest II, etc. My life is better with these technologies.  But those people must believe in what they are doing and they are not trust worthy in their evaluation of the value of their work or in their prediction of the future of these technologies.

The preceding two paragraphs are an apology for not being able to recommend a good source of reliable information on what to expect from automation in the future.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Beneficial electrification?

Source: Wikimedia Commons. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. Pipistrel WATTsUP proof-of-concept aeroplane 2-seat electric trainer

What’s new?

An article from the Robb Report that showed up on my Facebook page describes a new electric plane being developed, the eFlyer 800 from Bye Aerospace, with two wing mounted motors. “The eFlyer 800 is expected to have a range of up to 575 miles, with 45 minutes of reserve battery charge for its motors, and an operational ceiling of 35,000 feet. The plane is projected to have a speedy ascent of up to 3,400 feet per minute, cruise at 322 mph, and reach 368 mph. Bye said that puts it among the top five fastest twin-engine turboprops. More importantly, it will be flown at only one fifth the cost of a comparable aircraft running on fossil fuel, with little noise and zero CO2 emissions.” IT will seat eight people, including one or two pilots. No price was announced.

What does it mean?

I select some articles for this blog because they support or challenge some position I havee regarding technology. I select other articles in order to explore technology and learn more. This article intrigued me for the potential of electric airplanes to combat global climate change.

First, I knew, or, it turns out, I thought I knew, that aviation is a very significant emitter of CO2. One of my favorite web sites, Our World in Data, set me straight here: In 2018 aviation contributed 2.5% of total CO2 emissions, considerably less than I thought. From the same source, another method of calculating aviation’s effect concludes that “aviation accounts for approximately 3.5% of effective radiative forcing: that is, 3.5% of warming.” Finally, Our World in Data concludes that, while not contributing as much to climate change as most people think, aviation gets attention because it will be hard to eliminate that contribution. Decarbonizing aviation will be hard to do.

Second, I have written before about beneficial electrification (here, here, and here), the strategy of converting all energy uses to usage of electricity, which can then be generated from renewable sources. If aviation can be electrified at a reasonable cost, it can be decarbonized.

Finally, if you usually fly out of major airport, you do not know the joy and pleasure (sigh, I am joking) of having almost every airplane trip take at least two flights. Could small electric planes, apart from being luxuries for rich people, make more places accessible by one flight from a regional airport and eliminate the feeling that I am traveling by bus whenever I fly from one major airport to another in a huge airplane?

My interest was certainly piqued; I searched on the Internet and also in academic journals to learn more about the state of electric aircraft.

Two weeks ago, United Airlines announced that it will buy 100 19-seat, 250-mile electric planes from a Swedish company, Heart Aerospace. United has committed to reducing its carbon emissions to zero by 2050. United will use the planes, starting in 2026, to connect small airports (such as Lafayette, IN, from which I flew many times) with Chicago’s O’Hare airport. The purchase is conditional on the plane meeting “safety, business, and operating requirements” of United.

In one of four projects in Electrified Aircraft Propulsion (EAP), NASA is modifying a conventional aircraft to test electric performance in a design with a total of 12 electric motors, two cruise motors and 14 smaller high-lift motors. The four projects all involve smaller aircraft, but in other work, NASA is investigating hybrid and turboelectric systems for larger aircraft. They say “It is believed that the right building blocks are in place to have a viable large-plane EAP configuration tested by 2025 leading to entry into service in 2035 if resources can be harnessed toward pursuing that goal.”

The June 2019 Paris Air Show highlighted several electric planes. The 2021 Air Show has been cancelled so the next event will be in June 2023. The first practical applications of electric aircraft may be in pilot training, where a reduction of fuel costs could accelerate the training. Bye Electronics, the company described in the Robb Report, has smaller planes that could be certified soon for flight training. The Sustainable Aviation Project in Fresno CA is working with Pipistrel on a similar approach. For the wealthy, flying can be a major part of a large personal carbon footprint, so electrification of small luxury aircraft may be a way to reduce carbon emissions and any feelings of carbon guilt, or so-called “flight shame.”

My search turned up other companies working on all electric and hybrid airplanes, but the above sample is, I think, representative. I conclude that, in the short term, hybrid airplanes may reduce carbon emissions from larger planes and smaller all electric planes will develop for niche applications. The longer run is always hazier and I want to hope that all electric aviation will eventually reduce the contribution of aviation to carbon emissions.

