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.

What is it worth?

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

What’s new?

Interesting Engineering reported that the CEO of Turkish cryptocurrency exchange Thodex fled to Thailand with $2 billion of crypto assets, leaving 400,000 users of the exchange in the lurch.

What does it mean?

Blockchain is a computer technology that prevents changes from being made to a series of records; the most important features of blockchain are distributed storage and a type of internal consistency (one block of data is related numerically to the previous block, hence “block chain”). If someone wanted to change a record in a blockchain, they would have to change the record in many, many locations, and would have to change many, many records in order to maintain the internal consistency of the records. Blockchain thus can prevent certain types of fraud, that is, fraud in which records are altered. Blockchain creates unalterable accounting records. Blockchain is currently used for cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, that is, currencies created and maintained as computer records.

Most implementations of blockchain rely on proof of work to establish and maintain the records. When a new record is added, blockchain sites perform long and complicated calculations (following the internal consistency rules) to add the record; the first site to present proof of the completion of that work, called mining, is rewarded with additional cryptocurrency.

Blockchain protects against only certain types of fraud, that is, fraud involving the changing of accounting records. Blockchain will not prevent many other types of fraud. In fact, the whole area of cryptocurrency has a great deal of fraud; an Internet search on the words “blockchain fraud” or “blockchain scam” will turn up many examples.

Consider, as an example, an area of fraud I was concerned with for my 40 years as a professor of engineering: cheating by students. Blockchain could protect against recorded grades being changed fraudulently, a type of fraud that does occur. I am aware of several such cases that were detected and there are probably others that went undetected. But cheating by students takes many other forms, none of which would be prevented or detected by blockchain, for example, someone copying another’s work on homework or during a test.

Blockchain is also touted as useful for verifying someone’s identity and for establishing trust in business dealings with unknown partners, but I suspect that the actual usefulness is more limited than the hype and that other computer technologies can accomplish such goals. The mathematics of computational complexity, which I discussed two weeks ago in this blog post, underlie all these technologies for computer security.

What does it mean for you?

Blockchain, as with many new technologies is the subject of much hype, some of which is misleading and even incorrect. For example, this article at Forbes says:  “Were the expensive free-range eggs we purchased really created at a free-range farm?  Was the gold ring I bought online really made with 24K gold? Companies can combat fraud with blockchain by verifying the legitimacy of every part of the supply chain process, helping both the buyer and manufacturer. You’ll never have to question that organic produce and those free-range eggs.”

I disagree. Nothing in blockchain can prevent someone from, at any point in the supply chain, substituting eggs from caged chickens for eggs from free-range chickens, just as nothing in blockchain can prevent a student from looking over the shoulder of another student during a test.

Blockchain does have important uses. The immutable nature of blockchain records is an important feature in maintaining security. But most hacking episodes involve stealing private records, not altering such records.

I am not addressing here the huge amount of electricity required for the proof of work aspect of blockchain (see, for example, “Bitcoin consumes ‘more electricity than Argentina’”) because, I am told by my local blockchain expert, other methods of blockchain do not rely on proof of work. I am also not addressing the independence of blockchain from regulations or governments (as part of crypto anarchism, for example), which others cite as an attractive feature; one upshot is that your recourse in the case of fraud and scam are limited. And, whatever you do, don’t lose your password; if you do, you lose your assets.

Where can you learn more?

This 2018 article “Blockchain is not a silver bullet for fraud prevention” is still very useful. Here is another article cautioning about the hype. This December 2020 article in Finance Magnates blames the lack of a killer application outside of cryptocurrencies for the failure of blockchain to achieve its promises. This December 2019 article uses a Gartner diagram of the phases of hype to speculate that blockchain will be useful five to ten years from now. This piece in TechBeacon lays out in detail some of the pitfalls of blockchain.

Some argue that blockchain eliminates the need to rely on trust  in business transactions, but this article by noted cryptographer Bruce Schneir points out that trust is always needed. He asks “Would you rather trust a human legal system or the details of some computer code you don’t have the expertise to audit?” He includes this image tweeted by Internet pioneer Vinton Cerf:

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

Tea, Earl Grey, Hot.

Source: I used a portion of this image at Wikimedia. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

What’s new?

An article from GlobalSpec Engineering360 combines some of my favorite topics: new materials, the element carbon, and additive manufacturing. This article was just one of many I read this week on additive manufacturing.

What does it mean?

Plastics and carbon nanotubes were combined in a new internal configuration to create a material with improved strength, toughness and stiffness, and lighter weight. Such a material could have significant application in replacing metals in vehicles.

