Do Everything Better

Source: US Library of Congress. This image is in the public domain. “Astra, Red Cross health fairy, brings gifts of health principles from the milky way to the juniors of the Prince School, Boston. The health fairy, who serves the Boston Metropolitan Chapter, is at the right, standing. Pupils of the school, members of the Junior Red Cross, who assisted her in a health play program given recently at the school, as they appear in the picture.” February 1922.

What’s new?

Inspired by Ray Dalio’s 2017 bestselling book Principles, performance coach Brad Stulberg put together his own list of principles as “a foundation for a better you.” Pocket brought it to my attention.

What does it mean?

A 2013 review of Jessica Lamb Shapiro’s book on the self-help industry in the United States, Promise Land, cites “an Ancient Egyptian genre called ‘Sebayt,’ an instructional literature on life (‘Sebayt’ means ‘teaching’)” as the “progenitor of self-help books.” I haven’t been in a bookstore for over a year, but I am sure that the self-help section at my local Barnes and Noble store still stretches over many shelves.

I haven’t read any of these books by Lamb Shapiro, Dalio, or Stulberg. For a description of the book by Ray Dalio, founder of investment firm Bridgewater Associates, I am relying heavily on this article by Elle McFarlane. She reviews the book’s contents and Dalio’s five principles, including “Use the 5-step process to get what you want out of life.” That process has five stages:

  1. Having clear goals
  2. Identifying the problems that prevent you from achieving these goals
  3. Getting to the root cause of these problems
  4. Designing plans to help you overcome these root causes
  5. Enforcing these plans to get your desired results .

Stulberg, inspired by Dalio, created a list of eight principles, including: Focus on the Process, Not Results (“Research shows that concentrating on the process is best for both performance and mental health”); Take Small, Consistent Steps to Achieve Big Gains (“Small and consistent victories compound over time, leading to massive gains”), and Make the Hard Thing Easier (“Rather than relying completely on self-control, intentionally design your environment to make the hard thing easier”).

When I taught the course Introduction to Industrial and Systems Engineering at Colorado State University-Pueblo for many years, I required students to read and report on a book, chosen from a list I provided or approved by me if not on the list. One of those books was The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen R. Covey. His seven habits include Habit 2: Begin With the End in Mind. “Habit 2 is based on imagination–the ability to envision in your mind what you cannot at present see with your eyes. It is based on the principle that all things are created twice. There is a mental (first) creation, and a physical (second) creation.”

What does it mean for you?

I am sure you have already noted that some of these personal principles echo strongly organizational principles. What works well for self-improvement also works for group-improvement.

I am an industrial engineer. My elevator speech to answer the question “what is industrial engineering?” is that industrial engineers are about efficiency, quality, and safety. We design the workplace so that ordinary people can achieve extraordinary results. Chapter 2 of the textbook I wrote for my introductory course lists “Big ideas you will hear frequently” and some of these ideas about industrial engineering could fit comfortably into any self-help list (“Small incremental improvements of a process add up, but more radical reengineering may sometimes be needed”).

Dalio’s five-step process is very similar to Six Sigma’s improvement cycle (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control). Stulberg’s focus on the process is one of the core ideas of industrial engineering (in my book, I wrote: “The process for doing a task makes a big difference in how efficiently, well, and safely the task is done”). Taking small consistent steps is another way to describe continue improvement. Making Hard Things Easier is poke yoke or error-proofing. Many of these principles also take a systems view; for example, Dalio’s first principle is to understand reality.

What works well for self-improvement also works for group-improvement. Rather than relying on one of these gurus to provide you with a list of principles for how you want to act in your personal life and in your organization, I challenge you to learn from them (and many others) to create your own set of principles that you use to improve your personal life and your organization. What are your guiding principles for improvement of self and improvement of your organization?

Where can you learn more?

Of course there are many web pages that will give you advice on creating your principles or your core values and even lists of principles you can select from (101 Timeless Principles to Guide You to Your Best Life). For some reason, most lists of principles have an odd number of items (5, 7, 101), but Stulberg has 8. Make of that what you will.

