Dude… where’s my wind turbine?

When serving as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Hilary Benn, MP, said that “the battle to deal with climate change needs to be fought like World War Three.”

Let’s pursue that analogy for a little bit. In a democracy, how do citizens fight a world war? Along with all the things you might expect, such as volunteering or ‘digging for victory’, one of the most important things that can be done to support the war effort is to provide money – typically by buying war bonds.

In the First World War, my ancestors would have been found buying war bonds at the ‘Tank Bank’. This was a touring display of the weapon that promised to overcome the deadlock of trench warfare, and the people on the home front went nuts for them: during the course of the war over £2 billion was raised. (This is a good time to mention the bonds, since the 3½% War Loan is finally to be redeemed, in its entirety, on March 9th of this year. A century is quite long enough to borrow money for, don’t you think?)

Buying war bonds at the Tank Bank

Buying war bonds at the Tank Bank

After the success of the Tank Banks, in the Second World War came the Spitfire Fund: towns and counties raised money to fund the production of warplanes.

“If you buy it I’ll fly it” – buying Spitfires in World War II

“I’ll fly it if you’ll buy it,” – donating towards Spitfires at a shop given over to fundraising

So, here we are in the opening stages of what Hilary Benn described as World War Three, but the people in my community don’t appear to be clubbing together to buy machinery that could ‘win the war’. In particular I’m thinking of the wind turbine: a machine that has the potential to provide some of our energy on a clean, renewable basis. Conjuring power from thin air: what’s not to love?

It seems strange to me that some of my fellow citizens dislike wind turbines to the point where they club together to protest against their installation. They’re not being asked to part with their hard-earned cash (at least, not directly), nor even to give up their land; only to have turbines placed where they might have to look at them, sometimes.

"Painful facts about wind energy"

Information displayed on a Facebook group opposing wind farm construction where I live.

I wish I could describe their efforts as quixotic, which is to say idealistic and unworldly. We derive the word from Don Quixote, adopted name of the principal character in a novel by Miguel de Cervantes that dates back to 1605. Poor, deluded Don Quixote believes (among various other things) that the thirty or forty windmills he sees on the plains are marauding giants: he charges them, and ends up unhorsed.

“Tilting at windmills,” we call it… but the efforts of the NIMBYs are not entirely quixotic. They’ve been highly successful. Like would-be invaders, the wind turbines have been driven quite literally into the sea, condemned to an offshore existence where difficulties in installation, servicing and power transmission mean they are far less cost-effective. (And still some people complain that they don’t like looking at them, on the horizon.)

Cost of wind energy, per megawatt hour [Parsons Brinckerhoff, 2010]

Cost of wind energy, per megawatt hour [Parsons Brinckerhoff, 2010]

The appeals to buy war bonds in the two World Wars were each centred upon an iconic and popular product, whereas the wind turbine seems to need something of a makeover.

There are problems with wind turbines. One of the major complaints levelled against them is that the benefits don’t trickle down to the local community. Perhaps part of that is because the UK was so slow off the mark with wind energy, and as a result a lot of the technology comes from our European neighbours. The wind turbines installed in the UK are more likely to have benefited a Dane or a German than a Briton, although that’s beginning to change as the supply chain develops.

Another accusation is that there are relatively few local jobs once a wind farm is up and running. Again, it’s true: a wind turbine just stands there, twirling away and putting out electricity. (This is why they’re so brilliant: they give us something for next to nothing… but it does mean that they create less jobs than, say, coal mining.)

For the landowner who manages to secure planning permission for the construction of a wind farm, it’s a license to print money: they don’t need to invest money of their own, merely leasing the land to people who do the rest. This leads to further resentment, because again that’s money for the few, and not for the many who will see them on the skyline. Part of the problem here is in using a planning system that’s poorly suited to this particular purpose. Did we reject major projects in the midst of the first two world wars? No: villages got evacuated to make space for gunnery ranges; forests were cut down for their timber, and so on. Because that’s how you fight a world war. While the installation of renewable energy systems is governed by the conventional planning process, residents will always be left wondering if an approval was granted because of a “funny handshake” or a plain brown envelope stuffed with banknotes.