One useful piece of technology in the Star Trek science fiction series was the replicator, used to create food, including Captain Picard’s Earl Grey tea. This article taught me that it was also used to create spare parts and items for consumption on the Holodeck simulation and that “By virtually eliminating material scarcity, replicator technology plays an important role in the moneyless human economy within the Star Trek universe.” This article expands even more about how it was used. The physical explanation (“matter-energy conversion”) is suitable for science fiction but not for science.

Regular readers of this blog know that I am interested in additive manufacturing. My interests include the technical aspects of the new materials and include the technical aspects of how the new materials are created, but also include the potential for changing supply chains, manufacturing, and our economy. While the abundance enabled by the Star Trek replicator is still science fiction, the future may involve using a limited number of feedstocks to create consumer products on demand, close to the final consumer. Your local big box store will be a manufacturing facility, turning carbon (and other materials) into products.

What does it mean for you?

Manufacturers should be excited about the potential for additive manufacturing to change their processes as well as the processes of their suppliers. The technology is changing the economics of additive manufacturing enough that it can now be used for small batches and larger batches as well, enabling customization in mass manufacturing.

But manufacturers should also be cautious: parts made with additive manufacturing are different. The article I cited above points out that the new material creates objects with different strength, toughness, stiffness, and weight. Careful thought must be given to the implications of these changes in use: for example, decreased weight may be a benefit for shipping, but may create issues in the ability of an object to remain stationary in wind. Is lighter weight lawn furniture always desirable? In addition, additive manufactured parts are usually created in layers and thus can tend to delaminate, with implications for durability.

Also, replacing conventionally made parts with those made by additive manufacturing can have other implications. Because additive manufacturing can create parts with shapes that were difficult to make by other manufacturing processes, an assembly of parts may possibly be made as one part, as explained here, with implications for the manufacturing work flow and for the workforce.

I often note that fasteners are a sometimes overlooked part of engineering design. This article explores how traditional fasteners (screws, for example) work with parts made with additive manufacturing and this article explains that the fastener may need to be selected to add strength to thinner parts made by additive manufacturing.

I hope that you share my excitement about additive manufacturing, but I also hope that you share my caution.

Where can you learn more?

While I subscribe to some email lists that tend toward coverage of a wide range of additive manufacturing, generally still in the research stage, applications of additive manufacturing that are actually being put into practice are probably more likely to be found in conferences and publications for that industry, such as the Food Automation and Manufacturing Conference and Expo. Food Technology Magazine had this 2020 article on how 3-D printing and other technologies may change the production of food.

Some sites that cover additive manufacturing, for example Additive Manufacturing Media, do have good articles on specific industries, such as this recent one on 3-D printing furniture.

I tend to use the phrase “additive manufacturing” as being more descriptive of the technology, but an Internet search should also try the term “3-D printing” since it is widely used.

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

The search for the best

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

An illustration of a mathematical optimization problem with two decision variables (shown on the horizontal and vertical axes), three constraints (shown in black, teal, and purple), and a linear objective function (shown in red) that is to be maximized. The optimal solution is 130 for the variable on the horizontal axis and 20 for the variable on the vertical axis; that solution yields a value of 49,000 for the objective function.

What’s new?

As reported by Nature and, the 2021 Abel prize was awarded to mathematicians László Lovász and Avi Wigderson for their work on computational complexity.

What does it mean?

If, like me, you enjoy putting together jigsaw puzzles, you know that every puzzle is labeled with an important number: the number of pieces. That number is a fairly good predictor of how much time it will take you to put together the puzzle. Once the puzzle is done, you know you have solved it correctly simply by seeing that the resulting picture is complete. You have found the unique, best solution.

Much of what computers do takes the form of solving mathematical puzzles: finding the best route for a delivery van, assigning flight crew members to flights in the best way, assigning jobs to machines in a production facility, deciding on the best way to cut a tree trunk into lumber, and so forth. For many mathematical puzzles, like the jigsaw puzzle, the size of the puzzle is a fairly good predictor of how long the puzzle will take to solve, and for some – but not all such mathematical puzzles – when you have found the best answer, you can easily confirm that the answer is the best.

The field that deals with solving mathematical puzzles like these is called optimization (notice the use of the word “best” in each of the stated puzzles above) and the field that studies the difficulty of such puzzles (how long will the puzzle take to solve) is called computational complexity.

