Last month, my son and I were on the footplate of the Mallard, famous as the fastest steam locomotive in the world. I should clarify that the engine wasn’t moving at the time; it’s an exhibit at the National Railway Museum in York.

On July 3rd 1938 the Mallard briefly touched 126 miles per hour (203 km/h)… and then limped home for repairs. The Mallard wasn’t a custom-built racing machine, though: thirty-five locomotives of the Pacific A4 class were constructed for use on the East Coast Main Line that runs between London and Edinburgh, and they served from 1935 until 1966.

Pacific Class A4 Mallard at the National Railway Museum

Mallard, on a rare trip outside at the National Railway Museum. (Photo: ‘Dudva’)

The Mallard is an interesting, even beautiful machine, but it’s inescapably a product of the 1930s. Although designer Sir Nigel Gresley streamlined his creation with care using Plasticine models in the wind tunnel at the National Physical Laboratory, Mallard is covered with handrails and handles, and exhibits panels that don’t quite fit perfectly, held in place with big, lumpy rivets – and there’s no getting away from the fact that in a 218 tonne train, more than 167 tonnes is the locomotive and tender. In other words, three quarters of what a Pacific A4 locomotive moves is itself.

Of course we’re supposed to be kind when writing about the venerable Mallard, and I don’t mean to cause offense to steam enthusiasts… but this was the pinnacle for steam, and the circumstances that led to its creation were distinctly unusual. Throughout its life the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER), creators of the Pacific A4, never made a profit. One might question why our small island needed four competing railway companies, each designing their own locomotives… and it seems the post-war government wasn’t impressed either: they rolled everything into British Railways from the start of 1948.

On the footplate of the Mallard, the working environment seems more like something from the Victorian era. The controls aren’t exactly ergonomic; in fact everything seems rather like the machines that you see preserved in old factories, with no safety guards, and precious little in the way of mistake-proofing. I could immediately see at least a dozen places where you’d badly injure yourself if you rested your hand. (You could argue that only an experienced driver and fireman would be on the footplate, and they’d know what they can and can’t touch… but is that any way to design a machine? Not by our modern way of thinking.)

On the footplate of Mallard

The placement of Mallard’s controls doesn’t seem to have a lot to do with ergonomics (Photo: Mike Janner)

For the fireman, things were probably worse. Scooping up coal where it spilled from the tender, he had to turn through 180 degrees to deliver each shovelful into the firebox, bending low while standing atop the hinged connection between locomotive and tender. It can’t always have been a smooth ride, and it was hot, dusty and noisy as well.

Nostalgia had no place in the new British Railways, and the LNER’s express locomotives were replaced by the British Rail Class 55, or ‘Deltic’: a powerful diesel. Significantly, just 22 Deltics were needed to replace 55 of Gresley’s A3s and A4s.

Napier Deltic

Napier Deltic, also at the National Railway Museum. (Photo: ‘Thryduulf’)

If the Mallard teaches us anything, it is that you can stay with a technology for too long. Getting a couple of hundred tonnes of iron and steel up above 125 miles per hour was a glorious, crazy thing to do, and it deserves to be celebrated – but it didn’t offer a way forward. The LNER got some great publicity out of the stunt, and it was valuable for national pride given that the previous speed record had been set in Germany… but coal and steam had delivered just about as much as they possibly could.

It may well be that some of our present-day technologies are similarly doomed to disappear from common usage. Perhaps improvements to petrol engines have entered a period of diminishing returns and will likewise go from being commonplace to being found mainly in museums, within a few decades? The next time somebody tells you that petrol is more practical for private cars than electricity because of the existing infrastructure, think back to when the British chose to stick with coal on the railways for much the same reason.


A Special Delivery

Amid the apparently endless series of packages coming to our house, each containing some item that we’ve bought online in the run-up to Christmas, one package was a little bit different. Inside was a ceramic poppy; one of 888,246 that had formed a part of the commemorative art installation Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red. I’m proud to say that Mrs F. was one of the volunteers who spent a day assembling poppies and putting them in place in the moat at the Tower of London.