I suspect we’re going about this backwards. That a community doesn’t benefit from something it never invested in shouldn’t come as a surprise. Instead of leaving wind energy to a new class of ‘little energy barons’ who happen to own the land, why aren’t we erecting wind turbines in the grounds of public buildings? We could start with schools and hospitals, slashing the energy bills of services that we all pay for. You might say that a local authority is too cash-strapped to be able to afford money for such projects… but current wind farms are constructed by companies that borrow money at commercial rates, and they wouldn’t do it if they didn’t expect a return on investment. Why not a council, or even a consortium of citizens?

And the next time somebody says “I don’t want a wind farm here,” I’m going to reply: “No problem! A new nuclear power station will probably bring a lot more jobs to the area…”

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Hundred-year Storms

In strategic planning, we don’t believe in making ourselves proof against every possible outcome. Risk reduction is all very well, but you can’t eliminate all possible risk – or at least, not in any kind of economically sensible manner. There will always be some things that it’s impossible to anticipate, or guard against.

Flood defence is a good thing in that it’s only sensible to mitigate against the risk that a river bursts its banks after a long period of heavy rainfall… but it would be almost impossible to fortify a riverbank against any conceivable quantity of water. At some point, the cost of defence exceeds the cost of occasional damage. In Paris, in 1910, the Seine flooded to something like eight meters above its normal level. While it’s possible for civic engineers to defend against a reasonable amount of floodwater, there was nothing to be done in the face of such a deluge, except to evacuate people and accommodate them elsewhere. The metro system was impassable, and the roads were impassable, except by boat. Roads in those days were surfaced with wooden blocks and these simply floated away: long after the waters receded, travel within the city remained difficult. Basically, it was chaos… but nobody was particularly to blame, because this was what we call a hundred-year storm: an event of such severity that preventing damage simply wouldn’t be practical. Instead, you take the hit, and rebuild when you can.

Flooded Paris streets

Flooded Paris streets

Flooded Paris metro

Flooded Paris metro

Trouble is, though, in some industries we’ve become very sloppy when talking about these “hundred-year storms”. Let’s consider the aviation industry…

In 1979, there was the Energy Crisis, as the aftermath of the Iranian revolution led to decreased oil output and a corresponding spike in the price of oil; a situation that only worsened with the commencement of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980.

Not something anybody could have predicted: a hundred-year storm. Just like the Oil Crisis of 1973 that all but destroyed the prospects for Concorde, the Anglo-French supersonic airliner. With fuel prices heading through the roof, no airline placed an order for a supersonic passenger jet, except the flag carriers of the two nations behind the project who were obliged to take it: British Airways and Air France each took on seven of the magnificent, loss-making machines.

In 1986 came the Chernobyl disaster. Nuclear power doesn’t have a great deal to do with air travel… but it produced a noticeable dent in the number of passengers carried, according to the Advisory Council for Aeronautics Research in Europe (ACARE), as the figure below shows:

Number of passengers carried per year

Number of passengers carried per year [ACARE, 2004]

Then comes more trouble in the Middle East, with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and the first Gulf War. Another dent in the amount of business being done by the airlines. Once that’s out of the way, there’s the 1997 Asian Crisis, a financial meltdown that affected South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore and elsewhere.

The terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 caused another dip and soon after, in 2003, comes SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) which spread from Hong Kong, soon affecting people in 37 countries – with air travel as a factor in its rapid spread. Then in 2008 you’ve got the ‘Credit Crunch’ impacting upon the amount of business travel being undertaken, and pretty soon citizens who are concerned about their job prospects become reluctant to book holidays…

We might call them hundred-year storms, but I count something like eight major, hard-to-predict events in a half century… not including the ‘small’ events that only affect a single airline, like the 1988 terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, which damaged passenger confidence enough to bring down the airline, eventually. It remains to be seen whether Malaysia Airlines’ recent woes with MH370 and MH17 will have a similar outcome.