In optimization, the puzzles we solve are expressed in mathematical form. We want to select values of decision variables to maximize or minimize an objective function (expressed as a function of the decision variables) while meeting all of the constraints of the problem (expressed as inequalities or equations, again as functions of the decision variables). In my June 27, 2020, blog on operations research I wrote about linear programming as an example, where the objective function and constraints are all linear functions of the decision variables, but other puzzles we want to solve may not be linear. Also, in some puzzles, the values of the decision variables are restricted to be integers (that is, numbers with no decimal part): you can’t assign 0.8 of a crew member to a flight, for example.

Computers solve these problems by using algorithms: an algorithm tells the computer program exactly what to do and the computer chunks away and eventually tells you the best solution to the problem. The issue is how long it will take the computer to find the best solution, and in some cases the answer is disappointing: more time than the total time so far in the universe. Imagine a jigsaw so big that it would take almost forever to complete. In such cases, we may need to use a heuristic, which is a method that can get us an answer to such problems that may not be the best answer, but that we know it is a good answer.

In some puzzles, when you have found the best answer, you can easily confirm that the answer is the best. If, by luck, you pick up a jigsaw puzzle piece and it clicks into place, you know you are correct. With some mathematical puzzles, introducing randomness into the heuristic can speed up the process of finding a good, even best answer.

As the Nature article on the Abel prize says: “But since the advent of computers in the twentieth century, the emphasis in research has changed from ‘can an algorithm solve this problem?’ to ‘can an algorithm, at least in principle, solve this problem on an actual computer and in a reasonable time?’”

The winners of the Abel prize contributed to the solution of mathematical puzzles and to the field of computational complexity. Lovász has contributed to the solution of mathematical puzzles that can be expressed as movement on a network, seeking the best solution. Wigderson’s contributions relate to the use of randomness in finding solutions and relate to so-called zero-knowledge proofs, a way of proving that a puzzle has been solved without actually revealing the solution.

What does it mean for you?

Computers do more and more for us every day (just take a look at your cell phone), often relying on algorithms and heuristics to solve mathematical puzzles. We want them to solve bigger and bigger problems, so the answer is always, get a faster or bigger computer, but computational complexity helps the designers of algorithms know when a faster computer is likely to be successful and when the problems are simply too big to tackle. The results of computational complexity are important in guiding this work.

Paradoxically, sometimes we want to design problems that will take an enormous amount of time to solve; that idea forms the basis for most computer security. Guessing your 16-character password is beyond the reach of most computers. Complexity theory underlies cybersecurity and encryption, the methods that are meant to keep your information safe from attack. It also forms the computational basis of crypto currencies such as Bitcoin.

Where can you learn more?

The Britannica article on optimization is a nice introduction to the field, including some history. This article from Forbes discusses the types of business problems that can be solved by mathematical optimization. The professional organization INFORMS is one of several for professionals in optimization and computational complexity; they have an excellent history of mathematical optimization here.

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

“Where everything is made up and the points don’t matter.”

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

What’s new?

One of my former graduate students is now fairly high up at Facebook Reality Labs and she sent me an Oculus Quest 2 (also a charger and an Elite Strap). I have now subscribed to Supernatural and I am exercising more than I have in decades.

What does it mean?

The Oculus Quest 2 is a fairly bulky, but surprisingly light, set of goggles and two controllers, one held in each hand. Activation requires a Facebook account and use requires a wifi signal. Supernatural requires the associated phone app. Setup was trouble free for me. An Oculus Quest 2 costs $300 for 64GB storage and $400 for 256GB, including shipping in the US. A Supernatural subscription costs $179 for a year.

In Supernatural, I can select from exercise videos of High, Medium, and Low intensity (and from meditation videos) of various duration (from as short as 8 minutes to as long as 45 minutes). Inside my goggles, I am placed in a beautiful outdoor location (including one on Mars). I appear to be standing on a computer-generated mat, usually several feet off the ground. I can move to look around and up and down in the scene. A new video is issued each day and hundreds of old ones are available. I have created a list of my favorites.

The exercise routine starts with a warmup from a coach who is located on a computer-generated mat about 10 feet in front me and then consists of several songs (usually rock, pop, hip-hop, etc.). During the routines, my hand controllers appear to be light sabers (called bats in Supernatural) with which I strike at oncoming spheres, black for targets to be struck by the black bat in my left hand and white for the white bat in my right hand. My accuracy and power scores are recorded and reported to me between songs and at the end of the session, which ends with a cool down from the coach. During the entire session, the coach’s voice provides encouraging (and sometimes amusing) comments.  

