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 – 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.

How Green was my… Raspberry Pi?

A diminutive single-board computer, the Raspberry Pi evokes memories of the 1980s, when home computers were largely meant for learning to program, rather than for the consumption of ready-made content.

This is just about as ‘bare bones’ as computing can be, demanding a bring-your-own approach to input, output, and storage… but it’s astonishingly cheap.

Pi reminds me a lot of the Sinclair Spectrum. It’s infinitely superior in terms of its computing power (unsurprisingly, given the intervening decades) and build quality, but in some ways it’s very similar to the humble ‘Speccy’ that so may of us were scratching our heads over in 1982. For one thing, it’s incomplete: straight out of the box it does nothing – and although you’re getting a bargain, it’s a stripped-down system and will likely see you buying accessories in the weeks that follow. Early Raspberry Pis came with just one or two USB ports, so once your mouse and keyboard are in place, you’re stuck. I found myself having to disconnect the keyboard in order to drag files off a USB drive with the mouse… so obviously you find yourself buying a USB hub pretty quickly, and then you find that the Pi can’t support the power demands of all the ancillaries, so make that a powered hub… and then you’ll want a wifi dongle, and… and…

Pretty soon, the alleged $35 computer is weighing in at well over $100: a price point at which it’s a bit less attractive. Just like my old Spectrum that needed an interface to connect with a disk drive, and another to connect with a joystick, or a decent printer… start down this path and your piggy bank is in for a battering.

If you already have a mass of computer accessories around the house, you can get a Raspberry Pi up and running for not much money. No power supply is included with the Pi, but its creators claim that most folks already have one kicking around in a drawer, in the form of a phone charger. (If your old mobile had a micro USB connector, that is: people with iPhones will need to visit eBay.)

If I was less keen on experimenting for the sake of it, I might have noted that I have three or four ‘retired’ computers around the house of a specification at least equal to the early ‘Pi’ models. In other words, I didn’t need a low-cost computer. The last thing I need is another computer, really… but I visit developing countries for the purposes of delivering education, so I’m interested in practical, affordable hardware.

old-style 15" MacBook Pro

The greenest computer choice is probably one that you already own. After a long useful life, a failed USB port and an ailing trackpad meant that this laptop was beyond economic repair, but even in retirement it was far more capable than the first Pi that I bought.

People who donate computer hardware they’ve finished with are doing a good thing, no doubt, but have you ever stopped to think about what a difficult proposition it must be to manage a classroom full of donated computers? IT support staff are likely to have a mixture of different hardware, and are forced to choose between having the computers plod along as they attempt to run an up-to-date operating system, or leaving them vulnerable to viruses… while also coping with hardware that’s already had a hard life and is likely to have acquired a few foibles of its own. Add in the fact that few developing countries have a capability to recycle e-waste and these schemes look a bit less attractive. The “$35 computer” may be a better bet.

My experience with the original Raspberry Pi (model B) was largely positive, although I never did anything productive with it. Dr Joe and I were impressed to get OpenProject up and running on the diminutive Pi, because that was a piece of software that we were regularly using on one of our Masters programmes in Zambia and Malawi. Imagine how useful it would be if instead of giving each new student a flash drive with assorted reading materials, we were able to give them a “$35 computer”, with all the programs they’re going to use over the next 18 months preinstalled, plus documents, bookmarks and so on… even if it inevitably becomes a $100 computer by the time you’ve added the peripherals that are needed to make it function, that’s not half bad.

The 700 MHz single-core CPU of the original Pi didn’t really have enough oomph to run OpenProject. Web browsing and word processing were similarly sluggish: just not as snappy as we’ve all become used to. Once you’ve had an Intel Core i5 or better, it’s hard to go back to waiting for things to happen.

Raspberry Pi model 1 and 2, and cases.

In the early days of the Raspberry Pi, cases were overpriced, clunky things that were typically made by 3D printing. I made my own out of plywood instead… but by the time the Model 2 came along, decent polycarbonate cases were available.

I abandoned all thoughts of using the original Pi as a ‘proper computer’, and most users appear to have done the same. The Pi found its niche in hardware projects: the low cost of the unit makes it ideal for hardware hacking, since it doesn’t really matter if you manage to destroy one, and its ridiculously low power requirements made it ideal for oddball applications that see it providing the brains of amateur-built robots, or being sent up in weather balloons, etc. Some enthusiasts have racked dozens of Raspberry Pis together to make a kind of ersatz supercomputer… but as with the robots and balloons, one of the reasons it works so well is because it doesn’t really involve interfacing with a human being. Superb low-power performance is meaningless if you have to hook the Pi up to a monitor, and low cost is similarly elusive if we have to source a keyboard, mouse, etc. for every unit.

So: a great little gadget to tinker with and learn about computer hardware itself, but not a ‘full computer’ in terms of what most people actually need to do with a computer, day-to-day. Your cast-off smartphone is a more ‘complete’ computing device in some ways, since it has things like a battery, a screen, a camera and a means of data entry – all of which need to be procured if they are to be used with a Pi.

