Archive for November, 2010

Engineers can just about do Anything!

November 28, 2010

I was watching a really neat DVD: “Moon Machines” from the Science Channel – again – I love this DVD. This is a really good DVD for an engineer. The problems chronicled are engineering problems; the people chronicled are engineers. The first show concerns the Saturn 5 rocket, and about seven minutes into the second scene, George Phelps, senior project engineer at North American Aviation from ’64-’68 says, “Engineers can just about do anything.” This quote is special – let me  repeat it:

“Engineers can just about do anything.”

I have met George, and he is a passionate engineer. George reminds me of my mentor Bill Thompson at Rockwell International… Bill taught me to be an engineer – I didn’t learn to be an engineer at university. As I type this post, I am pulling out my slide rules. I have three – a K & E Keffel & Esser from 1938 (my grandfather’s), a Charvoz-Roos (my father’s), and a Sterling Precision (mine). This is engineering “culture” lost. I remember in grade school when the PE coach called me, “ruler-head” because I kept my slide rule in my binder in my PE locker during PE…

You may think that I am weird, but I am here to tell you that engineers can just about do anything – this is indeed the case. You may not appreciate that. You may not fathom why that is the case, but it is. Engineers can just about do anything. Or as a good friend PN says, “Engineers make it work.”

I am an engineer – a good engineer, and a passionate engineer. The game has changed in the business world where an engineer is virtually unappreciated today, but I am here to tell you – an engineer can just about do anything.

Need something complicated done? Done right? Done well? Call an engineer!

Prefabricated Housing is an Appealing Engineering Problem

November 27, 2010

Recent “musings” about architecture with another engineer who is a good friend prompted me to make this observation:

Utility in a building comes from a certain sense of “object-orientedness” not unlike good software.

“What?” he exclaimed. “NO – great architecture comes from symmetries, asymmetries, materials, and and an artful sense of fancy or awe…” We are talking about two very different design objectives: usefulness and sensual appeal. At the end of the day, it is both of these that make great design.  Not being an architect, I have to confess that I don’t know just what makes great architecture. On to the problem of design…

Before I could get to ponder the question of great design very far, another friend asked me to do some research on prefab housing. His Objective:

Move to the countryside and retire in an ultra-modern 3500 sq-ft “green” home that costs no more than $100,000 complete with solar/wind power systems, appliances  and furnishing – he provides the land that is already in hand in the middle of nowhere with no utility infrastructure nearby (none whatsoever).

A FANTASY…  But for a bigger budget I wonder what he can buy. I think he can do it for $350,000 ($100/sq-ft) – he has a few builders to choose from, but who knows if what they will actually finish will satisfy my friend… I think I could do it for $200,000 today for materials and construction labor and a year to engineer the house and have it built (no fee for me in that number)… And with economies of scale, perhaps I could build the house for a good bit less than that! I may be surprised, however, at how much the power system will cost – maybe I am way low on my own estimate…

This prefab house needs to be (my friend is talking):

  • Affordable – like a mobile home,
  • Durable – like a rail shipping container,
  • Energy-efficient and completely solar/wind powered,
  • Free of toxins, contaminants or hazardous materials, with recycled or repurposed materials used wherever possible.
  • LEED Bronze – or even Gold certified!

After some more conversation, further details and expectations began to emerge:

  • Built on site by no more than two people,
  • Compact and spacious – how those both come about, I can’t quite imagine as we are talking, but that is the “art of design”…,
  • Modern and visually appealing,
  • Reconfigurable.

How prefab? One big piece delivered to site, or 10 pieces or 100 or 1,000 or 10,000? His answer: 1,000 pieces plus the “nuts and bolts” would be OK – certainly not much more than that. And tools? Just hand tools, a power drill, a small power generator, and a hoist of some sort to lift panels into place and complete the structure… Here is what he expected to receive on site – initially, just the “structural system”:

  • A foundation plan for cement piers and synthetic cement or steel floor beams,
  • A skeleton aluminum or steel framework of some kind,
  • Exterior and interior solid wall panels with a standard dimension,
  • Exterior roof panels and interior floor and ceiling panels,
  • Exterior wall panels with a variety of windows installed,
  • Exterior and interior doorway panels and doors.

The structural system needs to be engineered. I’m thinking, “These are a lot like software objects. They have “attributes”, and some “inherit” attributes from others. Some of these objects have “behaviors”, and there are “interfaces” between objects.

