Archive for December, 2018

Patent

Posted on: December 30th, 2018 by admin No Comments

How do new ideas occur to us? What is the secret mixture that enables this spark that creates something new?  I have long wondered this, including when watching my son build things that I found interesting, and with no clear sign of what of the source of that idea that became reality.  I saw him build things with Lego blocks, and I watched him build things at an online game called Roblox.  In both instances it made me think, what is the source?

The same is true for my own life, especially my work life.  I have been part of groups that have produced 7 US patents and other intellectual property.  Each time was so different it is difficult to discern an underlying theme that made this creation possible or at least facilitated.  What can be said in each instance to varying degrees, is there was a perceived difficulty or problem, some desired end state that was presently not possible or if possible was cost or logistically prohibitive.  In some cases that problem was seen by engineering in the frame of “if only….” or “what if….”.  In other cases it was a customer driven demand.  From recall, I think, at no time did we set out to make a patent. First we had a problem, then we had a solution that, to us, seemed to be unique.  It would be then that we would start searching the USPTO office database to see if the idea was indeed unique.  If it passed this test, we would forward the information on the what we drew up and often by that time actually had some functionality on our way to the end product, to the patent attorney of the organization. The attorney would get specifications and feature content documents as well as drawings, everything we had on how the product did and would work.  They would do a more thorough exploration of existing patents.  The patent attorney would prod us to think of the various incarnations we could think of to achieve the objective of the intellectual property.  After this point, the work becomes mechanical. To me, the interesting part is:

  • How do we get to that point where the work is mechanical? That is, the creation part before the work becomes mechanical.
  • What is that catalyst idea, or sentence or action that could be traced back as the origin?
  • What quality (or qualities) of the people (or person) involved are required to create this new things?

I do not know these things, but I do know that in many of the instances, the creation was uncomfortable for a number of reasons.  For example, I am not a smoker, I have had at time respiratory problems so I try to stay away from this.  However, some of the engineers with whom I worked, were smokers.  There were many times we start a discussion in the lab but could see the distractions from the daily work prohibited a good discussion of the problem at hand.  We would walk out to the smoking area, sometimes it would be beautiful out, other times the weather was not cooperative.  We would then be free of the immediacy of the job, and could explore other possibilities, new ideas or combinations of existing ideas we could put together to solve the problem or limitation at hand.

I know that every patent we generated, were with the same set of team members, with some fluctuation.  For 3 of the patents, the team was consistent, the new system we were working to design and produce ended up producing three associated but different intellectual properties.  In each patent team, there was a high degree of camaraderie.  There were stressful times, but the team members never took the stress out on each other . There was a dose of frivolity, or fun loving along with the work.

In many of the cases, the patent generated was not what would be referred to as our full time part of the job of the individual. This means the team members were carrying two work loads (at least) and the patent would be a substantial bit of work.  Adding this to the existing work load was not a motivating aspect of the work.  In fact, I recall considerable complaining about this additional stress.  I cannot help but think that stress is helpful to some degree.

The companies at which I worked offered interesting compensation for those that generated intellectual property for the company.  It was fitting that they did this, since to produce this material when this is not your full time day job takes time, and when you are an engineer, this overtime is uncompensated.

In fact, I was part of a team that after the work was done and the patent submission finally makes it to the final stages of the approval process, the company decides to change the compensation.  Though that team had many more ideas to explore that would perhaps lead to intellectual property for the organization, this team did not produce any more intellectual property material for the organization after this ex post facto change to the patent compensation.  In fact, discussions with the other departments of that organization, there was a reduction in the number of patents produced per year . That may not be the cause of the effect, but perhaps it is.   Perhaps, identification with the organization and trust in the organization, are motivating factors that facilitate intellectual property for the organization.

In each team that I was part that produced patents or intellectual property there was a diversity of experiences, both inside the organization experiences, and outside of the organization experiences.  There was plenty of overlap in experiences also. For example, all were product development people, engineer, technicians or marketing people.  Many (and maybe all) were musicians.  There was a wide range of years doing the work, from 10 years and more.

In each of these patent teams, there was no formalized or hierarchical assigned leader of the patent team.  The leader developed out of the nature of the work in three cases, he project was run by a engineer and the project generated intellectual property for this project. The project was an exploration into creating a heavily multiplexed demonstration vehicle, not for production, which provide many opportunities to generate intellectual property.

In other instances, the lead depended upon the work or who was closest to the patent attorney or had time to develop and maintain contact with the patent attorney.

Ideas were not summarily dismissed. Each idea was recorded and and reviewed at a later time.  Some would obviously fall away, other would require exploration and testing to ascertain suitability.  Nobody was mocked for their contribution, no mater how weird or bizarre or stupid idea.

