Staying Up Is Hard to Do

Capacify has introduced readers to some distinctly odd forms of transport over the years, from missile mail to quick-turnaround aircraft with swappable passenger pods; from seagoing trams to transporter bridges. I like to bring you the good, the bad and the ugly of the logistics world, and today is no exception as we look at Brennan’s Gyrocar: monorail, the hard way.

When you design a train to run on a single rail, you’ve got inherent instability to deal with. One solution is to hang the cars beneath the track, as seen in the venerable Wuppertal Suspension Railway, or the H-Bahn at Düsseldorf International Airport. (There are others.) If you don’t mind supporting the whole length of your track on a series of elaborate pillars, this solution is fine.

Wuppertal suspension railway

Looking for a townhouse with a view of lots of girders? Look no further than Wuppertal!

If hanging down from an overhead track doesn’t appeal, another way to achieve stability is by straddling the guideway and using additional wheels that don’t bear the weight of the vehicle, but keep it steady. The Lartigue Monorail system featured a pair of guide rails on each side for just this purpose. The top rail was supported by a line of waist-high trestles that marched across the countryside and made it just about impossible to construct any sort of level crossing, so you’ve got a fairly impractical mode of transport here.

The Lartigue Monorail, Ballybunion

The Lartigue Monorail, Ballybunion

Strange but true: freight cars on the Lartigue Monorail were split down the middle like panniers, and loads had to be balanced. A farmer taking a cow to market would have to balance her with two calves, then split up the calves and put one on each side for the return journey. Nothing says “technical limitations” like having to give livestock an entirely needless tour of the countryside, but the Lartigue Monorail carried passengers, freight and bemused cattle between Listowel and Ballybunion from 1888 to 1924.

Image from the Simpsons TV show reporting mono = one, and rail = rail

With me so far?         [image: Fox Broadcasting]

Modern straddling monorails are in a sense descended from the Lartigue system, using guide wheels to ensure they stay upright, with a certain amount of friction and wear-and-tear as you might expect. So far so ordinary… but there is another way.

Why not gyro-stabilise your monorail, to keep it atop a much less substantial rail? That’s what Louis Brennan (1852–1932) proposed. Not just to keep it upright, either: if you’re clever (and Brennan clearly was) you can use the gyroscopic force of precession in your favour. He patented an arrangement whereby a pair of contra-rotating gyroscopes helped his machine to balance, and to return to the vertical when subjected to a load.

When it encounters a curve, Brennan’s patented gyro mechanism causes the car to lean into the bend, just as a cyclist would. In effect, to those on board the train, the banked turn wouldn’t feel like a turn at all: their weight would keep on pressing directly down through the floor of the vehicle. That offers a considerable improvement over conventional railways, which in some cases have to feature a bend radius as large as 7km, in order to keep the passengers comfortable. Brennan used to give demonstrations in which a scale model would make its way along a tortuously twisted piece of gas pipe, as described by Cleveland Moffett, a journalist for Munsey’s Magazine:

“As she comes closer we hear the low hum of her hidden gyroscopes (they will be quite noiseless in the larger model), and are struck by the car’s remarkable width in proportion to her length. She suggests a trim little ferry-boat, and is utterly unlike any known form of railway car. Now the track curves sharply to the right; she takes the turn with the greatest ease, and leans slightly toward the curve. Now the track turns again, and she glides behind the bushes. Coming out on the other side, she enters bravely on the approach to a mono-rail suspension-bridge, a wire rope stretched over the valley that falls away between two small hills — seventy-odd feet of tight-rope-walking for the little car. Straight across she runs from side to side, — no wavering, no tipping, — and then straight back again as the assistant reverses her; then out to the middle of the rope, where they stop her, and there she stands quite still and true, while the gyroscopes hold her. This is something never yet seen in the world — a mass of dead matter, weighing as much as a man, balancing itself unaided on a wire!”

Child riding in Brennan's model gryocar

History does not record how much pocket money Brennan had to pay his children for their part in monorail demonstrations

I found that old scale model in the chaotic part of the National Railway Museum that they call the Warehouse. Somewhat neglected and missing its cab, it alerted me to the existence of this strange mode of transport.

Brennan Gyrocar model

Detail of the Brennan Gyrocar model at the National Railway Museum [image: Stephen Holland]

Brennan imagined his full-scale vehicles would cross gorges on a ‘bridge’ consisting of a single steel cable, and ascend gradients of up to one in five. The guideway upon which it ran was simple – just a round ‘pipe’ shape on sleepers, far cheaper that the elaborate Wuppertal or Lartigue types. This will have been what attracted the British Army Council, the Durbar of Kashmir and the India Office to the idea, and they all reached for their chequebooks.

Brennan’s Gyrocar at the Japan-British Exhibition of 1910

Brennan’s Gyrocar at the Japan-British Exhibition of 1910

A full-size prototype railcar (12.2m by 3m) was completed and running by October 1909, and it was first shown to the public at the Japan-British Exhibition of 1910. The monorail car took up to fifty passengers at a time on a short ride. Among those who tried it was Winston Churchill, MP, who would have been around 36 at the time. The gyro monorail had proved itself a workable technology… but there the story ends: no commercial system based on the technology would appear in the years that followed. Still, Brennan’s gyrocar had been demonstrated something like 63 years before the Advanced Passenger Train prototype rolled out – another tilting train concept meant to reconcile the conflicting requirements of curves, speed, and passengers’ comfort. Despite running on conventional tracks, the newer tilting train was plagued by technical troubles, and was withdrawn from service (although the Italians later managed to make the concept work, and called it the Pendolino).