What about “infrastructures”? He didn’t think about that…

  • Electrical interconnects, plumbing junctions and airflow ducting between panels,
  • Electrical runs, plumbing runs and airflow ducting across panels,
  • Power system, environmental system, water system and sewage system with options for external tie-ins to conventional utilities.

These systems also need to be “engineered”. So, this is like “peeling an onion” – good “sport” for an engineer!

What about “finishing touches”? “Oh yeah,” he says, “that, too…”

  • Floor coverings, wall coverings and exterior veneers,
  • Door fixtures, kitchen fixtures, bathroom fixtures, utility room fixtures and light fixtures.

All “green” – they need to be specified and selected. What about fasteners? “Hand-tools and a power drill, only.” he reminds me. Fasteners are a big industry – they are integral components of the home that must be engineered into every part. More systems engineering! LEED Gold certified? OK – maybe…

What else?

  • “Super-efficient” appliances,
  • “Green” furnishings,
  • “Hi-tech” entertainment, communication and computing equipment that is integrated, efficient and survivable with interfaces to the outside world from remote locations,
  • A total-home control system.

Even more systems engineering. I am almost drooling over the challenge of doing this. This might be a really fun problem to solve – a fun company to start!

  • Design the home on-line in an evening with a web-based 3D visualization application,
  • Order all materials, systems, appliances and even furnishings on-line,
  • Pay by wire-transfer the next day and finance any remainder necessary also on-line,
  • Contract the foundation to be done the day after financing is secured and payments are received,
  • Receive all materials in secure, returnable rail containers on site in a week by specialized shippers – maybe even by UPS,
  • Complete the home with your significant other in another week, or have the home assembled in that timeframe as an ordered service,
  • Move-in two weeks after the order with the critical systems completed,
  • Completely finished the house in less than a month.

I think that there is a lot of good to be done in this business area. I think a new prefabricated, modern, green, energy efficient home can be built for the buyer for less than $50/sq-ft for materials and construction labor plus the land and supplementary power system if the scale of business is sufficiently high and the systems engineering is thorough enough to capture the nuances of a LEED-certified home’s design and construction requirements. It may well be the wave of the future for new home construction. I see lots of companies trying to enter this market, but I don’t see any that have comprehensively engineered designs and green systems that would satisfy my friend – certainly not for what my friend can afford to spend. He’s still looking, and I am now thinking…

Further Thoughts on the Economy

November 19, 2010


– A Ten-Year Agenda for a Basis to Compete Head-On

How is the US going to compete with China and prosper in the future global economy? The US may have to play a new game with new rules put forward by China as they ascend the ladder to become the next great, global economic superpower. Our standard of living depends on working with new concepts of economy management to optimize growth, new concepts of intellectual property rights to improve the rate and scope of innovation of products and services, and new approaches to taxation. The US government must abandon the “old-world” rulebook and adopt a “New-World” framework – a ‘new “Playbook” for global competition and economic survival.

A Conversation

I asked a long-standing client these questions a few days ago – the questions weren’t quite as specific, but the train of the conversation was centered on these questions:

  • Is your company investing enough in new product development? How do you know?
  • Is your company investing in new products that meet global requirements broadly enough, or are you more focused on domestic requirements?
  • Are your company’s foreign markets expanding more rapidly than your domestic market? Is your domestic market contracting, and if so, why?
  • Where is your company deriving more profit from, foreign markets or your domestic market?
  • Are your manufacturing assets fully deployed or nearly so? If not, is unused capacity growing or shrinking?

The answers were simply vague.

I was looking for a clear sense of current strategy, and I was looking for statistics and measures that would support a rational and defensible strategy. I was also looking for evidence of a sustainable strategy. What I heard from my client is that the future is not sufficiently stable or secure enough to plan confidently. Before I take a step forward on the pressing micro issues for my client, I think we will take one step backward together to understand some macro issues and how they drive the micro issues my client is asking about…

As I was about to turn the conversation to less “heady” topics over a beer, my client asked me, “Brian, how am I going to compete with China? They play by different rules…”, and that set my brain to think…

The Economy Mission of a Government

My client’s company is confronting much the same conundrum of macro issues that face national economies such as the US economy. Substitute “country” for “company” and “industry” for “product” in the questions I asked my client, and you have significant questions for a National economic policy to address. Unlike my client, I think I can clearly discern the answers to some of the questions as they pertain to the US economy today. To a great extent, I think that the US economy is stuck in an “old-world”. I wish I had more facts to support my casual observations, but facts are hard to find – I will endeavor to look harder! And this is a “fuzzy” observation. Let me draw some conclusions and propose some new strategies for a ten year agenda for modernization of the US economic system to compete in the “New-World” marketplace with new superpower economic players.

