Weekend Journal — The 4th Dimension

I’ve been fighting a battle at work. No, not literally. I don’t want to get fired, I just got hired a few weeks ago. But I’ve been trying to convince co-workers and engineering management to buy a piece of equipment, specifically a 3D printer for doing prototyping (and yes, I’ve mentioned it here and on the radio show a few times). And I think I’ve narrowed the real issue and why I haven’t been getting anywhere with them yet. How do you prove what the future will be like?

Personally, I have a strong dislike for prognosticators. Whenever I see a chip manufacturer or an industry analyst predicting how much a particular sector will grow in the coming year, I cringe. Sure, they know a little bit about the industry, they’re in it! They see trends and they talk to people and they get statements from buyers and sellers and the like.  I get it. They think they know it all. But then almost on cue, 3 months later you see another article…”Oh my gosh, the chip sector didn’t do what we predicted!”. It almost reminds me of this scene with The Joker from “The Dark Knight”, talking about the futility of plans:

“Schemers trying to control their little world.”

Now, I’m not a nihilist nor an anarchist. Nor do I think that being wholly unprepared for the future is a great idea. But it’s hinging every little action on a flawed prediction that rubs me the wrong way. Similarly, not taking action because of too little information or too much fear of the unknown isn’t my thing. I believe in taking whatever information you can and trying to  do the best you can, with the knowledge that there will always be risk.

So what to do? How do I present my case, based on my somewhat limited information to try and prove my point?

Do I play the optimist card, and try and convince everyone that our needs for this new piece of equipment will be used regularly because of its use? I could, but that’s like saying I need a new treadmill in order to start my workout program. That tact alone won’t win any of my co-workers over.

Do I play the pessimist card, and try to show all the revenue losses and slipped schedules that we could miss if we don’t have 3D models around to make snap decisions? I could, but then the argument would likely be that past products have made it out the door relatively on-time without one. I’m sure no mention would be given to the long hours into the nights worked in order to meet that arbitrary deadline.

People are naturally poor at predicting the future. In fact, the upsurge in the Agile Methodology that seems to be taking hold of the software community is based on this idea: Don’t try and plan out a project for the next year, because it won’t work. Instead, try figuring out the next two weeks.  But again, how do I relate this to a piece of equipment I want to buy? If engineering teams around the world can’t hit a completion date from months away because of poor prediction skills, how can I possibly know what all we could use a printer for on a given project. All I know is that I would manage to use it because I have ideas bursting from my head every other day.

So what did I really do? I played the realist. I laid out a most use case and a worse use case of the parts I think we’ll need made in the next few years. Then I took some quotes I had from local print shops and tried to apply it to what we might need in the next year. Finally I did a crossover chart to show when we might hit the breakeven point on buying a 3D printer, especially given the cost of materials, which is still quite high (I was able to estimate based on the $/cu. in. figure the printer manufacturer gave me for replacement cartridges).

In the end, I sent out this calculation to all of my co-workers and superiors for review; however, I also included a note saying that my calculations could have easily been flawed and that we might need the printer a lot more or a lot less, and there’s really no way for me to know. I also added that having a printer in-house is a lot different than being able to send out for SLAs when you think you have enough of a need. If you remove the barrier to doing something and it becomes a commonplace practice, you really never know what you’ll be able to come up with. And I think that’s the basis behind Research and Development. You’ve gotta try lots of stuff, because you never know what might come out of it.

So I continue to wait. I’ll check back with my co-workers soon, but I really don’t have anything else to say to them. The data is all out there and I have to wait for them to make a decision (specifically because I’m not an ME, nor the one that would be the primary designer of the plastic stuff we’d need).  I know I can’t predict the future, so all I can hope is that I made a strong enough case for them to take the same leap of faith that I want to take.

What about you? How has forecasting and prediction affected you at your job? Do you have to try and divine what the future holds in order to make purchases or plan schedules? How do you cope with it as an engineer with less-than-complete information? Let us know in the comments!

Thanks to Garry Knight for the crystal ball picture.

7 responses to “Weekend Journal — The 4th Dimension”

  1. David Bley

    I have always used the process that they now refer to as agile development. I think that at one time we called it bottom up as opposed to top down. Mostly the places that I worked were cash strapped or assumed that I had all that I needed. For example, I was writing test procedures and the only computing power the company had was “big iron” which engineers were not allowed to use as it was used for financial purposes. I got tired of using a typewriter for this and brought my own Commodore 64 with the printer. It was way better than the typewriter. It allowed me to get something written and then edit it. Managements suggestion was for me to dictate the procedures, which would not work well for me. Another example is, while I was considered an electronic engineer, as part of my job, I was required to do the control panel layout and the mechanical location of the parts on the PCB to line-up with the front panel. I quickly found out that sitting down with a calculator and a sheet of paper was error prone. So I purchased a moderately priced 2D CAD program and my work had much fewer errors more quickly. It has been the same for me for anything that I could afford that made my work better. Of course, a 3D printer is way out of my budget.

