Monday, June 23, 2008

Sweat the small (and big) things

My last post spawned an interesting discussion on how we should be focussing our energy saving efforts – should we be worrying about saving a few watts in one area, while there are other areas which are wasting kilowatts?

How we each approach this depends a lot on our personalities. Some people think big and need to see huge value resulting from their actions. Others find joy in fine tuning all the details and making sure that everything is just right.

elephant eatingI feel that the two go hand in hand. Each on its own lacks substance. If all you can see are the fine details it is difficult to work towards a bigger goal. If all you can see is the big goal, it is hard to see the small steps that need to be taken to achieve it. It is a bit like that saying: how do you eat and elephant? One bite at a time.

Setting big goals is important, and so is sweating the small stuff. We still come back to that question though: where should we focus our energy to have the largest impact?

There are two important areas to focus on,

  1. The biggest point of pain, and,
  2. The easiest thing we can do.
For businesses and home users the biggest point of pain is probably paying their electricity bill at the end of the month, which means that water heating (for homes) and HVAC (for business) are the things to focus on. The easiest thing that everyone can do is activate your computers' energy saving modes (it is really easy and costs nothing to do). Making one small change can start a process of discovery leading to further changes.

I am currently working on a warehouse floor application and one of the issues is power consumption. Power consumption affects how many units can be powered from a single power supply, and what type of cabling is used. When I made some measurements I found that the system was consuming way more energy while idle than I was happy with. The easiest (and in this case only) way to address that was to do some investigation into the power saving options of the microprocessor. I managed to cut the idle power consumption to 20% of what it was. In this case the amount of power saved per unit is not much (100mW) but the number of units is high. It helps me to increase the number of units I can drive, as well as saves a reasonable amount of energy overall. That small saving per unit will save around 350kWh/month in this application – the monthly energy consumption of my home.

So sweat the small stuff, and sweat the big stuff. Build momentum and keep moving forward.

To the engineers: what you do matters – keep making good choices.

Photo, courtesy of Mandy Goldberg, licensed under a Creative Commons license.

A quick guide to computer energy saving
  1. Set your monitor/display to turn off after 15 minutes or less (don't use a screen saver).
  2. Set your hard drives to turn off after 15 minutes or less.
  3. Set your system to sleep after 30 minutes or less.
  4. Choose "Minimal Power Management" as a power scheme in XP (this makes sure the processor can go into low power modes while it is not busy). In Vista make sure your "Minimum processor state" is set to a low value under the advanced power options and "Processor power management."
The Climate Savers Computing Initiative has a guide for minimising computer power in each operating system (see the list in the sidebar for your OS).

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Leaving the lights on

DVD player standby buttonI am an advocate of making sure that every device consumes as little power as possible at all times. Indicator lights should be off, processors should be sleeping as much as possible, and generally the device should just be optimised to use as little power as possible.

I may have to rethink least a little bit.

Dan Lockton has a brilliant blog, Architectures of Control, where he discusses how things are designed to result in a certain action (or lack of action) – or as he calls it, design with intent.

There are two devices in my home which have helped me to reconsider turning off all the lights, my DVD player and my laptop. Each has its own subtle "architecture of control" whether intentional or not.

Our DVD player has (to me) the most irritating standby light that I have ever seen on any device. When on, the light is constantly illuminated, but when in standby the light flashes continuously (at a slow rate). This drives me mad, but results in an interesting action – it causes me to turn it off at the plug when I am not using it (which is most of the time). Suddenly one little flashing light has resulted in more energy saving than having no light.

laptop power indicatorsMy laptop has a similar "feature." When it is powered down the battery indicator remains on (green if full, flashing yellow if charging). This used to bother me, and I thought, "Why not just leave the light off when the battery is charged?" My wife's laptop is like that, the battery indicator only flashes if it is charging, once charged it turns off.

That is all good, except my laptop communicates to me that it is plugged in and consuming standby power when it is not in use. When I unplug it from the wall socket, then the battery indicator goes off – I save the standby power of both the power brick and the laptop.

There is one problem with this, it only works on people who care. If I did not care about saving energy, then I would just leave the laptop plugged in and the DVD player on. That means that you have to consider how your users will handle this kind of subtle feedback and determine whether turning the light off, or encouraging unplugging results in more energy savings.

Sometimes the most obvious design decisions may not be the ones which result in the greatest energy saving. Keep designing for low energy consumption and also keep your mind open to new possibilities.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Engineer Simplicity....

....helps people turn ideas into products.

Your idea may be a new invention, a faster warehouse picking system, or a testing and debugging tool which makes your company run faster and better.

Bring it to me and together we will turn your idea into a great product.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Innovate for a better South Africa: SA Blook Chapter 10

This post forms a part of the SA Blook.

shiftSo what is our reality?