What does it mean for you?

If aviation can be electrified, anything can be. The battery demands for flight in terms of size and weight are very rigorous and the batteries developed for those applications will be useful in other places. In a change that still amazes and delights me, the steel mill in my town Pueblo will be powered by solar energy by the end of this year. My first lesson from this exploration is to be alert to opportunities to electrify your organization’s energy use. Beneficial electrification allows energy use to be sourced from renewable technology.

Second, the notion of “flight shame” may be an extreme reaction, but we must all also be alert to opportunities to reduce energy use. After I retired, my driving miles dropped a great deal, but my COVID inspired use of Zoom has reduced my miles even more. Be alert to opportunities to reduce your organization’s energy use. We shouldn’t just electrify all energy use without thinking through how much of that use is necessary.

Where can I learn more?

The Robb Report article on electric planes showed up on my Facebook feed. Their self description: “Robb Report is the leading voice in the global luxury market. Its discerning audience around the world has a shared appreciation and desire for quality, exclusivity, heritage, taste, and fine design. It is the brand the most successful people rely on to discover the ideas, opinions, products, and experiences that will matter most to them. Robb Report is synonymous with affluence, luxury, and the best of the best. Robb Report: Luxury Without Compromise.” I am laughing because that hardy describes me, but on the other hand, maybe it is a useful place to follow new technology. Hmmm. I won’t be blogging about “Jetpack Flying School Is Harder Than It Looks—and a Lot More Fun.”

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Machine recipes

Source: Library of Congress. This image is in the public domain.

“’Share The Meat’ recipes. Baked bean loaf. Mash three cups of cooked beans, or chop them very fine. Add a chopped onion, one-half cup of milk (water or the liquid from the cooked beans may be substituted), a beaten egg and a cup of bread crumbs. A little finely chopped celery is good too. Season to taste with salt, pepper and dried herbs.” 1942

What’s new?

The June 19-25 issue of the magazine New Scientist has a cover story titled “The Algorithms That Run Your Life. What they do, and how they shape your every decision.” The article discusses the use of computers in Facebook’s news feed, weather forecasting, compression of computer files to take up less space, Google search, financial trading, encryption, medical decision making, Internet communication, and computer simulation.

What does it mean?

In a sidebar, New Scientist discusses the meaning of algorithm, defining it first as “a sequence of instructions that takes an input, performs some repeatable computation on it and provides an output” or “a super-precise recipe.” But the author also notes that increasingly the word algorithm is used “to describe almost anything that a computer accomplishes.”

The examples discussed in the article, and even the discussion of the word algorithm, conflate a lot of issues with the increasing use of computers. One issue is the way in which the algorithm is created; it can be based on an understanding of the context, as in weather forecasting, or it can be based on vast amounts of data resulting in an algorithm that no one really understands, as in the Facebook algorithm. Other issues are the degree to which the algorithm functions with or without human supervision, the magnitude of the potential ill effects if the algorithm errs in a particular case, and the awareness of users of how the algorithm was created and is being used.

In the editorial comment in the issue, New Scientist highlights that last issue: “We outsource all kinds of decisions to computers, yet can’t easily see how these were made.” They cite the recent use in England of an algorithm to assign grades to students who had missed taking exams during the pandemic and the resulting problems.

The New Scientist article is valuable in the wide range of examples it cites, prompting me to search for other algorithms in my life. For example, I mostly use my point-and-shoot Nikon Coolpix camera in its automatic mode, which surely affects the quality of the pictures I take without my thinking about it too much. As I seek to improve my photographs, I will need to abandon my reliance on the camera’s algorithm and make conscious choices of settings.

I have had to learn to drive differently in my partner’s 2018 Kia with automatic transmission than in my own 2010 Kia with manual transmission. The former decides when to shift while I must make that decision myself in my car, but I find I sometimes need to think and anticipate the automatic action of Mark’s car (for example, when merging on the highway).  