For the gyro monorail, some problems clearly remain. For one thing, you can’t detect the presence of a vehicle on the track (for safety and signalling purposes) by the usual means of having the train itself complete a circuit, so an alternative way to ensure the line is clear would have to be found. (Hardly an insurmountable task nowadays.)

A bigger problem, of course, is that when your gyroscopes stop spinning, the gyrocar ceases to balance. This might seem to be a little bit worrying if your Brennan gyro train is on an elevated section, or perhaps crossing one of Brennan’s single-wire minimalist suspension bridges over a gorge. Actually, it’s not necessarily all that bad. Travelling on a straight section (such as that bridge) a single working gyro would be enough to keep a car upright: it’s only on curves where you need the contra-rotating pair in order to balance correctly. Also, gyroscopes that lose power take quite a while to spin down to nothing, so a gyrotrain driver with instrumentation ought to be able to take corrective action in good time.

The most significant limitation of the gyrocar technology isn’t apparent from the demonstrator on which our future Prime Minister rode. All the gyrocars ever demonstrated have been exactly that: cars, and not trains. Brennan’s paired gyroscope arrangement has to feature in every section of the train, with no such thing as a passive ‘trailer’ unit, since even if it doesn’t provide traction the coach or wagon must still feature powered gyros, or it won’t be able to balance. The rolling stock for such a transport network would cost a fortune.

But you know what? I’d love to see one.

Still waiting for the #TextBlade?

Back in January 2016, I wrote a supply chain case study about a company called WayTools and their ‘TextBlade’ miniature keyboard. Since the case study is essentially about the non-appearance of a product, at that time about a year late, I thought that I might be able to use the case study once or twice before events overtook me, with WayTools silencing all the doubters by bringing their product to market at last.

Some customers, having paid $99 for a product that was supposed to be out within a month, have now been waiting almost two years. They weren’t signing up to a kickstarter project: the gadget was presented as a finished design, ready for volume production.

The various problems that WayTools reported (via their corporate blog, and in a user community forum) made it very useful as a case study showing some of the things that can go wrong, both internally and in the supply chain. It became the subject of a couple of our exam papers, but I never expected that I’d still be talking about WayTools’ failure to deliver the product as 2017 rolled in.

Detail from the TextBlade case study

You can download a copy of the case study here.

Two years is a long time in the technology sphere: mobile devices and the way we use them might have changed a lot in that time. WayTools have been fortunate that there have been no really big advances. For the most part, Apple users still contend with the woeful Siri, which means that natural speech isn’t about to replace the keyboard anytime soon… but there are newer and better kids on the block. Cortana, Google Now, Assistant.ai, and Viv all want to help users to get things done without typing. Meanwhile, the iPad pro has appeared, with a pretty good keyboard of its own – essentially copying that found on Microsoft’s Surface Pro. Since these are built into the protective screen cover, they don’t occupy much space. Is there still a market for a tiny-teeny keyboard, nowadays? WayTools think so, and (as far as we know) they’re still doggedly plugging away at refining their product.

An urge to make the best keyboard they possibly can appears to be the main problem. In May 2015, they reported that they’d replaced the nylon ‘butterflies’ under each key with liquid crystal polymer, improving the feel and durability of the keyboard. That’s commendable, except that people who had ordered one had expected to receive it months before. What was wrong with simply making in quantity the product that the tech journalists had enthused about, back in January 2015? Why not hold off on any improvements until the “mark 1” product had been delivered, generating a few hundred thousand dollars in revenue?

Typing with the TextBlade

TextBlade should haven taken the world by storm… two years back.

The new, stronger ‘butterflies’ were found to cause defects during the assembly stage, and a new fixture had to be designed as a work-around… and so on, and so on. Right up until the present, as far as I can tell. A few customers have been invited to join the Test Release Group (‘TREG’) and they have received sample units, but there’s still no sign of order fulfilment being achieved.

I think we can all agree that introducing a two-year delay while you take something that works and ‘improve’ it until it doesn’t is a distinctly unusual business practice.

TextBlade product packaging

Some customers may have been waiting for this for almost two years. [image: mcttrainingconsultant]

I have no axe to grind: I’m not out of pocket by $99. I wanted a TextBlade, sure enough… but I decided to wait and see. Thus far, it’s been all waiting and no seeing, but that’s actually a good thing. I wanted a TextBlade… but I didn’t really need one. It would have been fun to pose with one in meetings and on flights, but I can’t point to any particular job that didn’t get done in 2016 and say that’s because I didn’t have a miniature keyboard to use with my iPad.

When I write about the sustainable supply chain, perhaps I focus too much on the supply side. A big part of being ‘green’ isn’t about shopping for products that are made from sustainable materials, or products with low energy consumption: it’s about doing without. It’s about recognising that what you have will do, and perhaps paying off your debts instead of buying more stuff that you don’t really need. It’s taken me two years to realise it, but WayTools and I won’t be doing business, even if they were to announce tomorrow that they’ve just landed a container-load of TextBlades at Felixstowe, with all quality problems finally addressed and next-day delivery guaranteed. I’ve coped perfectly well without, and I know that I can continue to do so.