The quality of the vision is remarkable. I have set my initial room in Oculus to a place in a Japanese inn, with a view of an outside street scene and nearby pond of fish. When I move around, the view changes with 3D fidelity. The sound is also very good. When I am standing in the exercise mat in Supernatural, several feet off the ground, I have to keep reminding myself I am standing solidly on my house floor. I have my goggles adjusted so I get a slight view of my real floor if I glance down past my nose, keeping me oriented.

For use while standing, as I do in Supernatural, the Oculus interface requires me to set a safety perimeter in which there are no objects, and it generates a visual signal if I move any part of my body outside that perimeter. Because its use is linked to a Facebook account, privacy issues arise. A friend created a second Facebook account just to use with Oculus.

I have gone through three waves of emotion concerning Supernatural. First, I immediately loved it: this is fun! The movements, the dance, and the exercise all felt great. Then, as I got used to it, I started to pay attention to the two scores: accuracy in hitting targets and power, scored relative to expectations based on my most recent performance. I started to try to get 100% accuracy and high power scores. I hurt my shoulders and the fun decreased. Now I am back to focusing on the fun and ignoring the scores. The strikes and movements are, I now realize, really well choreographed and I focus on feeling that movement. I am back to: this is fun!

In my seven decades of life, I have sometimes exercised a lot, sometimes less, and recently, (now dogless, so lacking any canine friend I always called my personal trainer), I have had trouble making a habit of exercise. I am, with Supernatural, exercising 30 to 40 minutes every day, with noticeable results. I have to pace myself so that I don’t overdo my workouts and hurt myself. Supernatural is fun! The Supernatural Facebook page has ample evidence that it has changed many lives for the better.

What does it mean for you?

Virtual Reality (VR) has been touted as useful for training and now I get it. The view from inside the goggles is not perfect, but it is remarkably good; most noticeably it tracks my movement adjusting the scene flawlessly. It is so good that when I tried a roller coaster ride app, I noped out of that very quickly. Also, the hand controllers allow for various interactions with the virtual reality, including grasping and using objects.  

The Virtual Reality Society provides a list of applications in various areas. In their business category, they list virtual tours of a business environment, training, and a 360 view of a product. VR gaming is very popular, including opportunities to interact with others.  “The best VR apps of 2021” at digitaltrends includes apps allowing the user to create spray graffiti, to watch 360 videos, and to explore 12 underwater environments, This example at Lenovo reports on the use of VR to restore memories for dementia patients

My three stages of emotion in Supernatural reinforce my belief that scoring systems designed supposedly to motive people actually undermine intrinsic motivation and thus long term behavioral change. As a professor, I told students that grades undermine learning.  Alfie Kohn has written great books on motivation, especially in the field of education.  I recently learned of a quote from Barry Schwartz (a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, my alma mater): “when you rely on incentives, you undermine values.”

Where can you learn more?

The tag line on the TV improvisational comedy show “Whose Line is it Anyway” is “where everything is made up and the points don’t matter.” Or on video here

I read the Barry Schwartz quote in a recent report from the NAACP: “Fossil Fueled Foolery. An Illustrated Primer on the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Deceptive Tactics.” The second edition, issued on 1 April this year, is anything but an April Fool’s joke and I highly recommend it.

Alfie Kohn’s website describes his books; my favorites are Punished by Rewards and No Contest. In his latest blog post (8 March 2021) he quotes one of my heroes, John Dewey, on the bad effects of sugar-coating. Kohn remarks: “These days an awful lot of such sugarcoating is done digitally — for example, with apps that add points and levels to `gamify’ a list of decontexualized facts or skills that students are required to master.”

Virtual reality involves immersion in the computer generated environment. In augmented reality, additional information is displayed on top of person’s real view. The Oculus Quest 2 has a pass through feature for augmented reality, used, for example, to set up the safety space. Wired has a good introduction to VR with explanation of some terms also.

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

Why, why, why, why, and why?

Source: Wikimedia Commons. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

What’s new?

Since 23 March, a quarter-mile-long container ship, the Ever Given, has been stuck across the Suez Canal blocking all traffic in both directions.

What does it mean?

While news reports about this situation are mostly focusing on the efforts to move the ship and on the possible consequences for world shipping (do we need another reminder of the risks of long supply chains?), potential causes that have been mentioned include strong winds and a loss of steering power on the ship. Another report said that mechanical or engine failure had been ruled out and that the ship had been involved in an accident involving high winds in Germany in 2019.

What does it mean for you?

In Fall 2006, I was teaching, as I did each fall, an introduction to industrial engineering course at Colorado State University-Pueblo. My goal in that course was to help students get the big picture of industrial engineering, including that industrial engineers tend to blame the system, not the individual person, when mistakes and accidents occur. I told the class that initial reports of accidents often cite operator error as the cause, but that later reports often uncover deeper, systemic causes.

