Source: https://www.loc.gov/item/2017707731/, Dinosaur Garage sign, Dinosaur, Colorado, from the John Margolies Roadside America photograph archive (1972-2008), Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, which states that there are no known restrictions on publication.

What’s new

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) released a document titled Energy Storage Grand Challenge Roadmap, which describes “a comprehensive program to accelerate the development, commercialization, and utilization of next-generation energy storage technologies and sustain American global leadership in energy storage. “

What does it mean?

The DOE program states goals for a 90% reduction from 2020 baseline costs in the cost of energy storage for long-duration stationary applications by 2030 and a 44% reduction from the current cost to manufacture a battery pack for a 300-mile range electric vehicle, again by 2030. Various tracks in the program focus on reducing the cost of operation as well as the cost to manufacture energy storage devices.

The report outlines six Use Cases describing ways in which improved energy storage will improve lives:

  1. facilitating an evolving grid (with improved resilience and reduced emissions),
  2. serving remote communities (with “clean, resilient, and cost-effective storage and flexibility solutions”),
  3. electrified mobility (to “facilitate a large-scale adoption of electric vehicles while maximizing beneficial coordination with the power grid”),
  4. interdependent network infrastructure (including reducing the need for peaking plants that run on fossil fuels),
  5. critical services (providing for continuity of power during disaster-related and other outages), and
  6. flexibility (for commercial and residential buildings and for energy-intensive facilities).

The technical and social changes needed to meet these goals are large, including safety (for example, to reduce the tendency of Lithium-ion batteries to overheat), cybersecurity, and the ethical sourcing of critical materials in these storage devices. Arguably, the resulting program, when successful, will be as significant as the initial electrification of this country.

What does it mean for you?

Denver-based journal Allen Best publishes a newsletter called Big Pivots, about the changes in Colorado use of water, energy, land, and other natural resources – and especially about climate change. Those who refer to the vast middle of the US as flyover country have seen the huge crop circles irrigated by a center well, through a large irrigation tube that pivots around that center.

Energy storage is driven by and is driving electrification, which, in turn, enables increased use of renewably generated energy to replace fossil fuels. Best wrote two days ago about the interplay among transportation, tourism, and the Colorado economy in the installation of a new high-speed charging station in Dinosaur, Colorado. He quotes Jim Heneghan, chief power supply officer for Delta-Montrose Electric Association, about the new imperative to have such a station: “If we don’t have the infrastructure in place now, it will be like the place that didn’t have WiFi. We don’t want to be that place.”

To state my now obvious punch line: don’t be a dinosaur. You should be looking at the sources and uses of energy in your organization now and moving, through beneficial electrification, to reducing your dependence on fossil fuels.

I just had personal experience with Use Case #2 about remote communities when my propane company failed to deliver, leaving me with an empty propane tank for five days and pushing me to accelerate my plans to install a heat pump. My local electric coop, San Isabel Electric Association, is giving me advice on how to electrify our water heating.

The present and the future in commercial energy includes using electricity to heat and cool spaces for humans, adopting electric transportation such as electric forklifts, and powering industrial operations from renewably generated electricity. In my home town, Pueblo’s historic 1881 steel mill will become the first in North America to rely on solar power; it already sources its input from recycled material.

Where can you learn more?

This August 2020 article from Deloitte provides an overview of the imperatives driving electrification in industrial companies. ACEEE, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, has a page focusing on industrial changes.

The website of the Energy Storage Association is a good place to start to learn about energy storage, including this overview of energy storage and  this description of the five basic types of energy storage: batteries, thermal, mechanical, storage, and pumped water. This page focuses on how energy storage can benefit a company. “Behind the meter” is a phrase used by the electrical industry to refer to devices and actions that are taken by the customer (who is behind the meter from the viewpoint of the electricity provider).

Selection of energy reduction strategies, including on site energy storage, requires understanding how you are charged for electricity, that is, your electricity tariff. This page from The Energy Detective explains the basics of fixed rates, tiers, time of use rates, demand charges, and other rates.