You may think that $99 is a bit pricey for a keyboard, nowadays, but one school of thought holds that buying expensive things can actually be quite ‘green’ (unless precious metals are involved). Better that you should buy a single, high-priced item than buy a whole bundle of less expensive items, embodying more materials, requiring more logistics, perhaps being less durable, and ultimately representing more waste at the end-of-life. Smart consumption requires that we understand that cheap stuff isn’t necessarily good for us.

My TextBlade journey has turned out to be very inexpensive and very ‘green’ indeed. If it had really existed when it was first launched, I think I would have bought one. By now, the novelty would have worn off, and indeed the product might even have worn out… and even if it still worked just fine, the industrial design of the TextBlade is starting to look just a little bit long in the tooth, now. But instead of being a disillusioned customer, I still have my $99, no resources have been wasted (other than whatever is consumed in web browsing) and I’ve reached an endpoint where I no longer feel that I lack a little keyboard.

TextBlade customers have been remarkably patient, considering. Their good-natured humour at each delay has been kinder than the manufacturer really deserves at this point. Even the Twitter bot called @Failtools that sends out a regular ‘status update’ in the style of WayTools’ own news bulletins has a certain bitter humour about it – and delivers a salutary lesson on the subject of public relations in the Internet era.

Some good things are worth waiting for, without a doubt. Glowforge comes to mind: a desktop laser cutter/engraver that’s been delayed more than once. Consider me very interested, but not enough to actually bankroll the development process. Sometimes, the expectation is simply greater than the reality. That’s a consequence of the science that we call marketing, but perhaps virtual products that never arrive offer a new form of gratification, where you get all the excitement and expectation, and never face the disappointment that comes with actual ownership.

It’s certainly worked for me.

(Also, I got a case study out of this. Thank you, WayTools.)

The Drones are Coming

It had to happen, sooner or later: last week Amazon made their first delivery by drone. They’ve been testing the potential of autonomous rotorcraft for more than three years, so it was about time that they started making flying deliveries – it’s something that Santa Claus has been doing since 1821, after all. Let’s be clear, though: the Amazon customer in question lived close to the fulfilment centre, in the wilds of Cambridgeshire. He’s one of exactly two customers who are currently eligible for the service, although Amazon plan to roll the ‘Prime Air’ service out to “dozens” of customers in the future.

They’re wise to experiment in the flatlands of Cambridgeshire, where there’s precious little in the way of geography to challenge the algorithm that steers the drone, and relatively few people around who might sue if a drone and its 2.7kg payload fell on them.

Amazon Prime Air drone

Amazon Prime Air – coming soon, to a back garden near you?

As a proof of concept, consider it a genuine milestone. People can now receive manna (well, popcorn) from the heavens. In daylight. When winds are low. When it isn’t raining. Or snowy, or icy, or foggy. Assuming, furthermore, that you don’t live in a place where a cable such as a telephone wire passes over your garden. I suppose that trees and birds might pose a problem, too – not to mention thieves who could try to bring down a drone as a kind of ‘lucky dip’ at its unknown contents.

Avoiding the perils and complexities of aerial navigation, but perhaps more at risk of theft, is the (apparently nameless) robot demonstrated last year by Starship Technologies – a company set up by Skype founders Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis. It operates at street level, toiling along at four miles an hour with up to 18kg of packages on board. It’s not intended to make long-distance deliveries, but to cover the final mile after a ‘portable warehouse’ is stocked up and then parked in your neighbourhood… for a claimed $1 per delivery (which is to say around a fifteenth of the cost of a person in a van).

Unlike the Amazon drone, which drops off its package and immediately heads home, Starship Technologies appear to have designed their drone as a mobile box that opens when it meets the designated recipient. Not so great if you’re not home: the robot doesn’t appear to have a mechanism that would allow it to offload its cargo at your premises.

That a package might be left unattended in my garden is nothing new: the delivery drivers that come to my house already leave my goods in a variety of random places, including the doorstep, any of three wheelie-bins, my neighbour’s garage, my son’s sandpit, and on or under the garden furniture. What happens in high density urban areas, though?

One suggestion is that we should all have a giant mailbox for parcels. Hippo Dropbox, for example: a secure box at your address where a delivery driver places the package inside, and the door locks as soon as it’s closed. (A barcode on the inside of the door can be scanned, this constituting a signature where required.) That’s a neat idea, except that at this time of year I’m sometimes getting five parcel deliveries a day – some of them surprise gifts. I foresee the first driver of the day using the Hippo box, secure in the knowledge that he’s done the right thing… but this leaves the box locked. The high-value item that arrives next can’t go in the box, per the delivery instructions, and the barcode can’t be scanned in lieu of a signature. That item must go back to the depot, journey wasted, perhaps several days running.

While logistics textbooks often discuss the ‘final mile’, it appears that the final few metres might be the toughest of all to crack.

Hippo Dropbox. The standard size is £235.00 with free delivery (but where will they put it?)

Hippo Dropbox. The standard size is £235.00 with free delivery (but where will they put it?)

One problem that the flying drone must overcome is that a map reference alone does not identify a household, because in many cases people share a building. Where do you drop a parcel, when your customers live in high-rise flats? Bizarrely, if the future is delivery by air, we would be entering a time where the logistics of home shopping become simpler for those in rural areas – but that’s no good because over 54% of the world’s population live in urban areas (according to a 2014 report from the UN, with a rise to 66% by 2050 anticipated).