The next week, tragically, in Lexington KY,  a small jet took the wrong runway for takeoff, overran the too short runway and all but one of the 50 people aboard died; in an early news article, the cause was cited as operator error by the pilot for taking the wrong runway. As the class and I watched the evolving story over the semester, it emerged that the airport was undergoing construction and runway entrances had changed the week before; that, contrary to FAA guidance, only one controller was in the tower and he had turned to perform administrative tasks; that, again contrary to FAA guidance, the controller had been given multiple responsibilities; that small commuter planes were not required, as larger jets were, to have an onboard system that checks for the correct runway; and that other factors may have contributed to the crash. While it is clear that the pilot and copilot missed cues that they were on the wrong runway and engaged in irrelevant conversation while taxiing, the FAA took several actions as a result of the crash to improve the systems for ensuring use of the correct runway.

In writing this blog post, I found a 2019 analysis of the crash that stated that some of the lights on the correct runway were not working and that Comair practice did not include comparing the “heading bug” and the actual heading on the display.  That article stated: “Because it’s impossible to expect a pilot to never make a mistake, redundant systems exist to ensure that mistakes are caught and corrected quickly.” That article also states: “The nuance of the situation unfortunately was lost on many. The media largely blamed the pilots without recognizing that mistakes are never made in a vacuum.”

Tools exist to analyze systems for risks before accidents occur and to analyze causes after accidents. For example, my local Boys & Girls Clubs (I sit on their Board) recently instituted procedures for recording and analyzing mistakes that might have resulted in an issue concerning safety of club members, whether or not something bad happened. Kid safety is a strong priority of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

In my experience as an engineer, good engineers are obsessed with preventing mistakes and accidents, in a strangely matter-of-fact way. On a visit to a manufacturing plant years ago, my small group had gotten a thorough safety briefing and were outfitted in hard hats, safety glasses, steel toed shoes, orange vests, and more. As we left the briefing room to start the tour, we descended an external staircase. The engineer leading our group turned around to make sure that each of us was using the handrail on the stairs. I smiled.

About 12% of world trade by volume“ goes through the Suez Canal. This episode has resulted in no loss of life or pollution, but the design of a system to keep the Canal open is vital not just to Egypt but to the world. An article by Captain George Livingstone calls attention to the systemic issues created by the ever increasing size of container ships.

Every accident or near miss should be analyzed and systemic improvements should be generated and considered to prevent future occurrences. Another industrial engineering principle is that workers work in the system; managers work on the system.

Where can you learn more?

Techniques for analyzing risk and discovering the root cause of errors include: FMEA,  mistake proofing, and the 5 Whys. The 2015 version of ISO 9000 certification focuses to a great extent on risk management.  

The fascinating book The Box by Marc Levinson describes the development of the shipping container and the changes that were required to the entire shipping system.

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

Additive integration

Injection molding process. Source. This image is in the public domain.

What’s new?

A 16 March article in Automation World describes a new Stanley Black & Decker device (called the Inj3ctor) for manufacturing products from rubber by combining capabilities of injection molding and 3D printing.

What does it mean?

In the engineering program I used to chair, the course in manufacturing processes uses the well known textbook Introduction to Manufacturing Processes by Mikell P Groover, now in its 12th edition. As shown in the table of contents, the book covers materials and then describes a great number of  processes such as casting; extrusion; coating; injection, blow, and rotational molding; pressing and sintering; forming; rolling; forging; drawing; machining; turning; drilling; grinding; annealing; plating; welding; assembly; fastening; and more.

Of course, any product is manufactured from a variety of materials using a variety of processes. Indeed, the crucial engineering knowledge is design, which involves selection of appropriate materials and processes to create a product with the capabilities desired by the customer. Look around you and just about any object you see was manufactured using a variety of processes in various combinations: a pen, a cellphone, a chair, a door.

The idea behind the Inj3ctor is not revolutionary – a mold is 3D printed and a flexible material, such as rubber, is then injected into the mold – but the marketing of the product as combining these manufacturing processes caught my eye.

What does it mean for you?

Right now, additive manufacturing is somewhere between experimental and routine, with new processes being invented and some processes becoming routine. The change in name from “rapid prototyping” to “additive manufacturing” indicated the trend toward making these processes routine. The make-versus-buy decision and distinction between the specialized shop and a general manufacturing plant will affect how much additive manufacturing get integrated into other processes or remains stand-alone, but the Inj3ctor tells me that additive manufacturing is well on its way to becoming routine.  