Of course actions must reflect principles. As Patrick Lencioni wrote in 2002: “Enron—although an extreme case—is hardly the only company with a hollow set of values.”

Of course there is a contrary view: Why You Shouldn’t Be A Person Of Principle. Moral particularism points out that any set of ethical principles may seem fine. “But then you run into that odd, unexpected situation where following your rulebook doesn’t seem so neat and tidy. This new case is special, unique, and unanticipated by your ethical system. In fact, it just feels wrong to follow the rules here in this instance. Do you go with your rulebook, or your current intuition?” One of my guiding principles is: know the rules, choose which ones to follow, and live with the consequences.

Taking Care of People

Source: The US Library of Congress, 1942 July. This image is in the public domain.

“Women in war. Machine gun production. Intent on the important job at hand, Elsie M. Terry uses a precision snap gauge on the machine gun part she has milled. One of 2,000 women employed by a Midwest plant, converted from spark plugs to machine gun manufacture, Mrs. Terry typified the American woman war worker. Serious, skilled and reliable, she is making an invaluable contribution to the war effort. A.C. Spark Plugs”

What’s new?

A December 2020 article from Modern Machine Shop, which somehow just caught my attention, says that a company acquisition has to focus on the human aspects to be successful.

What does it mean?

The article, by Christina M Fuges of MoldMaking Technology reports on the company B-Square Precision Group, founded by two individuals (Mark Beck and Tony Butler) with the plan to acquire a portfolio of companies in high precision manufacturing. The article touches on many trends, including the impending retirement of many owners of smaller shops, manufacturing approaches such as lean and ISO certification, and strategies for portfolio construction, such as combining companies that can cross sell each other’s capabilities. The central idea of the article is the need to focus on people.

With its goal of acquiring other companies, B-Square has many people issues to pay attention to, since the retiring managers and the continuing employees of acquired companies often legitimately fear that the company will be broken up, that cost cutting measure will be implemented and will degrade work enjoyment, and that any existing company culture will be brushed aside.  

The B-Square approach includes the importance of training employees, initially and on an ongoing basis, putting safety first in the list of five metrics to be tracked, improvements to pay and benefits, improvements to shop conditions, and increasing collaboration within the company.

What does it mean for you?

Precision manufacturing requires high end machines and highly skilled workers, so one could argue that the focus on the humans in B-Square is necessary to retain employees and to maintain the necessarily high level of skill, but I argue that all companies could benefit from treating their workers as highly skilled and as valuable. I have never worked in restaurants (my partner Mark has) but I know that high levels of skill in the kitchen and on the floor result in a much better customer experience. On the other end, as a highly skilled professional, I have been appalled to realize several times in my career that my employer viewed me as simply another professor, easily replaced and not really needing to be nurtured.

Management advice often focuses on how to treat workers, with emphasis on teams, incentives, and more. The risk, I think, is platitudes. An encouraging feature of this article is a quote from an employee: “Mark and Tony stress that it’s not about them. It’s not about me. It’s not about management. It’s about the team,” suggesting that the management in this case is acting, not just talking.

Engineering has a long history of recognizing the importance of humans in systems. My field, industrial and systems engineering is a leader, with specialties in human factors, cognitive engineering, and ergonomics. The electrical engineering society IEEE has a division called Systems, Man, and Cybernetics. While the second and third words in that trio have not aged well, the name lives on.  

The truth is that all production systems are systems of technology and humans. You imperil the success of the system by underemphasis on either of those pieces, from the simple fact that people have to use the technology correctly to gain the benefits, through to more sophisticated ideas about using technology to augment what workers do (from decision support systems through heads up displays for pilots). If you want technology to work for you, you must have a high level of attention to the humans in the system. Technology works best when it is considered as part of the system of machines and humans.

Where can you learn more?

You can learn much about how to view systems of machines and people through many fields. Search for phrases such as socio technical systems (applied, for example, in healthcare), human factors (this blog post explains four approaches to that topic), and cognitive engineering. Recent developments have highlighted how automation and AI (artificial intelligence) should work together with humans; see, for example, new ideas on augmented workers.

Almost all approaches to systems thinking include humans in the system.

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

Sense, compute, control

Source: Wikimedia. This image is in the public domain.

