Tag Archives: engineering

Modular home construction

I wonder if one day we will build homes like we do the space station—in prefabricated modules. Modular construction seems like it could offer incredible advantages.

Perhaps rooms can be built in standard dimensions and standard interconnections to adjacent rooms for electricity, networking, coaxial cable, HVAC, hot and cold water, natural gas, etc. Each room would be somewhat over-engineered, but this extra cost is offset by savings from the economies of scale due to mass-production. A home builder would simply assemble a chosen configuration of modules, and provide some finishing touches, such as the exterior facing, roofing, and utility hookups.

This approach would benefit from guaranteed quality of workmanship, replacing skilled labor (e.g., carpenters) with robots and 3D printing, and rapid construction. Moreover, the big innovation comes years later. As technology improves, and the homeowner wants to uptake improvements, it becomes a simple matter of replacing modules, and possibly reassembling them in a different configuration.

follow the rules

I have an engineer who works for me. His responsibilities include ensuring design consistency and best practices across the components in the system. We establish design guidelines and rules for the team to apply in their work, and he performs the grunt work of reviewing and editing everyone’s designs. He is well suited to the role, because he is very methodical, and he has an affinity to documenting and following rules.

Engineering can be divided into two different modes of operation: manufacturing and invention.

I use the term manufacturing in reference to ordinary development. That is, designing based on a strategy of incremental improvement over past designs. This strategy has served the Japanese well in automobiles and consumer electronics. A disciplined approach to engineering with focus on continuous improvement and attention to market forces is the key to success in manufacturing. Manufacturing is about quality of implementation. Manufacturing is about applying best practices and quality process.

Invention is completely different. Invention is not about responding to market demand. It is about using imagination to create new markets, where they never existed before. Invention requires innovative thinking to formulate new ideas and different (hopefully better) practices. Invention is not about applying today’s best practices and rules to incrementally improve. Invention requires the understanding that today’s best is flawed and impeding progress towards a superior possibility that may be highly risky, unproven, and difficult to achieve – but worthwhile to pursue, because it would be revolutionary.

A business needs disciplined engineers, who are skilled at manufacturing. This is where the money is.

My grunt is definitely a manufacturer, not an inventor. He has mediocre design creativity, because he is unable to intuit across a mass of contradictory information and conflicting motivations (resolving the forces), while paying attention to detail. He needs rules to govern his thinking and everyone else’s. Without rules, he is unable to function. He has no intuitive understanding of good design principles. He follows the rules.

An inventor (and every good designer) does not follow the rules. He does not break the rules either. He defines the rules that are appropriate, and he uses them to aid his thinking. Above all, he uses his brain to produce good designs, given the facts in evidence. He leads, where few have the courage to follow.

change is destruction – The New New Thing

I am reading The New New Thing. It is more captivating than I anticipated. It was given to me as recommended reading, but I had no idea what it was about. It is a biography of Jim Clark, the founder and inspiration behind SGI, Netscape, and the present commercialized dot com era of the Internet. Jim Clark was one of the Internet’s most important agents for change.

One characteristic of Clark’s appeals to me. He paid no respect for history. His only care is towards how to invent the future. The key word is “invent”, as opposed to predict. People who work at prognostication are merely an audience. Innovators aren’t just interested in looking forward, but in engineering it into existence.

I have noted before the difference between builders and breakers. However, creators are also destroyers in a sense. The reason for creating something new is to impose change upon that which is the source of dissatisfaction. The intent is to obliterate something, as it exists today, in order to replace it by something better. Engineers love to destroy things as we know it, and substitute a new world order that matches our vision. The great destroyer is change, and this weapon is wielded by original thinkers. They have no respect for authority. They show no reverence for what came before them.

The opposing force to change is the people trying to hold onto what they have, desperately fearing that the shape of their environment is being altered beyond their control. A person’s reaction to innovation is revealing. It shows one’s appreciation for creation, the power to destroy and reinvent. Or opposition, if that is the case. What do you call “visionaries” who are unable to recognize the future, even when it is put in front of them? Tourists are there to see things that others have built. I have no interest in seeing the world. I want to rebuild it.