I’m not anti-drone as such, and using them to deliver packages is probably a better application than bouncing one off the Flying Scotsman, but there are practicalities to consider.

What’s the environmental impact of a drone? It’s clearly going to consume a lot of electricity because those quad-rotor aircraft expend most of their energy simply in staying up, with forward motion being a relatively minor component of the vector. Maybe you can install a solar farm, or claim your electricity comes on a green tariff such as nuclear. Well, maybe… but electricity is a commodity and when you’re using ‘green’ energy for one thing, it means somebody elsewhere is having their needs met with fossil fuels, so I don’t buy that. There’s also the question of noise, and some people might raise safety concerns. Not an issue while the drones are being used experimentally (or as a marketing gimmick), but what if there were thousands of the things buzzing about?

A question that we have to ask ourselves is, do we really need to receive things in such a hurry? Many businesses are still grappling with the implications of next-day delivery, and those who have made that particular leap have in some cases moved on to same-day delivery. Delivery within two hours. Delivery within the hour. And now… what?

I’m concerned because it makes me think of the Stanford marshmallow experiment, where developmental psychologists assess the maturity of a child based on his or her ability to resist the temptation of an immediate reward. Children who can’t resist the temptation to have it now are scientifically proven to be more prone to impulsivity, aggressiveness and hyperactivity. As adults, they’re more likely to abuse drugs and other substances, more likely to get divorced, and more likely to be overweight. And now we’re designing logistics systems to respond to the demand for instant gratification. We’re rewarding and reinforcing the idea that clicking the button delivers satisfaction… even though we know that there’s this thing called climate change, that it’s man-made and that it’s accelerating. You can have it now, or you can be ‘green’. Which will you choose?

What a curious age we live in!

On a more worthy note, experiments in Malawi have seen a drone used to transport blood samples to a clinic where HIV testing can be performed. In a country where the roads are bad, sending blood samples via motorcycle courier is expensive, so batching together a large number of samples is the norm. This can result in dangerous delays, with UNICEF reporting that it can take as long as eleven days for blood samples to reach a laboratory. Matternet believe that their drones could be the answer.

Blood samples en-route to the laboratory, as the crow flies.

Blood samples en-route to the laboratory, as the crow flies.

As Cute as a Button

I wanted to like Amazon’s ‘Dash’ Button. I wanted to be able to report on it as a manifestation of the long-anticipated Internet of Things, where everyday objects are networked, and can send and receive useful data.

Dash is an electronic doohickey with a single button, about the size of a human thumb. Each Dash button displays the logo of one particular brand, and is configured such that a single press causes a consignment of the corresponding item to be dispatched by Amazon. You’re supposed to use the gadget’s adhesive backing to place it somewhere relevant, such as where you store your supply of dishwasher tablets, or your, uh… Play-Doh.

Just

Wait, what? Just how many households need a streamlined way to obtain Play-Doh on a regular basis? (“D’oh!”)

This is amazing, on some levels. It demonstrates that Internet-enabled devices have become so inexpensive that they can be given away – and so very simple to set up. It wasn’t so long ago that I was blogging about the near-impossibility of getting my Raspberry Pi on a wireless network, but now anybody can get an even cheaper gadget to work. Setting up a Dash button is simplicity itself, although I was dismayed at first to find that I needed to install an Amazon app on my ’phone and turn its Bluetooth on. Was Dash merely some dumb Bluetooth remote clicker? That wasn’t what I wanted: I wanted my household to be wirelessly, remorselessly efficient even when my phone (and I) are many miles away from the cabinet where we keep the dishwasher tablets, or whatever.

I needn’t have worried, as the Bluetooth phase is only for setup. After your ’phone and Dash button have exchanged a handshake and you’ve divulged your wifi password, the only thing you need to do with your ’phone is choose exactly what it will order.

And here comes the first problem: only a very limited range of products can be ordered at the push of a button. CNET journalist Bridget Carey pointed out that the Gillette-branded button didn’t offer any way to order supplies from the women’s range, Gillette Venus. Another reviewer grumbled that only the more expensive blades such as the Fusion type could be ordered, and not the (relatively) cheapo Mach 3.

These aren’t massive problems because they aren’t a fault with the Dash button itself: it’s a question of what Amazon choose to make available, and this can be fixed at any time. So can the idea of button-clicking replenishment in the home be made to work?

It’s at the delivery stage where things go wrong. Amazon simply can’t afford to make good on the small consignments that ordinary families would want to order at the push of a button. Consider tissues: I normally buy a twin-pack of Kleenex Mansize. When we’re running low they are recorded on the shopping list, for my weekly trip to Tesco. If somebody in the house has a cold and we run out mid-week, they can probably find more tissues in the guest room, or they can use toilet roll, or go and buy their own damn tissues at the pharmacy in the village.

As an Amazon Prime customer, you have a new option: you can push the Dash button. This still leaves you blowing your nose on scratchy toilet roll for a day or two (logistics and economics being what they are) but then a harried-looking van driver with a Polish accent arrives on your doorstep, asking if he’s found the right house and carrying a box of Kleenex.

A huge box of Kleenex.

