Editor’s note: Our guest writer this week, Skyler Adams, is a longtime and highly engaged Member of The Prepared. He also works at First Resonance, a sponsor of this newsletter. -SW
There’s a style of subtle infomercial making the rounds on Tiktok, which depicts a young woman returning home and doing normal household things – putting away her shoes, taking a shower, washing dishes. Everything she does is assisted by a menagerie of single use tools, which dispense, deodorize, steam and ultrasonically clean along the way. Each of these tools is clothed in shiny white plastic, adorned with LEDs and charged via USB. The problems they solve feel like annoyances at best, like a Rube Goldberg cartoon or something you’d find in the pages of Skymall.
I don’t need a UV sanitizer for my slippers. And yet, it didn’t take long until I bought a product I saw in one of these infomercials. I was shopping for a new trash can, and realized that I could either pay $30 for a manual one or $35 for the self opening, self bagging one. I find this incredible: armies of people halfway around the world have built technology and supply chains to solve such trivial problems, then advertised their solutions to me, and delivered those solutions overnight. We’ve made enormous strides in logistics, engineering, manufacturing and financial systems – all of which were apparently in the service of delivering me a smart device only marginally more expensive than its dumb sibling. And single-use household goods aren’t the only thing affected by this progress: I remember buying wood screws in a hardware store and splitting hairs over which size and shape was right; nowadays, the minimum bag that I can buy online starts at 100.
As much as I enjoy abundance, it’s hard to understand a world where the minimum economical purchase quantity is functionally a lifetime supply. It makes me consider the value of my time, and the costs associated with storing and maintaining the stuff that the supply chain so efficiently delivers to me. It feels like all manufacturing is becoming like semiconductor fabrication, where raw material is effectively free – but arrangement, information, and testing are expensive.
Planning & Strategy.
I’ve become a huge fan of Munro and Associates’ YouTube channel for my dinner entertainment. Munro is a consultancy to the auto industry; they purchase and then tear down cars, reverse engineering them and then posting hours-long videos explaining how they were designed and built. More interesting than the vehicles themselves are Munro’s speculations on the company dynamics that led to them – why would an engineering team choose a more costly fastening method over another? What’s the purpose of this useless connector?
The Munro team recently tore down a Mustang Mach-E and were confused by a bulky plastic piece, connected to nothing and just taking up space in the dashboard. They think it’s a “space claim,” whose purpose is to occupy physical space inside the car while the driving assist team works on a self-driving computer that’ll eventually be put there in future models. It’s incredible to me that for all the layers of engineering bureaucracy, CAD, and planning, it’s easier to stake your claim by designing, manufacturing and shipping a useless piece of plastic in every car.
Making & Manufacturing.
- If you wanted to develop a new type of scientific instrument or chemical process, you’d probably start with a reference material. These are materials that come with a guarantee of purity, consistency and certification, and help you reduce potential problems when you inevitably have to troubleshoot why your invention doesn’t work. Although reference materials are designed to be, well, referenced, there’s nothing stopping you from actually using them to build stuff. The Journal Of Immaterial Science, which describes itself as “the premium source of made up science,” charted up the cost of baking a chocolate chip cookie entirely of reference materials purchased from scientific materials supplier Sigma Aldrich. Although it’s possible, each batch costs $30,000. Personally I’d save my money and get my laboratory sugar fix from the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s reference peanut butter, a steal at $356 a jar. One of the biggest consumers of “reference materials” is the semiconductor industry, which uses ultrapure water whose contaminants are controlled down to the parts per billion. Ultrapure water is used to wash silicon wafers; a single errant molecule can damage a transistor.
- Tilt-up construction is a fabrication method where builders fabricate large concrete panels on-site. They then “tilt up” the panels to form walls, and lift on a roof to quickly form an economical, high-ceilinged building. Tilt-up construction is perfect for big-box stores and distribution centers and is one of the technologies Amazon used to double its distribution center space in 2021. However, tilt-up buildings are not stable without a roof and have been blamed for the deaths of six workers at an Amazon fulfillment center after a tornado damaged the building.
Maintenance, Repair & Operations.
- The NS Savannah was a nuclear demonstration vessel and conceivably the world’s only nuclear-powered passenger ship. Although its main use was hauling cargo, the ship also contained staterooms and a dance hall for passengers. It also boasted one of the first commercially available microwave ovens and a pleasingly-painted reactor vessel that passengers could view via a dedicated black-and-white television. Launched in 1962 and defueled in 1971, the ship was costly to operate and was only in service for ten years. It spent the ensuing fifty years in storage, waiting for the Department of Transportation to award a contract to decommission its reactor – which finally happened this year.
- The Association for Materials Protection and Performance released a report that estimates the global cost of corrosion – gradual wearing away due to rust and oxidation – at $2.5 trillion a year, or 3.4% of global GDP. Although this number is titanic, it doesn’t feel so bad if you redefine it as the cost humanity pays in order to fight entropy.
Distribution & Logistics.
I’ve been obsessed with the idea of a “supply chain scene,” where the rise of a crucial technology creates a Cambrian-like explosion of related inventions. In the last 20 years, the cell phone industry has developed supply chains to provide affordable LCDs, microprocessors and batteries. More niche technologies like e-cigarettes, smart home devices, drones and computer monitors were able to ride the same supply chains to high volume and low cost. A similar scene happened in the aftermath of World War II, and that day’s engineers were faced with a surplus of cheap, high quality parts from the advent of mechanized warfare.
One result of this, Stratovision, was a 1940s plan to broadcast television to the continental United States from the air on former bomber planes. With use of a special antenna stowed in the bomb bay, a fleet of ~11 planes could bring television to 78% of the population. The program was shut down in the early 1950s in favor of terrestrial cable.
Other civilian uses of wartime technology were more successful – the USPS re-used the WWII 4x4 Jeep design to build a fleet of rugged mail trucks from 1959 to 2001. The original Zamboni ice resurfacer was also a modified Jeep!
Inspection, Testing & Analysis.
- I’m very impressed with this computer vision demo, in which unexploded munitions are detected even when they’re camouflaged by tall grass. A lot of AR demos I see are about adding complexity to a blank world – I like the idea of doing the opposite.
- The patent for the LEGO building block is only two pages. It’s incredible to see a simple list of requirements allow for such emergent creativity.
- One of the myriad problems with chip production is a shortage of Ajinomoto build-up film (ABF), a substrate used to enclose silicon wafers between etching steps. The manufacturer of ABF is the same Ajinomoto known for discovering umami and commercializing MSG; the company’s name literally translates to the “essence of taste.” ABF is produced with the same amino acid technology used in their spices, so you could say the chip shortage is partially caused by underseasoning.
- Semiconductor technology nodes have historically been a measure of the size of transistors on a microchip, and are generally interpreted as a rough analogue of performance. That worked for a while, but in the past few decades foundries essentially started making the numbers up; they became more marketing than manufacturing science. Today Intel’s 10 nm process is basically the same as TSMC’s 7 nm process! As the end of Moore’s law approaches, I’ve noticed Apple and Nvidia shifting to advertising their chips by gross number of transistors – a more direct measure of processing power.
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