It’s possible to worry too much about very rare events – genuine hundred-year storms – but it’s clear that this is an industry where the unpredictable can never be allowed to become the unthinkable: where major disruption occurs not once every hundred years, but several times every decade. It’s an industry that depends upon aircraft and engines that are ordered years in advance, where systems require many years of development.

Give me the hundred-year storm anytime: it’s got to be easier than business as usual in the aerospace industry.

Reference

ACARE (2004) Advisory Council for Aeronautics Research in Europe, Strategic Research Agenda, Volume 2 [available online]

Almost Nothing is Infinite

In 1866, in southern Ontario, a flock of birds is reported to have flown overhead. What was unusual was that it took some fourteen hours for the flock to pass overhead: it was estimated to contain 3.5 billion birds and if so, those birds would have been among the most populous bird species on Earth.

Just half a century later, there were none at all.

It’s a hundred years since the very last passenger pigeon, a female called Martha, died at the Cincinnati Zoo. From being so numerous as to inspire awe in the middle of the 19th century, to being extinct in the early 20th: in the space of a human lifetime, a seemingly endless resource was used up, and would never be seen again.

Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon

Martha

Pigeon meat wasn’t a great delicacy, but it was plentiful and cheap: it had become a staple food for the poor, and in some places for slaves. One might draw parallels with salmon, which was once a poor man’s fish: in the Colonial period, servants had clauses in their contracts to limit the frequency with which they could be fed salmon. Only a decline in fish stocks made it into a luxury.

Passenger pigeons were ludicrously easy to kill. They roosted together in large groups, and could be collected by lighting a sulphurous fire beneath them. When on the wing, a shot from a blunderbuss would bring down a score of them or more; even a thrown stick could bring them down. They were netted, lured with alcohol-soaked grain, and killed in half a dozen other ways. They were smoked, salted, pickled and hauled off into the cities by the new railways. Other passenger pigeons were simply used for fattening hogs, where they fell.

Hunting the Passenger Pigeon, 1875

Hunting the passenger pigeon, 1875

Legislative efforts to protect dwindling flocks had begun as early as 1857, but laws were only spottily enforced, and generally came too late to make a difference. Passenger pigeons appear to have been highly social, needing to roost together in large groups for successful breeding to take place. Thus, while hunters didn’t kill the very last of the birds, they had set them irrevocably on the path to extinction.

This is what we do; we consume resources, and we aren’t necessarily logical about it. Like a spendthrift who eats into their bank deposit, rather than living off the interest it generates, for a time one can live well… and then you break the system, and it doesn’t give you anything anymore.

This behaviour isn’t unique to North America; closer to home we might examine the decline in the North Sea fishing industry where herring, “the silver darlings” used to provide work for tens of thousands – and nutrition for millions.

There was a time when there were 30,000 vessels engaged in fishing for herring on the east coast of the UK alone. The sea provided an apparently endless bounty, and people made the most of it. As technology improved, however, an imbalance arose: the 20th century would see the widespread adoption of engines, radio, sonar, nylon nets… all of which made going after the fish a simpler, safer and more productive business. None of this is to be despised, but in an increasingly one-sided contest, the herring all but disappeared – with consequences for the people whose income depended upon them.

With the exception of a few diseases, humanity doesn’t actively seek to bring about extinction. Quite the opposite; few people want a profitable industry to disappear, nor to have to live without the things that industry used to provide… yet species can be taken to the brink – and beyond.

