Thursday, February 10, 2011

Perfect Engineering

In the book I am writing about new graduates facing unemployment one of the chapters, which might get downgraded to a subchapter, is titled Perfect Engineering. Engineers strive to make the best possible products. They also strive to make products consistently and consistently working products. A variable that can often be a challenge for engineers is human involvement with their product.

Humans are involved in every aspect of a product life cycle. From gathering the raw materials to the manufacturing to incorrectly using the product. That being said, humans are some of the main problem causers in a product life cycle. I read a paper about finite element simulation at work this week that studied a problem that Xerox had. They wanted to test a printer against the worst 12 things that humans would do to it while it was running. There are hundreds of things that humans can do to a printer while it is running so that it will hurt itself or print wrong. To discover what cases were the most damaging the engineers created a finite element simulation of one particular printer and ran it through all sorts of tests to see what would happen. They verified their results against several results in the lab that indicated that all of their wheels were balanced correctly and that the harmonics of their model matched that of the actual printer. Verification of simulation is a big business. Finally the engineers discovered the most damaging 12 things that someone can do to a printer while it is running and they performed physical tests with those 12 cases.

You can see that all of that work and testing would be unnecessary if people never tried to fix the machine while it was running yet we humans like to stick our fingers in places they should not go. As engineers we continually try to make things more fool proof. The extreme end of this would be factories without people inside of them and vehicles without drivers or pilots. From an engineering point of view that is success. A product so good that we can build a factory for that product that people do not have to enter.

We are not there yet. We are heading in that direction. What does work without humans mean for us? I am not sure. It could means that a few people get drastically richer while most people have less, or it could mean that everyone will get to enjoy more time with family and friends. It will probably means something totally different. I like to plan ahead and a large part of that means thinking about the future. Engineering, manufacturing and transportation without people, or at least without as many people, is what I am thinking about.

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