  2. Cherish The Scientist

    We started with an old/cheap PCB mill at work. My job one summer was to get it up and running and write up a procedure for it. This got spread to a couple people at work before I left for the summer. By the time I left to go back to Minneapolis, they were already talking about buying a new, better model because we’d gotten so much use out of the old one. Less than a year later, we had a 3D printer, as well.

    My suggestion would be to see if there is some way to lease one for a specified period of time. If it isn’t used as much and doesn’t pay for itself, you’re out the cost of the lease rather than a capital investment. However, if it does get used and pays for itself quickly, then management will want to pay for their own rather than coughing up money for a lease that they can’t amortize.

    It might make for a nice middle ground, and once it’s in, I wouldn’t be surprised if people forgot they were ever dragging their feet on the issue.

    Good luck!

  3. Sebastian Abbott

    Really good post (and that hospital scene struck a chord with me, too!) Part of my job is as project manager in development. That’s about as fictitious as it can get with predictions. Of course Management wants to know when the product *will* be available (might? forget it!). Naturally, they don’t want to know much about potential design and testing loops – particularly with corrosion testing that can take months.

    So, “winging it” is part of the job. We try to make our commitments, we try to best-guess; we even get teams together to commit to a project (if not to the individual tasks – I still need to chase those. And chase. And hassle…). But it’s still crystal-ball-gazing.

    Generally, at least where I work, the key questions for management surround the financials. When does the project necessitate investment in that 3D printer / laser welder / FEA analysis module / whatever…? If the management sees the necessity of that spend within the project, and know more or less when that will be, then usually it’s a goer.

    Other hints and tips for you to get that printer approved? Try and budget it in to an upcoming project rather than as a stand-alone entity. It’s not a merely case of hiding the figures amongst larger ones, but rather telling the story of how that project will benefit from that purchase. Then the payback of the project includes that of your printer.

    I also echo the Good Luck calls!

  4. Alison

    I know it wasn’t really the point of the article to talk about 3D printers specifically, but my son’s HIGH SCHOOL has one for their engineering program. I guess it’s easier to spring for new technology when taxpayers foot the bill : )

  5. zerth

    Instead of pointing at all the schedule slips caused by sending a job out, try pointing out the time you can save over when things work perfectly. Even with overnight shipping, you are looking at 24-48 hours at best. If you can get a print the same day or even first thing in the morning instead of the end of the week, how much is that worth in engineer time? 5 spins a week instead of 1 or 2. Quantify the improvement over perfect.

    Then, assuming your SLA vendor isn’t in the basement and totally dedicated to your company, ask how often does that go perfectly.

  6. Diffman

    Fortunately my last job had already purchased a 3D printer so i can’t offer any advice in regards of any financial arm twisting however there is one aspect that has gone a miss in the above discussion. That is, a 3D print’s ability to cross the divide from the technical mind of the engineer to the manager or stakeholder who can only join the dots of reality if they can grasp it in their hands. We’d call it the ‘touchy feely’ aspect of a design review. In presenting a design, you would see the manager’s heads switch between the presentation to visualising that aspect when held within their hands.

    On from this a double edged sword in that manager’s imagination starts to run wild to what they now clearly see as possible. As the 3D print is actually a prototype, focus on the required technical details is also lost and a fault sense of security is created (… yes this was in my last job, can’t you tell). That raises a point for further reflection, ie there is a time and a place for 3D prints to generate different stimulus within the audience. (i’m new to this blog so apologies if this has been touch on before)

    anyway, good luck with the 3D printer purchase and thanks for the dark knight reference.

  7. FrauTech

    Well if you’re already sending out a lot of jobs to get outside companies to make you prototype parts, it will be easier to justify. If you aren’t doing much of that it’s going to be more difficult. My company has several 3D machine (to be fair to the person who’s son’s high school has one, it’s probably a much smaller machine with a serious size limitation that the larger, industrial ones do not have). However, I’d guess we’re probably orders of magnitude larger. I’ve often seen the company really resist spending the capital investment to buy new machines. For some reason they’d much prefer to send the jobs out to other companies with the equipment. Even if it costs us more in the long run, they seem to be making year to year calculations.