2018-12-24 4 min read


A big thanks to everyone who subscribed/contributed last week. The Prepared has become a big part of my life over the past five years, and I greatly appreciate everyone who I've met and worked with through it - but it's also *really* nice to get a few bucks for all the work I put in as well :)

The most clicked article in last week's issue (~14% of opens) was Keyboardio's remarkably open procurement snafu update.

Planning & Strategy.

  • Something I (but mostly Chuma and Lisa) have been working on for a while: On theprepared.org, a feature piece on what it's like to undertake product development in Africa. Africa has the landmass of the US, Europe, and China combined, 54 unique markets, and over 2000 languages. "For both hackers and small manufacturers in these parts, long wait times and uncertainty are an unavoidable part of the product development process." This piece really put in context the frustrations that I've had developing hardware products - recommended!
  • A profile of Hammacher Schlemmer which makes their leadership come across as focused, intelligent, and downright pleasant.

Making & Manufacturing.

Maintenance, Repair & Operations.

  • "The Rideshare Guy" on what it's like being a Bird mechanic. The incentive structures for these (contracted, not employed) workers don't make much sense, and point to a company which is optimizing for growth at the expense of a) worker satisfaction, b) operational efficiency, and c) resource/product utilization/lifespan. Which is a little bizarre: Scooters are pretty cheap to buy at retail, and the whole reason to use a scooter sharing service is that they're good at keeping the vehicles in working condition - something that I'm sure is on Bird's to-do list, but which doesn't seem to be part of their current model. I also find Rideshare Guy's employment ads to be... unnerving.
  • On the state of bathroom cleaning robots: "The biggest obstacle to cleaning robots like these is, sadly, probably not related to robotics hardware or software. It’s that humans are really good at cleaning bathrooms, really fast at cleaning bathrooms, and really cheap at cleaning bathrooms. We don’t want to clean bathrooms, but we’ll do it anyway, and it’s likely that most of us won’t be willing to pay all that much for a robot that’s able to do that and nothing else."

Distribution & Logistics.

  • SpaceX received their second approval from the FCC to launch Starlink satellites (which are currently still in prototype phase and have a mass of about 400 kg) a few weeks ago; they're supposed to have at least half of their planned 11,927-unit fleet in orbit by 2024. While the chance that any individual unit will fall & injure anyone is 1 in 18,200, the overall fleet is 45% likely to cause an injury or death every 6 years. But hey, at least SpaceX is getting approvals - Swarm Technologies, which you'll recall launched a handful of 1/4U (10 x 10 x 2.5 cm) cubesats after the FCC had *denied* their application to do so, agreed to $900k in fines plus a bunch of new FCC oversight.
  • The NYC Taxi & Livery Commission approved a smart proposal for what rideshare companies must pay their (contracted) drivers. The idea is to a) set a wage floor of $17.22 per working hour (which Uber, Lyft, and others historically do *not* hit in NYC), and b) set their minimum per-trip pay rate (which is presumably less than what the passenger pays, assuming that the rideshare platform passes overhead/profit on to the customer) to their per-minute and per-mile expenses, divided by NYC's for-hire-vehicle utilization rate. "The simple brilliance of the formula is that it puts the burden on ride-hail companies to ensure their drivers are getting enough work. If too many cars are on the road, causing a driver’s utilization rate to fall below the number set by the taxi commission, then companies pay more to make up the difference."
  • DirecTV has launched its last satellite. Its current fleet should last until 2030.
  • DHL will invest $300 MM in warehouse robots in 2019. "Conversations are ongoing with more than 25 robotics and process automation industry leaders, DHL Supply Chain president of retail Jim Gehr said. DHL Supply Chain warehouse robots will work primarily with unit-picking operations and will be able to complete a range of tasks, from collaborative piece picking to shuttling items across a factory to following human packers."
  • A series of good infographics on the global container shipping industry.

Inspection, Testing & Analysis.

  • Bunnie Huang on testing in the electronics industry. "This is one of the elephants in the digital fabrication room - just because a tool is digital doesn’t mean it will fabricate things perfectly with a push of the button. Every tool needs maintenance, and more often than not a skilled operator is required to inspect the final product and polish over rough edges...At the end of the day, factories are powered by humans, and it pays to employ a human-first design process when crafting test programs." As I've said many times, manufacturing is just people doing things over and over again in a repeatable way. "Digital" is just an imprecise way of referring to a software layer on top of (business processes) or below (fabrication methods) them.
  • Parts of Tehran, Iran are sinking by as much as 25 cm per year.


Time lapse photos of airport flight paths.

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