Things changed somewhat when the Raspberry Pi Foundation brought out the Raspberry Pi 2, with a quad core processor that operated at a more respectable 900 MHz – making it about six times as capable as the original. They also provided four USB ports, which reduced desktop clutter nicely. With the Mark 2, though, I found myself caught in a bizarre chicken-and-egg situation where I wanted to get it working with our wireless network, but after purchasing a wifi dongle I found that I needed to download additional software. (And if there’s one thing you can’t do until you’re on the network, it’s download software…)

Raspberry Pi 2, showing its four USB ports

Four lovely USB ports: the original Model A had just one…

Such a wrinkle would be trivial if I had a tame guru that I could persuade to solve my IT problems for me, but our IT staff have enough trouble keeping Microsoft Windows lurching along, without getting distracted by questions about non-standard hardware and software. For your Pi’s operating system you’re probably going to be using the Unix-like operating system Debian, which has the advantage of being free, but which has a few rough edges as you might expect. There will be nerd-enthusiasts out there who find it incomprehensible that I should have trouble setting up the wifi, but I’ve bought almost nothing but Macs since 1991, and despite continuing to write software I seldom feel the need to ‘pop the hood’ and tinker with my computer’s operating system.

The newer models of Raspberry Pi come in packaging with much more retail appeal: the Pi has gone mainstream

The newer models of Raspberry Pi come in packaging with much more retail appeal: the Pi has gone mainstream

I never managed to get my first Raspberry Pi to make a sound under Debian. I didn’t particularly care, and I knew it wasn’t a hardware fault because if I ran a different operating system that turned it into a cheap media player then the sound worked nicely. No doubt a Pi nerd would laugh and tell me that all I needed to do was to open a hidden file called “hash dot underscore 23296” and change the 307th line to read “Expecto Petronem!” (with or without quotation marks not made clear) and all would be well.

That’s fine. Except… really? Apple (who are backsliding a bit nowadays but who were once the guiding light in producing computers for “the rest of us”) have spoiled me in the last quarter century. In the good old days Apple refused to accept that the problem was stupid users, and instead identified such problems as stupid software.

Inevitably, you get what you pay for. A computer with a price tag that goes firmly into four digits earns you the right to expect that things like sound or wifi will just work, with no arcane setup necessary.

I remember being amused when one Raspberry Pi enthusiast web page, supposedly giving clear instructions for wifi setup finished with “If this still hasn’t sorted out your wifi access, ask an adult.”

I’m 45. I have a PhD that involved a lot of computer programming. I’m no technophobe, but I’m damned if I can tell you how to get a Raspberry Pi working properly. I mean, really properly.

There are people who can do this kind of thing, of course: and good luck to them… Kudos to them, even, but there aren’t all that many of them, and (based on what I’ve seen of the output of the community) they aren’t generally very good at communicating, nor at designing user interfaces.

Getting Raspberry Pis working in a well-funded school in England where there’s a suitably skilled and enthusiastic teacher who’s prepared to put in the time to set up a school club in, say, robotics is one thing: getting them working (and keeping them working) in a school in Kenya that doesn’t have a water supply, never mind mains power… that’s the real test. And not just getting them working in a single school, but everywhere. That would be awesome.

But is that possible? Am I just being unrealistic? Maybe, but wouldn’t it be nice? I mean, how is it that there are organisations that can design computer chips that are more complex than the road network of the entire planet… but nobody has managed to deliver a computer that can actually be enjoyed by people everywhere on Earth?

The experiment begins again: I note that the Pi is now in its third incarnation, which sees the CPU improved to a 1.2 GHz, 64-bit processor… and wifi and bluetooth are now built in as standard, which ought to put an end to wifi woes of the kind I had with its predecessor. So I guess it’s time to spend another $35. (Actually £34.30 at Amazon: Raspberry Pis never quite seem to quite arrive at the quoted price point.)

I can use all the old bits and pieces that I collected for my earlier Pis: the low-power keyboard and mouse, the phone charger power supply, the old flat screen monitor, the microSD card that serves in place of a hard disk… it really won’t cost me any more than £34.30. But is that a bargain? My old Apple laptop – the retired one – cost around £1400, but I used it for ten or more hours a day, almost every day for five years.

What’s the carbon footprint for a computer? DEFRA’s Conversion Factors say office machinery including computers, in 2009 (when my old Mac was bought), worked out at 0.53 kg CO2e per pound spent. By that crude measure (no doubt disputed by Apple, who claim their products are greener than most) there’s 742 kg of greenhouse gases… but for a machine that had such a long life, the carbon embodied in its manufacture works out at a mere 40 g per hour of use, and any additional use of the ailing machine is free. If we ignore all the oddments like keyboard, mouse, screen and power supply on the grounds that users have spare ones knocking about, a new £34 Raspberry Pi weighs in at… call it 15 kg CO2e… and if I evaluate it for a grand total of perhaps 24 hours before I consign it to a drawer like its predecessors, it’s actually far less ‘green’ (625 g per hour of use) than the much more expensive Apple laptop.