During my undergraduate degree, we had many projects where we exercised what was being learned, probably the same today.  One of those projects was to build a single stage amplifier with a NPN transistor, with a specific expected gain, and that gain was expected to be the same across he wide range of temperatures, most importantly, at the high temperature range the gain should still hit the target. In a class of more than 100 student, all but one of the students worked the transistors biasing to arrive at the best spot that would allow the gain to be within targets at the high end of the temperature range.  One person accomplished this differently rather than trying many bias techniques.  This person, knew that as temperature goes up, the forward gain comes down, in fact, the transistor data sheet shows this relationship.  This person was also aware of positive temperature coefficient resistors, those are resistors that increase in resistance as temperature increases. The forward gain (beta) and the emitter resistor, are key to the gain of the amplifier.  In this design, the emitter resistor would be a PTC resistor that allowed the gain to remain constant at the upper range of the temperature.  This happened quite by accident.  Had I not accidentally read about PTC resistors in some other technical literature, it would never have occurred to me that this would be a way out of the gain reduction of this BJT at elevated temperatures. I also needed to know the relationship between gain and temperature.  Out of that class, there was one solution that included a PTC resistor that increased as beta decreased in the same proportion as the resistance goes up.

I wonder what is the catalyst or this creation.  It seems to me some of the parameters are likely:

  • a challenge that we are motivated to meet or a problem we are motivated to solve
  • the ability to connect things that are seemingly dis-associated
  • environment where exploration and failure is not terminal
  • multiple perspectives – (where possible) no one dominating direction or methods
  • personal relationships along with the working relationship (at least in my experience)

Patents while at Volvo

Patents at PACCAR

 

Mura (unevenness)

Posted on: December 27th, 2018 by admin No Comments

The unevenness or mura of the work wreak havoc on our work. Project demands fluctuate and working on multiple projects likewise creates or exacerbates the unevenness. In product development work can get heavy around gate reviews as the project must accomplish certain expectations and milestones are reviewed in the gate activities.  One functional department may not be at capacity, but anther may be running beyond capacity.  The arrival of the work from one department stacks up as input to the next department.  This then creates muda as we have waste in the form of over production.  All of this unevenness has impact on schedule and the people performing the work, and sometimes specialized equipment as the demand fluctuates wildly.

Material that our development team will use may also be subjected to this unevenness, think prototype parts, upon which we will test and learn about the product for the next iteration of the development loop.  When lead times are long, we may purchase these prototype parts in quantities larger than needed creating an unevenness of available parts that then become waste.

External events such as accepting projects that push our product development and manufacturing system to the brink in terms of capacity and also have times when our system and staff are not very busy at all are examples of unevenness.

We can reduce this unevenness through the use of a kanban system or a pull system for the work rather than an arbitrary schedule driven system like Gantt charts.

Muri – Overburden

Posted on: December 14th, 2018 by admin No Comments

Muri is waste associated with pushing people, processes and equipment beyond the limits or overburdening. An organization may be enamored of working large numbers of overtime hours, but any benefit for such some at a cost, and this is an example of overburdening.

I once worked at a place in which the employees averaged being at the organization for between 10 – 20 years, and had vacation time commensurate with being within the organization per the company benefits manual. The people that had been with the company that long had more than 4 weeks of vacation, which is 160 hours off of the 2000 hours or total work hours approximates 1840.  On top of this time off, the company also offered special days that it gave off to everybody – think Thanksgiving and Christmas for example.  Yet when it came to calculate the work the organization could undertake, the organization used 1980 per person to estimate the total amount of time each employee had to dedicate to the company.  When it was mentioned that this number of hours was well above what the average hours  per year that would account for a seasoned work force with this sort of vacation time, the executive said they worked considerable overtime and expected that the employees did also.  This is planning to overburden the employees, and may have sustainability issues.  The same is true when we have mandatory overtime for projects that are behind schedule, or working over the holidays.  Project schedules based more on hope or desire than facts and historical data or metrics, run the risk of this sort of overburden. When our team does not have suitable tools within the project (using excel to create Gantt charts) making tracking dependencies difficult and time consuming.

A high work load, that is the work demand is much greater than the processes and talent or resources, we run the risk of increased defects or errors that will creep into the process, or out right not executing as to the process expectations, resulting in defects down stream and rework (muda).