I use Google for directions from one place to another, sometimes even in my own town, and usually I look at what its algorithm for finding the shortest route suggests, then I decide the suggestion is good and I follow it, but in some cases, I know that the route will not be a good one (school is letting out right now so that route will be slow). I appreciate the suggestion from the algorithm but stay in complete control

More disconcerting were the examples where I know there is an algorithm, but I really don’t understand what it is doing. Some pieces of software (Zoom, Word, or Facebook) take actions that I simply can’t explain, replicate, or avoid. I know that some online stores adjust the price they show me based on whether I am logged in or not and on whether I enter a catalog number from which I am shopping. Savvy travelers try to time their purchase of, for example, airline tickets – but I really don’t want to spend my time trying to outwit an algorithm. The clock across the room from me is an atomic clock, so checks its time with a central location, but sometimes, inexplicably to me, it suddenly speeds ahead in time, eventually reaching what it must have determined is the correct time. What algorithms can you find in your life?

What does it mean for you?

Highly automated manufacturing machines depend on many algorithms, most of which improve the operation of that manufacturing facility, but I urge you to look under the hood of those algorithms. An algorithm that is predicting tool wear and telling an operator when to replace a tool may or may not be tuned to the priorities and costs of your shop. An algorithm that is pricing out items and estimating time to create a bid may or may not reflect your changing costs and your workforce’s capabilities. In some cases, what is optimal for an algorithm when viewed at a small scale, may not be optimal when viewed in the context of your entire system.

We can’t, of course, look into every algorithm in our businesses, if only because companies treat such knowledge as proprietary. If I don’t create the algorithm, or I don’t have enough knowledge of the algorithm to let me adjust to it, then I have to act based on trust. The New Scientist editorial concludes with the sentence, “But who knows where we will end up if we carry on delegating decisions to machines we can’t completely understand?”

Ultimately, I believe, the factor that matters most is trust, but not trust of the machine, but trust of the people who programmed that machine. Do I trust the people and the company that made that algorithm? There are online stores I no longer use because I cannot trust that they are showing me a fair price for an item; I don’t want to buy from a company that is trying to game me.

Business has always, of course, relied on trust, but the complicated an often hidden nature of algorithms complicates the evaluation. Who are you going to trust?

Where can I learn more?

In 2017 The Deseret News published a similar article with other examples of algorithms, including the evaluation of teachers, and with a discussion of possible impacts on society. A 2018 article in Wired documented a week of following the suggestions of algorithms. The author concludes that the everyday algorithms of Facebook, Spotify, and Amazon probably don’t affect her as much as the algorithms that are more hidden: “When algorithms decide if we should be put forward for that job or be offered that loan, or inform which new train routes get built or whether our legal cases get dropped or pursued, we don’t get a say.”

An article on machine learning has some very good examples of how algorithms affect our lives, such as spam filters in our email. The Pew Research Center has studied the possible effects of increasing use of algorithms.

This list of algorithms in manufacturing may help you identify the algorithms in manufacturing you are using, or perhaps should be using. Industry 4.0 has a heavy emphasis on smart manufacturing, often implemented through computer algorithms.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

How are we doing?

Source: Wikimedia. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

What’s new?

I spent a large part of this week online at the annual meeting of the Engineering Accreditation Commission (EAC) of ABET.

What does it mean?

The EAC has about 140 members who serve as chairs for teams that review BS and MS engineering programs in the US and around the world. Most BS engineering programs in the US are ABET accredited. Graduates of accredited programs have certain privileges. Some companies preferentially hire only graduates of ABET accredited programs. Graduates are eligible to take the Fundamentals of Engineering exam, the first step in becoming a licensed professional engineer. Most importantly, prospective students know that an ABET accredited program and has been found to meet certain criteria for the program.

Maintaining ABET accreditation requires that, every six years, the program submit a program report demonstrating that the program meets eight criteria concerning students (evaluating student performance, monitoring their progress, and advising them), program educational objectives (what graduates are expected to attain within a few years after graduation), student outcomes (what students are expected to know and be able to do by the time of graduation), continuous improvement (documented processes for assessing and evaluating the extent to which student outcomes are being met and using those results for continuous improvement), curriculum (a minimum number of semester house of math and science and of engineering topics, as well as a broad education and a culminating major engineering design experience), faculty (of sufficient number and with appropriate competencies and qualifications), facilities, and institutional support. The team reviews this report and visits the program to determine if the criteria have been met.

