Saturday, February 28, 2015

Engineering In a World of Thin Screens

Engineers Need to Read Goldman Sachs

The investment bankers at Goldman Sachs have an excellent presentation on a future increasingly dominated by Millennials.  The world will change significantly - in terms of housing and car ownership - read and be warned.

Why ASCE Needs a President Like Frank Underwood

House of Cards is back this weekend with season 3.  The American Society of Civil Engineers with their collection of infrastructure report cards ought to watch episode one. The Underwood Presidency gets the essence of the dilemma far better than the leadership of ASCE. President Underwood understands the  problems of paying for the past at the expense of the future.  From a review of the excellent House of Cards:

With the help of Remy, Frank presents his America Works program to his inner-team. Frank wants to cut entitlements for seniors and use the $32,871 every senior gets to finance jobs in infrastructure, military, and the private sector. After an interruption from team member Paul, who offers a different version of the President’s plan, Frank says he “doesn’t want a version” but “a vision.”

Graph of the Week


Thursday, February 26, 2015

What Great Designers Think About When They Are Dying?

The New Yorker has an excellent profile of famed Apple industrial design guru Jonathan Ive in the current issue - The Shape of Things to Come by Ian Parker.  From the article:

"{Steve} Jobs was given a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in 2013.  Isaacson {Walter} reported that, in 2009, when Jobs was hospitalized for a liver transplant, and barely able to speak, he critiqued the design of an oxygen mask>

The Key Questions for the Era of Uncertainty

I am a big fan of the Ram Charan management books.  He has a new one just out, The Attacker's Advantage:Turning Uncertainty Into Breakthrough Opportunities, that I just completed.

The book has an extensive list of questions that leaders need to be thinking about in the age of uncertainty.  These are:
  • How aware are you that structural change is occurring more frequently?  Does it worry you, or do you see opportunity in it?  Do you consider it part of your job as a leader to detect it?  Do you consider it part of your job to create it?
  • Do you pause to consider whether operating problems are signs of structural change?
  • Is your altitude high enough to see above your industry to geopolitical and other macro factors?  Do you have a disciplined routine for rising above the daily details and sharpening your mental antennae to identify bends in the road sooner?  Is your team doing so as well?
  • Are you tracking companies that are using mathematics and advanced computing power to transform their business, even if they are outside your industry?  Are you imagining how some of them might destroy your industry and reshape your market space?
  • Are you prepared to accept the reality that uncertainty is here to stay?  Do you realize that you may need to make bold decisions even when some of the factors you have them on are still not clear?
  • Are you psychologically and organizationally prepared to convert uncertainty into breakthrough opportunities? 
  • Do you habitually pick up on anomalies, contradictions, and emerging trends by talking to people and reading newspapers and magazines?
  • Have you expanded your information networks lately, beyond your industry, country, and comfort zone in order to widen your lens to calibrate your thinking through other people's lenses?
  • Do you have a routine mechanism for you and your team to pool your observations about the external landscape and to explore potential impacts on your business?  Are you allotting sufficient time and attention to this?
  • Have you identified catalysts whose activities you need to track?  Have you identified the "seeds" that a catalyst could pounce on?  Have you identified the barriers a catalyst would have to overcome to gain traction?
  • Do you have a methodology for improving your perceptual acuity, such as forming hypotheses about a trend that might take shape or what a catalyst might do and revisiting you predictions later to see how accurate they were?
  • Are you conscious of the shortening shelf life of your core competencies, competitive advantage, and the definition of your core business?  Do you ask at least four times a year: What new developments can I hake advantage of to create a new need or give the customer or consumer a more compelling experience?
  • How well do you understand the end-to-end consumer experience?  Have you mapped the touch points?  Do you observe consumers firsthand?  Do you exercise your imagination to think of new trajectories based on your observations and insights?
  • Have you educated yourself about the new digital technologies and the use of algorithms?  Is your team learning about them?  Are you paying attention to digital players coming into your space?  Do you regularly consider and discuss how you might use digital technology to transform your business?  Do you regularly talk to people with such expertise?
  • Are you on the lookout for new opportunities for profitable growth?
  • How conscious are you of the human tendency to revert to what is comfortable and known?  How aware are you of your psychological blockages and fears that prevent your from seeing new opportunities?  Do you try to overcome your own psychological discomfort with venturing into new areas?  Are you willing to make moves that are well thought out but not immediately popular?
  • Are you willing to move with speed even if some variables are still uncertain?