Tower of London, Poppies, , Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

The Tower of London, with the installation largely complete (Photo: Mez Merrill, MOD)

All the ceramic poppies had been sold to members of the public (at £25 each, plus £5 for postage and packing) long before Remembrance Day, after which the installation was broken up. Our poppy arrived in a commemorative box that was just the right size for its contents at 450 x 145 x 85mm. Nicely done… but an enormous job when you realise that there must be almost five thousand cubic meters and 450 tonnes of the things to ship.

The vision of the artist, and those who managed the project, is impressive indeed: to depend upon volunteers (17,500 involved in construction, and 8,000 during dismantling), to have everything go to plan, and to strike exactly the right note such that five million people went to see the piece… it was an impressive undertaking.

Packaging for the ceramic poppy.

Packaging for the ceramic poppy.

Ceramic poppy

Our poppy. Artist Paul Cummins suffered a serious industrial accident while producing these.

It’s particularly poignant as we approach the 100-year anniversary of a time when soldiers on the British and German front line (and also some parts of the French lines) stopped trying to kill each other for a while, and traded food, smokes and souvenirs instead. If you’ve ever been to a football match where a fight broke out, you might enjoy the symmetry of a fight where a spontaneous football match erupted… in fact, a number of football matches, and other diversions, up and down a fortified line that stretched from Nieuport on the Belgian coast, all the way to the Swiss border.

Stories of that Christmas Day tell us that for a few precious hours, the fighting ceased. The reality is even more remarkable: on some stretches of the front line the peace lasted right through until the new year. There’s more: the Germans tried to initiate a truce again at Easter, 1915… and Christmas that year was once again marked by a cautious peace. On that occasion the artillery kept on firing, but both sides were careful to target empty land, and cause no casualties. (And if firing upon empty fields seems like a ridiculous thing to do, that’s the army for you…) It wasn’t until 1916 that a Christmas truce generally ceased to be observed, the widespread use of weapons such as poison gas putting an end to any empathy between the opposing forces.

Christmas truce 1914

Fraternising with the enemy: and why not?

If you look at the British troops of Christmas 1914, you might notice that they weren’t equipped the way they appear in memorials and war films. For one thing, they didn’t have ‘tin hats’; the Brodie helmet wouldn’t be designed until the following year. Meanwhile they simply wore caps, desperately inappropriate for trench warfare though they were. The gas mask didn’t exist yet, either, nor the ‘Mills Bomb’ grenade. Tanks weren’t introduced until 1916 – and neither was conscription, so most of the troops that first Christmas were professional soldiers, if poorly equipped. The war was still getting into its stride in that fifth month: turning volunteers into soldiers and beating their ploughshares into swords was going to take time.

The scale of Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, was stupefying; still more so when you remember that each poppy represented not just a death but also months of training, pairs of boots, rations, record-keeping, ammunition, letters from home, pay, bars of soap… you name it: and not just for the 888,246 British and Colonial troops who died but for everyone who served, including many who returned wounded. Whole nations were transformed to conduct war on a scale never seen before, and they changed forever in the process.

Logistics isn’t a term that Quartermasters used back then, although it was emerging: the French had logistique by the late 19th Century (from loger which means “to lodge”). It has nothing to do with logic – as many an old soldier would probably attest.

Wherever you may be this Christmas, here’s wishing you a peaceful one.

Procurement, the hard way

Years ago I was working my way through college, programming machine tools in a garden furniture factory. One day we were taking delivery of a lorry-load of wood when things got a little bit dramatic. A large bundle of timber was being raised off the bed of the lorry by crane and it split apart, sending pieces of timber cascading all over the place. Several people had to dodge the debris.

Where there had been a neat bundle of timber, about to be deposited outside our workshop, the consignment now resembled a giant game of Pick-up sticks.