As a paid-up Prime customer (the only kind who can obtain a Dash button) you’re entitled to free, next-day delivery, but Amazon aren’t going to haemorrhage profits on the delivery of small consignments of cheap, bulky paper tissues. Instead, all they offer with a Dash button is delivery in wholesale quantities.

My Kleenex Dash button provides me with the Kleenex Mansize tissues that I wanted… twenty-four boxes at a time.

My Kleenex Dash button provides me with the tissues that I want… twenty-four boxes at a time.

In smaller homes, storage space is going to be an issue. Some people might find that Dash introduces a cash flow issue, too. Basically, in the name of convenience, you’ve become your own warehouse… and it’s not all that convenient.

I don’t find this to be very ‘green’, either. My bulk order of 1,200 tissues were very over-packaged, featuring twenty-four individual boxes, each comprised of both cardboard and a plastic film (here at Capacify, we don’t like monstrous hybrids)… all in a plastic bag, in a big cardboard box. I accept that Amazon can only sell what manufacturers such as Kimberly-Clark sell them, but the economics of this are all wrong. On a per-sneeze basis this over-packaged offering was the most economical, for me, but there was probably more cellulose used to make cardboard boxes than to make tissues.

Another big fail for the Amazon Dash button is that human beings like pressing buttons… but how often do you actually get to enjoy your button-related activity if one press delivers a four-month supply? Also, we Salivate like Pavlov’s dogs at the positive feedback of instant gratification… but Amazon can’t compress the shipping time for our stuff to anything that feels as if the push of a button is really connected to the delivery of the goods. What you get is a brief green glow to show that the request is acknowledged, and then a notification on your smartphone, giving the person who’s actually paying for the items the chance to opt out.

It’s official: romance is dead.

It’s official: romance is dead.

In our house, the neat industrial design of the Dash button is somewhat wasted because I had to hide it in the cupboard with the controls for the central heating. My young son would be fascinated by the idea that there’s a magic button that can be pressed to make stuff appear on our doorstep. (Especially if that stuff were Play-Doh… although even just to make the green light come on would probably be reason enough. Over, and over, and over…)

Instead of criticising Amazon for being a big, bad corporation that has taken over our lives, take a moment to feel some sympathy for them. They’re actually in a bit of a pickle. When they arrived on the scene, many people were still reluctant to use a credit card online for anything at all. Through innovation and sheer hard work, Jeff Bezos has built a vast commercial empire, but in the process he’s trained people to use the Internet to buy stuff – and Internet-enabled customers are fickle. They’ve been conditioned to use price comparison websites when buying new, branded goods; to expect free delivery; to cut out middle-men; to perform free returns with no quibbles; to get next-day or even same-day delivery. There is no buyer loyalty anymore, and profit margins are thin, because there’s always going to be somebody out there who is prepared to work for next-to-nothing in the hope of building market share. (And for many years, that somebody was Amazon themselves, ploughing profits back in and going for growth rather than money, as such. Consider their dividend history.)

Amazon’s efforts to put the genie of free, next-day delivery back in the bottle include the failed Amazon Pantry – where Amazon sought to persuade ‘Prime’ customers (those who already pay an annual fee for their free delivery) that they ought to pay a fee for each box of goods that were delivered. “There’s Something Rotten in Amazon’s Pantry” quipped Seamus Condron, who commented:

“Why on Earth would I, an Amazon Prime member, pay Amazon to ship me something that I won’t get for 1-4 business days? That is not an Amazon Prime service, that is a snake oil operation at its finest.”

And now, of course, the Dash button. They first appeared in limited numbers in late March of 2015, which was a bit of a blunder as many Internet denizens believed them to be a joke for April Fool’s day. But no: Amazon were sincere about Dash.

I was curious, because any study of supply chain trends ought to be all about new methods of ordering and fulfilment. It turns out that the ordering mechanism is novel, but the same old fulfilment process is used and it simply doesn’t keep pace… but then, Dash was never meant to empower the consumer. Consumers are empowered when they have access to the Internet, but that means price comparisons, shopping around… disloyalty.

For £4.99 (refunded when first used) Amazon and I entered into a relationship where I no longer have to type amazon.co.uk into a web browser, while in return Amazon get to ensure I do business only with them, that I order more than I need, that I choose from a limited range of products, and that I display the logo of a brand in my home.

Bad bargain!

The technology is interesting. That a reliable and non-nerdy wifi and bluetooth-enabled device can be built for well under £5 is interesting, too… and I look forward to seeing what else might be done with similar technology by other suppliers, or other innovators.

I’ve been monitoring the price for the consignment of tissues that I ordered, and at times they’ve been available for as little as half what I paid, although Amazon’s price fluctuates with no apparent logic. That’s fair enough if you’re a web-browser customer, but a Dash button customer runs the risk of feeling like a chump for buying things without checking the price. (Having “more money than sense,” is how we would describe this, where I come from.)

Now, I don’t mind paying top dollar once for the sake of an experiment. I got this article for Capacify out of it, after all… but I don’t intend to leave myself on the hook this way. I was going to take the Dash button out of range of my wifi network and then dismantle it, pinching the battery or batteries inside for my own use before I condem the rest of it as e-waste… but it appears that others are way ahead of me: actually hacking the Dash button to make it do something that they find to be much more useful than Amazon intended.

Consider me impressed.

