Wednesday, September 28, 2022

The Magic (of a Good First Article Assembly Build)

In the world of manufacturing, after design has made the drawings, and supply chain has purchased the parts, and the vendors have made the parts, there comes the first opportunity to build the assembly. In my ideal world, that happens with the technician who will build it every day, standing right beside the design engineer who invented it, and the manufacturing engineer who will make it easier to build, all three together building it. It's magical. 

Why is it so cool? Well, there are often things about the design of the part that the design engineer will have to change. It's a very humbling time to be the design engineer, this thing you spent months on is happening in real time and when there are problem you are the only person to really answer most of the questions. It's also great because when the manufacturing engineer is right there, he or she can take notes and update the work instructions and maybe even the bill of materials in real time. By having a really good edit to the instructions during the first article build, future builds will go much more smoothly. Of course it's somewhat a never ending process, continuously improving the parts and instructions to make it go faster and have fewer issues. But the magic is the first time it happens. Everyone has a genuine curiosity about the process. And everyone becomes steeped in the details of the process, so that when future people are hired to learn how to do it, anyone that was there at the beginning has a wealth of knowledge about why things are done a certain way. 

I've thought a lot the last few years about how to scale from one to ten, and ten to 100, and a little bit of thinking beyond that. If you only ever make one, for the most part the engineers who designed it can build it. But very quickly, somewhere between zero and five products, it's probably best to create documentation so that people skilled at building things, can build things, and people skilled at designing things, can design things. 

Point being, the magic is the deep understanding of how the thing is built, and the ownership from everyone on the team to be there for all of the little successes and scary failures that inevitably occur in the process of building something new. It's so cool when it happens!

Thursday, September 15, 2022

I have started to cultivate Bonsai trees!


My first Bonsai: A Juniperus Horizontalis

For years I've wanted to get a bonsai tree, like over a decade. About a month ago I was shopping for plants to put on my balcony and I was telling my fiancé about my desire to have one, and she found this tree for me that was $12.95, and bought it for me!

Where does this hobby go, I do not know. Trees don't grow very fast. I've had it over a month and while it is definitely alive, it definitely hasn't gotten much taller. I'm going to aim to make it straight and tall even though this style of juniper grows horizontally. Next up I'd like to transplant an alpine tree like a blue spruce. Some of them are so cool looking!

A blue spruce (I think) on a recent backpacking trip. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Failure is still underrated.

Failure is underrated. We learn a lot from failure. In many cases a lot of things went right, but it only took one thing to go wrong which then puts the whole mission in the category of failure. Of course, there are many days too when something has clearly gone wrong, but the end goal is still accomplished and so to the outside it looks like a complete success.

Mountaineering is a great teacher in this respect. People will often view success and failure as making the summit or not making the summit. But in reality it's far more nuanced, there is living and not living of course, which is far more important than any rocky summit. There are injuries, there are friendships, there are new personal altitude records, there are good weather days low on the mountain, there are good meals, there are card games, there are movies and reading books, there is sleeping in on rest days. Climbing mountains is about a lot more than just making the summit. 

So it is the same in business. Failing at a goal can teach a company a lot about what went right, even when something went wrong. In fact, sometimes succeeding can teach an organization the wrong lessons, such as, of the 100 steps in the process, actually only 17 contributed to their success. Since the thing had never been tested with less than 100 process steps, hours will be debated about taking away one or two steps, when 83 of them are not needed. Or perhaps everyone worked 60-80 hour weeks to make it a success, so that becomes normal at the company for the next 15 years.

I recently read the book Scrum by Jeff Sutherland, and one of the ideas is go to market when you have some feature that works, but it's only 20% of the complete product. That might be easier done in software than hardware, but the idea of making a product with the minimum features and getting to market, so that you can get actual customer feedback makes a lot of sense. What engineers like and think are important are not always the things that customers think are important. 

So when a company has a "failure" it's a huge learning opportunity. Most failures expose one or several weaknesses, and even if it is systemic, it's never the whole process or the whole system that was wrong. It's okay to fail. In fact, testing to failure is often a great way to test systems and components so that then you know, everything was okay, right up until the fraction of a second where it failed. Without breaking things it can be really hard to definitively say how long a product will last. 

So the next time you see failure, before excoriating the organization or the people for their incompetence, consider all the things that went right, and hope we can all learn from the failure so that it doesn't get repeated.