We over burden our staff or specific employees when we assign people to tasks when they do not contain the requisite skills for the work without accounting for this missing expertise in the schedule for the project and that can include things like specific training, and on the job learning to get the team member on the way to acquiring this new set of skills.  Tools and equipment that are too few or are not adequate for the job likewise over burden the system. Over burdening of the process can lead to sloppy work an cutting corners (based upon experience) in an attempt to get the work completed.  Process overburden leads to long queue time for the work.  Machines and equipment can be over burdened and in this case we are not saying 100% is the limit, it is actually lower when you include preventative maintenance on the equipment for example.  Similarly, when we produce a project schedule that does not account for variation of task, and variation in transitions between process areas, we are scheduling this overburden of the system.

Overburden happens when we have a schedule that is not driven by the work that needs to be done, but by the schedule that indicates what happens at what point in time not considering dependencies. This does not consider the actual flow of the work.

Muda – Waste

Posted on: December 12th, 2018 by admin No Comments

Lego Hundred Dollar Bill

Lego Hundred Dollar Bill

For those familiar with the lean approach to the work or the Toyota Way, you my already know about the concept of Muda. Muda is one of the three categories associated with lean that impact performance and costs to the organization.  Muda is regarded to have seven waste types or areas or actions that cause waste.

Over Production

Just like it sounds, making more of something than the need for that something.  This does not just mean parts, but also extends to work product deliveries throughout the work pipeline. Think SIPOC (Supplier-Input-Process-Output-Customer), in this case any output from a process (P) delivered before the depending process (C) or work can start, leaving the work product just sitting there.  Another variant of this waste would be working on products that are not for the next work process, but some prioritized work that is further down or upstream.  When this is not coordinated well, we end up with rework, and if changes are required because of something learned between these two events, we will have rework – waste in depending work as we did not account for this change.

Additionally, when we double up work items that are usually depending, without coordination, for example manufacturing aspect of the product development before the product or system design becomes firm, as in stable with reduced uncertainty.  This uncoordinated work, besides being an over production waste, will often result in rework which we will discuss later.  By doing this work before it is needed, we have taken the focus off of what is needed.  Organizations with limited volume of talent, can ill afford to spend time and effort on work that has no consequence on the here and now, and where changes between these two events may cause rework.

We see this waste in or project management activities when we attempt to make detailed plans months or even years into the future.  We are essentially spending time to plan what we do not know.  Over production of schedule, or any of the other project plans that have components that are unknown, but we behave as if we in fact do know, is a waste.  Knowledge and identification of past events and process statistics can be used to estimate with little detailed effort. The project may request excessive reports from those doing the work resulting in over production of status reports.

RPTechniques (Duplicate)

Waiting

Waiting is just what it sounds like, waiting for equipment, information and decisions cost time.  Operators waiting while machines process inputs and produce the output. This reminds me of the old phrase from my fast food days, you got time to lean, you got time to clean.  When people are unable to work on what should be worked, but cannot because some prerequisite has not been delivered or met, this is also waste.

Waiting for documentation sign-offs, approvals or decisions are waste.  Material and prototype ordering logistics can also cause waiting and waste. For projects and project management, conflicts that are not resolved, or projects with no escalations plan may find themselves stalled, unable to progress while the clock keeps ticking off time.  Even when decisions are made, if the decision is not quickly propagated through to the necessary personnel we can have idle or wait times.  Project gate reviews can also be a wait that results in waste.

Conveyance

Excessive movement of material or information as well as excessive transfer of the work of developing the product between the functional departments – hand-offs.  Long pipelines of project status feedback results in considerable handling of the information is likewise an example of excess conveyance.  When I was a supervisor at a fast food restaurant, I watched the breakfast guy work to stuff the biscuits at the crescor station on the backing pan, then move the sheet of stuffed biscuits to another station, to then wrap the product and put it into the hot box for the cashiers to deliver to the customers. One of the first things I did, was to relocate the crescore closer to the cabinet (this required rewiring the cabinet with a different plug to access the local outlet) which both eliminated the conveyance and also moved from batch delivery to incremental delivery.  It was possible to stuff and wrap in one location.

Biscuit station

Biscuit station

 

Processing

There is waste in over processing or unnecessary processing.  There is waste in a process that results in too large of variation, little standardization or little use of the existing standards.  Likewise it is waste to have a process that produces results of much smaller variation than needed or required (over processing).   Reinventing solutions or portions of solutions rather than appropriate design reuse with adaptation likewise constitutes over processing.  Stop and go tasks between processes is another waste that comes from processing.

Inventory

Batching systems build up parts or information.  Not using this information or parts is a form of inventory waste.  Ordering prototype parts that are not used or sit around for periods before these are used, represent waste.  One of the reasons for the high level of inventory is variation in part arrival, and this is especially true for prototype parts that are ordered with no plan for their for the sole reason that we may need these parts and the prototype lead times are too long. It is better to find ways to reduce the prototype lead times.

