Posts Tagged ‘Engineering Design’

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MicroManufacturing Conference

March 16, 2009

Standard machining and injection molding techniques are not adequate for manufacturing parts so small that they are barely visible to the naked eye. An entire industry has formed around the requirements to create very small, very precise parts.

Recent work in microfluidics has focused on new rapid prototyping and manufacturing techniques on the micro-scale. While plenty of techniques exist for fabricating small-channels within multi-layered glass, such as etching or even laser drilling, the material and process costs are high, so I’ve been on the lookout for plastic and alternative materials more suitable for high-quantity production.

In just two weeks, I’m headed to Minneapolis to attend the 2009 MicroManufacturing Conference sponsored by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. Although I’m not a manufacturing engineer, I have found that it’s extremely difficult and expensive to design good parts without a detailed understanding of the manufacturing methods. By attending, I’m hoping to talk to vendors and learn more about the state of current technology than I can learn with online searches. If you’re going to be at the conference, or just in Minneapolis, feel free to stop me and say hi or even touch base ahead of time to arrange a meeting. I’m looking forward to an interesting few days.

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A Simple Product With All the Features

March 11, 2009

I’ve been writing about keeping products simple. It makes your product easier to use for the majority of users. However, what about the users that don’t want simple? How do you keep them excited about your product?

I want to talk about cameras for a moment, as I’ve found them to be a good example of products that might have a good balance of everything. There’s no question that digital SLR’s (single lens reflex) cameras take better pictures than their point-and-shoot counterparts. They have larger, better quality CCD’s and better lenses. For the advanced users, it’s also easier to quickly adjust such features as shutter speeds and F-stops. Point-and-shoots are meant for convenience; they fit neatly in your pocket so you always have it handy. 

However, if you delve into the manual settings for a point-and-shoot (I have had good experiences with a few of the products in the Canon Powershot lineup) you might find ways to tweak your photos for better results and get more functionality from your camera. I like to play with the depth of field, using focus to highlight my target instead of location within the frame or lighting. I’ve also been experimenting with white-balance. I’ve found those two features alone have dramatically improved my ability to capture the moment. My Canon SD750 even has the ability to setup hotkeys, so I can get into the white-balance menu with one key-press instead of navigating the function-tree. 

Even though I’ve been stressing the importance of keeping products simple, they should only be as simple as they need to be. In the case of my camera, sometimes I want to just grab a quick picture of my kids doing something goofy, and I don’t want to worry about setting up a shot. Other times, I’d really like to get an image with more character, and I’m glad I have a camera that has a multitude of manual features. 

What products are you using that work well for both the novice user and the advanced hobbiest?

An appetizer: Figs topped with chevre and wrapped in prosciutto. Photo taken on the Automatic settings.

An appetizer: Figs topped with chevre and wrapped in prosciutto. Photo taken with the Automatic settings - auto focus, flash, 77mm focal length (35mm equiv.), f-stop (f/4.0) and exposure (1/60).

 

 

The same appetizer taken with Manual settings. No flash, ISO 80, Macro focal adjustment.

The same appetizer taken with Manual settings. No flash, f/2.8, exposure (1/40), 37mm focal length (35mm equiv.).

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Unknown Stakeholders

March 5, 2009

RemotesAre you overlooking someone in your user research?

It may not have the romance of flowers or diamonds, but a good universal remote control can do good things for a gadget-lover’s marriage. Before we got a high quality universal remote, there were remotes all over and a page of instructions for guests. My wife grew to understand it, but she hated that I’d complicated such a simple task as watching a movie. More often than not, she’d just turn the TV on by hand and listen to it through the native speakers. Now, she just hits the DVD button on the remote and everything turns on (well, most of the time!) so she can watch a show in 5.1 Dolby Digital surround even if she doesn’t care much about it.

So, if you were writing the product specification for a universal remote control, would you have thought to include your user’s significant others, house guests, and friends? You would surely have included the owners of home theater systems as a significant stakeholder in the design. They want equipment with a ton of features, high performance, and customization. Unfortunately, those requirements might not be as well accepted by the rest of the household if the system is difficult to use. Could you have unknown stakeholders that are preventing a purchase? Should they even be your primary target for the user interface?

Are there stakeholders that have been ignored during the design of your product? Are they holding back the success of your product? How do you find them?

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You don’t need to buy a Hybrid car for better mileage

February 26, 2009

pumpinggas I’ve been driving a Toyota Prius for over a year now.  Gas prices have been jumping up and down, but I’ve definitely been pleased with the car overall. However, if you’re not already in the market for a new car, maybe you can get better mileage with the car you have. 

Yes, the Prius gets great mileage. I generally get between 44mpg and 54mpg depending on the time of year and the type of driving. However, when I first bought the car, it was closer to 38mpg to 42mpg. The improvement came because the car has an on-board smart-meter that provides immediate feedback about the relationship between your driving behavior and gas mileage. By the way, that’s an improvement of 10% – 20% just based on my driving habits. 

So, what would happen if you could tame the jack-rabbit starts, go easy on the gas-pedal, and keep it under 70mph? Could you effectively knock $0.20 to $0.40 off each gallon of gas you buy this month? In combination with other common practices (properly inflated tires, a clean air filter, and a tune up), maybe.

Have other Prius drivers found the same to be true? Do other hybrid vehicles have similar smart-meters? What’s your take?

Photo credit: Futureatlas.com

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Notes from “Plug into the SmartGrid”

February 17, 2009
Andy Karsner

Andy Karsner - Policy Panel

Washington, DC Feb 17, 2009 –  Every seat in the auditorium at Google’s DC office was filled with people passionate about bringing about change in the way power is distributed. People even lined the back wall and the overflow room. A total of 500 people in attendance. The event format was split into two industry panels, the first discussing the technology requirements for a SmartGrid and the second focused more on the Federal and State policy initiatives required to properly implement such a sweeping technological plan.