What’s new?

At Engineering360, technical writer Janeita Reid writes about the use of sensors throughout the electrical grid, from generation to use.

What does it mean?

My father was one of the chief architects of TASI, the multiplexing system used in the first transatlantic telephone cable system in 1956. The principles of Time Assignment Speech Interpolation had been known but could not be implemented with slow, bulky, over-heating vacuum tubes; the invention of the transistor in 1947 enabled the application of these principles.  But the invention of the transistor built upon and then required more engineering developments in order to lead to the mass manufacturer of transistors which supported developments such as TASI.  

The invention and development of modern electronics continues to enable more inventions and developments. Rarely if ever does one simple device appear in a flash of genius and lead immediately to new uses. Instead, a soup of swirling ideas and devices leads to constant improvement in the ability of devices to sense, compute, and control other devices. You can see these results in the small computer you use every day, your cell phone, with its amazing ability to help you to communicate, to navigate, and to find information.  

The Department of Engineering that I chaired at Colorado State University-Pueblo offers engineering degrees in two areas: industrial engineering and mechatronics. (To be clear, the two undergraduate degrees are the BS in industrial engineering and the BS in engineering with specialization in mechatronics). Industrial engineering is about designing systems to support efficiency, quality, and safety. Mechatronics combines mechanical and electrical engineering with computer programming to create useful devices. The two fields overlap in many ways; one is their overlap in the use of sensors to collect data, data that can be analyzed for long term systems improvement and for real time decision making.

The essence of mechatronics is the creation of devices that sense, compute, and control. The essence of industrial engineering is using information to improve the operation of systems. When developments that were originally a topic of advanced research in labs such as those at Bell Labs become embodied in undergraduate engineering degrees, you know that progress has been made.

One of Ms Reid’s opening sentences, “Advanced sensors are among transformative disruptors building the case of distributed energy resource systems paired with superior data-driven optimization capabilities,” supports the story I have told. Mechatronic devices, especially the sensors inside them, are the keys that enable better decision making, especially using the optimization techniques of operations research, a part of industrial engineering. She then describes the role of sensors and optimization in power generation (via wind, sun, biomass, and water), power transmission, and power use.

What does it mean for you?

The soup of swirling ideas and devices include sensors and optimization as well as much more. These ideas and devices are revolutionizing the provision of electric power and, as Ms. Reid concludes, enabling the transition to renewable energy. She also touches on the interesting dynamic between decentralization and centralization. Electrical generation can be increasingly less centralized, but sensors support remote control and management of those assets.

Whatever your organization, you should be watching for such trends in sensing, computation, and control to support better decision making. These trends enable you to have a better real time knowledge of what is happening throughout your organization and the system in which it operates. Your approach can start, for example, with Internet searches set up as alerts, to keep you aware of what is happening in your field. What other sensors can you set up for your organization?

Where can you learn more?

 Engineering360 has an impressive list of sensors here, with links to more information for each.

The website of the US Department of Energy is one good place to follow trends in energy, especially renewable energy and changes to the grid.

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

My year in blogging

May be an image of 1 person
The author in her home office.

What’s new?

I published the first issue of Make Technology Work for You one year ago, on 9 May 2020.

What does it mean?

I started this blog with several goals in mind, but mainly out of curiosity about what it feels like to write to self-imposed deadline every week. I was certainly familiar with the pressures of teaching a course that met two or three times a week, so I thought writing a blog might be similar, but I wasn’t sure if I would be able to maintain the blog as being retired grew on me. I am certainly active in my retirement, so I didn’t really need to have another activity, but writing was attractive.

Secondarily, I thought I had things to say that others might want to read. As the heading on this blog says, I have “40 years’ experience teaching engineering and a lifelong interest in technology.” I hoped that I could help make technology interesting and useful for others.

So what has happened in the last year with me and with this blog?

When I started, the week had a high level of panic. Once I identified a topic each week, the panic level went down and once I published on each Saturday morning, it disappeared. For about two hours. I have always been good at keeping up the pressure on myself and at worrying and the blog did become a cycle of worry. However, as with teaching, the worry (it is no longer panic) has become an old friend. Once I have identified a topic (often early in the week, even sometimes on Sunday, sometimes as late as Thursday), I enjoy thinking about what I will write. When I finally sit down to write, I find that I have whole paragraphs almost ready in my head.