Charged with Battery

As something of a model aircraft enthusiast, I’ve been hearing scare stories about lithium-ion batteries for over a decade – and they’re not just stories: every once in a while a model flier would leave a battery charger running in their vehicle, and suffer a fire that gutted it.

Any battery will get hot if subjected to an inappropriate regime of charging or discharging, but this kind poses additional hazards due to its chemical properties. I’m going to have to simplify quite a bit here, but basically the chemistry of the common lithium-ion cell leaves it vulnerable to a condition that is euphemistically termed “thermal runaway.”

Inside each cell is a cathode and an anode, separated by an electrolyte and a porous material called the separator.

If a component has a manufacturing defect, if it becomes damaged, if it’s short-circuited or perhaps if it’s made to work too hard, the electrolyte can catch fire – but that’s just the start. In the fire, the decomposition of the cathode and anode commonly release (among other things, if I have understood correctly) oxygen, and hydrogen. The release of oxygen in particular means that the more it burns… the more it burns. Naturally, the heat generated inside the cell means that its neighbours promptly get in on the act and the whole battery burns.

If this occurs in a confined space, such as that formed by the casing of a mobile ’phone, you get a small explosion – plus toxic gases released as the other components in the phone are subjected to extreme heat.

Oh – and lithium reacts with water. It’s not really going to be an issue by the time you notice that Samsung made you a smoke grenade instead of a telephone… but strictly speaking, you ought to use a powder extinguisher on a lithium fire.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry says that “… there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

But then, Lord Henry never heard of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7.

Last time I boarded a flight, they were talking about this ’phone:

“For safety reasons we don’t permit any model of the Galaxy Note 7 to be carried on board. If you’re carrying this device, please tell a member of the cabin crew.”

There are signs at check-in. There is coverage in magazines, on websites, on TV and radio. This is the kind of publicity that even Gerald Ratner would choke on.

Detail from the Emirates airline website

Detail from the front page at Emirates.com – the wrong kind of publicity

Launched on August 19th 2016, the Galaxy Note 7 was Samsung’s flagship mobile, and its specifications were impressive. Just five days later came news of a Galaxy Note 7 exploding, in South Korea. By the end of the month they had delayed shipments to South Korean carriers, although the next day the product launched in China. (Presumably this reflects a belief that the bad batteries were all to be found in a particular batch, rather than any belief that Chinese customers are inherently more fireproof or more expendable than Korean ones.)

Just a day later, Samsung announced the global recall of 2½ million ’phones, although at this stage it was voluntary. On October 6th a Southwest Airlines flight was evacuated due to smoke from a Galaxy Note 7, prompting the Federal Aviation Administration to instruct passengers not to turn on or charge the ill-fated ’phone – nor to stow it in cargo. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission urged Galaxy Note 7 users to cease using their phones, and carriers including AT&T and T-Mobile withdrew them from sale.

After a series of fires in replacement devices – those that had been subjected to additional inspections and quality control measures – Samsung finally threw in the towel, suspending production of the product and then announcing its end. The withdrawal of the Galaxy Note 7 left a highly unusual gap in the market because Samsung’s rivals commonly avoid bringing out competitor products at the same time of year, so customers who received a refund had relatively few options to spend their money on. Meanwhile, Apple’s share price surged, despite a recent lukewarm reception for their latest iPhone – a device most notable for the unpopular decision to remove the headphone socket.

Part of the problem here is the very personal nature of mobile ’phones: you put a lot of personal information on them including passwords and banking details; you store photos of your loved ones; you expect people to be able to reach you; you learn your way around the quirky operating system. Nobody wants to have to delete all their personal information and preferences, and give them up. Your ’phone is closer to you, for longer, than your loved ones – and you probably sleep with it on the nightstand. The idea that it might have harmed you, and that it will be taken from you – not because you broke it or lost it but because it’s no good – that feels like a betrayal. It seems that Samsung will continue to feel the effects of this problem for a long time to come.

On Supply Chain Radio they said that the times we live in magnify Samsung’s woes, because of the perils of social media. Certainly, there have been some great jokes about Samsung’s plight (see below) but I think our interconnected age actually makes it much simpler to handle a problem of this kind. For one thing, all Galaxy Note 7 users are online, by definition: they could be reached with a message about a product recall. Contrast that with the old days, when the manufacturer of a defective car would have to take out advertisements in newspapers, to tell the world how crappy their cars were. The new approach is free, and it’s accurately targeted: it need not scare off potential customers.

Unboxing the Galaxy Note 7

Unboxing the Galaxy Note 7 [twitter user Marcianotech]

There is also the option of a software patch, delivered over the airwaves, to fix problems. Samsung tried a patch that would limit charging to 60% of capacity… but their ’phones kept on melting down, all the same.

Even when a fix can’t be achieved remotely, at least the connected nature of the surviving Galaxy Note 7’s offers a way to ensure compliance with the recall: presumably it would be simple enough to send out a software update that forces a shutdown – and once your smartphone has become a novelty paperweight (warning: keeping it near paper is probably a mistake) most users will be persuaded to swap it for something that works.