Tomorrow afternoon, the ~2-1/2 hour video footage of the panels will be available on both Google’s DotOrg channel as well as GE’s YouTube channel. If you don’t have time to watch, here are my notes from the event. I’m sure I missed some details, so please correct me or submit your comments.

Read the rest of this entry ?

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Google To Give The Energy Sector A Jumpstart

February 13, 2009

windpower_hdrThis week, Google announced they’re Beta testing a new application that you can use to track your household (or business) energy use by device in an effort to cut energy usage. Google PowerMeter will break down your energy usage almost in real-time. According to their data, the clothes-line may be due for a comeback. As the old adage goes,

“If you can not measure it, you can not improve it.” – Lord Kelvin

They’ve built the application, but now they’re looking to develop some hardware to go with it. Google is not the only player in the game, though. Pepco is also looking to develop Smart Meters in the DC suburbs, and Agilewaves, comprised of a trio of NASA engineers, developed similar technology after the wave of California’s rolling blackouts in 2006. Even with a decent head-start, it might be hard to beat the raw initiative, seemingly unlimited cash reserves, and amazing grasp of user interfaces that Google has shown time after time. 

Last fall, Google and GE announced a partnership aimed at pushing technology and policy in the energy sector. To kick off the initiative, they’ll both be hosting Plug Into The Smart Grid next Tuesday at 2pm EST. The event appears to be open to the public, but plan for attendance to be maxed. Instead of making you fight the crowds, though, they’ll be posting the  content within 24 hours of the presentations on both Google’s DotOrg channel as well as GE’s YouTube channel. Google has also invited everyone to submit and vote on questions in advance via Google Moderator. This event appears to have some big players, so it’s not exactly a grass-roots effort. But, everyone is going to be called upon to act eventually. Now is a good time to start paying attention. 

Program

  • Introduction and welcome 
    • Dan Reicher, Director of Climate Change and Energy Initiatives, Google.org
    • Bob Gilligan, Vice President, GE Energy
       
  • Part I: Envisioning smart power
    Energy tools and technologies to empower people with information and choice    

    • Moderator: Bob Gilligan, GE
    • Adrian Tuck, CEO, Tendril
    • Ron Binz, Chairman, Colorado Public Utilities Commission
    • Jeff Renaud, Director, Ecomagination, GE
    • Ed Lu, Advanced Projects, Google
    • Kelly Speakes-Backman, Principal, RE+GENeration Consultants LLC
    • George Bjelovuk, Managing Director, American Electric Power
       
  • Break
     

Part II: Accelerating the energy revolution
State and federal policies to drive smart power
Opening remarks: The Honorable Carol Browner, Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change (invited)  

  • Moderator: Dan Reicher, Google
  • Fred Butler, President, National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners
  • John Podesta, President, Center for American Progress (invited)
  • Andy Karsner, Former Ass. Sec. for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, U.S. Department of Energy
  • Chris Miller, Office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid

Photo Credit: John Nyberg

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Winter backpacking and product design

February 9, 2009
Sunset at Lost Lake

Photo Credit: Josh Keller

I went on a winter backpacking trip last weekend with an old friend. I’d been looking forward to some snow camping most of the year. It’s a great way to get away from the electronic ties I can’t seem to shed on my own. It’s also a great way to get away from the crowds, as not many other people are out camping when the weather is well below freezing, even in Colorado.

Backpacking in the winter involves a lot of extra gear, much of it heavy. So, I’d been training by running and lifting weights. I thought I’d be ready for the mountains, but I live at sea level, and I’d never camped above 4,000′ or so. I wasn’t prepared for the effect 10,400′ of elevation would have on my body even though I’d expected some weakness. I was moving at a very slow pace and fighting the symptoms of minor altitude sickness – headaches and slight nausea. There was just more factors to this adventure than I could consider without actually getting out there. With each trip, I learn something (many things) about staying comfortable in adverse conditions that no matter how long I plan, I just won’t anticipate them from home.

How many times have you (as a consumer) had trouble with a product and thought it seemed like the designers never used it themselves? They thought they had all the angles covered, but maybe they never took it “up to altitude” to really examine how it might behave under real-world conditions with real users. Sometimes it’s not easy to predict all conditions, especially when you don’t have the right perspective. As the design engineer, you understand what this button does and what that double-beep means, and you might even think it’s intuitive. However, you can’t be completely objective, but it’s not your fault. It IS your fault if you just stop there and don’t consider your options.

Give your prototype to user focus groups. Give it your coworkers. Give it to your family. Watch people interact with it and try to figure out how it works. If it’s an avalanche beacon, users will interact with it while wearing winter gloves and shaking from the fear that they have 15 minutes to find their friend or HE WILL DIE! Can they remember your 10 minute training session to follow the prescribed scanning procedure along the lines of magnetic flux? Can they hear the indicator beeps over the howling wind or their own heartbeat? Can they even get the device into Search Mode? A good designer must consider every possible use case. Don’t give up, yet. Even a highly specialized device can be intuitive when designed well.

I can understand if you don’t want to test drive your product on a winter camping trip, but you can find real users to provide perspective for almost any situation. (astronauts rarely design the spacecraft that they travel in, but they’re likely consulted on the design) No matter how much you ponder your users from behind a desk, there will always be something you forgot to consider. Get out there. Experience the world of your customers. You might just make a better product.

winterbp_snow