The Office of Electricity in the US Department of Energy is also a good source of information on technology being developed to create a secure, resilient, and reliable national grid. An overview of their work is here and various reports are here.

The US Energy Information Administration’s web page on electricity also has valuable information, so much that it can be overwhelming. This page has information on the consumption of energy in manufacturing.

What’s on your dashboard?

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

What’s new?

Michael Taylor, a mechanical engineer and project manager with the Manufacturing Extension program at the US National Institute for Standards and Technology, wrote in a blog posting that digital applications are becoming frequent in manufacturing. While implementation of such techniques may be daunting for small enterprises, due to initial purchase price and training costs, he recommends five applications: digital performance management; predictive maintenance; yield, energy, and throughput analysis; automation and robotics; and digital quality management.

What does it mean?

The article briefly describes each application:

  1. Define important performance metrics, devise ways to collect the metrics in real time, and display them in a digital dashboard. Start with machine operating data or production output, as examples.
  2. Predictive maintenance uses equipment condition, often monitored by sensors, to detect the need to perform maintenance before machine failure.
  3. What is your yield for each step and for the entire process? How much energy are you using? How can each step in your process be improved? Digital applications can help you answer these questions.
  4. Automation and robotics are becoming more common, with turn-key solutions more available. The NIST article advises starting with applications such as low-speed material handling.
  5. Take the performance metrics identified in the first application and tie them directly and automatically to decision making.

What does it mean for you?

Three key ideas underlie the NIST suggestions: industrial engineering, vendors, and data.  

The author of the NIST article is a mechanical engineer. My field, industrial engineering, has historical roots in mechanical engineering, but adds considerations of efficiency, quality, and safety to the design of mechanical – and electrical – devices and systems, especially in manufacturing enterprises. Many of the manufacturing trends of the last decades are central to industrial engineering, including performance and productivity measures, preventive and now predictive maintenance, process improvement and optimization, automation and robotics to improve the operations of a manufacturing system, and automatic, data-based decision making. Your organization will have an easier time implementing the applications suggested in the NIST article if you have industrial engineers to help you.

You can get industrial engineering help by hiring an industrial engineer, of course, but often vendors can be your friends. Yes, a vendor is trying to sell you some technology, hardware, or software, but a good vendor wants to make sure your organization is successful in implementation. Many companies use engineers, often industrial engineers, in technical sales positions. Even if the sales person is not an engineer, a good vendor will provide training opportunities for your staff, access to web resources, and someone on their staff to help you install and operate the new application. If the vendor isn’t offering such support, try another vendor. Always remember that you aren’t just purchasing a physical device; you are also purchasing the support and service that comes with it.

Quality guru Deming is well known for saying; “In God we trust; all others bring data,” and I am much less well known for saying: “I love data.” Deming also said “Measure, measure, measure.”  Data are your messages from the real world. Using data requires that you choose what to measure, design a system to collect and report those data (collect from where? with what devices? measured and reported at what intervals?), and, most importantly, use that data to make better decisions.

I cannot shout this final point loudly enough: data are useful because they help you make better decisions. While this point is explicit in the fifth suggestion from NIST, it is implicit in all of the suggestions. And this point has many implications. You probably shouldn’t bother to collect some data if they won’t be used to make decisions. Using data to make better decisions involves a lot of work to understand the relationships among the data, the real world system they were collected from, and the decisions your organization makes that affect that system. You need a good model of those relationships.

The NIST articles rightly focuses on getting started. For all organizations, collecting data and learning to use them to make better decisions is the path to quality improvement and to better decision making.

Where can you learn more?

Yes, “data” is a plural noun.

I used the word “dashboard” in the title of this post because many use that phrase to describe the types of applications recommended in the NIST article. An Internet search on the phrase “manufacturing dashboard” yields much good advice. See, for example, 6 Manufacturing Dashboards for Visualizing Production.

Here comes the sun

Source: author

What’s new?