Identifying a topic has become harder, much to my surprise. Some reliable sources (newsletters) have fewer interesting articles; some new sources have emerged and others have faded. I structure the blog around a current news article, so I am restricted to topics that have been mentioned in some news source in the previous week, but that is not a great limitation, of course. Am I running out of things to say? I don’t think so, but I am puzzled about why I am having more trouble identifying topics.

I worry that I have become repetitive and that I wrote only on the same topics over and over (additive manufacturing, for example). Since I love data, my obvious approach was to make a database and analyze the data. I reread each blog post and coded the contents into categories, with multiple categories allowed for a single post. This table shows some results.

Topics of blogs, by number of mentions. Source: author

My top topic, certainly not to my surprise, is Systems. Yes, that is my top topic; that is how I think, how I analyze, and how I view the world. You should have that as your top topic, too. As an industrial engineer and as someone active in the maker community, I was also not surprised that my second topic was Manufacturing/makers/making.  The topics that all got 5 to 8 entries were also no surprises, although I sometimes feel that I am obsessed with additive manufacturing and writing too much about it. I am pleased to find that all the topics in this table, save one, are topics about which I write positively; I am in favor of the world doing more of all of these. The exception is Artificial intelligence, where my postings were sometimes positive but sometimes cautious about hype.

What have I learned and how will I proceed in the future of this blog?

I remain committed to finding a good image to head each blog and to using only images in the public domain or licensed for public use. Wikimedia Commons and the Library of Congress continue to be my reliable source of excellent images. They have almost never failed me. I have also used my own photos occasionally. Only once did I omit an image. On 9 January, 2021, I wrote about the crashes of the Boeing 737 Max and was unable to find a publicly licensed image of any of the crashes. I really like the animated images I have been able to use a few times, most recently comparing vertical axis and horizontal axis wind turbines.

I remain committed to never writing about military technology, a decision I made before my first post. A former colleague once said that military technology is not engineering since engineering must be for the benefit of mankind; war is never of such benefit. Since this colleague comes from a country that was bombed by the United States (that statement does not narrow down his country of origin much), I respect and value his opinion.

I remain committed to posting a typo-free blog and have done fairly well. In rereading all the articles, I did find a few typos I missed, but not many.

I remain committed to taking stances and giving my opinion. I am not just giving information about technology, although I always want to educate. I am also evaluating that technology for its usefulness for you and for its usefulness to society.

I find I am losing my commitment to publishing by 7 am on Saturday; I have failed to meet that goal several times (including today) and it doesn’t bother me. I apologize if it bothers you.

Finally, I remain committed to writing a weekly blog. I enjoy writing this blog, even when I am having trouble finding a topic.  In the last year, I missed only one day (25 July 2020) during the week I was attending virtually the annual meeting of the Engineering Accreditation Commission (ABET-EAC). For some reason that I don’t remember, I have two postings dated 9 May 2020, my first day of blogging. Thus, I have posted 52 posts in the last year. I also remain committed to using the structure I established in my first post: What’s new? What does it mean? What does it mean for you? And Where can you learn more?

I am still musing about building readership, advertising my blog, and monetizing my blog. I care most, I think, about having my words be meaningful and helpful to others, so I will think more about how to accomplish that goal.

What does it mean for you?

Only you can tell me that. Please leave a comment below or email me at I look forward to hearing from you.

Where can you learn more?

I use WordPress with the WEN Business Pro theme. I had to learn how to use WordPress and I like it.

Optinmonster publishes this list of blogging statistics.  Blogging Wizard has more blogging facts.

3 October 2021. Ritta Blens suggested another good resource about blogs and blogging. Thank you, Ritta.

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

It’s only a model (take 2)

Source: Wikimedia. This figure is in the public domain.

What’s new?

The Engineer reported that a recent article in the journal Renewable Energy used computer simulation to conclude that vertical axis wind turbines can be clustered together to increase total energy output, unlike traditional horizontal axis wind turbines.