The role of government in all this is interesting, from the weak, non-interventionist stance seen in the case of the passenger pigeon, to the much more hands-on involvement in the North Sea. There, the government had to execute a complete U-turn. Once, good governance involved providing assistance to ensure a healthy domestic fishing industry. This would involve subsidy, infrastructure development, and marine research geared towards understanding migration patterns and reporting these to fishermen, in order to improve the catch. Only later, with fish stocks in crisis, would good governance mean placing restrictions on the size of the fishing fleet and the equipment that could be used, the establishment of quotas, and reductions in the number of days when the fishing fleet could put to sea. In this context, marine research finally came to recognise the finite nature of fish stocks, and the fragile nature of the ecosystem – and it was very nearly too late.

Eventually, fishing activity had to be suspended, for years, as the graph below shows. Only a complete moratorium on fishing for North Sea herring saved them.

Quantity of herring landed [Toresen and Østvedt, 2000]

Quantity of herring landed [Toresen and Østvedt, 2000]

As a great example of the government’s former role in promoting fishing, Caller Herrin’ was a 1947 information film from the Scottish Home Department, named after the traditional cry to advertise fresh herring. It provides a fascinating window on the past, allowing us to learn a new unit of measure: the cran (enough fish to fill a box of about 170 litres capacity), and enjoy the moment towards the end of part 1 where, it seems, four crew are required to land a single basket of herring… despite the obvious time-pressure with no refrigeration in sight.


The people shown in the film, and their jobs, seem strange and alien. We might as well be watching a documentary about the people of Papua New Guinea for all that we have in common with these ancestors. I’ve never eaten a kipper. How does an industry change so much, within living memory?

While it’s true that the Scottish fishing fleet was renewed with government assistance in the aftermath of the Second World War, things had already changed a great deal. The traditional export markets in Germany, Russia and Eastern Europe were largely depressed, or newly inaccessible. The Scottish fishing fleet would soon be transformed again, to go after whitefish, often farther afield and in colder waters. Difficult times (and the Anglo-Icelandic Cod War) were ahead, but that isn’t a direct consequence of the decline of the herring: in fact, British exports of herring had peaked in 1907, long before the inept “management” of fish stocks under the Common Fisheries Policy, which only began in 1970.

Meanwhile, although no commercially exploited fish species has gone the way of the passenger pigeon, Thurstan et al (2010) reported that British fish catches had declined by 94% in a little over a century.

Now, politicians are responsible for the fate of the remaining stocks, to a degree unimaginable not long ago, when species such as herring were still thought of as simply existing in the wild – and being so numerous as to be effectively infinite and in no need of stewardship.

Perhaps we might have said:

“No ordinary destruction can lessen them, or be missed from the myriads that are yearly produced.”

…except that particular quote comes from a century earlier, and the report of a select committee of the Senate of Ohio, in 1857… in response to the first bill that was proposed in order to protect the passenger pigeon.

 

References

Thurstan, R.H. Brockington, S., Roberts, C.M. (2010). The effects of 118 years of industrial fishing on British bottom trawl fisheries, Nature Communications 1 (15): 1

Toresen, R. & Østvedt, O.J. (2000) Variation in Abundance of Norwegian Spring-Spawning Herring (Clupea harengus, Clupeidae) throughout the 20th Century and the Influence of Climactic Fluctuations, Fish and Fisheries 1, 231-256

Design for Assembly… and Harmony?

I recently uploaded a presentation on the subject of Design for Assembly to Slideshare; stuff from my ‘old life’ in an engineering department. As I looked over all the guidelines and generally tidied things up (I like the teaching material I put on Slideshare to look pretty) I thought about the modern reality of globalised supply networks, and I wondered: whatever happened to Concurrent Engineering?

Back in the 1990s it was a hot topic. Even in the mid-2000s, I used to teach Concurrent Engineering to a hundred students, some years… but somehow ‘Design for X’ just isn’t being talked about anymore. (The elusive ‘X’ was whatever you wanted it to be; some aspect of the later life of the product that you wanted the designer to consider, while changes were still affordable.)

