Manufacturing, USA vs. Abroad

Lately, I’ve been looking for manufacturers for an injection molded project I’m working on. Requirements at my previous job forced us to source parts in the US, and most of our work was CNC’d aluminum, so exploring overseas suppliers is a new prospect for me. There are some clear advantages to staying in the US and I thought I’d talk about the pros and cons running through my head. Trust The first concern I have with a supplier is trust. Can I trust them to make quality goods and deliver on time? In the US, I feel like basic interview questions and social cues will lead me to conclude whether you’re a worthy supplier or not. I can call you on the phone (because at most you are a few time zones away!), communicate with you in fluent English, and also check your references, who probably also speak English. If […]

People Still Pay for Hardware

People Still Pay for Hardware

I was scratching my head one day in the wake Instagram’s Billion (with a “B”) dollar buyout. I began reconsidering my career path and whether I should have been a programmer and UI developer instead of a mechanical engineer. I’m sure many people were thinking the same thing. Any rock you turn over these days seems to have a mess of ambitious social media start ups crawling around under it. Of course, not everyone can be successful, and with the way the internet allows things to scale, the gap between the successful and unsuccessful has grown ever larger. In many ways, I think social media start ups are starting to resemble Hollywood and the movie studio approach: they might make a lot of bad films, but if the blockbuster hits…it’s BIG. I was recently talking to a developer who had worked on a new social media app. It had taken a small […]

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs As It Applies to Engineering

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs As It Applies to Engineering

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory of human motivations, suggesting that once certain needs are met, people are not satisfied with the present condition, but instead develop new, higher order needs and try to satisfy those. At the bottom of his hierarchy are the staunch basic – food, water, shelter, etc. The next level of need is to secure basic safety, a job, and so on. After that, people look for love and to become part of a group and to satisfy needs for friendship. The very highest level of need focuses on artistic values –  the need for morality, creativity, spontaneity, and self-actualization. Engineering, in a sense, has an analogous hierarchy of needs and developmental milestones. At the very basic end, when engineering is closest to science, the question is “can we make it work?” After that, the question becomes, “can we make it affordable?”  then “is it portable?” and […]

Social Engineering (And Not the Kind In Your Spam Folder)

Social Engineering (And Not the Kind In Your Spam Folder)

Engineering is an inherently social activity. The pace and breadth of knowledge required to build useful things has become such that it’s no longer possible for one person to develop a product in a competitive environment. It requires a team. That’s actually one of the things I particularly enjoy about engineering; the discussion of ideas, intense lunch meetings, the sense of teamwork and relying on people who can do things that you can’t. I work in a very interdisciplinary group, and being around programmers, electrical engineers, and project managers gets me outside of my usual mechanical engineering bubble. I bring up the topic of engineering as a social activity because I’ve been through a bit of a lull lately. (As a consultant, things tend to shift between very high and very low gears). I believe it was the following Dilbert comic that expresses my mood the best: Being underloaded work […]

Finishing Projects

Finishing Projects

As a naturally curious person, I find I’m often researching new subjects, learning new skills, and trying new things. (I’m sure you can relate, but Wikipedia is like a big giant black hole of time.) This typically means I have a lot of half-developed talents and unfinished projects. I actually did finish a (small) project lately, and it got me thinking about what the difference in motivation is between projects I start and finish and those I abandon. In this instance, the small project happened to be an engagement website (for myself and my new fiance! I guess this is what happens when engineers get married…) Now I wrote an article a while ago about the difference between academic vs. “real” programming, and I’d been meaning to learn some web development lately. Learning to program “real code”  was sort of a vague, ephemeral goal, but the engagement website and server was a tangible, defined thing, […]

Open Source and Why People Don't Steal Ideas

Open Source and Why People Don’t Steal Ideas

Lately, I’ve been hanging around some hacker spaces in the Boston area, meeting people, and seeing what they’re making. One thing that really astounds me is the amount of technical knowledge people share for free. I mean, the work I see is the fruit of highly skilled, highly technical labor… people doing circuit board designs and layouts, writing control loops, developing ethernet boards to connect little hobby gadgets to the internet… in short, really cool stuff. My initial reaction was to say “This is worth money! Why are you just giving it away?” but of course, at a certain point, money just isn’t a motivating factor. For so called “knowledge workers,” developing news skills and mastering them was the intrinsic reason for putting so much time and effort in to these projects. Here it was first hand: for the scientists and engineers in the area, making something cool was more valuable than the […]

Degree? We don’t need no stinkin’ degree!

In the weekend journal, Chris Gammell wrote an interesting post about the “good ol’ degreeless days,” in which he writes about trying to hire someone without a degree. I’d like to respond with some of my thoughts on the problem, focusing on the flip side of the coin: getting hired without a degree. I see a degree, at least for those fresh out of school without an established career, as a proof of competence. Trying to get hired without a degree, naturally means finding another way to convincingly demonstrate that you have the necessary skills. In other words, “show me what you can do.” Now in some fields of study, I think this is perfectly reasonable.  For example, compsci majors can go develop a web sever or an app and graphic design students have a portfolio. In some fields, however, the resources required to build a portfolio are just unreasonable […]

The Effect of Proximity

 I always find it interesting how physical space affects relationships, both on a personal level, and a corporate one. For example, the Wall Street Journal, this past week, had an article about a manufacturing cluster developing in South Carolina. The article cites several effects that come from economies of scale in the “cluster,” such as access to a good highway system, shipping ports, and a feeder system of vocational schools and engineering colleges. One thing that’s always struck me is the way logistical problems change when companies are close together or far apart. For example, if you’re in the same building and I need to get you a shipment of raw stock, I’m telling Bob with the fork truck to take 10 minutes and drive it over. If you’re in the same town, Bob’s taking an hour to drive the flatbed with your delivery. Beyond that, I can’t spare Bob for […]