The program has the opportunity to correct errors of fact in the report and to submit additional information in a process that lasts almost an entire year. Reflecting its commitment to processes, continuous improvement, and certification, ABET’s own processes are ISO 9001:2015 certified. ABET holds itself to similar standards as those used to judge the programs. Each program report is edited by the team chair and, in turn, three more editors, each with increasing ABET experience. At the July meeting, team chairs meet in panels to review the reports, taking into account suggestions made by a consistency committee who have reviewed all reports. Finally, the entire EAC approves the hundreds of reports, mostly on a consent agenda, but a handful of programs are discussed and voted on by the entire EAC. I cannot, of course, discuss any of the reports or discussions because confidentiality is a requirement of all our activities. Only the final results are available publicly, in this list of accredited programs.

Program evaluators and team chairs undergo training and retraining. I did an online refresher training before the meeting and attended three additional live training sessions during the week. Everyone evaluates everyone, with the programs giving feedback and team chairs and team members all evaluating each other.

While the ABET meeting has always taken place in July in Baltimore, we met online in 2020 and 2021. We also did virtual instead of in person visits this year, a change that required even more training for team chairs and evaluators.

All the people I have mentioned, except for the very highest editors in the review process, are volunteers.

What does it mean for you?

I am very pleased to be involved in such an excellent organization. I do not pretend that I enjoy every moment, that I do not get sometimes frustrated or even angry, nor that ABET does not make mistakes, but the overwhelming emphasis on processes and continuous improvement creates an environment that is, mostly, a good one to work in or, in this case, to volunteer in.

Also, in my 40 years as an engineering professor, especially in my 21 years as a department chair, I participated in many ABET reviews as part of the program being reviewed. Again, I didn’t enjoy every moment, I sometimes got frustrated or even angry, and I thought ABET made some mistakes, but I saw continuous improvement in ABET. I also found that the criteria and the need for accreditation provided wide but effective guideways for our programs.

My message for you is that all the developments and methods for continuous improvement really work. An emphasis on processes, using teams, training people well, providing avenues for feedback, etc., etc. –  it all works to create an organization that functions well.

To me, the essence of continuous improvement is continuously asking “how are we doing?” and then answering that question by collecting and evaluating data. That framework is the core of industrial engineering, my field of expertise.

COVID required all of us, including ABET to move many activities online instead of in person. ABET visits will be virtual again this year, but we will return to an in person meeting in July 2022, so discussions have already begun on what features of online meetings could and should perhaps be maintained in an in person meeting. Since the 140 members of EAC almost all already sit in front of personal computers at the in person meeting, in order to access the many documents we need to review during the meeting, can we use some online features in the future? For example, at our roll call for the newly seated Commission for 2021-2022, we used Zoom features to enable all of us to actually see all of the commissioners as they gave a simple “here.” In a room of 140 people, that is not possible. That is a simple and perhaps unimportant feature, but it personalized the meeting in a nice way. In fact, when anyone spoke I could see and hear them better than I sometimes do during in person meetings.  Also, Zoom provides an easy way to move into and out of the waiting room Commissioners who need to be excused from discussions of particular programs due to conflicts of interest.

Of course, in person meetings have advantages, most notable the hallway conversations. We are looking forward to being back to together in July 2022 but reflecting on how our processes might change – for continuous improvement.

Where can I learn more?

The ABET website has more information about how ABET operates. ABET has other commissions besides the EAC that accredit programs in Applied and Natural Science, Computing, Engineering and Technology.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Clean water

Image source: US Library of Commerce, 1943, which states that the image has no know restrictions on use. “Trampas, New Mexico. Water is precious at the home of Juan Lopez, majordomo (mayor), but the family try hard to keep clean and neat, even though they do use the same water and the same towel.”

What’s new?

On 1 July 2021, Our World in Data published data on people’s access to safe drinking water, sanitation, and basic handwashing facilities. One in four people do not have access to safe drinking water. Nearly half of the world do not have access to safe sanitation. Nearly one-third of the world do not have access to basic handwashing facilities.

What does it mean?

Public health measures, especially access to clean water, are widely agreed by historians to have had the largest impact on quality and length of human life, even as compared to such amazing discoveries as antibiotics and vaccines. As summarized by Claire Ninde of the San Juan Basin Public Health agency:

Over the last 200 years, U.S. life expectancy has more than doubled to almost 80 years (78.8 in 2015), with vast improvements in health and quality of life. However, while most people imagine medical advancements to be the reason for this increase, the largest gain in life expectancy occurred between 1880 and 1920 due to public health improvements such as control of infectious diseases, more abundant and safer foods, cleaner water, and other nonmedical social improvements.