A recent article at Our World in Data, by Max Roser, presents evidence that “In most places in the world power from new renewables is now cheaper than power from new fossil fuels.”

What does it mean?

Almost always, first iteration of a new technology is expensive to make and barely functional, but, over time, it improves. All of us have experienced the amazing progress in consumer electronics, including computers and cell phones. Engineering efforts improve both the product itself and the manufacturing process for the product, resulting often in dramatic drops in cost and dramatic increases in performance.

In the case of renewable energy, Roser writes of the array of improvements that have reduced costs: “larger, more efficient factories are producing the modules; R&D efforts increase; technological advances increase the efficiency of the panels; engineering advances improve the production processes of the silicon ingots and wafers; the mining and processing of the raw materials increases in scale and becomes cheaper; operational experience accumulates; the modules are more durable and live longer; market competition ensures that profits are low; and capital costs for the production decline. It is a myriad of small improvements across a large collective process that drives this continuous price decline.”

Simply put, we learn.

Two concepts, the learning curve and the positive feedback loop, describe the effects of learning in reducing the prices of new technologies. The learning curve is an empirical finding that increased production volume of a manufactured item reliably leads to reduction in the cost of the item, in a way that can be described and then predicted mathematically. A positive feedback loop is the more general model of a situation where more of something creates even more of that thing; population growth is the classic example.

I have written before about negative feedback loops, in which more of something creates less of it; a thermostat keeps temperature in a desired range by using a high temperature as a signal to trigger cooling (to reduce the temperature) and low temperature as a signal to trigger heating (to increase the temperature).

In a positive feedback loop, more is a signal that triggers even more. Roser uses the diagram shown below to explain how a positive feedback loop underlies the learning curve for renewable energy technologies.  More reduction in price causes increased use, thus increased demand, thus increased deployment, and finally even more reduction in price.

Source. All graphics at Our World in Data are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

What does it mean for you?

The article makes the strong case against the continued use of fossil fuels, based on the harm they cause today in air pollution and the long term effects on the planet. “A world run on fossil fuels is not sustainable.” The argument that we must use fossil fuels because they are cheaper is no longer valid.

Positive feedback loops are sometimes called, as Roser does, a virtuous cycle, since more of a good thing causes even more of that good thing. How can you use positive feedback loops in your organization to create a virtuous cycle? Affirmative inquiry is a process of identifying what is going right in an organization in order to promote it, as explained here. As an engineering teacher, I learned that a student’s success in solving simple problems involving a difficult new concept can lead to positive feelings that support the desire to learn more and to try harder problems involving that concept; note that I am not motivating the learning by praise, but rather by success. A positive feedback loop can work in other areas, but must be carefully nurtured. A manager who says criticism is welcomed must, in fact, act in a way that welcomes criticism in order to support a virtuous cycle in which criticism is openly made and used. How can you create the environment in which more of what is desired causes even more?

Where can you learn more?

This article was sent to me by a friend. Now that I know about the web page Our World in Data (“The goal of our work is to make the knowledge on the big problems accessible and understandable”), I will be checking their web page regularly.

Learning curves, or experiences curves, involve plotting the cost of an item (on a log scale) as a function of the cumulative numbers of items produced (also on a log scale). The Our World in Data article contains several such plots, including this one:

Source. All graphics at Our World in Data are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

 This 1964 article in Harvard Business Review explains the history behind the learning curve in industrial production. This article describes that people improve at their task, that the productive process itself is improved, and the product is also improved; all contribute to the decline in cost with increasing production volume. The mathematics of the learning curve can also be applied to an individual worker’s improvement in performing a repetitive task.

Be careful to note that the word “positive” in “positive feedback” means that an increase causes an increase and that the word “negative” in “negative feedback” means that an increase causes a decrease. The words do not mean that the effect is desirable or undesirable; positive and negative feedback can cause good and bad effects. You should be aware, of course, that more is not always better. For example, when a microphone picks up sound from a loudspeaker transmitting the microphone’s own signal, the microphone amplifies the sound in a positive feedback loop resulting in the extremely annoying – and very negative – sound.  Positive feedback loops can lead to runaway situations in bad effects, such as can occur in global warming, in which warming causes some effects that cause even more warming. NASA discusses the positive and negative feedback loops operating in climate change here. This article argues that wealth inequality is a dangerous runaway situation.