In your manufacturing processes you are probably very much aware of places where additive manufacturing is being used, just as you know where you are using casting, molding, forging, or drilling, but in the future you will think less about the new or different aspects of additive manufacturing and think more about its use simply as another manufacturing processes. Engineers will routinely consider the materials and processes of additive manufacturing as part of their design of products.

Where can you learn more?

The best places to follow developments in additive manufacturing are still magazines and companies particular to those processes, for example, the information from Additive Manufacturing Media or this outlook from the company FormLabs. Another window into additive manufacturing is through applications in specific industries, such as medical devices or sports equipment.

General manufacturing magazines also cover additive manufacturing: Manufacturing Engineering from SME (Society for Manufacturing Engineering), Industrial Machinery Digest, Manufacturing News, Manufacturing Today, The Manufacturer, and more.

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

Manufacturing matters

Tillamook cheese factory. Source: Good Free Photos

What’s new?

As part of its series on Most Innovative Companies, Fast Company published an article titled “The 10 most innovative manufacturing companies of 2021.” These ten companies were selected for their innovations in manufacturing processes. The icons on this link take you to other specialized lists in the Fast Company series.  

What does it mean?

Three of the companies contributed to the rapid response to COVID-19. SiO2 Material Sciences developed a better process to create a glass coating inside plastic vials. Carbon’s new product of improved nasal swabs was designed and launched in three weeks. Ford was cited for moving quickly to turn its designers and manufacturing facilities to producing PPE and ventilator products.

Four of the companies use 3D printing. Gantri was cited for using 3D printing to create custom designed lamps, Arris Composites for using additive manufacturing and molding to create better composites, Carbon for designing and 3D printing a better nasal swab, and Velo3D for innovations in metal additive manufacturing.

Sustainability is improved with several of these companies, often through its choice of materials. Gantri prints its lamps from plant polymers. Okeanos produces packaging with reduced environmental damage.

Lockdowel makes hardware for easy and fast assembly of wood products such as cabinets, closets, and furniture. The company is an example of a provider in a long chain, often invisible to the final consumer, that results, if done well, in superior products and lower costs: in one application, Lockdowel hardware is incorporated into cabinetry kits bought by home builders. The company has a wonderful set of videos on YouTube, showing their manufacturing processes and the use of their products. The company feeds my fascination with fasteners, an often neglected aspect of engineering design.

Instrumental provides in process inspection of products with computerized analysis of the images to detect product defects rapidly. SendCutSend provides fast laser cutting services for various materials, from steel, through carbon fiber, to wood.

What does it mean for you?

Among Fast Company’s many lists about innovative companies, I selected the list about manufacturing companies to emphasize that innovation matters in product design but also in the design of the process for making a product (or delivering a service). Industrial engineering, which is my area of expertise, is all about efficiency, quality, and safety in making products and delivering services.

These companies indicate several trends in industrial engineering, such as additive manufacturing, improved materials, and sophistical use of information technology. They also illustrate long-standing principles of industrial engineering, especially the emphasis on improving efficiency, quality, and safety.

Industrial engineering and sustainability are, I think, increasingly merging, to create a systems view supporting the three pillars of sustainability: people, planet, and profit. Your organization can’t afford to neglect any of these three. How do you find people who can take this broad systems view? Look for industrial engineers.

Where can you learn more?

The professional organization for industrial engineers is the Institute for Industrial and Systems Engineers IISE). Notice the crucial word “systems.”  IISE has links to videos, articles, webinars and podcasts about industrial engineering.

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

My 30-year-old sweater

Au Coton sweater, purchased by the author about 1990. Photo by the author.

What’s new?

A 1 March article at Brit describes 15 clothing brands that are moving to be more sustainable.  For example, the brand YES AND states its commitment to organic cotton, fair labor, low impact dyes, and lasting quality. Selva Negra “is rooted in the use of ethical practices and is committed to ethically sourced materials, production transparency, zero-waste packaging while picking up new ways to reduce their carbon footprint.” Made Trade sells items that adhere to “one or more of Made Trade’s seven core values: Fair Trade, Heritage, Made in USA, People of Color Owned, Sustainable, Vegan, and Women Owned.”

On 2 February, the government of the United Kingdom released a report commissioned by HM Treasury, The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review, named after Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta, the Cambridge University professor who led the work.

What does it mean?

In a previous blog post about fashion, I noted the limits of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” I argued that consumers can’t improve the sustainability of fashion on their own, and I urged manufacturers to consider designing their production processes to support a circular economy.

