Working in a rapidly growing manufacturing software company, one of my challenges is teaching new hires about the problems we are solving. Our recruits have varied backgrounds, from public service to cryptocurrency to ecommerce. How can I get them to understand the headaches I’ve experienced working in a factory?
The pitch I’ve honed after many onboarding meetings compares factories to commercial kitchens. Just like manufacturers, restaurants have to manage inventory, keep their processes controlled, and turn out efficient, high-quality products on schedule. So I walk our new engineers through the process of making food, from buying ingredients and building recipes to selling finished goods. If I’m feeling ambitious, I venture into the problems restaurants can face and their manufacturing analogues: things like fluctuating quality, forgotten side dishes, and supply chain uncertainty.
After many months of this, I’ve started to view everything I encounter as a manufacturing process. I’ve picked out some links below that resonated with my new ways of seeing.
The most clicked link from last week's issue (~7% of opens) was northeastern India's living tree bridges. In the Members' Slack, if you ask you shall receive. This week the #sustainability channel was buzzing with answers to questions about home composting gadgets, hyper-affordable housing solutions, and BS-free carbon offsets (this overview is quite nice, thanks Ryan!).
Planning & Strategy.
- One side effect of the industrialization of the military is the masses of specifications on logistics, engineering, and standardization. If I’m grappling with a new engineering problem I check the EverySpec database and there’s a good chance I can find a document to learn from. It’s also a great source for documents on weird subjects from an airstrike request form, to a cookie recipe, to instructions on how to machine Uranium. My favorite article is a Department of Defense guide to detecting “Agile BS” in software development.
- Southern breakfast restaurant chain Waffle House uses a novel order recording system that doesn’t need computers or written records. The waitstaff sends orders to the kitchen by lining up empty plates and prepping them with prepackaged condiments and cutlery. Their position and orientation on the plate act as Kanban cards communicating dishes ordered, substitutions, and special attributes like the doneness of steak. This continues Waffle House’s logistics excellence, alongside its disaster response capability and ability to continue operations without water or electricity.
Making & Manufacturing.
- I recently discovered Kenneth Hawthorne’s work on 3D printing glass. His method ingeniously repurposes a laser cutter as a Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) printer. While common FDM 3D printers heat up and extrude layers of thermoplastic filament, SLS printers make objects from powder by selectively melting it, typically with a laser. The SLS process can use unmelted powder to support the object as it’s printed and can utilize exotic materials like metal, sugar, and nylon. SLS printers normally cost tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars and have paved the way to a hobbyist printer scene, like the one FDM printers enjoyed a decade ago.
- Hand axes, teardrop-shaped stone tools made by paleolithic humans, are found all over the world – but there’s no consensus on how they were actually used. They’re not sharp enough to cut anything, are awkward to hold, and make mediocre projectile weapons. In an attempt to explain why they were so prolific, experts have suggested they could be art pieces, status symbols, or simply made for fun.
- Magnetorheological polishing is an ultra-high-precision optical polishing technique that uses computer-controlled magnetic fields to move polishing fluid across a lens. Previously, I’d only seen magnetic fluids used to make pretty patterns; it’s impressive that a fluid can be controlled so accurately from a distance to create such precise results.
Maintenance, Repair & Operations.
Manufacturing was the top industry targeted by ransomware in the last year, accounting for 23% of reported attacks. Attackers capitalize on the fact that manufacturers are so sensitive to operational downtime, and the fact their supply chains have already been stressed by the pandemic, making them vulnerable to any additional disruptions. In addition, the cost of cyber insurance has increased 92 percent since 2021.
Distribution & Logistics.
- The longest conveyor belt in the world stretches 98 km across the Western Sahara desert in Morocco. It’s used to transport phosphate minerals to the Atlantic Ocean, where the raw material is shipped internationally. Desert winds blow some of the light-colored rocks off the conveyor and onto the sand, leaving a white streak on the desert, making the conveyor's path easy to spot by satellite.
- Large structures built on permafrost, like the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, are built with thermosyphons, designed to wick off waste heat and keep their foundations from melting. Climate change is causing permafrost to melt, destabilizing the soil, and forcing the Alaska Pipeline Service company to install ground chillers to re-freeze the pipeline's foundation.
Inspection, Testing & Analysis.
- Remote manipulators are tools that extend human limbs and allow users to intuitively handle objects when the environment is too dangerous. They’re versatile but historically have been incredibly expensive because they need to record, transmit and replay human senses and movements. This has limited them to high-stakes environments like nuclear test labs or the International Space Station. Recently I’ve noticed new remote manipulator tools popping up in new contexts like high voltage cable repair and microsurgery. Both demos use consumer VR headsets, suggesting that the development of consumer VR, cheap electronics and the open-source Robot Operating System are making remote manipulators viable options for complicated tasks.
- Using Snapchat’s Lens SDK and the iPhone LIDAR sensor to confirm your tree fort’s foundation is square.
- A rocket wrench is a tool used to disarm bombs, composed of two explosive charges arranged around a chuck. The user attaches the device to the part they wish to unscrew and then fires the charges, producing high torque from a safe distance.
- Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot has found a job patrolling the ruins of Pompeii.