In a 2008 article in the American Journal of Infection Control, three authors discussed the intertwined effects of personal and community changes:

[H]ygiene improvements at the individual and community levels, such as sanitary living conditions and practices and potable water and sewage facilities, have played a major role in reducing morbidity and mortality from infections ….

For example, frequent handwashing – an individual level behavior – can be effective only if people have access to clean water – a community level improvement. Of course, it is worth noting that while the need is great in many parts of the world, even in the US, these basic systems are sometimes lacking; see Flint, Michigan.

Engineers have an obvious and large role in such community improvements. As the CDC states:

Engineers are an integral part of the public health team that helps define what is possible, identify existing limitations, and shape workable solutions. Their efforts have contributed immensely to reducing disease and preventing injury in the United States and around the world.

The data reviewed by Our World in Data are part of a review of progress on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which were set in 2015. Engineers are playing important roles in progress on these Goals. For example, in its 2019 endorsement of the Sustainable Development Goals, the American Society of Civil Engineers said

By helping meet the SDGs the engineering profession contributes to a world where all people have access to the knowledge and resources with which to meet their basic human needs and promote sustainable development in such areas as water supply and sanitation, food production and processing, housing and construction, energy, transportation and communication, income generation, and employment creation.

What does it mean for you?

The positive effect of individual and community level efforts in sanitation provides a lesson in how simple measures consistently applied can have amazing results. I am sure you can easily generate examples from manufacturing (regular maintenance and scheduled safety checks), from customer service (regularly thanking customers), and so forth, of how simple improvements can have positive effects in your organization. What are the simple behaviors, consistently performed, that could have big paybacks for your organization?

The other lesson is that obtaining such effects relies both on individual efforts but also on community – or system – improvements. Just as people can keep their hands clean only if they have access to clean water, improvements in the actions of individual workers require the creation of systems that support those actions. For example, exhortations to be safe must be supported by the provision of safe systems, equipment to keep workers safe, and other such measures.

Where can I learn more?

The 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals are explained here. It is supported by a plan of action described here.

The Encyclopedia Britannica has an excellent review of public health historically and currently.


Maintenance worker José Rodriguez paints a wall. 1994, St. Joseph’s Hospital (Paterson, N.J.) Source: Library of Congress, American Folklife Center. This photo is in the public domain.

What’s new?

The New York Times, as well as other sources, reported that maintenance and repairs had been neglected for many years in the Champlain Towers South condo building in Florida that collapsed with significant loss of life on 24 June. The Times quotes an undated letter from the board to residents before the collapse: “For the last few years, your board has recognized that our building has been neglected, repairs have been repeatedly postponed or simply patched up, and our property values have remained sadly below what they should be.” Much more information will be and should be explored to determine definitively the causes of the collapse.

What does it mean?

I recall many years ago that a friend who was considering buying a house for the first time asked how to buy one that would need little maintenance. I laughed and said it was impossible. I have always tried to do the right thing by the three houses I have owned. In my first house, I chose to make an expensive long-lasting repair to a creek wall near the house, rather than a quick fix, knowing that I was unlikely to benefit from the long-term ownership of that house nor from a corresponding increase in the value of the house. I took similar action regarding repair of the outside deck in my second house, and last summer we had a metal roof put on our 20-year-old house, a roof that will surely outlive us.

For engineers, the field of engineering economy deals with the economics of long-lived assets. The ABET criteria for accreditation of an undergraduate program in engineering include as a required student outcome “an ability to apply engineering design to produce solutions that meet specified needs with consideration of public health, safety, and welfare, as well as global, cultural, social, environmental, and economic factors.”

The total cost of ownership of ownership is a concept that should be familiar to every business. The initial cost of equipment is only a fraction of the total cost of ownership. For example, this brochure from the South Dakota Cooperative Extension Service advises that for high cost agricultural machines, “25% of the purchase price will approximate annual total cost” to operate and maintain the equipment.

Every long-lived piece of property should be acquired only with the financial commitment to its safe operation and maintenance over the planned lifetime. Any other approach risks lives and the financial sustainability of the organization.