As an engineer, I believe that technology bears some blame for the ills that beset our society, but I also believe that technology can do much to improve society. Electric vehicles, with batteries charged by renewable energy, may help sustain the personal mobility that many seek. Changing the fashion industry so its production processes are more sustainable is a feasible and worthwhile goal. The companies described in the Brit article are doing good work.

The pink sweater at the top of this post is my favorite piece of clothing. Purchased over three decades ago, it was, I remember, rather expensive, but it has been well worth whatever I paid for it. As implied by the brand name Au Coton, it is 100% cotton; also, it is made in Canada, virtually indestructible, and never out of style (well, I am not very style conscious, so it has also been, I am sure, never highly in style). I rarely feel a connection to Marie Kondo’s injunction that we should retain only those possessions that spark joy, but this sweater does do that for me.

But sometimes I also feel that I have failed in my role as a consumer by not buying new sweaters and thus fueling our economy. That’s a silly feeling perhaps, but so-called advanced societies measure their well-being by their growth. A static economy is bad and a shrinking one is a recession, very bad. Keeping a sweater for 30 years does not fuel economic growth.

The good news for those who want growth is that many other humans are more fashion conscious than I am. I was struck by the recent attention given in social media to a shoe, described in this tweet from Museum Archive as a “2300 years old Scythian woman’s boot preserved in the frozen ground of the Altai Mountains.” The decoration on the sole is designed to be visible when the wearer sat on her knees, socializing around the fire. The shoe is in the collection of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. My conclusion is that fashion may have been invented before agriculture, before the wheel, even before homo sapiens.

What does it mean for you?

Despite my purchase of the pink sweater and other items from Au Coton, the company went into bankruptcy in 1993, but continued until 2003 in Canada, finally closing down “after the brand could no longer compete with conglomerate big box stores like Gap or Old Navy.” The brand is back now in Montreal and online; I am looking for another investment I can make in clothing that I plan to keep for another 30 years.

But the cautionary story of Au Coton raises the issue of whether a company can survive by selling clothing that lasts for 30 years. The Au Coton clothing is no longer made in Canada, but is stated to be sweatshop-free. Making items that last that long may be good for the earth, but not good for the economy, for jobs, and for growth.

The most widely cited definition of sustainability, from the Brundtland Commission in 1987, says “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Note the pairing of “sustainable” with “development,” a phrasing used to balance the concerns of developed and developing countries.

The Dasgupta report offers another economic path. It urges us to recognize nature as an asset, “just as produced capital (roads, buildings and factories) and human capital (health, knowledge and skills) are assets. Like education and health, however, Nature is more than an economic good: many value its very existence and recognise its intrinsic worth too.” The report states next, “Collectively, however, we have failed to manage our global portfolio of assets sustainably.”  “Nature’s worth to society … is not reflected in market prices because much of it is open to all at no monetary charge.” Worse, many of our institutions not only fail to manage these externalities they actually pay “people more to exploit Nature than to protect it, and to prioritise unsustainable economic activities.” Our economies must be viewed as embedded in Nature. (The quotes are from the headline version of the report, available here.)

Its three recommendations are: (1) “Humanity must ensure its demands on nature do not exceed its sustainable supply….”  (2) “We should adopt different metrics for economic success.…” (3) “We must transform our institutions and systems – particularly finance and education – to enable these changes and sustain them for future generations.…”

With its first recommendation, the report notes: “But if we are to avoid exceeding the limits of what Nature can provide on a sustainable basis while meeting the needs of the human population, we cannot rely on technology alone: consumption and production patterns will need to be fundamentally restructured.”

Concerning the second recommendation, GDP is useful for some analysis, but its failure to account for the depreciation of natural assets, encourages us to pursue unsustainable development. National accounting systems must include natural capital.

Finally, money has to flow to support the maintenance of crucial natural resources. For examples, nations could be paid by other nations to protect the ecosystems on which we all depend. Also, education must reconnect people with nature so they demand these changes.

We need to have an economy in which producing and buying a sweater that lasts for 30 years or longer is common.

Where can you learn more?

A short description of The Dasgupta Review is here. The full report and other shorter versions are here. The Royal Society has a video discussion of the report here.

Various commentaries on the report express hope that it will have a large impact in improving our future: The Nature Conservancy, GreenBiz, the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre.

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

Talk with me

Source: Page 78, NIST Framework and Roadmap for Smart Grid Interoperability. This diagram is useful for identifying places where cybersecurity requirements must be defined.

