Monday, July 18, 2011

Engineering is All About Challenges.

The recent dust up over repealing the 2007 light bulb energy standards got me thinking. I’ve been in engineering for over 35 years now, but I really started that journey at age 6 watching the attempted launch of Vanguard TV3 on the family’s tiny black and white TV screen. Right then, I was captured by the challenge of “How can this be made to work?” Although I didn’t realize it then, that was when I became an engineer. By the time I graduated from college the space program had wound down but the first “oil crisis” was upon us and the new challenge was energy. I gravitated to power electronics and have been involved with the challenges of converting electrical energy from one form to another ever since.

Many of the challenges we face as engineers are market driven such as reducing the life cycle cost of equipment or redesigning obsolete equipment, but some are the result of the broader goals of society to improve life. The goals of urban sanitation in the late 19th century and auto safety of the late 20th century both come to mind.

The 2007 energy legislation set several goals beyond light bulbs, such as electric motor and appliance efficiency. All of these challenges triggered development of solutions, much of it here in the United States, which continue today. They are already having the intended effect of improving overall efficiency.

Rolling back even the lighting efficiency standards would be like deciding we could get by without seatbelts or baby car seats. In 12 years we overcame the Vanguard failure to land men on the moon; we can build a better light bulb.

My message to our government representatives is; bring on the challenges and set or raise the bar. The only thing you can’t do is violate the laws of physics.

Engineers meet challenges; it’s what we do.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Japan, Energy and Infrastructure

Like a lot of people, I've been following the events unfolding in Japan after the earthquake as well as the worldwide reaction and I can't help putting my engineering hat on. I was in college at UCLA when the now damaged Fukushima nuclear plant was under construction. Coincidently at the time, the United States was also going through the first "energy crises" with high gas prices brought on by suppliers in the Middle East. The UCLA engineering school quickly put together classes and seminars on energy topics, including understanding how energy was then produced,  future supplies, efficiency and even renewable energy. As a student, it was clear to me then that this had to be addressed by my generation. 

Fast forward 38 years. The verdict on our accomplishments is mixed. Yes, we did make improvements in efficiency and some improvements in supply but little progress toward sustainable energy. We basically still get all our energy the same way the cave man did; we burn stuff. Back then it was wood, today it's burning fossil fuels or a hot pile of decaying rocks. There are other ways to extract energy, particularly chemically as is done in biology, or fusion which is how the sun operates. We touched on that in those seminars 38 years ago but for various reasons never throughly pursued them.

In my opinion, we failed miserably on another issue that was obvious back then; infrastructure. The Fukushima complex is almost 40 years old. Why was it still operating? We don't even keep sports stadiums that long! An entire generation of engineers has had the opportunity to improve on that basic design yet it didn't happen. Here in the US, we haven't built a new nuclear power plant since the '70's. Fortunately, the Navy continued using nuclear energy, so design improvements have been made, but we haven't applied them to replacing these old power plants. Think about it. The next generation will be the most energy dependent generation ever but the foundation of their supply would have been built by their grandparents. 

Infrastructure does not last forever.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Erland Persson

On February 22  the world lost a true genius. My mentor and friend, Erland Persson passed away. I worked for Erland back in the early ‘80’s and it is he who taught me the basics of motion control and encouraged in me the confidence, optimism  and sheer love of engineering that still excites me today.

My job interview with Erland for an R&D position at Electro Craft in Hopkins, MN 30 years ago was a turning point for me. Right from the start we discovered common ground in music, science, engineering and even history. That lunch meeting was both the longest and shortest interview of my life. Long in that it lasted all afternoon, short in that it flew by.

At EC, Erland encouraged me to try my wings as an engineering manager (I wasn’t any good at it). At the end of the day we would gather in his office and ponder “What if”, usually regarding some engineering problem we were facing, but often we would drift into solving other problems or even dreaming up new products. At the start of my stint at Electrocraft, he would encourage me to not be so silent, by the end of my tenure there; I was confidently presenting papers at conferences and dealing with customers and staff alike. Somewhere there is a picture of Erland, myself and other young Electrocraft engineers on the beach in Santa Barbara CA. We had gone there to visit a sister division, Renco, and it became a true bonding event for the team.

We were all caught up in the recession of 1986 when Electrocraft management decided to close the R&D department. To his credit, Erland used his extensive contacts in the industry to provide a steady parade of what turned out to be potential employers through the facility, and most of the staff quickly found employment. I had gained enough confidence to strike out on my own, at least for a while, discovering to my surprise that I actually could make it and support my family (and this was pre internet!). I’ve always felt I’ve had Erland at my back.

Erland also struck out on his own at that point, and we continued to collaborate on projects for the next 20 years. With his help, we demystified motion control for a variety of clients and came up with some pretty unique solutions.

Then in 2006, I decided to go on my own full time. I called Erland to tell him the news, he told me he was winding down from consulting and we set up a lunch date. The morning of the meeting, he called to apologize that he had to fly to Detroit to meet a client and couldn’t make it. I said “But aren’t you now retired?”. He replied “yes, but they need me”. That was the essential Erland.

I ran into him once more, at an IEEE Twin Cities banquet a few years ago. He announced to me there that he was really hanging it up. I’m not sure I believed him until I heard that he didn’t renew the Magnetic Finite Element software he had been using. Then I knew he was really retiring.

Now I’ve been on my own full time for almost 5 years and have weathered the worst recession in 80 years, unscathed.

I said earlier I’ve always felt Erland was at my back

He still is.

Gary Box

Monday, February 14, 2011

Comfort Zone

A lot of people do not operate well when they are out of their comfort zone. The same is true for companies. An organization that has been designing and building analog based power conversion equipment may be forced out of their comfort zone when a customer needs visibility into the equipment via CAN or some other digital protocol. By switching to an all digital control scheme, this form of inflexibility can be overcome. However, the very concept of switching from analog to digital control may be daunting. A similar, even more basic, disconnect occurs when a primarily mechanical company takes on electronic control.

At GBOX LLC we have been straddling the fence between power electronics and embedded control for 30 years. We understand the trade offs and what can be done. More importantly, we know what can't be done.

In the coming weeks, we will be rolling out a unified concept for bringing intelligence to power conversion. Stay tuned as we tackle some new but tough applications.