Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Problem solving has a certain mindset. A problem is narrowly defined and the focus is solving that one problem as quickly as possible. An analytical mindset is adopted and there is an intense search for cause and effect.
The are many challenges with adopting a problem solving mindset. Problem solving can be misguided and focussed on finding the cause rather than obtaining the desired result – has the desired solution been correctly identified before starting? Continuously solving problems can be draining. All you ever see in your product or service are the problems with it, particularly if you are isolated from the happy customers.
The flip side of engineering is that we also get the opportunity to create solutions. Creating solutions is about seeing the bigger picture and understanding the idea or problem within the context of a larger system. This requires more lateral thinking and gathering information from a far wider variety of sources then when we are "solving problems."
Solution creating can be too loosely defined and only slowly drift towards the eventual goal. It is also easy to be continuously finding new solutions (adding features) which are not even needed to achieve the actual goal. It is important to stay focussed on creating happy customers.
Each mindset carries its own set of paradigms so when we adopt a certain approach we close our minds to certain solutions and possibilities. Knowing that each way of thinking opens up different possibilities means that we switch between the two as a tool to help us solve problems and create solutions in a quicker and more comprehensive way.
How would your approach to your current challenge change if you switched mindsets? Adopting a different approach may even help you to find more satisfaction in your work.
Image courtesy of Ethan Lofton, published under a creative commons license.
Friday, May 29, 2009
[Cellphone cameras came into being when Philippe Kahn wanted to instantly share photos of his daughter's birth with friends and family.]
40 years ago it was hard (impossible?) to imagine the solutions that we have available to us today. Some of the things we think will have happened in another 40 years time probably won't, and other things that we have no idea about will be in existence. Hard working engineers and scientist will have discovered and created all kinds of new things.
What can you imagine that no one else can?
Thursday, May 14, 2009
- Access to a local, fresh, organic, varied diet,
- Community upliftment,
- Effective use of land,
- Improved food security.
Community upliftment. Many cities (certainly in developing countries) have large improverished communities as a result of rural to urban migration and many other societal conditions. UA offers a number of benefits for these communities, the biggest of which is access to food. The first output of urban farms in these communities is food for the community. Once the immediate needs of the community are met any excess food can be sold for income. Improvement of the soil quality and the greening of these communities also help to improve living conditions.
Effective use of land. Unproductive vacant lots, parts of parks and gardens can be turned into productive farms. These farms will require organic waste materials to produce compost which reduces the load on cities waste management facilities.
Improved food security. UA is a distributed model of farming which helps to buffer the communities that it serves against any variations in food supply. If there was a failure in the food supply chain, or if transport costs significantly raised the price of food, UA communities would still be able to access food – hopefully for an extended period of time. Cuba is an interesting extreme example of this. The shutting down of foreign supplies resulted in unused areas within the cities being used to produce food crops and support the country's food need. The distributed model also means that a failure of a single UA farm would not significantly impact on the food supply. The organic methods used also provide security through improved genetic diversity of crops.
The benefits for the communities these farms serve and the cities in which they reside are far reaching and will lead to a better quality of life for all urban dwellers. Each of us have the opportunity to engage with our food and where it comes from – that is the first step towards a full scale urban agriculture system. The tomatoes in the picture above were grown in my garden :)
In Cape Town Abalimi Bezekhaya (which means planters of the home) help to establish community gardens which improve food security and provide additional sustainable income to their tenders. Abalimi also has a number of greening projects which help to improve the living environment of impoverished communities. On Tuesday 26 May 2009 there is a tour of their operation which I will be going on. The tour begins at 09h00 in Wynberg and finishes at 12h00. Please let me know if you will be joining me.
Thursday, April 30, 2009
Looking back over the titles of the blog posts there is a mix of mostly environmental issues and engineering. I have been spending a lot of time thinking about the direction of my own life, as well as of this blog. There is a definite changing of season for me – a new and renewed direction and energy – and with that comes a slight change of direction for this blog.
That change of season has a lot to do with making a shift towards more "doing" and less talking. I have noticed that I draw the most inspiration from people who actually do (or try to do) important and interesting things, from David's fuel–to–electric vehicle conversion to a friend who helps get blankets to babies living in cold tin shacks.
For me that means spending more time doing some of the things I have talked about or had on my mind for a while (like developing some systems to speed up my design process), as well as engaging with organisations that are doing things that I believe are important (like this urban agriculture group).