Also, the meaning of “positive feedback” in systems thinking is not the same as the meaning of “positive feedback” in leaving a positive review about a product or giving praise to someone who has done a good job. The positive review or the praise expresses a positive opinion, but we don’t know what the systemic effect will be of that opinion.

Time for progress

Source: Wikimedia. This image is in the public domain

What’s new?

A recent article in Additive Manufacturing describes how materials and measurement are important factors in the increasing use of additive manufacturing to make medical implants.

What does it mean?

Additive manufacturing is an ever expanding collection of materials and manufacturing methods, all united by the underlying concept of building up an object, usually layer by layer, rather than the traditional manufacturing approach of starting from a large piece of material and removing portions. Additive, not subtractive. The interplay of materials and methods in additive manufacturing is creating a push for new types of products and the urge to use additive manufacturing in different applications is exerting a pull on the research. The result is an explosion of new ideas, including new ideas involving implants in medical applications.

Additive manufacturing is not just resulting in better ways to manufacture medical implants; it is also allowing the redesign of these implants. Objects that are difficult or impossible to manufacture using traditional methods are possible to manufacture additively. But even more, the ongoing development of additive manufacturing materials and methods is moving capabilities further and further.

Most obviously, if you are manufacturing by removing material, it is difficult to get inside an object and remove what is not wanted, but if you are manufacturing by adding material, the outside is created last, leaving the interior exposed and able to be created in ways that were impossible in the past.

For example, this September 2020 article from Additive Manufacturing describes a new process  of powder bed fusion using a titanium-nickel alloy called nitinol to create stents. Because the new additive manufacturing process opened new possibilities, the stents were redesigned to be more effective, and the stents can now be printed for individual use in a specific patient. This interplay of materials, methods, and redesign is happening again and again in additive manufacturing, not just in medical manufacturing, but in many other areas of application. The article in Additive Manufacturing also points out that measurement and the accurate reproduction of those measurements are other key ideas behind the customization enabled by additive manufacturing.

What does it mean for you?

I am very excited to watch the ongoing developments in additive manufacturing. The one concept – create objects by adding rather than subtracting material – is so simple, yet has so many variations, based on different materials and methods.

This process of exploring, inventing, and applying additive technology is being pushed by different materials and methods and pulled by different uses. Depending on your viewpoint, the development is occurring rapidly, with Wikipedia giving 1971 as the date of the first patent related to 3D printing, or it is occurring slowly – that patent is almost 50 years old now. I recall that in the 1980s and early 1990s attention was given to the issue that despite the growth in use of information technology (IT), such use had not led to increases in productivity – some called it the productivity paradox and I even directed a Master’s thesis on the topic. See, for example, this article. That particular productive paradox gets much less attention now, I believe because IT is so ubiquitous that it is difficult to attribute productivity growth or lack of it to IT. We cannot imagine living without IT now.

I believe that additive technology is on its way to becoming similarly ubiquitous and similarly enabling. Additive technology is still the new kid on the block – notice that I have compared it to traditional manufacturing technology – but soon it will be part of the range of manufacturing processes routinely considered by engineers; soon it will be traditional.

The lesson for you is, I think, that a new concept, relentlessly pursued, can have deep and wide effects, but only with hard work and with some time. The development of a new concept is caused by the push of that concept but also by the pull of application. Give it time but also give it attention.

Where can you learn more?

My favorite source for information on developments in additive manufacturing is the online magazine named simply Additive Manufacturing. You can get a print subscription here or the email newsletter here.  Gardner Business Media also publishes Modern Machine Shop Online, another favorite for me. Gardner’s full range of publications is described here.