What does it mean?

The two basic types of wind turbines differ by how the turbine rotates when the wind is blowing. In the example in the center of the figure at the top of this blog, the three blades rotate around a horizontal axis, that is, an axis perpendicular to the figure and parallel to the ground; it is a horizontal axis wind turbine (HAWT). In the two others, the rotation is around a a vertical axis, that an axis that is parallel to the figure and perpendicular to the ground; each of these two examples is a vertical axis wind turbine (VAWT).

HAWTs are increasingly used to generate electricity, but a well known problem is that, in an array of such turbines, the turbines first struck by the wind generate turbulence that reduces the energy able to be captured by trailing turbines. Previous research had shown that VAWTs seem to have the opposite effect, in which the capture of energy by trailing turbines is actually enhanced by the earlier turbines. Note that, of course, no combination of turbines can capture more energy than the total energy contained in the wind.

Computers have enabled many wonderful accomplishments for us (my latest is the Merlin bird identification app on my phone). For engineers, computer simulation is a wonderful tool. Computer simulation enables us to create a mathematical model of a real world system, described in computer code, and then to perform experiments on that model.  A crucial part of simulation is to validate the model, that is, to compare its output with data from the actual system in order to confirm that it faithfully models the real world in the crucial measurements. Depending on how realistic the underlying model is, we can then make predictions about how actual devices will perform in the real world.

In this article, the engineers created a two-dimensional CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics) model of a field of VAWTs, performed experiments by changing the layout of the turbines, and then predicted what will occur with real turbines. Obviously, they can perform many more experiments at much less cost than if they did the experiments with actual turbines.

Engineering improves products in three ways: design, manufacture, and use. In the design of a wind turbine, the engineers select a HAWT or VAWT, decide on the size and shape of the blades, determine the height of the tower, select materials for each part of the device, and so forth. In manufacture, engineers select and then continuously improve the processes for making each part, for assembling the device, and for installing it at its location. Finally, engineers make decisions about when the turbine will be operated, how its output will be used within the larger electric grid, select and implement a maintenance schedule, and eventually decide when to take the device out of service. The article in Renewable Energy is an example of improvements in the use of the turbines, that is, in their layout, but it also illustrates how design and use are interrelated. Renewable energy is coming on like gangbusters because of changes in design, manufacture, and use.

What does it mean for you?

Computer simulation is an amazing tool. The minute you ask any question starting with “what if …?” you should think about using a computer simulation. As an industrial engineer, I know about the use of stochastic simulations (ones that incorporate random events) for modeling production systems, enabling the asking and answering of “what if?” questions about inventory, equipment layout, scheduling, and more.

One of the most important facts about a computer simulation, which I have mentioned already, is that the results are only as good as the ability of the model to replicate the real world. I tell my students that they must practice saying, to themselves and to others, “it’s only a model,” said with a shrug of the shoulders. Engineers can all too easily fall into the trap of saying “the VAWT array functioned best in this layout,” when they really mean “the simulation of the VAWT array functioned best in this layout.” As George Box is often quoted as saying, “all models are wrong; some are useful.” You must be wary of engineers – and others – who aren’t careful in their language about predictions from models.

Renewable energy is coming on like gangbusters. Whether this progress and others will be fast enough and sufficient to save the world remains to be seen.

Where can you learn more?

This is my second blog post titled “It’s only a model.” The first one is here.

IISE (the Institute of Industrial & Systems Engineers) has a Division devoted to modeling and simulation. There are many useful computer packages: AnyLogic, Arena, Flexsim, Simio, Simul8, and more. The Winter Simulation Conference is a great source of current information about theory and application. Industrial engineering overlaps with many business areas and computer simulations can also be used, for example, in financial forecasting.

Engineering simulation can be used any time the mathematical equations describing a real world system are too complicated to be solved in general; they are instead solved numerically for the specific case being studied and are often solved using approximations. The applications and computer packages are too numerous to list.

This page from the US Department of Energy gives a good overview of developments in wind turbines.

If you aren’t seriously worried about global climate change, this page from NASA should do it for you.  

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