The boss was angry: not because the accident had taken place, but because he’d been ripped off. When buying wood by the cubic meter it’s reasonable to assume that much of the wood supplied will be a decent length; this shipment had been a mass of short lengths, and that was why the bundle had burst apart when lifted. While the shipment of timber contained the specified volume, it stands to reason that short lengths are less useful than long ones; you can expect more wastage when making things from short bits, and of course you can’t make some things at all. Quite simply, an equivalent volume of timber is less valuable if it’s made up of short lengths, and less valuable still when it’s scattered all over the car park and in a damaged condition.

Our laconic Irishman, when told to clear up the mess, responded: “Has anybody got a match?”

The boss got on the telephone to the supplier, and expressed his displeasure. A veteran of perhaps twenty years in the woodworking trade at that point, he knew how to get a good deal. In fact, securing a supply of good quality timber – often committing to buy and fixing prices a year or more in advance – was a key factor in the company’s survival at a time when manufacturing in the UK was becoming very expensive. Our hardwoods (typically Iroko, from west Africa) were pricey, but a vital feature of a quality product.

Following heated negotiations, a substantial discount was agreed, and the consignment of damaged wood was brought into the workshop. In the end, everything worked out well, although we had been fortunate that nobody was injured in that cascade of timber.

Being proactive in securing supplies of timber was vital for my employer; every bit as important as the design of new products, and the scheduling of production and deliveries… yet if you look at procurement in Porter’s (1985) Value Chain, it’s shown as a secondary activity. That makes it sound like some kind of necessary evil, forming a component of the overheads of the business, and not a source of competitive advantage.

Porter's Value Chain

The Value Chain (Porter, 1985) – secondary activities are shown as horizontal bars.

I don’t agree with this. While there might be some things that procurement personnel look at very seldom, like choosing your energy supplier, other procurement activity is a constant effort to maintain an affordable supply of quality feedstocks. Personally, I’d change Michael Porter’s model to show procurement as a primary activity, thus:

Modified form of Porter's Value Chain

Modified form of Porter’s (1985) Value Chain

Furthermore, I think we’ve allowed procurement to become synonymous with “buying things”. Procurement isn’t just management-speak for buying. That’s a narrow view because not every business buys the things it needs. A better definition would be “getting hold of things.” If your business is a recycling operation, your feedstock may well be given to you, no purchase necessary… but you still need to secure regular access to adequate quantities.

If obtaining good quality supplies of materials in order to transform them into finished goods isn’t a primary activity, I don’t know what is.


Porter, M.E. (1985) Competitive Advantage: Creating and Sustaining Superior Performance. New York: Simon and Schuster

Scheduling with a Shirt Box

Some years ago I was doing some simulation work for a company that had a problem with the creation of the wiring looms (some say ‘harnesses’). It was a bottleneck job, and they wanted a means of working out how many looms they could make each week.

coiled loom

Simple wiring loom

Although flexible ribbon connectors are increasingly common, particularly in small-scale applications, you still find wiring looms in everything from PCs to railway locomotives, and just about everybody makes them the same way: lengths of wire are laid out on a board (the “loom board”), wrapped together and terminated with various connectors. Constructing wiring looms is quite a difficult task because they have to be done neatly and consistently, so they fit well and they don’t snag or fray. If my VW Polo is anything to go by, it would appear that Volkswagen are attempting to cut costs by having colour-blind chimpanzees do all the electrical work, but for most manufacturers, looms remain quite expensive because putting them together is a skilled manual task.

Volkswagen polo

Polo: once driven, best forgotten

Now, a key problem here is that some looms are very complex, and that demands a large loom board. For the company I was working with, some of the larger ones spread over several workbenches, and strict certification requirements meant that only a single person could work on any one item, so they had large areas of bench space occupied for long periods of time.