How Weird Is the Weather?


Monday, February 23, 2015

Civil Engineering for the Rich (and then the Poor) in the United States

Read more of the Richard Florida research -link.

The Arcadis Sustainable Cites Index

Is the Construction Industry Really 40% Inefficient?

I found this interesting in the Dallas Morning News this past Sunday - an article on Mark Layman, the CEO of Balfour Beatty Construction US by Cheryl Hall:

"The Capability Center was an offshoot of the reorganization project.  By some estimates, Layman says, the typical project - no matter which general contractor is heading it - is bloated up to 40 percent from industry inefficiencies.  That's $40 million of a $100 million project lost to lack of technology, collaboration and supply-management."

If the 40% number is even off by half, the world of Black Belt Six Sigma and lean construction training and education has an absolute gold mine.  The world of engineering/construction/facility management fundamentally needs a new set of more polymath engineers and managers - the ones that can (1.) Combine - pull data and information from a broad spectrum of the current building operation space that helps reduce waste and decreases inefficiencies, (2.) Collaborate - the talent and skill (the will-skill balancing act) that gets people and organizations working closer together across industry and discipline barriers, (3.) Construction - Engineers who have a desire to improve a construction process at the task level - ones that want to eliminate waste and inefficiencies at the "make ready, do, and put away" level.

Productivity and waste reduction within the construction industry is always problematic. Productivity is a measure of producing the customer required quality outputs within the fewest resources.  In order to measure something here has to be some process in place to apply a scale too - and in construction that is not always the case as a general rule.

This Would Make an Excellent Case Study

If you teach a class on manufacturing management as part on an industrial engineering, manufacturing management, systems engineering or engineering management program - this would be an excellent case study to add to your syllabus.  The case study is on the bailout of GM and Chrysler after the 2009 recession.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

A Paragraph to Ponder

From Battery Powered by Steve LeVine in the current issue of Foreign Affairs:

"Then there are the electric utilities.  Last year, former U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu warned publicly that utilities' ownership of power lines and fossil fuel generation plants was not going to continue to guarantee these companies a profitable business.  Such plants could soon be replaced, he said, by distributed generation: smaller, local sources of electricity, often at the home or building level, that rely on solar or wind power.  Chu predicted that within a decade, the American homeowner would be able to pay $10,000 to $12,000 for a battery-backed solar power system and be off the grid 80 percent of the time.  Such distributed-generation systems could save customers up to a quarter of the charges they would ordinarily face during peak hours.  Within five years, such systems could become far more widespread and pose a live and growing threat to electric utilities.  As a matter of survival, Chu warned, those utilities would have to conceive of a new business model that included installing grid-scale batteries.  Otherwise, they risked becoming relics, in the same way that "the Post Office got FedExed."

How Many Questions Do You Ask Per Day?

Your average preschooler will ask nearly a hundred questions a day.  The number of questions per day declines with age - we seem to get less inquisitive.  Making the effort to ask questions can sharpen alertness, curiosity, and make you a better engineer.  Keep track of your questions per day metric.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

New to the Book Pile

The World of Gaming Has Come to Construction

New York City Panel on Climate Change 2015 Report

New York City Panel on Climate Change 2015 Report Introduction Rosenzweig 2015 Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences Wiley Online Library

Looking Seaward

Mixing Operations/Market Research with Your Mass Transit System

From Vox and the always brilliant Matthew Yglesias:

How is Houston able to pull that off with no additional funding? Well, as Jarrett Walker, one of the plan's lead designers, explains it's all about prioritizing rides that will plausibly attract riders. The old system, like many bus routes in the United States, expended a lot of resources on very low-ridership routes for the sake of saying there's "a bus that goes there." The new plan says that the focus should be to provide reasonably frequent service on routes where reasonably frequent service will attract riders. That does mean that some people are further than ever from a transit stop. But it means that many more Houstonians will find themselves near a useful transit stop.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

New to the Book Pile

The Rust of the Big Analog

Remember that the era of the Little Digital (best illustrated every time you pick up your smart phone) still depends on a properly functioning Big Analog.  The problem is that many parts of the Big Analog are rusting away.