This means that there will be a slight shift of focus in the writing here. There will be a stronger focus on how I am developing my company and design process, and I will try to open up as many of the inner workings as possible so that everyone can learn from what I am doing (and hopefully not make the same mistakes!) Even though the focus will change a bit, there will always be a strong environmental slant, as creating a cleaner and healthier place to live is important to me and a part of who I am.
For the foreseeable future my commitment to you is to write one blog post every two weeks.
Thank you for coming on this journey with me. I am glad to have you along, and would love to hear from you (and thanks to all of you who have contacted me).
Image courtesy of Colin, licensed under a creative commons license.
Tuesday, March 31, 2009
Yes, there is mercury in CFLs (typically less than 5mg), and yes, they need to be recycled correctly to ensure that the mercury (and electronic components) stay out of landfills. The thing is, the benefits of using CFLs and the associated reduction in mercury emissions far outweigh any issues associated with the mercury in a CFL.
So why do CFLs contain mercury? All fluorescent lamps contain mercury (compact fluorescents as well as conventional straight tubes). The mercury is excited by an electrical current which causes the mercury to emit ultraviolet light. The ultraviolet light stimulates phosphor in the tube which produces visible light. Interestingly enough normal fluorescent tubes have escaped the mercury stigma even though they can contain more mercury that a CFL.
What does coal have to do with it? The burning of coal to produce energy is one of the largest sources of mercury from human activity (in South Africa 80% of our energy comes from coal). This mercury enters the atmosphere and eventually lands in our water systems. Mercury entering into aquatic systems can be transformed by microbial action into methylmecury which bioaccumulates in the food chain.
Incandescent bulbs release more mercury into the environment than CFLs. When you take mercury emissions from coal into accout it turns out that a normal incandescent bulb results in more mercury being released into the environment than a CFL, even when a CFL is disposed into a landfill rather than properly recycled. The US EPA estimates that 1.8mg of mercury enters the environment from a dumped CFL while the use of an incandescent bulb results in 5.8mg (for 8000 hours of use). See the Energy Star's mercury fact sheet for their assumptions.
What about CFL breakages in the home? Breakages need to be dealt with carefully, but do not pose a serious hazard. Ventilate and have any people or pets leave the room. Follow the recommended clean–up guidelines in the EPA mercury fact sheet. There is an old and false story about expensive clean–up procedures which came about due to a misunderstanding – snopes.com has the full history of that story, which makes for interesting reading.
What do we need to do? Switch to CFL or LED bulbs wherever and as soon as possible. This reduces both energy consumption and mercury emissions which is good for our well–being. Consider LEDs where suitable – they contain no mercury and have a longer life span than CFLs (although they only available in certain light formats, provide a different type of light, and you need to compare their efficiency to CFLs). Correctly dispose of your CFLs (and LEDs) for recycling, as this keeps the mercury out of the landfills and allows it to be reused in new lights.
Please share this, blog about it, write newspaper articles, tweet (and retweet) it, stumble it, tell your friends, and explain it to anyone who does not know that using CFLs will actually reduce your exposure to mercury. CFLs help us to reduce energy consumption and keep our environment clean – let the world know.
 "Global Atmospheric Mercury Assessment: Sources, Emissions and Transport," UNEP
 UNEP mercury programme
Image courtesy of Energy Star.
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
When I look up from my home now all that I can see is a few of the brightest constellations while the rest is hidden by the haze of city lights. We have lost our night sky and we do not even know what the implications of that are (here are some). I was reminded of this by a photo essay on light pollution. The last line of the essay is particularly poignant: For all the benefits of artificial light, "we shouldn't pretend that nothing is lost."
On 28 March at 20h30 the WWF is asking us to turn out the lights for one hour as a vote for Earth and a vote against climate change. This global action will be presented to leaders at the Global Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.
This is not a vote against climate change, this is an action to win back some of what we have lost. This is an opportunity to start reclaiming our night sky. This is the chance to turn off not only your lights, but your TV, computer, cellphone and any other distraction and to spend an hour with the people you love – connecting and enjoying your humanity. This is a vote for a happier, cleaner and healthier world.
Sign up on the South African or International Earth Hour websites.
Image courtesty of Steve Jurvetson, licensed under a Creative Commons license.
Thursday, March 12, 2009
Paul Graham referred to an interesting statement in a recent essay, "You make what you measure." And what is it that we measure? GDP – gross domestic product – a measure of a country's consumption. One of the goals of our incumbent economic system is to keep growing GDP, which is to keep producing more and more, which in turn means to continuously grow consumption. So we measure consumption and we create consumers.
We don't measure happiness, we don't measure how much water is available, we don't measure how much we waste, we measure consumption. Imagine how much would change if our leading indicator was the measure of people's happiness. If you want to know, look at the city of Bogota.
