Distorted Realities
Jun. 30, 2015 - The future of manufacturing is application dependent and two examples of this come to mind. One is the understanding of black holes, and the other is regarding Google’s internal organization.
Jun. 16, 2015 - My reading list includes more than physics books. I do read “guy” stories, and in recent columns, I have talked about my Saturday forays into the movie theatre to see a “no-content” movie. It helps relieve and empty the stuff running around my head.
Mar. 27, 2015 - People keep asking me what a physics major thinks about of the “going green” discussion. Right now, I’m thinking about 3D farming. Currently we farm on a two-dimensional basis, however, 3D manufacturing is coming into its own and, I believe, coming up fast. This gets its impetus from the existing hothouse businesses growing specialized plants.
Nov. 24, 2014 - Almost everything in automation needs sensing and measurement. There’s definitely a bright future here. That’s why I’m focusing this month’s column on future trends in sensitivity and measurement — a fitting topic as we say goodbye to another year and look at what’s ahead.
Oct. 24, 2014 - Nearly every Saturday afternoon, a friend and I go to the movies. We don’t know what movie we will be seeing before we buy the tickets. This gives us a sense of adventure.
Sept. 29, 2014 - It’s been proven time and time again — small groups perform better than large groups.
This month’s column focuses on two major subjects: the future of automation technology and why we resist change for innovative automation processes.
This column attempts to tackle the lack of innovation in large corporations. There are many ways to approach this problem — using your left brain is one way.
When I first learned that this issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION was going to focus on the power consumption of the automatic process, I shivered. “Goodness, I’ll have to be politically correct,” I thought. But then I decided to focus my column on the factors to consider when trying to reduce power consumption with the “magic box.”
Before I sat down to write this column about education, I spoke with Neil Parmenter, an adjunct professor at Southern New Hampshire University, and my mentor. The combination of classroom teaching and online learning are fast making changes in education. Parmenter believes that teaching over the Internet reduces costs and helps people learn quicker. He says that you need a hybrid approach — a combination of both classroom and Internet learning — to achieve the best results.
I spent a week in September at an ISA conference in New Orleans. The conference was intended for engineers who want to escape to the dark side. I define the dark side as marketing and sales. I warned my fellow geeks that once they go into marketing and sales for several years, it’s almost impossible to get back into technology because the rate of technological change, as we all know, is something we cannot slow down.
There’s an old saw that says if we built a house the way we built software, we could pull out one nail anywhere and the house would come down. I believe, according to my interviews, that data security must allow some people to see the data because of national interests. I suppose this makes sense, but not for SCADA systems.
In recent months, I’ve reported about trips that were financed by COFES (Congress on the Future of Engineering Software). One was to Scottsdale, Arizona and this one was to St. Petersburg, Russia. The subjects are about the trips, not about the company. Just so you know, there’s no conflict of interest. I get no fee from COFES, but they do pay my expenses. I consider them a way to get a free vacation a couple of times a year. So read them and join me on my adventures in travel and technology.
This April was a travel month. For the first three weeks of the month, I was on the road. First, I visited my brother in South Jersey who is four years my junior. Sometimes I forget how old I am. I had a non-handicapped room and felt as though I didn’t need it. The first event of travel happened when I decided to take a bath. It took me 20 minutes to get out of the tub—an epiphany. Then it was off to COFES 2013 (Congress on the Future of Engineering Software) in Scottsdale, Ariz. COFES is a high-tech conference that is about 10 years old. I usually attend and it is a “no suits” kind of conference. I traveled out on Thursday, April 11, and started attending the second day of the conference on Friday. The first keynote on Friday was fascinating. Zander Rose (of The Long Now Foundation) gave a talk entitled “Resilient by Design.” His question was, “how do you build a machine that will last for as long as civilization?” He is now involved in the building of a 10,000-year clock that includes fabrication of the massive clock itself. I was fascinated by the concept of building robust, available, long-lasting and usable equipment with long time horizons. I must admit I’m disturbed by my Apple OS number—I’m up to version 10.7.5. Do I need that many changes to write this column? There is an argument for robust design to fit the timescale of more than tomorrow. As a designer, I find that a design capture for society takes about 20 years, or a generation. A refinery has a lifespan of 20+ years. We seem to be designing for next Tuesday. Anyway, the message was not lost on me. The next session was called “technology suite briefings.” I lost out on many of these because I was rehearsing for and getting acquainted again with the Maieutic Perataxis rehearsal. I missed the Santa Fe Institute (Chris Ward) talk about “what kind of computer is the brain?” Aw, heck. You might ask at this point what is Maieutic Perataxis? Long ago, in the days of wooden ships and iron men, the founders of COFES decided that much of the benefit of the event happened in the hallways, not in sleepy, overcrowded Powerpoint sessions. So they set up an hour’s worth of five-minute talks that are rigourous and rehearsed to do the job right. Rumour has it that Ben Franklin, while in France, needed to send reports back to the U.S. during the revolution. These memos were frequent and short. He then sent a memo that was very long with the covering statement, “This report would’ve been shorter but I didn’t have the time.” The five-minute presentations at COFES do not introduce, in detail, the speaker or the subject, and do not entertain questions. We deliver the core of the point to be made in five minutes. I spent quite a bit of time at the show with the other presenters and Brad Holtz (the boss) to ensure sure that we had all the computers running, the audio system working and the order of presentation. My quickie was about cooling traction motor bearings using the physics of thermodynamics without complexity. Later, we went out for an evening under the Arizona stars to talk over the music. I had to buy a sweatshirt, so I now own a red sweatshirt with Arizona across the front. The Saturday keynote was by Esther Dyson on “when exceptions become the rule,” so we had the 10,000-year-old clock and Wall Street on sequential days. I became part of a roundtable on “educating the next generation.” We talked a lot about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). As a physicist, I was concerned about the “moneyball” aspects of STEM. “What were the results for the students after they emerge from the program?” Even after I got home and looked it up, I could find no stats on performance. It was a good conference with lots of mental stimulus, and I always learn something at these conferences. After the conference I went to San Diego to visit some good friends, one of which was Jim Pinto—another columnist of merit. On a personal note, I missed out on a lot the last 10 years because of illness with my son and wife. It was time travel. It was like knowing a nephew when he was 10, and then meeting him again when he’s in the Marine Corps at 22 years old. A shock indeed. To some extent, I was a time traveller that moved forward in time on a personal basis. Some of the things I noticed: everybody eats salads, the houses are more expensive but smaller and people believe in spiritual things (which makes it tough for the old physicist to have a rational conversation). ’Tis interesting to wake up after sleeping for 10 years. This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.