Lucas Methodology: identifying parts as essential or non-essential

Design for Assembly principles [Lucas, 1991]. This is often just common sense… which is surprisingly uncommon.

The alternative to designing with subsequent operations in mind, we called “over the wall syndrome”, the idea being that the designer would produce something that ought to function, and that was that: job done. The guys who actually had to build it, install and service it, well… that was their problem, in the far-off and only vaguely understood context of things that mattered on the other side of the wall.

Sometime around 2003, we decided that one of the ‘X’s we wanted to consider was Design for the Environment: a lecture on that topic was produced and this set in train much of what was to follow, in terms of my work in eco-efficient manufacturing… but as ‘green’ issues became the new hot topic (and something much more likely to attract a research grant), whatever happened to the idea of considering the whole range of downstream issues concurrently, in design?

In an ideal world, the answer would be that this had become so automatic, so fundamentally a part of the designer’s common sense that it didn’t need to be researched and written about as a separate topic anymore. In an equally utopian vision, design tools had become so advanced that it was possible to consider heat, vibration and mechanical loads in the same software tool where you were designing your hydraulics and electrics; keeping track of ergonomic issues, budgets and so on…

Piffle.

In Karl Sabbagh’s book ‘21st Century Jet: the making of the Boeing 777’ [Sabbagh, 1996] he describes the success of Boeing’s last major civil aerospace project of the 20th century. (They called it “Working Together”, but it’s classic Concurrent Engineering. This wasn’t just a software solution: it was notable for early customer involvement in an industry where, historically, airlines had to wait and see what the manufacturer came up with.) Sabbagh describes how developing an aircraft used to be simple enough because “the entire Design Department was within fifty feet of each other.” For the thousands of engineers involved in the design of the 777 this was no longer possible, but through Working Together Boeing managed to get the world’s largest twinjet to market.

Boeing 777

Boeing 777

Then came the 787, or ‘Dreamliner’… a project that was even more ambitious – not only because it was to be the first major airliner to have an airframe primarily constructed from composite materials, but because so many of its components would be sourced globally. Production of the 777 had included significant international content (most notably from Japan) but this was taken to a new level with the Dreamliner.

Wings from Japan, courtesy of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, although the wingtips and certain other parts would come from Korean Air. Landing gear from the Anglo-French Messier-Bugatti-Dowty. Passenger doors supplied by Latécoère, Franne, with other doors by Saab AB, Sweden. Software developed by HCL Enterprise in India. Assorted fuselage sections from Global Aeronautica of Italy, Kawasaki Heavy Industries of Japan, and Boeing themselves… and so on, and so on.

You know what they say: a camel is a horse designed by committee. Considering the difficulty of developing an all-new product, farming its manufacture out all over the world and getting it all to fit together and operate as intended, Boeing did an astounding job. The ’plane itself isn’t a camel… but perhaps its supply chain was. (Gates [2010] gives us a good picture of the difficulties that the 787 caused Boeing as a whole.)

In September 2007 came news of a three-month delay, with an additional three-month delay to the first flight announced the following month – and a six-month delay to first deliveries. These were mainly due to “supply chain problems”. Further delays would follow, although they wouldn’t trouble Mike Bair, 787 Program Manager, as he’d been replaced.

I’m wondering if increasingly outsourced and international supply networks give rise to a new and particularly ugly version of “over the wall syndrome”, which I’ll call “over the ocean syndrome”. The original problem was that designers didn’t understand how difficult it might be to produce a part of a given geometry, or how difficult it might be to assemble, etc. That’s much more of an issue for a complex supply network: the designer might not be told what the yields or limits of a high-tech process are because that’s proprietary information. Equally, the subcontracted manufacturer might not feel that they are able to gripe about the specification for a part, because any suggestion that it will be ‘hard to make’ might be a deal-breaker. In a world of take-it-or-leave-it contracts worth billions where business is awarded on a “build to print” basis, who innovates?