So, are all those defective telephones going to be remanufactured? No. Samsung has announded they will destroy all the returned ’phones. Given that the device sold for something like US$850, that’s an awful waste, but we’re now looking at a product that must be treated as hazardous. It can no longer be transported by air, or carried in the post. This leaves returned Galaxy Note 7’s scattered, rendering remanufacture uneconomical. Presumably, some recycling can still take place, if only to  salvage some of the more valuable metals – but almost all of the effort that went into making these ingenious devices is wasted.

Samsung Galaxy S7, burnt

Nothing beats that new gadget smell…

When Apple laptops were found to have hazardous batteries in 2006, they were quick to point out that the batteries in question had been made by Sony. Samsung has no such luxury: the Korean giant’s batteries were made by a subsidiary. Also, the remedy for Apple’s older laptops was relatively simple because the battery was removable. Samsung only recently switched over to a sealed in battery – presumably for reasons of waterproofing – and this has magnified their pain.

According to Credit Suisse, Samsung will have have lost nearly US$17 billion in revenue as a result of these problems.

Efforts to pack still more energy into a smaller, lighter devices continue.

Almost as Good as New

I broke my iPad a little while ago. I wouldn’t have broken it if I hadn’t been trying so hard to protect it: I put it in the boot (some say, ‘trunk’) of the car, so it wouldn’t be seen by an opportunist thief, and I didn’t want it to get battered by sliding around in there, so I wrapped it in a jumper… and that’s how I came to drop it: it slipped out of the folds of the jumper when I picked it up. It only fell about two feet, but onto concrete that was enough. The case didn’t protect it sufficiently (thanks, Belkin…) and I was left with an iPad with an ugly dent on one corner, and cracks in the glass surface.

iPad screen with damage at the corner

I didn’t take a picture of the damage to mine, but it looked something like this. Ouch!

 

This caused me to experience at first hand some of the best remanufacturing I’ve seen.

If you want an example of a product with no user-serviceable parts, look no further than the iPad: the whole thing is about as seamless as the mysterious black slab in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (Only thinner, of course: Sir Jony Ive and his obsession with thinness…)

I’d never needed to put Apple’s service department to the test before, and it had been a long, long time since I visited an Apple Centre. The experience was a bit confusing because the shop was crowded with people and there didn’t seem to be anything resembling a queue. (Who are all these people? I was an Apple user before it was cool…) Eventually I managed to seize a member of staff, who briefly patronised me because I’d mistakenly said I needed to get my iPad repaired. No, no, no… I could swap it for an exchange unit, I was told. This was what I meant (I can read) but to do that, it seemed I had to make an appointment with a “genius”.

Does anybody else find this immodest term a bit ridiculous, or is it just me? (A quick Google search reveals an ITworld article entitled ‘Does anyone else want to punch the “Apple Genius” guy in the face?’ so perhaps it’s not just me being a curmudgeon, on this occasion.) Perhaps Apple’s corporate-speak just doesn’t translate very well into English. Either that or accepting a broken iPad from a customer, recording their personal details and putting it into a padded envelope is something that only their finest can do.

The “genius” in question would be free in a little over an hour, it appeared: I decided not to wait.

At the weekend, I visited an authorised reseller (thanks, KRCS) and had a much better experience. No wait required, and nobody feeling sufficiently like Oscar Wild as to declare their genius. It turned out there was some moderately clever work to be done as we had to go through the process by which the “find my iPad” functionality is switched off, since I would otherwise be tracking the location of an iPad I no longer owned. I also did a factory reset that wiped all my personal information from the device.

And so, goodbye DLXM31CVFH12 … we hardly knew you.

Now here’s the interesting thing: you might well worry that your exchanged iPad will be swapped with one that’s had a hard life. The reseller said my iPad was probably in the best condition he’d ever seen (give or take a single brief bounce on a piece of South East London pavement). What if the ‘new’ one hadn’t led such a pampered existence? No problem: the device gets not only a new screen, but a new back casing, and Apple replace all the parts that are subjected to wear and tear as well. All the buttons are replaced with new components, and the battery too.

You never really notice the memory effect in rechargeable batteries, until you replace them. The gradual decline in capacity that is inevitable with virtually every battery technology had affected my iPad, too, despite only occasional usage. At £179, my “screen replacement” really gave my mini iPad a whole new lease of life. Not only was the battery much better than I remembered, but the unit came wrapped in protective film, just as it had when it left the factory the first time. No blemishes at all; not so much as a fingerprint on it. The ‘new gadget experience’ and even the ‘new gadget’ smell, all over again. This is what remanufacturing should be: a process yielding products that are as good as new, with a guarantee to prove it.

The hardware side of the experience was superb; the software side, less so. The replacement iPad came with firmware in place that I couldn’t dislodge with a full restore. Thus, I am forced to live with iOS 9 from now on. I’d kept my iPad on iOS7 because I don’t like Apple’s more recent efforts at user interface design. I find the new, minimalist graphics rather childish.

Regardless of my wishes in this regard, that era is over for me: I have no choice but to accept the results of Apple’s fanatical yet curiously selective war on skeuomorphism. Worst of all, an iPad with an up-to-date operating system demanded an up-to-date installation of iTunes on my computer, a piece of software that has steadily deteriorated in usability as it’s been made to do more and more over the last fifteen years. Perhaps I expect too much: perhaps it’s unreasonable to expect smooth scrolling through a list of tunes when you’ve only got four processor cores and 16GB of RAM? It seems so, but if discovering the answer involves asking a “genius”, I think I’ll pass.