Motion

In manufacturing, motion that causes strain or that is unnecessary will be regarded as waste.  Project team members spending time moving from meeting to meeting or in excessive meetings likewise represents waste.  This is especially true when it comes to meeting with no agenda or action item list or when the meeting is poorly conducted in general.

Defects

Another form of waste is that of defects. Defects are not limited to the product, but also associated with the artifacts that are produced along the way that will result in the product. For example, defective specifications will likely end up in the product lest we take some action to discover and eliminate that defect. The same is true for project documentation, contracts, testing documentation and many others.  These defects left undetected will result in rework or waste in material form.

 

 

 

Starting a Fire

Posted on: December 5th, 2018 by admin No Comments

Do you know how to start a fire?  I am not talking about charcoal briquettes, or the use of combustion material such as  lighter fluid, gasoline, or those special wax products that can be used in your fireplace, no propane or gas used either.

I’m talking about the fires we make in the woods when we go camping. It is okay if you do not know how, in fact my life as had quite a few times when my boy scout experiences have been a benefit to more than my family or those with whom I am camping.  My son and I have made many campfires for cooking out or roasting marsh mellows. Before this, I had camped out without a tent and used the fire for warmth (and to keep away the vermin while we slept).  We have started fires when the material may be damp, but that is not to suggest that it is easy to start a fire even when the material is not damp, surprisingly, it is not so easy.

It is even more difficult if you do not have a source for the spark, in this case we will say we have matches, and that we are not using flint and steel to start the some other survivor type of fire starting. To be successful, we will still need to follow some broad rules.  We do not just go into the woods and and get some logs and stack them up and strike a match and viola, camp fire!  To be sure you can try that over and over again, but the results will be disappointing.  To be successful will require we start in the small, specifically small key actions, and small material.  When you see how this works, you will understand how from small things large fires are born.

We first need to find things that are easy to ignite, leaves for example,.  Leaves catch quickly but will not burn long.  Then we will need material that is slower to catch fire, but will burn a little longer, we can this kindling, very small sticks.  We will stack this up very carefully. The leaves in a bundle and the sticks stacked like a tee pee.  We will build these stick vertically around the leaves connecting them at the peak, but leaving a gap that will allow us to get the match into the center.  It is important to not put too much material here, too many leaves or too many sticks, we need to account for the space for air.  Before we attempt to fire this thing up, we will also need to ensure we have additional material near us when the fire begins to take form, we will need more small, intermediate and perhaps some medium to large sized pieces near where we are working. When this starts to catch, we do not need to be rummaging though the forest to ensure we have the material we need to continue to build this fire to the point we desire.  When we have this done, we can now put the match to the leaves in the open space.  As we put the ignition source into the center of our fire we watch how things are catching on fire, and what is getting consumed. As we see signs of sustainability we put some larger twigs, still not logs, onto the fire in a way that still allows for good airflow.  Aw the strength of the fire increases, so to does the size of the material we put onto the fire, always keeping in mind how the fire moves, and the need for air to keep the fire growing.

So what the hell was the point to a blog about fire on a product development site.  Well, first of all, I have helped many people out in the woods to build their fires, and would like to help others that do not have the benefit of being old, having parents and friends that enjoy roughing it in the woods in the olden days, as well as being in scouts.  The other reason is to point out how this is not much different from developing things, and even people.  It is not prudent to throw everything at developing the product, there is much we do not know, or worse yet, we may think we know. To that end we should proceed with some measure of care. The same is true for people.  We cannot just deluge a person with new things and information, that approach reminds me of a saying from a professor in my undergraduate degree taking a class over the summer to ensure i would pass the following year in the fall. They said summer school is like drinking water from a fire hose, you open your mouth and take all you can and hope that it does not kill you.

Like starting a fire and the staging of material, we will need to do just enough planning, that goes for the material staging to the degree that what we need, we have, as we are in need of that material.  The same is true for learning, those that are new to this work, we will need to prioritize what they need to know and learn through the work, lest we end up treating them to a drink from a fire hose.  To paraphrase Albert Einstein, we should plan as much as needed and no more (“Make everything as simple as possible, but no simpler.)”

We have to be patient and work with the situation as things develop. This is true for the fire, people and product development.  We respond to situations as they arise taking whatever prudent action we deem appropriate.  We cannot pile the logs up and expect the fire to start. We cannot pile up the requirements and attempt to build the product in one pass- there is learning that will happen and that will require us to adjust all manner and type of parameters we encounter.

There is much to learn by making a fire. Fires seldom just start, and without some catalyst take more effort than we think to bring to fruition. We will need to diligent, patient, and respond to circumstances as we become aware.

 

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