For a couple of decades, now, the big innovation for a lot of companies has been to tap into the possibilities of manufacture in a low-cost nation; preferably one that comes with huge tax breaks. That’s all very well, but it’s got to put a strain on the engineering process. Instead of having key staff within fifty feet, you’re lucky if they’re in the same time zone – and culturally, they’re worlds apart as well.

The low-cost angle is a mighty big compensation, but it’s a shame to squander so much of the benefit on acrimonious relationships arising as a result of questionable designs for components that are needlessly difficult to make.

Where Design for Manufacture looks at a component with a view to how long it takes to produce, a Design for Supply Chain view would have to factor in such complexities as the other things that we ask of the same supplier, their other commitments, and the best way to make use of their knowledge – not just their capacity. Or we can ignore this latest aspect of Design for ‘X’ and just go on hoping that our designers are really good, despite the fact that they haven’t necessarily had a chance to actually see the manufacturing processes that result from their design decisions.

Now, in a discussion of acrimonious business relationships, I’d be missing the big story if I didn’t mention Apple and GT Advanced Technologies (GTAT). GTAT were going to take Apple’s iPhones to the next level of durability, using artificial sapphire to make scratch-resistant screens… only it didn’t happen: it appears that the company failed to meet a contractual milestone, and they lost the Apple contract. Apple went with plain old ‘Gorilla Glass’ for the iPhone 6, and GTAT filed for bankruptcy protection. Then the stories about their dealings started coming out. Journalist Kif Leswing [2014] describes the situation thus:

“Apple did not ever really enter into negotiations, warning that GTAT’s managers should ‘not waste their time’ negotiating because Apple does not negotiate with its suppliers. According to GTAT, after the company balked, Apple told GTAT that its terms are standard for other Apple suppliers and that GTAT should ‘put on your big boy pants and accept the agreement.’”

– Leswing [2014]

In the eyes of GTAT’s Chief Operating Officer Daniel Squiller, Apple’s tactics were “a classic bait-and-switch … onerous and massively one-sided.” The result, inevitably, is that a company with some genuinely interesting patents can’t exploit them, a newly-built facility in Arizona stands idle… and we still have mobile ’phones that scratch far too easily. Everybody loses.

Now, I have another reason for mentioning Apple. Slideshare’s recent analytics feature lets authors see exactly where their viewers come from. That’s always nice to know, but one of the first to view my Design for Assembly presentation stood out. It was reported as:

Location: Cupertino, United States
Organization/ISP: Apple

Does that mean that my presentation might, in some small way, have influenced a person at Apple? Might some future Apple gadget be easier to assemble, because of something I wrote? Even if you reason that assembly will be performed on the cheap by Foxconn or Pegatron in China so it doesn’t matter if it’s a horrendously difficult job, the same rules that govern ease of assembly might be applied to some aspects of ease of use. Is it too much to hope that some future Apple desktop computer will have the SD card reader slot where you can use it, rather than hidden away at the back where you can never find it? Restricted vision scores a penalty of 1.5 in the Lucas [1991] Design for Assembly Methodology…

Apple Mac Mini: rear view

And the award for stupid card reader placement goes to…

Yes: it’s probably too much to hope. But it’s always nice to have visitors.

 

References

Gates, D. (2010) Albaugh: Boeing’s ‘first preference’ is to build planes in Puget Sound region, Seattle Times, March 1st 2010 (available online)

Leswing, K. (2014) Apple to sapphire supplier: “Put on your big boy pants and accept the agreement”, Gigaom News, November 7th 2014 (available online)

Lucas (1991) Mini-Guide: The Lucas Manufacturing Systems Handbook, Solihull: Lucas Engineering & Systems Ltd

Sabbagh, K. (1996) 21st Century Jet: the making of the Boeing 777, London: Macmillan Publishers (see also, the movie of the same… part 1 here)