I just ordered Rust: The Longest War by Jonathan Waldman.  I love this line in a review of the book in this month's Atlantic - Rust Never Sleeps by Tim Heffernan:

"The more money you have, the more restless you are.  We do appear stuck in the bullish mind-set of the mid-20th century, behaving as though we are rich enough to buy all the new bridges we want and too rich to worry about fixing all the old bridges we have."

Product Details

FAA Proposes Rules for Small Commercial Drones | ENR

FAA Proposes Rules for Small Commercial Drones | ENR

Bike Sense

Graph of the Week

Source: The Climate Bonds Initiative, J.P. Morgan as of February 5, 2015. Includes use of proceeds Green Bonds and the Toyota ABS

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Why Can't An Engineering Class Syllabus Look Like This?

From the New York Times David Carr (a great writer and thought leader who passed away this past week) and his class at Boston University - link.

New Business Models for Engineering Storytelling

Article on what an engineering dominated company like GE is up to - - serving as a hub to constantly communicate with customers and stakeholders.

You Are What You Type On

The future of engineering and our ability to communicate solutions to complex problems rests with a simple idea - you are what you type on.  Engineering is not exempt from the fact that the medium is the message.

New to the Book Pile

Why Jeff Gordon Is Really Retiring

Engineering Complexity Into Farming

The do-it-yourself culture of American farming is increasingly threatened by the "code revolution" - mainly the inability of farmers and many other DIY types to tinker with closed propriety systems. Wired has an excellent article on the world of code frustrated farmers.  From the article.

"The cost and hassle of repairing modern tractors has soured a lot of farmers on computerized systems altogether. In a September issue of Farm Journal, farm auction expert Greg Peterson noted that demand for newer tractors was falling. Tellingly, the price of and demand for older tractors (without all the digital bells and whistles) has picked up. “As for the simplicity, you’ve all heard the chatter,” Machinery Pete wrote. “There’s an increasing number of farmers placing greater value on acquiring older simpler machines that don’t require a computer to fix.”"

Image result for pictures of john deere tractor computer control systems

A Paragraph to Ponder

From the Associated Press:

"There's more than an 80 percent chance that much of the central and western United States will have a 35-year-or-longer "megadrought" later this century, said study co-author Toby Ault of Cornell University, adding that "water in the Southwest is going to become more precious than it already is.""

The Rhythms of Employment Slack

Male and Female Engineers See Each Other Differently

Data_9780385347372_3p_all_r1.j.inddData_9780385347372_3p_all_r1.j.indd Source - Link.

The Definition of a Smart Home

From Gizmodo:

"I wanted to walk in my front door and marvel as half a dozen LED lights magically turned on. I wanted to watch my shades go up as I walked into my bedroom, where my AC unit had already cooled the air to the optimal temperature and even saved me money on energy costs in the process. I wanted to get a push notification on my phone when my roommate opened her window so that I could remember to close it before leaving. I wanted a touchscreen panel to tell me what the weather was like outside and serve as a dashboard for the smart home I'd built. I wanted so many simple, futuristic things."