Initially I set about developing a simulation that showed each of the benches as a workcentre, and developing an algorithm to determine the routing for each job. This was a classical simulation, representing a top-down view of the facility where cables were assembled. It worked – sort of – but the representation didn’t actually assist with the most important task, which was choosing which jobs would be done where, and when. Some ‘rules’ suggest themselves immediately: for example, it’s generally a bad idea to send a small job to a large bench, and it’s a bad idea to send a job to a ‘middle’ bench as it might prevent a large job being fitted in… but these things can be done, if circumstances (looming deadlines, if you will pardon the pun) require it.

cable forming simulation

Early attempt at simulating loom manufacturing operations

Coming up with a smart way to choose what went where, and when, was complicated. Good scheduling requires that work commitments are considered in a holistic sense, not just reasoning along the lines of “OK, this bench has just become free: what shall we make next?” but thinking ahead. Making any decision based upon a snapshot of time is highly simplistic, and doesn’t produce an effective schedule. That a bench happens to be unoccupied and big enough is a terrible reason to allocate your capacity. Waiting just ten or twenty minutes might allow you to send a job to a much more appropriate place.

Complicated! If only there were a way to ‘see’ time…

Well, there is. After all, why does a simulation have to show the floor plan of a factory? What real benefit is there to showing the arrangement of workcentres on screen? Instead of plotting x against y, to show the physical boundaries of each loom board, which isn’t terribly interesting, my colleague Allan Hodgson suggested plotting x (bench width occupied) against t (time) in such a way that future jobs appear further up the screen, ready to commence when previous jobs end.


I’d recently bought a shirt that came in a nice box, and this formed the basis of a prototype. I made wooden boxes that represented each job, with the width showing the bench space that would be occupied, and with height denoting the time for which the job would stay on the bench. With the shirt box suitably calibrated (packed out with spacers, such that its width represented the total space in a row of benches while its height represented a week of on-shift time) scheduling became a simple game of seeing what you could fit in the box.

shirt box scheduler

The famous shirt box!

Anybody who tried fitting a job into the box by rotating it through ninety degrees was either an idiot, or deserved a Nobel prize for having discovered a way to turn space into time, and vice-versa. (But probably an idiot.)

“Shirt-box scheduling” was positively embraced: it made sense to virtually everybody who saw it. One objection to the approach was that gravity had an influence: there’s no guarantee that you want everything to drop to the bottom of the box (ie, to begin as near to first thing on Monday morning as possible). We talked about adding Velcro strips to the back of the boxes, so planners could practice Just In Time (JIT) instead.

Now, having established the basic principle, I decided to get back to software. After all, what did my box-filling approach resemble, if not what students of computer science call a “suitcase packing algorithm”? I wrote a program that would read in a list of jobs and due dates from a spreadsheet, assign them to an array of ‘virtual shirt boxes’ and do its best to fit everything into the time available. A key feature was that the software allowed the planner to drag jobs around, so they weren’t simply dependent upon what the computer generated, but could tinker as much as they wished. I tried to preserve the original ‘shirt box’ feel as far as I could.

cable forming simulation

The software representation, ‘Blox’: each coloured block is a loom manufacturing job.

It worked pretty well. In fact, the approach won me a minor award: best applied research in industry at the ICMR 2004 conference (Farr et al, 2004). But here’s the thing: companies don’t like unfamiliar software tools. You can perform a one-off simulation exercise and make recommendations in a report, and everybody’s happy, but actually getting a tool into regular usage in a company is much harder. I installed the software on a PC and placed it with the partner, wrote a manual, gave training… and they returned it a few months later. It seems it just didn’t ‘take’. But they kept the shirt box and the wooden boxes.

Sometimes, it seems, you don’t need a fancy computer system telling you what to do; just a real-world tool that everybody can understand, and a bit of common sense.



Farr R, Hodgson A and Gindy N (2004) “A highly interactive user interface for work scheduling” Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on Manufacturing Research (ICMR 2004) 7–9 September 2004, Sheffield Hallam University, UK

All at Sea

There’s a nice piece in the BBC news this week about the ‘Tjipetir mystery’: tablets of a strange rubbery material washing up on beaches all around Europe, each with ‘TJIPETIR’ embossed on one side.