With China’s emergence as an economic superpower, it becomes critically important to evaluate how “the rules of the game” are changing, and to recast strategies, competitive tools and expectations. There are seven frameworks or “eco-pillars” for a more modern US economy to compete head-on in a “New-World”. On the surface, they are all familiar. Currently cast in the “old-world”, though, these frameworks require substantial revision.

1) Investors, enterprises and consumers must all be “willing and able” to participate in the economy.

2) Investors, enterprises and consumers must expect a “square deal” in an efficient market.

3) The economy must grow for investors, enterprises and consumers, and the growth must be sustainable.

4) Essential infrastructures and services must be accessible, reliable and effective for every economy participant.

5) Ownership and control of intellectual property must allow for easy access and efficient exploitation by all economy participants; exploitation of private information must allow for control by the individual owner.

6) Investors, enterprises and consumers must pay the Government for the benefits they derive from the Government.

7) The workforce must be adequately and suitably skilled and continuously trained.

Is Less Government Better?

I have wondered this for decades: “Is less governmental participation in the economy better than more?” Like the three bowls of porridge, the challenge is to find the bowl that is “just right.” The lawless tendency of opportunists in the “Wild West” demanded a host of new laws and measures to enforce those laws. Things haven’t changed, really. The irresponsible risk taking that created the mortgage debt crisis is a good example of reckless speculation and profiteering and how it is harmful – the “Wild West” has simply been recast in the modern-day world. It is clear to me that there is a mandatory economic regulatory and management role for the Government to play in the “New-World”. In this sense, more is better – but it must be a much more wisely crafted role for the Government than currently exists today.

See this blog by Dr. Robert Reich, past Secretary of Labor for President Clinton:

Robert Reich

See also in one of his books: Aftershock, Knopf, 2010.

Dr. Reich is demanding change, and I think he “gets it” like few others do.

I am reminded of an observation many, many years ago in elementary school:

“Too many rules, and you can’t play the game.”

And another reminder also from elementary school:

“When you can no longer play the game, it’s time to tip the board off the table and start over (press the reset button),” and that generally creates an ugly confrontation…

You can read my entire proposal for a ten-year agenda here if you are inclined:


My Great- (+ several more Greats) Uncle

November 10, 2010

As I flipped through my father’s stamp collection a few weeks ago, I uncovered a paper with some “family lore”. My father’s mother was named Dorothy Mowat (little did I know…) – I just called her “Granny”… I remember Granny telling me when I was about 12 years old that her family settled from Scotland in Kingston, Ontario (south of Ottawa on Lake Ontario) in the early 1800’s – in 1814, it turns out – read on to see how I know that.

Mowat – MOWAT – where have I run across that name?  Ah-ha, my Canadian History – Sir Oliver Mowat – one of the fathers of the Canadian confederation! A relative? Yes, it turns out. And then another flicker of memory from my brain – a little digging in my own stamp collection found a stamp commemorating him. Here is a nice scan from Canada’s Postal Archive Database:

Canadian Postal Archives Database – Sir Oliver Mowat, Scotts 517 (Canada, 1970)

Well, this is quite interesting. Mowat was:

  • born on 22 July, 1820 and died on 19 April, 1903;
  • a clerk for Canada’s first Prime Minister John Macdonald;
  • Ontario’s Postmaster General from 1863 to 1864;
  • a delegate to the historic Quebec Conference in October 1864;
  • a Vice-Chancellor of Upper Canada from 1864 to 1872;
  • the Premier of Ontario from 1872 to 1896;
  • knighted Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George (CMG);
  • and awarded the Grand Cross of that Order on 22 June, 1897.

What do you know… I think that my brother has the Grand Cross medal in a display case from my father’s office – and now we know why my father had it.

There is a story behind every postage stamp, and this is the story of Scotts 517, Canada, 1970! And of my great-great-(not sure how many greats) Uncle Oliver.