Celebrating National Engineers Week

It’s National Engineers Week (Feb. 18-24) which gives me the chance to reflect on the opportunity I’m afforded to work with so many talented fellow engineers.

 Photo by Gazette Review 2018

Photo by Gazette Review 2018

As vice chairman of AGMA’s vehicle gearing committee, it’s cool when great minds come together to talk shop while crafting industry standards.  And in my daily consulting work, I get to help my clients, leading-edge manufacturers in the United States and around the world, with gear and gearbox design and analysis. Finding innovative solutions for my clients never gets old. 

So, this week, and as I did last year, I applaud the talented professionals I’m lucky to work with ― engineers who contribute to society in so many ways.

The Amphicar: A boat or a car?

amphicar-cropped2.jpg

During a visit with family to Disney Springs at Walt Disney World in Orlando, I happened upon a one-of-a-kind attraction – a vintage Amphicar ride. In a wanderlust sense of creativity, this vehicle drives on land as easily as it can propel through water. 

In a seemingly outrageous idea that combines two totally separate entities - a car and a boat, the Amphicar performed neither function well. It was not a good car nor a good boat.

The novelty of it even caught the attention of President Lyndon B. Johnson who owned an Amphicar. President Johnson was known to prank his unsuspecting passengers as he drove the Amphicar straight into a lake, much to their shock. 

The Amphicar was produced in West Germany and sold in the U.S. from 1961 to 1967. It was commercially unsuccessful as well, selling less than 4,000 units total.  Some 50 years later, eight perfectly restored Amphicars delight passengers and onlookers alike, with land/water tours launching from Disney Springs’ Boathouse.

By most standards, the Amphicar was a technical failure and was commercially unsuccessful, but failure has lessons for us all.

  • Try something new and unconventional. Sometimes it will work out and sometimes it won’t, but don’t be afraid to try.
  • Think outside the box by combining different functions in the same device. For example, in the Dick Tracy comic strip from decades ago, Tracy had a wrist watch that performed the functions of a two-way radio, telephone and TV all in one. And today, we have the iPhone and Apple Watch that perform these functions.

Some ideas, concepts and devices are not technically feasible at the time of their invention, or are not commercially successful, at least not yet. Sometimes failure is the necessity of innovation. As an inventor, you just have to dream big, time it right and make it happen.  

Innovation for every generation

It’s National Engineers Week (Feb. 21-27) and there’s plenty to celebrate. Engineers have been making our world a better place since the beginning of time. 

The first ‘engineer’ was God who, in the beginning, created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1) and then marveled at his design. And from that day forward, inventive minds have propelled us out of the Neanderthal era of living in caves to 4,000 B.C. China and when the first evidence of wheeled vehicles were used in rice farming.

Inventors like Nikola Tesla and Henry Ford challenged norms and changed the way we live. And today, iconic creative minds like Steve Jobs, Dean KamenElon Musk and Burt Rutan continue to dream big and make it happen.

As always, engineers are solving society’s technical problems by applying scientific principles to advance civilization forward.  

For those of us who make our living as engineers in a career identified as a “hot job” and those who benefit from our inventions past, present and future, happy National Engineers Week.  

Finding space for Martian problem-solving

Recently, my wife and I watched The Martian, Ridley Scott’s movie starring A-list actor Matt Damon. In this thrilling science fiction drama, NASA astronaut Mark Watney, portrayed by Damon, found himself stranded on Mars, completely alone and with no way to signal Earth 140 million miles away that he’s alive. Against insurmountable odds and with dwindling supplies, Watney refuses to be the first man to die on Mars.  

To survive, Watney draws upon his ingenuity, his incredible resourcefulness, his engineering and botany skills, and a dogged determination. He solves seemingly unsolvable problems one after the other in a masterful display of intelligence, wit and engineering prowess.

In the science fiction novel The Martian by Andy Weir, the lead character Watney is portrayed as having earned master’s degrees in botany and mechanical engineering, yet the movie reveals Watney as having a Ph.D in botany with no mention of an engineering degree.

Whether it be the movie or the novel, with a botany degree and/or a mechanical engineering degree, it’s clear that Watney is one thing – a master at solving problems.

When failure brought the surety of death, Watney solved problems. And on Mars, alone and left to his own devices for his very existence, he engineered his way to survive and ultimately be rescued.