What’s new?

On 18 February, NIST (the US National Institute for Standards and Technology) announced Release 4.0 of the NIST Framework and Roadmap for Smart Grid Interoperability.

What does it mean?

History shows us that the world has become more interconnected. The future of technology lies in even more networks and systems. Exhibit A is the Internet, which has revolutionized information flow and communication, but, looking further back in history, electrification, the interstate highway system, the telephone system, the railroads, and many more examples demonstrate the powerful effects of interconnection. But each of those networks is littered with the detritus of failed interconnections due to lack of compatible standards: train track width, DC or AC electricity, and so forth.

Beneficial electrification has great potential for reducing climate effects of electricity generation if the electricity can be generated from renewable energy. While the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow in one location, renewable energy (including hydropower and geothermal sources) is reliably available somewhere not far from where you need that electricity. Thus, interconnection, along with the many types of storage of energy being developed, hold promise for reliable electricity generation that may help us save the planet. But such interconnection relies on compatible standards for electricity flow, for communication about needs and availability of electricity, and for control of the devices that consume and produce electricity.

Interoperability focuses on the communication part of those interconnections. From page i of the NIST report, “Interoperability — the ability to exchange information in a timely, actionable manner — is a critical yet underdeveloped capability of the power system. Significant grid modernization has occurred in recent years, but the proliferation of technology and associated standards has only modestly improved interoperability.”

Also, from the same page, “The benefits of interoperability are broad and reach all stakeholders at all scales. … by allowing coordinated small actions across diverse stakeholders and devices to have grand impacts.”

We’ve been through this before, many, many times. We know how to have the many stakeholders work together to set standards and create regulations that ensure interoperability, while still allowing, in fact encouraging innovation to flourish.  We also know how to break the standards apart so that an engineer designing, say, an inverter, can refer to standards that cover the interoperability issues for inverters and not need worry about interoperability issues that affect only high voltage transmission lines or electric vehicles.

The increasing variety of generation sources and locations means that the grid needs to have more communication among these devices. Also, consumer devices (refrigerators, air conditioners, washing machines, etc.) increasingly come with sensing and communication capabilities that allow the owner – or the utility – to control when and how that device operates. While the electric utility industry refers to these devices as being “behind the meter,” that is, on the user’s side of the electric meter, they really are part of the grid because their communication capabilities offer huge potential to dynamically balance the supply and demand for electricity. Again, the grid needs more communication interoperability.

What does it mean for you?

Interoperability is an issue for all information technology. You can use any mouse with any computer (well, not quite, make sure the plug is compatible, and you may need an adapter) because there are standards for how the devices communicate. You, as the consumer, just shouldn’t have to worry about interoperability.

Your relationship as a consumer, as a manufacturer, or as an operator of any organization, with your electric provider is changing. If, for example, you have solar panels on your home, you may buy electric power but also sell it to your utility. If your organization has equipment that uses large amounts of power, you should already be working closely with your electric provider and you will be working even more closely with them in the future. For example, you might implement a soft start for your machines after down time in order to avoid adverse impacts on the grid. These interrelationships will increase with increasing abilities of new devices to sense, communicate, and be controlled.

Just as we have become providers of information used by others through our activities on social media, our devices will be wired to provide information, raising the same issues as those raised by our use of social media, most notably, who owns, benefits, and controls the information generated by the devices in our homes and factories. The NIST report states (page 6) “An empowered energy consumer has many opportunities to obtain value and can optimize their interactions with the broader energy system to maximize their preferred benefit,” but I fear that the consumer may not be the one defining this new relationship. The NIST report notes on page 58, “Absent an environment that allows universal access to the full range of opportunities, customers may be required to select devices and systems for feasibility of integration rather than the operational or economic value propositions they offer.”

Interoperability is necessary for this improved communication in all parts of the electrical grid, but it comes with its evil twin, a possible lack of security. Thus, this report also covers the need for security aspects in this new interoperability.

Where can you learn more?

The NIST statement concerning the new report has helpful information on interoperability. The report itself has a summary called Key Messages, which I have quoted from. The US Office of Electricity (part of the US Department of Energy) has a helpful page on grid modernization.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF, “The leading nonprofit defending digital privacy, free speech, and innovation for 30 years and counting!”) has noted the privacy threats of the smart grid, but with a focus on households. I cannot find that any business or manufacturing group (for example, the National Association of Manufacturers) is watching the developments in interoperability of the electrical grid.

An article on the McKinsey website argues that utility companies have not described clear benefits for consumers from grid modernization.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
Audio of this post