The Prepared’s reading group recently finished The Innovation Delusion, the premise of which is that society worships innovation, undervalues maintenance, and that the former causes the latter. I would recommend the book, though I find it hard to see such a causal relationship in my own work. I imagine that has to do with my specific job: On a daily basis I do both design and sustaining engineering, and therefore I feel the value of both innovation and maintenance. I venture that many readers of The Prepared have a similar duality, and see the two more as symbiotic than as in competition.
For the symbiotic relationship between the two, look no further than the pandemic: innovation in technology enabled many of us to work together from home; meanwhile, maintainers of internet infrastructure allowed the transition to take place without a hitch. Innovation in medicine developed a vaccine in record timing; maintainers of manufacturing equipment and supply chains allowed us to deliver them at an impressive pace. We may have gravitated to the stories of Zoom and Pfizer more than AT&T and Fedex, but innovation was not possible without maintainers at every step.
So why do maintainers get less recognition? For one, if a maintainer does their job well, it is like they were never there. You feel upset about the potholes that exist, rather than appreciation for the road workers who keep more from forming. We will - and should - continue to reward innovators. And at the same time, we should encourage them to build things that make maintainers’ jobs easier and more fulfilling. Part of being prepared, after all, is engineering your systems so they are well-maintained.
The most clicked link from last week's issue (~16% of opens) was an article about the communication and conflict resolutions employed by NASA astronauts. Popular threads on The Prepared's Members' Slack last week included a bunch of fun color perception games, some hot takes on Qarnot's "computing heater," and a *really* wacky side-by-side Moulton tandem.
Planning & Strategy.
- Kattera, a construction startup founded by the former CEO of Flex and backed by the SoftBank Vision Fund, is shutting down. Brian Potter details Katerra’s rapid growth and collapse from his time working at the company. It’s an all too familiar startup story of ambitious goals and massive investments into expansion without first confirming the success of the product at a smaller scale.
- I was surprised to find that while they have a partnership with NYC, the Lyft Citi Bike bikeshare program receives no public subsidies. It has basically become a part of Manhattan public transportation infrastructure, yet if driven by profit, other areas in NYC will likely remain underserved and price increases unchecked (yearly membership cost has risen from $95 in 2013 to $179 today). Meanwhile, a potential competitor JOCO is being sued by NYC for operating without a partnership.
Making & Manufacturing.
- Deloitte released a report on the growing hiring struggles faced by the manufacturing industry. Work-life balance, skill gaps, and a lack of diversity are all listed as contributing factors to an expected 2+ million unfilled manufacturing jobs by 2030.
- The Flipper Zero handheld pentester we linked to a couple of weeks ago has a good overview of the injection molding process on their case. It covers basics of how molds work, how to design for them, and shows that even a perfect mold needs temperature and pressure dialed in to create quality parts.
- Spintronics is an educational puzzle that uses chains and mechanical components to represent electrical circuits.
Maintenance, Repair & Operations.
- The I-40 bridge in Memphis was shut down after inspectors found a crack through a critical beam. Pictures from a kayaker taken in 2016 showed the crack even back then and the inspector who missed the crack in the past 5+ years has been fired. Drones are inspecting bridges more often these days and offer automation, speed, and safety improvements, but most inspections are still done with conventional methods.
- I was in Columbia, SC last week and I noticed this rusty cone-covered tower. Turns out, the cones are horn antennas and vestiges of the microwave relay network that enhanced AT&T Long Lines phone service in the 1950s before being superseded by fiber optics. I find beauty in infrastructure feats of the past and I enjoyed looking at photos of these towers in various states of decay.
Distribution & Logistics.
- A good video explaining why we have a global chip shortage. Companies are starting to redesign their products to use less chips. Sadly, for the auto industry that means removing chips that optimize fuel efficiency.
- The chip shortage could also increase the proliferation of counterfeit chips. Some of these chips are from “gray market” overbuilds at legitimate factories or harvested from scrap electronics. More problematic are knockoffs that look exactly like the real thing, but perform much less reliably. Cryptographic keys assigned to authentic chips are a possible way for semiconductor OEMs to secure their product, and could even brick chips on removal (though this feature seems ripe for abuse to prevent repairs).
Inspection, Testing & Analysis.
- Georgia Tech is studying elephant trunks to design better soft robotics. I love when the answers to a design problem lie in the nature around us aka biomimetics. There’s something humbling about the “fail fast” mentality being trumped by evolution’s “fail over the course of a million years.”
- Eddie Obeng’s matrix of project types is a useful framework for understanding how to approach a problem. I find that engineering projects often start out as “Walking In a Fog” for which the best approach is maintaining a constant cadence of communication.
- A blog post on the benefits of slack (with a lowercase “s”) for an organization’s ability to tackle changing circumstances. “Slack represents operational capacity sacrificed in the interests of long-term health.”