As many of you know, I’m an angel. An angel is a person who invests his wife’s money into new ventures with high risk. An angel is not a venture capitalist but is typically an entrepreneur and an innovator. Recently I was questioned about the “innovation sauce,” or what makes up an innovator and a successful entrepreneur. Innovation is the means to change concepts and creativity into a valuable asset. My noble and true daughter, Pat, tells me there are two examples that describe creativity as domains. One is a domain where we make things cheaper, better and faster. This is engineering innovation. It is the dominant innovation needed to progress down the road to increased value for the end user. Another creativity/innovation is the one that comes from playing with toys and can seldom be taught. Pat makes the analogy that “one can teach anyone how to draw, but one can teach no one to be an artist.” It’s the same difference between a cook and a chef. The second class of creativity is the capture of “white swans.” There are many colours of swans, and the unknowable event that’s beneficial is sometimes called a white swan. Big white swans are the ones pumped up by the media—heroes like Einstein, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. The black swan is an unknowable event—large and usually evil—and everyone knows how to fix it after it happens. The big black swans are typically oil spills and the villains of history. Most of the progress of civilizations probably rests on incremental advances somewhere between the two. Innovations of this type can be in engineering, marketing and social structures. White swans in the domain of engineering are at a slight advantage. The engineers state that “bigger, faster and cheaper” is the road to increasing value. The radical swans that significantly change the way we think are less frequent and normally resisted by the community at large. Radical white swans do not make things better. As one of my venture capitalist friends said, “Radical white swans don’t solve problems, they make problems.” The incremental innovations belong in the orderly left brain. The right brain contributes to the “A-ha” event. This second class is like a lightning strike. The first class is logical and manageable, but managing right brain innovation is tough. Someone from Japan once asked me the “logical” question: “How did your leader know to tell you to invent the programmable controller.” What? I had an accidental observation while at COFES, a Scottsdale, Ariz., software conference for the unwashed software people who want to know what the other software people smell like. We decided we would have closing entertainment in the form of an IQ test. The details of the test are irrelevant but it got me to thinking about IQ tests. For example, I can ask you what number comes after the number one. Most people answer two, but it could be any number. We have to think about what the tester wants to get as an answer. If, for example, we use the sequence 1-2-3-4-5, the next number most would say would be 6. But we can still use any number. No matter how long the sequence gets, any number can still be added ignoring the previous sequence. But we have to reconcile the total sequence. My mathematical friends up at the University of Maine state that, “After 200 numbers, stop wasting your time thinking up a new equation to satisfy a random number at the end of the sequence.” While the left brain allows the random insert, the rational equation becomes inordinately complex. The legal system in most countries is like this. It’s impossible to remove a law. You can make a law obsolete by adding another law and soon you have thousands of pages of new legal documentation. The only way out is a revolution. The revolution for number sequences is to take a departure along a new path. The new path can go in a different direction with a branching sequence. It can use none, or most, of the old historical sequencing rules for the new start. This has a lot to do with chaos thinking and fractal dimensions. That departure, if continued, on each of the legs of the chain makes a leaf-like structure that is a surface, not a line. The number of events and innovations that can be had become infinity. It’s “elephants all the way down.” Here’s the turkey analogy. Based upon history, the turkey has a good life. But history doesn’t predict what happens on Thanksgiving Day. If but one turkey escapes captivity, a new direction exists. I recently read a book entitled The Day the Hippies Saved Physics, a top-10 physics book last year that describes a history of different directions taken by the physics community. In another top-10 book, the suggestion was made that all intelligence in the universe is on the surface. The universe on the physics point of view is one big calculator with a capacity of 10100 bits; the human brain is 1040. By treating innovation as a surface, instead of a direction, we can reap substantial benefits. One thing I like to say is, “Don’t go into the future, but visit the future, come back to the present and make the visits come true.” Or, come back from the future, not forward into it. Robert Frost (1874–1963) said it best:          I should be telling this with a sigh    Somewhere ages and ages hence:    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –    I took the one less traveled by,    And that has made all the difference.   This article originally appeared in the May 2013 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.
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