South Africa has an unemployment rate of about 23%, a skills shortage crisis, rising inflation, rising interest rates, a large current account deficit and an uncertain political environment – amongst a number of other things.

All of this points towards a great need, and with great need, comes a great crisis...just not the one you are thinking about. The great crisis we have is a crisis of opportunity. Wherever there is need, there is opportunity.

In this midst of this great opportunity the challenge that we face is finding people who are ready to create solutions. We must find and create people who are willing to innovate each day.

We are all innovators and have the ability to contribute to the creation of a better country. Unfortunately we tend to associate "innovation" with technological improvements, while it should really apply to every task that we do. Innovation needs to become a concept which permeates how we do business, and how we go about our jobs each day.

The other problem is that we tend to think of innovation as large leaps forward. Personally I prefer the Japanese concept of Kaizen, which means continuous change for the better (Mind of the Innovator is worth a read). So when I use the word innovate, I mean keep changing things for the better.

On its own, technical advances will only change South Africa a small amount. We need innovation to happen on all fronts – legal, government, business – but most importantly we need it to happen at a people level. We need to find ways to keep changing ourselves for the better, and with that the rest will come easily.

So how do we as businesses and individuals work towards a better South Africa?

  1. People matter

    Our country, and our businesses run on people. The more we place value on each individual, the more value we build for ourselves. It is time to stop thinking about "human resources" and start thinking about people. People matter, and what they care about matters too.

    We are connected to the people around us. Acting in the interest of those around us serves not only to build a better country, but also to nurture and secure our own future.

  2. Engage in the discussion

    We all need to engage in the discussion that is going on around us and try to contribute positively to it. Talking builds community and that forms the foundation for a better country. It helps us find out what matters to other people, and how we can help.

    I have been fortunate enough to be a part of an amazing online business community, The Forum SA, which has brought various business owners and managers together to engage with each other. Together we help each other with the daily challenges of running a business. It also provides a platform for us to work together as a group to improve conditions for small business owners in South Africa. Together we create a better country.

    The more we take part, the more we grow. Maybe it is time to grow together.

  3. Be remarkable: make and do things that matter

    Jim Collin's wrote, "Good is the enemy of great." Or in Seth Godin's words, be remarkable.

    As a whole we have given up our greatness. We have lost our sense of greatness to crime, dirty politicians and corrupt businessmen. Yet as a country we are filled with greatness, even if we are not always able to recognise it.

    What and how we do things changes our view of both ourselves and the people around us. Do your actions reflect who you want to become? Do they reflect the country you want to live in? Do they build your (our) greatness, or break it down?

    What comes out of us, both in actions and words, reflects not only who we are, but who we are becoming. What steps did you take on the road to greatness today? We need to walk that path – one step at a time.

  4. Do more with less

    Right now we can all feel the pressures of inflation. There are two basic ways to combat inflation – consume less, or produce more. If we can do both at the same time it is a double win. Innovation can help us to both increase productivity as well as decrease costs.

    As much as technological innovation can help, finding new ways to equip people with skills and increase their productivity can help even more. As we educate people through schools, universities and on–site training we grow our ability to deliver. As we produce and deliver more we push down inflation.

    Each of us has the responsibility to help develop another person. Remember, people matter.
In summary, we must innovate how we think of people, the things we say, what we do, and how we think.

The thought that I would like to leave you with is a question that I have been asking myself quite a bit lately – what is your reality? Think about that for a second before answering. We get bombarded from all directions (media, government, business) by someone else's reality (or one they want us to believe). Too much of that starts to change the way we see our reality.

So, when we strip it all away, when we really look at the exact details of your life, it may be that things are a lot better than we have been led to believe. Spend some time thinking about it.

What is your reality? How can you keep changing it for the better?

Next chapter: The role of the younger generation in SA, and what we need to do to support them.

Previous chapter: Making the most of SA's creative talent and abilities.

This post is a chapter of the SA Blook: A Piece of Significance, an online book written by a diverse group of writers with strong views of our country and the reality we find ourselves living in. The other chapters in the Blook are here:
  1. The new South Africa - is it real?
  2. Is SA rich or poor?
  3. What the world thinks of South Africa and what our global opportunities are
  4. The importance of each individual's contribution collectively
  5. SA Inc and the business of doing business in SA
  6. The beauty and grandeur that surrounds us
  7. The importance of technology in SA's global emergence
  8. Building brand South Africa
  9. Making the most of SA's creative talents and abilities
  10. Innovate for a better South Africa
  11. The role of the younger generation in SA, and what we need to do to support them
  12. Connecting South Africa - Communities that transcend technology
  13. We are African - the role of collaboration in South Africa's growth

This post is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 South Africa license.

The picture is used under stock.xchng's standard license and was taken by Lynette Lan.