In ‘White Suit Economics’ I discussed how products can now be designed so as to perform well for a known period of time, but then be made to degrade artificially, so as to force the user to replace them at a time chosen by the manufacturer and not the owner. I now have an iPad that responds only sluggishly when I start typing out a message, and it informs me daily that a still newer version of its operating system is now available. Newer software is designed to run on newer hardware, of course, and this is progress: if it ain’t broke, keep on fixing it until it is.

Daily Apple update message.

A daily hard sell: install now, or later… “no thanks” is not an option.

In a world where artificial intelligence is a hot topic, Apple’s software doesn’t display much in the way of smarts. It seems incapable of recognising that when I refuse to upgrade my software fifty days in a row, I’m unlikely to have changed my mind on day 51. Or day 52.

But how about day 53?

Perhaps this is artificial intelligence after all, and Apple has reincarnated Talkie Toaster.

Another Peculiar Patent

Rollin White was a machinist, working for Samuel Colt as a contract worker. At the same time, he tinkered with bits and pieces of scrap, and designed a firearm of his own. It wasn’t a practical or even workable design: it was inferior to existing handguns, but in 1855 White was granted a patent, number 12,648: “Improvement in Repeating Fire-arms”.

detail view from White’s 1855 patent

“People see me, Rollin…” – a detail from White’s 1855 patent

This would be of no significance whatsoever, were it not for the fact that White accidentally included a feature that nobody had patented in the USA. His weapon showed a cylinder bored all the way through, such that cartridges might be inserted from the back – just about the only sensible way to load many firearms.

Such a feature should never have been covered by a patent, because it was already commonplace. In Europe the Lefaucheux Model 1854 was already in production: a revolver using the new self-contained metallic cartridges.

Lefaucheux Model 1854 revolver

The Lefaucheux Model 1854 embodies the essential arrangement of a modern revolver – but appeared before the Rollin White patent.

In the USA, things weren’t quite so up-to-date, and revolvers used loose black powder. The owner of a revolver had to pour powder into each of the cylinder mouths, ram a bullet into place, and fit a percussion cap onto the rear of each cylinder cavity. The revolver gave you several rapid shots… but after that you had a fiddly job on your hands.

Samuel Colt also held some patents. Years earlier, he’d figured out how to index the cylinders of a revolver so that a fresh one was presented after each shot, based in part upon a mechanism that he’d seen used for a ship’s wheel. Colt’s patents were set to expire in 1857, however, and this led others to design revolvers of their own.

Illustration from Colt’s 1836 patent for a “Revolving gun”

Illustration from Colt’s 1836 patent for a “Revolving gun”

Among them were two partners whose names might be familiar: Horace Smith and Daniel Baird Wesson. They’d worked together before, and as Colt’s patent expiry loomed, Wesson was developing a new cartridge revolver. His research turned up Rollin White’s bizarre patent, and some potentially bad news: the “bored-through cylinder” was protected for years to come.

Smith and Wesson approached Rollin White, and entered into an agreement with him: White would be paid a royalty of 25 cents for every revolver they produced. In return, White granted them exclusivity, and undertook to defend the patent against infringement. Smith and Wesson moved fast: on the day that the key Colt patent expired, their workshops started volume production of their “Model 1”.

While it was in effect, patent 12,648 forced manufacturers other than Smith and Wesson to come up with some of the strangest handguns of the 19th century. There were tapered cartridges that loaded from the front of the cylinder; there were side-loading cylinders; there was a cheeky “dual ignition cylinder” that featured screw-in inserts for old-style percussion caps… that you promptly unscrewed, leaving you with what was effectively a “bored-through cylinder” that would accommodate cartridges.

Plant’s Manufacturing Company Front-Loading Army Revolver

Plant’s Manufacturing Company front-loading revolver. The funny little ‘bolt action’ is used to eject spent cartridges, forwards.

 

Brooklyn Firearms’ “Slocum” side-loading cartridge revolver

Close-up of the Brooklyn Firearms’ “Slocum” side-loading cartridge revolver: every chamber has its own sliding panel. The side-loading cylinder would reappear a century later with the heroically ugly Dardick 1100

 

James Reid Model No. 4 Revolver with a “Dual Ignition” cylinder

James Reid Model No. 4 Revolver with a “Dual Ignition” cylinder – cleverly circumventing the Rollin White Patent

Rollin White ought to have made out like a bandit: a 25 cent royalty represented a considerable chunk of the profit on a handgun that sold for $12.75 – not bad pay considering that he should never have been granted the license. In reality, White was kept busy with expensive lawsuits, and although the courts usually found in his favour, Smith and Wesson profited far more than the patent-holder. In an application to extend the patent on the grounds that he had not been fairly compensated, White reported that he had made $71,000 while Smith and Wesson earned over $1 million. As ‘An act for the relief of Rollin White’ the bill went clear through the senate – before being vetoed by President Ulysses S. Grant in January 1870. The patent had caused considerable inconvenience to those working to arm the forces of the Union during the American Civil War, and the former Commanding General of the United States Army wasn’t about to let that go.

Rollin White, not exactly a patent troll but certainly one of the more disruptive unsuccessful inventors of the 19th century, fell into bankruptcy… although ultimately he did somewhat better in the sewing machine business.

The patent was gone, but the lesson in how not to license intellectual property remains true to this day.