Mysterious ‘TJIPETIR’ tablet

Mysterious ‘TJIPETIR’ tablet

It isn’t a viral marketing campaign for some new Dot Com (incidentally, don’t bother: is already registered) nor a message from the occupants of flying saucers. In fact, Tjipetir is the name of an Indonesian rubber plantation, and these were slabs of raw material. They are believed to be gutta-percha, a latex material collected as sap from a family of trees, later edged out by the emergence of plastics such as Bakelite.

The suspected source of the strange tablets is the wreck of a Japanese liner, the Miyazaki Maru, sunk by a German U-boat in 1917. A recent salvage operation appears to have dislodged a number of the tablets, allowing them to float free and find their way onto beaches a thousand miles apart.

Twenty-five years, it is said, is all it takes for a piece of flotsam to circle the globe. This power of the tide was once harnessed to keep a remote Scottish community connected with the rest of Britain: the people of St Kilda would construct “mail boats” from just about anything that would float, plus a watertight tin or bottle, containing letters. This would be flung into the sea, and left to take its chances. Included was some money, to pay the postage when the letter was recovered and put into the mail system. In a more honest age, about two thirds of the letters sent this way found their mark.

St Kilda Mail Boat

St Kilda Mail Boat (Glasgow Museums Photo Library)

Then there’s Perranporth in Cornwall: the beach where Lego bricks keep washing up. Seventeen years ago, a freak wave caused the container ship Tokio Express to lose 62 shipping containers from its deck, while about 20 miles off Land’s End. One of the containers held 4,756,940 Lego pieces, and many of them have floated free. Although they’ve been a little bit abraded by the action of sand and wave, children (and others) love collecting them.

Lego flotsam

Assorted Lego pieces found on the beach (‘Lego Lost at Sea’ Facebook group)

Plastics are incredibly useful: can you imagine modern life without them? I can’t… but when they end up in the sea, their durability and low density are no longer an asset, but a curse. Stepping up to deal with that curse is Boyan Slat. He might look as if he ought to be smuggling a priceless ring into Mordor in a Peter Jackson movie, but the Dutch youngster’s quest is probably harder: he wants to rid the world’s oceans of plastic waste. A lot of young people have expressed a desire to tackle environmental problems, and made this the subject of a school project… but how many went on to raise $2 million to fund a programme of experiments? At 18 years old, he was a pretty persuasive speaker, too.

Boyan Slat

Boyan Slat (

Boyan Slat’s proposed approach features a floating boom, mid-ocean, tethered to the seabed. The vortices of water responsible for concentrating the floating garbage into mid-ocean patches – gyres – will deliver plastic waste into his boom system without any need to sail up and down, collecting it. Just as the current was employed on St Kilda to send the mail on its way, it obligingly delivers the waste with no energy required.

Not everybody thinks this is the best solution. For example, some say that the price of the mid-ocean garbage collector could better be spent on preventing plastics ending up in the ocean in the first place. (It’s estimated that a tenth of the 288 million tonnes of plastic products made every year end up in the sea.) Others point out that although there’s a lot of plastic waste, much of it is microscopic, and not all of it is at the surface, as plastic waste is found throughout the water column, and on the seabed.

The approach remains controversial, but do you know what I’ve learned? The smallest good deed is better than the greatest good intention. It might not be perfect, but it’s happening. How many other teenagers could you name who secured the involvement of seventy engineers and scientists, to produce a 530-page proposal for an environmental project? Experiments continue, and the first platform for the North Atlantic gyre should be ready by 2020.

Conceptual rendering of the ocean cleanup system

Concept of Slat’s system (

In a climate of environmental doom and gloom, where people despair about “the world we’re leaving to future generations”, the first of those generations has come out fighting.