To support our current economic system we seek out ways to create more consumption. Disposable paper cups, nappies, razor blades, and more. Even our "durables" have become disposable – replacement is so cheap...and it is encouraged.
We are left with a world spiralling out of control. We put pressure on our environment to produce more and more so that we can consume more and more. And in the mean time we are not getting happier or healthier.
To stop this we have to fight to regain our humanity. We can no longer accept being referred to as consumers – we are people: mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children. We are more than consumers: we are creators, artists, workers, partners – we are human.
We need to stop measuring ourselves as consumers, and start measuring ourselves as humans.
Some alternatives to GDP are Gross National Happiness and the Genuine Progress Indicator. The Happy Planet Index (a NEF initiative) measures the efficiency with which nations convert ecological resources into long and happy lives for their citizens – their manifesto is a stimulating read.
Thursday, February 19, 2009
Everything is open for improvement. Just because it has been done, does not mean that it has been done well. It might be the user interface, battery life, power consumption, size, shape, speed, connectedness, or any other thing that keeps a product from being amazing and remarkable. Often the process of improvement and constraints you create can yield their own innovations.
Invention is not a prerequisite for innovation. We often get hung up on the need to invent something new. It is unnecessary. Finding a new way to introduce people to an important product is as big an innovation as a new invention.
Action has a higher value than ideas. Ideas which are never implemented are nice ideas, but nothing else. Making something happen – actually solving a problem – improves the lives of your customers and helps to create a better world.
Image courtesy of Paul Keller, licensed under a Creative Commons license.
Tuesday, February 03, 2009
- Always give a quote
An offer is on the table ensures that you are in the running. Set a time frame for the quote and deliver on your commitment. This the first opportunity you have to demonstrate that you can deliver – make sure that you do. I recently quoted on a project and was shocked that at least three other companies had not bothered to deliver a quote.
- Know your worth
Understand your own value and how that contributes to the project. Undervaluing yourself leads to difficult financial situations and lack of motivation. Overvaluing results in a begrudging client who is unlikely to use you again. Clearly communicate the value that you add.
- Quote on fair value, not customer worth
Big customers may have more financial backing, but should not have to pay a premium for your services. You may want to under–quote a small customer to make sure that you secure the work. Everybody loses when a quote is not fairly valued. Under quoting undermines the project and compromises your ability to deliver a high quality end–product. Over quoting undermines your relationship with the client and damages future opportunities.
- Know your strengths and weaknesses
Understanding yourself will help you to leverage your strengths and compensate for your weaknesses. Quote around your strengths and approach the project in a way that gives you and your client an advantage over your competitors.
- Take reasonable risks
If we only quote for things that are comfortable we limit our ability to grow. Sometimes a project might seem too big, or require skills that we have not yet aquired. Push yourself enough that each project forces you to grow.
- Only quote if you can deliver
If you can't deliver or you are not the best option, then be open and clear about this. Your client will be happy to know that you did not mess them around. Doing work for work sake is a bad strategy.
- Be remarkable
Amplify your strengths and offer something remarkable. Remarkable could be the way you communicate with your client, the quality of your work, or the speed at which you are able to deliver it. It may even be the price (high can also be remarkable). Remarkable beats boring.
If you have an idea for a product, or a problem that can be solved electronically, then please contact me – I would love the opportunity to give you a quote.
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
eWASA, the eWaste Association of South Africa, is an organisation concerned with the handling of eWaste and represents the various industry stakeholders (like eWaste recyclers and disposers). Their website provides useful information about where to recycle your eWaste and how the eWaste recycling process works. They also have a really fascinating (and distrubing) list of hazardous substances and what items those substances are contained in. I recommend that everybody read that list (compulsory reading for engineers and product developers).
Refurbishing, reuse and extending the life–cycle of electronic products is an important (and preferable) way to reduce eWaste and the hazards associated with recycling and disposing of these products.
eWaste recycling is expensive and the costs are not necessarily covered by the resale of recovered materials. eWASA would like to introduce an advanced recycling fee (ARF) for products which will eventually become a part of the eWaste stream. This fee will be collected by the supplier at the time of sale and used to fund end–of–life recyling. Exactly how the ARF will be collected and distributed is not yet clear. Will certain items, such as CRTs, attract a higher ARF due to greater recycling costs? We will have to wait and see.