Friday, February 13, 2015

Engineering and Our Infrastructure Maintenance Crisis

From a Brookings study - Fix It First, Expand It Second, Reward It Third:

"The roads and bridges that make up our nation’s highway infrastructure are in disrepair as a result of insufficient maintenance—a maintenance deficit that increases travel times, damages vehicles, and can lead to accidents that cause injuries or even fatalities. This deficit is in part due to a prioritization of new projects over care for existing infrastructure and contributes to a higher-cost, lower-return system of investment. This paper proposes a reorganization of our national highway infrastructure priorities to “Fix It First, Expand It Second, and Reward It Third.” First, all revenues from the existing federal gasoline tax would be devoted to repair, maintain, rehabilitate, reconstruct, and enhance existing roads and bridges on the National Highway System. Second, funding for states to build new and expand existing roads would come from a newly created Federal Highway Bank, which would require benefit-cost analysis to demonstrate the efficacy of a new build. Third, new and expanded transportation infrastructure that meets or exceeds projected benefits would receive an interest rate subsidy from a Highway Performance Fund to be financed by net revenues from the Federal Highway Bank."

Graph of the Week

A Google-Backed Research Project Aims to Automate Data Analysis | MIT Technology Review

A Google-Backed Research Project Aims to Automate Data Analysis | MIT Technology Review

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Construction Productivity Analysis Using Activity Cycle Diagrams

I was playing around today with a general-purpose simulation system, EZStrobe CYCLONE, that utilizes activity cycle diagrams to model construction activities.  This is a simple system - construction operations can typically be represented using Activity Cycle Diagrams (ACDs), which are networks of circles and squares that represent idle resources, activities, and their precedence.

The 17 Principles of Constructability

These appear to date from the late 1980s or early 1990s as developed by the Construction Industry Institute (CII).  Many of these are timeless, others need an updating.

  1. A formal constructability program is made an integral part of the project execution plans.
  2. Early project planning activity involves construction knowledge and experience.
  3. Construction personnel are involved in developing the project contracting strategy.
  4. Project schedules are sensitive to construction requirements.
  5. Basic design approaches consider major construction methods such as modularization and preassembly.
  6. Site layouts promote efficient construction (e.g., adequate space for laydown and fabrication yards and efficient site access).
  7. Project team participants responsible for constructability are identified early in the project.
  8. Advanced information technologies such as 3D computer modeling or field notebook computers are applied.
  9. Design and procurement schedules are construction sensitive,
  10. Designs are configured to enable efficient construction considering issues like simplicity, flexibility, sequencing of installation, and labor skill and availability.
  11. Design elements are standardized including maximum use of manufacturers' standards and standardized components.
  12. Construction efficiency is considered in specification development including prior review of specs by construction personnel.
  13. Modular/preassembly designs are prepared to facilitate fabrication, transportation, and installation.
  14. Designs promote construction accessibility of personnel, materials, and equipment.
  15. Designs facilitate construction under adverse weather.
  16. Design and construction sequencing facilitates system turnover and start-up.
  17. Innovative construction methods are used such as innovative sequencing of field tasks, or use of temporary construction systems, or innovative use of construction equipment.

Project Finance Deals of 2014

Link to the list from World Finance.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Engineers in Unlikely Places

The winner today is New England Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. From Boston.Com:
"“It’s just preparing his players to go out and compete, that’s what he does really well,” said Amherst College football coach E.J. Mills. “You see the Patriots do that week in and week out.”
It was Mills who gave Patricia his start in coaching, hiring him in a low-level position coaching the defensive line in 1999. Don Faulstick, Mills’ offensive coordinator at the time, had recommended Patricia from coaching him in college. Patricia played on the offensive line and majored in aeronautical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute from 1992 to 1996.
“Matty was legitimately a rocket scientist,” Mills said. “He was an engineer, working at a firm, and he really wanted to get into coaching.”"

Heat in the Heartland

new report from the Risky Business Project.

Wrike Project Management Software

The Best Movie About Business

I saw A Most Violent Year  last night.  This is one of the better movies I have seen on the nature of business and what it means own a business.  The context is the fuel oil business in 1981 NYC - but the issues are universal.  You have competition, the importance of sales, the need for growth, finance and dealing with banks, and employee relationships.  The scene in which the owner lectures the new sales trainees on the art of selling fuel oil is brilliant - - get this clip and show it to your employees. Running a business is a uniquely complex endeavor - - this movie gets at the complexity better than most "business" movies on the big screen.