But of course, I’m probably doing it wrong. Stupid user.

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…


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.



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)

iPhone 6 mockups

iPhone 6: trouble ahead?

Apple has sent out the invitations for a September 9th media event that is widely anticipated to be the debut of the iPhone 6. They’re either geniuses at viral marketing, or completely hopeless at keeping secrets… but either way, we already know quite a lot about what they’re planning. Pictures of alleged components and assemblies have been circulating for months.

No doubt the business that Forrest Gump once called “some kind of fruit company” has been busy, and no doubt the latest pieces of pocket-candy will achieve sales in the tens of millions, within days. The iPhone is Apple’s biggest moneymaker, and I have written before about the difficulties that they face in this once-a-year chance to shine… but CEO Tim Cook is equal to the task if anybody is. He’s a supply chain guy. He’s no Steve Jobs (he doesn’t say “boom!” nearly enough during his keynotes for one thing) but the less glamorous task of managing the whole network is what’s needed, if all those iPhones and iWatches are to reach the faithful in a timely manner.

When the initial surge of September madness has died down a little, I hope that the supply chain guy will be able to think long-term, because there may be trouble ahead… in the shape of a post-transition metallic element with the atomic number 49.

If that was sufficient to identify it to you then congratulations: you’re a chemistry nerd.

The material in question is indium, and in particular I’m interested in indium tin oxide (ITO), which has the highly desirable properties of being transparent in thin layers, highly conductive and impervious to water. These have made it a feature of all kinds of modern gadgets including liquid crystal or plasma displays, some solar panels, strain gauges and the heated cockpit windows of airliners.

Sputter a thin film of ITO onto a transparent substrate such as glass, plastic or sapphire, and you’ve got the makings of a touch-sensitive screen; the interface for all the various smartphones – some of which were out before the iPhone, but none achieving similar market penetration. Since the iPhone’s debut in 2007, displays have been getting bigger, and ‘touchier’. Flat-screen monitors and televisions have also grown, and it’s become the norm to own a tablet as well as a regular computer and a mobile phone. All this adds up to an insatiable demand for ITO.

iPhones getting bigger

Manufacturers can keep on trying to spread ITO more thinly, but screens are getting larger. (iPhone 6 mockups: Martin Hajek)

The US Geological Survey puts global indium reserves at about 16,000 tonnes: a sobering thought when you consider that the equivalent figure for economically accessible gold is put at 52,000 tonnes – despite the fact that we’ve been digging the stuff up since the late stone age. Indium was only discovered in 1863, and it looks like it’ll all be mined out within twenty years. Less, if demand continues to grow.

It’s not Apple’s fault. Their designers are simply specifying the most appropriate material now available. Nothing else works quite so well, so this is what their screen manufacturers use… but some are predicting that supplies of indium will run out, and soon.

Given that the amount of ITO used per iPhone or iPad is tiny, a price increase isn’t a particularly strong disincentive. Within the era of the iPhone, Indium has fluctuated between $60/kg to over $900/kg… yet the increase didn’t stop Apple, LG, Sony, Samsung or anybody else using it.

Economists say that any commodity will find its own level: as prices increase, substitutes become more cost-effective, and old mines (you typically find indium in the tailings of a zinc mine) can be reopened. Recycling also becomes more attractive.

Well, maybe. Recycling isn’t really working for mobile devices, though. They don’t take up much space in the home, and there’s always the worry that sensitive personal data might be recovered from one… so we tend not to give them away. Also, they’re expensive: when you remember paying maybe $600 for a gadget just two years before, it’s hard to accept a $50 trade-in for it. Instead, we tend to put our old phone in a drawer (“as a spare”), or give it to the kids. We put our smaller, older television in the guest room, and so on. Hoarding these items is an impulse that’s hard to resist.

Even if you did give up an old phone and it went for recycling, it’s a fiddling small gadget with some nasty toxic chemicals in it. It’s a difficult job to sift through all that, just to extract a thin smear of ITO, a fortieth of a gram of gold and so on. Basically, recycling isn’t going to give us enough ITO for each successive generation of bigger, better mobiles.

If you can’t use ITO… what are you left with? There’s silver nanowires (which are a bit fiddly, at a 10,000th the thickness of a human hair… but the technology seems to be coming along nicely). There are high hopes for graphene and its relative, carbon nanotubes… someday. Graphene still has a long way to go, to reach the mature, commercial-scale technology that Apple would be looking for. There are substitutes such as aluminum-doped Zinc Oxide and gallium-doped Zinc Oxide… but they’re poor substitutes. There doesn’t appear to be anything that makes touch screens as reliable and responsive as ITO, that’s ready for immediate, widespread use.


Graphene. These flakes may offer a solution… one day.

The logical solution is to stay with ITO, for now… but that won’t always be an option.

I’m hoping that the new toys Apple reveals next year won’t simply be faster, or fractionally thinner. If a company with cash reserves of something like $150 billion can’t find a way to break the deadlock and acquire a viable alternative to ITO, then things are grim indeed. Look after your next smartphone; it may be a long while before a better one comes along.