South Africa currently has no legal framework which deals specifically with eWaste, and unlike the EU's RoHS directive, we have no laws to govern the materials used in the products that we make. I have been quite surprised in my dealings with manufacturers of printed circuit boards and assembly houses that they even still offer leaded products (because people are still using them). There are many benefits in removing these hazardous substances from your product and any issues with the alternative lead–free options have already been resolved. It is our responsibility as designers to remove these substances from our products. South Africa should introduce legislation to govern the use of hazardous materials so that we can avoid future health crises.
We need more people to be aware of, and start recycling eWaste. Fortunately Makro and Fujitsu–Siemens have partnered together with an eWaste recycler, Desco Electronic Recyclers, and begun providing eWaste collection bins in some of their stores. This will help to create awareness of how to correctly handle and recycle eWaste. eWASA's website has a full list of eWaste collection points in South Africa.
Please design and recycle wisely – it is good for you, me, and our environment.
Photo courtesty of Stephen Bullivant, licensed under a creative commons license.
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
"Side note: the more complicated your idea is, the better off you are patenting it. Dean Kamen made his fortune patenting wheelchairs and other devices that you and I could never hope to build. On the other hand, if your idea is simple enough to dream up in a week, the only way you're going to protect it is to build it, fast and well."Patents are important and have a place in product development, but actually making something important has a far bigger impact on the world. Important does not have to be big or complicated – important solves problems (even small ones) and improves our lives.
In my line of work the whole issue of patents, idea protection and non–disclosure often arises. Protecting an idea in the early conceptual phase is crucially important. At this point anyone that can get hold of the idea has an equal chance of getting an actual product to market – that is why all my communications with clients and potential clients are considered confidential.
There are some problems with trying too hard to protect your idea,
- It may not be worth protecting
Many ideas are not patentable, as prior art already exists. Non–patentable ideas still have value – great beats good, remarkable beats mediocre. Improving on existing products, or turning old ideas into real products are important functions which need to happen continuously.
- It slows things down
While you are busy building a legal fortress around your idea other people are busy building working versions of theirs. Having a market share and being ahead of everyone else may matter more than having the legal rights to an idea which has passed its sell by date.
- Your idea is out there
When you patent something it becomes public – everyone knows what you are doing. Competitors may be able to do something innovative with your ideas sooner than you can.
- It might not work
It is possible to design around patents. If your competitors can come up with their own innovative ways to compete in the same market then your patent may not win you much in the long run. You can still compete, you can still be the best, but what you do keeps you ahead, not a legal document.
- You have to be able to enforce it
Regardless of what legal protection you have you still need to be able to enforce it. That means legal fees – can your afford to pay for your protection? It is certainly necessary in some cases, but which would you rather do: fight legal battles or make things that matter?
You will need to work hard, you will need to stay ahead, and yes, a competitor might just be better than you at it and there will not be any legal papers to throw at them. There is risk involved no matter how you approach it.
There are so many brilliant ideas out there. You probably already know a couple that will change your industry or the way your work. You probably read about one on a blog last week. Making those ideas real is important.
Engineer Simplicity helps companies and people develop ideas into real electronic products. I can help you move your idea from conception through to production. Contact me with your ideas – I will keep them safe and confidential.
Images courtesty of Alexandre Dulaunoy, licensed under a Creative Commons license.
Get the latest posts immediately
or enter your email address:
About this blog
About Engineer Simplicity
Engineer Simplicity specialises in the design and development of electronic products.
We are in the middle of an energy crisis and each of us need to make some dramatic changes to ensure that we have electricity, and that the ...
The advert ends with the line, "The walls between art and engineering exist only in our minds." There are a couple of ways to i...
As engineers we spend a lot of time solving problems. A customer has a problem and it needs to be fixed. The electronic boards you have just...
Electronic design automation tools like OrCAD , PADS and Altium Designer are part of an electronic engineer's day–to–day life. We need...
I was pondering processes while making some tea today. Most of my process pondering these days is inspired by what Sig is doing . I think o...
eWaste is a particularly difficult issue to deal with as it contains many different materials and lots of extremely hazardous substances. I...
Load shedding and Eskom have been on the lips of many South Africans over the past few weeks. We have had some of our worst electrical outag...
Every time information is duplicated there is the possiblity of an error. Let me say that again, every time information is duplicated there ...
Mercury in compact fluorescent tubes (CFLs) is a health hazard and therefore we should not use CFLs....at least that is the false message b...
I am an advocate of making sure that every device consumes as little power as possible at all times. Indicator lights should be off, process...
- March (3)
- November (3)
- October (5)
- September (1)
- August (2)
- July (3)
- June (4)
- May (3)
- April (2)
- March (2)
- February (4)
- January (1)