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.
What does the schedule look like on that day? I pick up my buddy at noon in my Jeep, which is haunted by my late wife. She passed away several years ago and the seats still adjust to her settings. Both of us read the instruction manual and can’t figure out how to disable the automatic positioning of the seats and the mirrors — kind of scary. We drive to our favourite restaurant and order “fat food.” We have a big steak, chatter and finish up with chocolate cake. Nobody nags us. We get to talk without criticism.
Why is this ritual important? It allows stimulation of unforeseen connectivity. Offline thinking allows new connections to appear. As engineers, we are sometimes bound by the philosophy, “stop thinking and calculate.” We are bound into the system of cheaper, better and faster. Not new. Not smart. I think the reader of this magazine realizes how important he or she is. It is not a pile of components in the corner that is the automation system, but the engineer who combines components so today’s problems meet with tomorrow’s needs.
Innovation gives us some examples. Most of us know the story of the PLC. The short version is I was recovering from a binge on New Year’s Day and outlined the PLC the same day. The idea was I wanted to get away from designing a new system for each customer. No binge, no PLC.
With the floppy disk, my assignment was to record bits on a magnetic disk with no contact. I couldn’t come up with anything. Inspiration finally came to me when playing a game of Hearts with my family. The cards “flowed” across the table and voilà, we had a way to record info to a satellite. I used near-field antenna technology as my recording model. The primary system used was a good old Kodak camera, and the film was parachuted down and caught by airplanes over the Pacific Ocean. It was right there in front of us the whole time and yet we could not see it. I totalled my Chevy twice that year from the long hours.
If often seems that no matter how hard you think, nothing seems to happen and your brain is stuck. Sleep comes at midnight, but the answer is there when you wake up in the morning and the sun is shining. You look at your spouse, the most beautiful person in the world, and you don’t understand why the problem was so hard last night. It worked because you did not think.
I give lectures to distance-learning classes. In these classes, I emphasize that the system they design must be available to produce product for up to 20 years without a call for repair. This may seem impossible, but is it? Think about the programmable controllers you’ve used. Do they fail? Not often. The engineer’s job becomes easier if he thinks first and then moves. Make your decisions after you sleep on it.
I suggest that engineers go back to college and take a two-day course; not in modern technology, but in how to think. We forget how to do that sometimes.
It’s important to do what you love — play tennis, go to the shop, work on the Harley, whatever it is that makes you happy. Take at least one day a week to explore who you are. It will make all the difference in the world. And sometimes when we take time away from thinking, that’s when the best thinking happens.
This column originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.