A discussion on reddit pointed me to an article on Slate that puts the Florida collapse in the context of the growth of condominiums in the 1970s and the inability of homeowner associations to handle the maintenance costs with fees set too low by developers who cared more about profitable sales than about long-term sustainability. The author draws the analogy with municipal governments that have survived on low taxes by deferring maintenance and failing to plan for replacement:

Strong Towns founder Charles Marohn has written persuasively about this phenomenon in the suburbs, whose low-tax model only works until the end of the infrastructure life cycle, at which point sprawl becomes very expensive to maintain. In the king-size homeowners association known as California, it’s become common for even the richest jurisdictions to be unable to afford basic repairs to roads and bridges that are reaching the end of their useful life.

The reddit discussion includes several laments about the neglect of maintenance in various industries, including water systems, software, and manufacturing. The overall message is that too many people emphasize the short term over the long term. One comment points to The Long Now Foundation, founded, it almost hardly needs saying, by Stewart Brand, which “hopes to provide a counterpoint to today’s accelerating culture and help make long-term thinking more common.”

What does it mean for you?

I have twice used the word sustainability in this article. The Florida collapse has highlighted our poor infrastructure at a time when debate is underway for funding improvements. Recent events have highlighted many societal practices that are simply unsustainable: buildings collapse and so do people. How can you ensure that your organization is sustainable in all of its practices?

At a minimum, you should reexamine the maintenance practices of your organization. Do you know the maintenance schedules and actual practices of your organization? Are you using up resources and people without adequate planning for sustainability?

I have always liked the word “custodian” meaning someone who has the responsibility for looking after something. You and I are custodians of the resources we currently own or manage. We should strive to leave those resources in at least as good a state as they were when we acquired them.

Where can I learn more?

An Internet search on total cost of ownership or life cycle analysis will turn up many useful pages, and many companies willing to help you perform these analyses well. Total preventive maintenance is another useful subject for search.

The ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers) Report Card for America’s Infrastructure is an excellent source of information on the status of the country’s public infrastructure.

Water is weird

Source: Wikimedia Commons. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

What’s new?

Two researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) have shown that when a graphene electrode is placed into water the molecules of water closest to the electrode “align in a completely different way than the rest of the water molecules,” a result that was not anticipated. The findings may have implications in many fields, especially in methods proposed for desalinization of water.  

What does it mean?

Water has many strange properties, according to Alok Jha, author of The Water Book. Unlike most other liquids, water expands when it freezes; thus, ice floats in water, insulating life under the ice. Water in rocks expands in the cold and cracks the rocks open, an important fact in the creation of soil. Water, even though made from two gases, is a liquid. It has a surprisingly large surface tension, enabling insects to walk on it. The attraction between water molecules leads to capillary action, important to all life. Almost anything dissolves in water. I could go on and on since Rachel Brazil claims that water “has at least 66 properties that differ from most liquids – high surface tension, high heat capacity, high melting and boiling points and low compressibility.”

The electrode the researchers used is made from graphene, a very interesting form of carbon in which the carbon atoms are arranged in a single layer honeycomb lattice. It has promise to improve battery performance, hence its use as an electrode in this experiment.

The result they observed occurs at the surface of the electrode, where the water and electrode meet. Many interesting chemical and physical effects occur at surfaces. One of the researchers at USC concentrates on the molecular structure and physics of surfaces,” as explained at this web page about the Benderskii Research Group.

What does it mean for you?

I draw two lessons from these facts about water and from the newly reported research. First, science has increased our understanding of the world amazingly, but some simple parts of our world still defy our understanding; at least sometimes engineers can use the natural world in ways that science does not actually understand well. The fact that discoveries continue to be made about water – water! – amazes me.

Second, discoveries continue to be made that will improve our ability to generate, distribute, and use electrical energy. While not mentioned in the article, this result has implications for the development of batteries. I believe that we must move much more quickly than we are doing now to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases to head off the climate changes that are occurring, but I also believe that surprises await us in science, engineering, and technology that will help us along this path. Stay tuned for more news.

Where can you learn more?

As you might expect, the US Geological Services (USGS) has a great page about the properties of water. This BBC animation, narrated by author Alok Jha, explores some of the strange properties of water. Some of those properties are listed here.