As an engineer, I solve mechanical problems for a living. Sometimes the solutions are simple and obvious, but often times they are as mind-bending as trying to find ways to live on Mars.

I’d like to think I could engineer my way home from an unsustainable planet called Mars, but that’s the folly of science fiction. For now, I’ll keep unleashing my creativity as if my life depended on it from the safety of the planet I call home – Earth. 

Rick Miller is president / sole owner of Innovative Drive Solution LLC, an engineering consulting firm specializing in gears and power transmission devices.

The Sharing Economy: Boats, Beds and Burials at Sea

Uber and Airbnb are examples of what has come to be known as the “Sharing Economy.” Uber doesn’t own a fleet of cars, but they operate a widely successful ride service using privately-owned cars driven by their owners. Airbnb does not own any hotels or bed and breakfasts; they use local hosts in 190+ countries who rent out their own rooms, apartments and homes. One source of their success is being able to quickly and efficiently connect those desiring their services with those able to provide these same services.

During a trip to Long Beach, California recently, I marveled at Captain Jonnie Lee’s entrepreneurial spirit. At night, Lee offers renters the opportunity to sleep on his yacht for a fee. By day, he uses the same watercraft for his burial at sea service. As an ordained minister, Lee can also be hired to perform marriages while sailing on his vessel. He’s cleverly found additional sources of income that would not have been captured.

Shared access to products or services is a not new concept.

A favorite and frequent destination of mine is the Volo Auto Museum located in Volo, Illinois - a suburb of Chicago.  As a lover of classic and muscle cars, I’ve long known about and admired Volo’s unique business model. Nearly all cars displayed are done so on consignment – the cars are owned by prospective sellers hoping to attract interested buyers who visit the museum. Volo charges the car owners a storage fee; collects an entrance fee to tour the museum and look at cars owned by others, and when a consigned car is sold the museum collects a 10 percent auction fee.  

In its favor, Volo’s business plan is based on getting others to bear/share many of the costs normally associated with owning and operating a traditional auto museum while capturing significant additional income in the process. It’s a brush stroke of business brilliance; shades of Tom Sawyer getting his friends to whitewash the fence for him.

The rise of social media platforms, Internet and alternate sources of information has enabled many industries and individuals to reinvent themselves, many times by connecting prospective buyers and sellers.  Recently I heard of a company that empowers its employees to be original and “blow sh!t up” by pushing beyond limits and do things in bigger, better and different ways. Many, if not most old line industries, are and will be subject to some level of disruption and innovation. If they don’t embrace it, their competitors will or already has.

The Dead tree media is another example. The newspaper industry is dying right before our eyes. Competition has arisen digitally online where the content is free and no subscription is required. As a result, traditional newspapers are either going digital themselves or ending publication.

Friction is being eliminated in the marketplace because information is easy and instantly accessible and removes the need for gate keepers and third party sources. Information asymmetry, where one party has more or better information than the other, creating an imbalance of power in transactions, is also being eliminated for the same reasons.

The on-demand or ‘gig’ economy provides labor flexibility. These ideas and others lead to what some are calling the “post ownership economy”.

Today an author can publish his or her own book for almost no cost and as low of a print quantity of one. And there are many options to fund a project’s start-up costs through crowd funding and crowd sourcing.  So an inventor is able to create or manufacture a product or provide a service using other people’s money.

Many items that used to require a large company to manufacture can be created with a 3D printer or other type of additive manufacturing device.

The heavily vertically integrated company of the past is or should be experiencing the effects of these changes in the capabilities available in the marketplace at all stages of the process. Those that are smart and successful will take advantage of these opportunities as they arise and embrace new technologies and new ways of thinking and doing business.  

As a consulting engineer, I’m often called in to help an organization navigate its future through engineered solutions. It takes a lot of creativity and staying abreast of novel ideas and new technologies which can be applied.

You may not aspire to have a yacht for rent with a unique business plan, but no matter the size, every organization can and should evolve and improve their methods of providing and selling their goods and services. How are you and your company using new technologies and finding new ways of doing business?

Unleashing Creativity

Creativity doesn’t just happen. It’s a discipline. It’s intentional and when invited in, it’s a tool you can use to help solve simple and complex problems.  As a design engineer, I tap into my creative self on every project.  This includes gathering ideas, tools and methods needed to solve problems in an imaginative manner. 

Read More