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