Here’s a really nice article about using nature to inspire more and better ideas. There is so much out there that we have only begun to explore and use as inspiration.

How reverse engineering nature can spur design innovation


I just saw this article in the paper about a project to clean up the big patch of floating plastic in the Pacific, and at the same time create fuel for the boat doing the clean-up.  Quite a win-win situation, when you think about it!

Here are some more details about the machine and how it works:

Article on Energy Rebels

Clean Ocean Project




The Mercury News has had two interesting articles recently on the topic of electric cars.  This one, from Sept 17th, is a pretty good summary of electric cars that are coming soon, many made by big boys like Volkswagen, GM, Hyundai, and BMW.

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find an online copy of the second article, but in some ways it’s even more interesting.  The title:  “Nissan to make electric cars hum”.

It turns out that electric vehicles are naturally very quiet.  And since people working on cars have been struggling to make engines quieter for decades, it wasn’t intuitively obvious that there was such a thing as too quiet.  But there is.  Pedestrians tend to expect cars to make some noise, and especially kids, the elderly, blind people, or those listening to iPods may not notice a very quiet vehicle.

So the Nissan engineers started thinking about sound, and what kind of sound to add.

“We decided that if we’re going to do this, if we have to make sound, then we’re going to make it beautiful and futuristic,” Toshiyuki Tabata, a Nissan engineer, said.  Then he and his team went out to consult Japanese composers of film scores.

Now that’s thinking about things in a new way!  I’m so happy they didn’t just make a recording of a throaty gasoline engine.  What they decided to do instead solves the problem in a much more interesting way.

I finally read The Innovator’s Dilemma, by Clayton Christensen, which originally came out in 1997 (with a revised edition in 2000).  See my review.  I clearly should have read it a long time ago.

When reading it, I kept thinking how much it explains so many things about the GM EV1 project.  It explains how the crack EV1 marketing team still had trouble defining a market (Christensen’s Principle #3:  Markets that Don’t Exist Can’t be Analyzed).  It explains why Tesla, which has sold something like 700 vehicles, is considered a success, while the GM EV1, which put out a lot more, is considered a failure (Principle #2:  Small Markets Don’t Solve the Growth Needs of Large Companies).

It even explains how a big company like GM might have been able to do more with a disruptive technology.  It’s in Chapter Six — Match the Size of the Organization to the Size of the Market.

It makes me wonder.  What if GM had spun off the EV into its own small company, and put that company into its own markets, its own value network, and most of all, its own culture.  I had noticed right away, in moving from California to Michigan in 1991 how much the culture was different.  But they wouldn’t have had to move the project all the way to California.  Nope, Ann Arbor, which physically is practically next door, is culturally way different.  I think spinning it off, even if kept as a fully owned subsidiary, and moving it to Ann Arbor, would have resulted in a far different organization, one that could get excited about small markets, and could grow and nurture the small markets.

The EV1 that actually was built was a great car.  The small market that loved it, really, really loved it.  But imagine if it had been allowed to mature, to improve every couple of years with a new version.  Imagine where we would be today!

Then again, hindsight is 20/20 as they say.  A lot of very smart people tried very hard, but the innovator’s dilemma got them.  Let’s try and stay awake and not let it get us the next time.

SF Bay Green Fair

June , 2009

I’m thinking about attending this.  Join me!

See it here.

Why yes, it really was a wall of plants!  This was probably the coolest thing I saw at Maker Faire this year.  The system consists of a close to vertical wall covered with a polymer mesh that is maybe 1/2 inch thick.  Holes are cut in this mesh and plants grow with their roots under the mesh and the rest of the plant above it.  Water trickles down the face of the wall, watering the roots.  Then this water falls into a fish pond filled with fish, and is then pumped up to the top of the wall again.  The fish waste nourishes the plants, and the plants filter the water to clean it for the fish.  Also above the plant section on the wall there are some solar panels, which power the water pump.

A picture of the setup at Maker Faire is here.

I was dubious when I saw things like squash plants and tomato plants, wondering what would happen when the fruit got ripe and heavy.  But I was assured by the representative there that the system could handle it.  In some cases they might add some stakes or structures to support the plants, but then again in a regular dirt garden one often does this too.  I’m thinking that watermelons would still be difficult, however.  Also they have not had success growing root vegetables with this system.  Still, those restrictions leave a lot that can be grown this way.

This system is interesting because it actually uses less water than the traditional method of growing plants in dirt.  It also uses less space, and is therefore ideal for urban settings where one may not have room for a traditional garden.  In addition to all of that, it is beautiful!  Check out the company’s website for pictures of various places this system has been installed.

Added note:  WordPress found this article on Aquaponics to be related.  Interesting!

So we all talk about electric cars and electric motorcycles and electric scooters as “green” technologies.  But does the simple fact that they’re electric guarantee that they’re green?  Not necessarily.  I recently watched an episode of “30 Days” on Hulu that was about coal mining.  Fifty percent of our electricity currently comes from burning coal!  So half of the electricity we’re using to power these alternative vehicles also comes from coal.  And it’s true that we have cleaner ways of burning coal than we used to.  However it’s still far from what most people would consider “green”.

But besides the pollution that’s caused by burning coal, the “30 Days” show highlights the cost in people’s lives to mine coal underground, and the cost to land to mine coal via strip mining.

It really brings home the idea that, in the engineering world, everything is a trade-off!

I just ran into this blog post and this article in Fortune which talks more about Zero Motorcycles.

Zero Motorcycles just released their first street bike, the Zero S Supermoto.  See here for the full article.  It is more expensive than its gasoline competitors, and has a shorter range, but on the other hand you never, ever, have to visit a gas station, and it’s quiet.  Zero has been making all electric dirt bikes for a while, but this is their first street bike.

Then there’s Tesla Motors, who has been selling their Roadster for several months, and is currently working on their follow-on vehicle, which will be an all electric sedan.  But Tesla, much as I respect what you’re doing, please stop saying you’re the first mass produced electric car.

I was on the GM EV1 project for two years.  (Apparently, the few that are left are now in a museum.  Doesn’t that make me feel old!)  I was in the structures group, and I recall, early on in my time at GM, going through a “skunkworks” exercise to clarify and define the assembly process.  We were pulled away from our offices and the interruptions of phone calls and people coming to our cubicles, and set up  in a church of all things.  We amused ourselves by calling it “going to church”.

During this period, which was originally planned to be two weeks, but turned out to be more like two months, we tore apart the vehicle structure and went over and over the entire process of the structure assembly.  My group, the “release engineers”, worked hand in hand with the manufacturing engineers throughout this process.  We thought carefully through every step, and every workstation in the plant.  And in turn, these process changes drove design changes that improved the structure.

We were optimizing every workstation to be able to handle 5 jobs an hour.  Now from the point of view of the rest of GM, where a speed of 60 jobs an hour is normal, this is very slow.  But on the other hand it isn’t hand building either.  We leaned heavily on our manufacturing engineers to think in new ways and to do what really made sense for the speed we were dealing with, and that ultimately improved both the design of individual parts, and the robustness of the final structure.

At the time I was involved, the plan was to make 80,000 over a period of three years.  I think in the end far fewer were made, because the market at that time couldn’t support that number.  But regardless, the vehicle was designed to be mass produced, and shouldn’t be considered a hand built vehicle.

One final note about electric vehicles.  There is the idea out there that electric is so much cleaner than fossil fuels.  And it can be.  But we all need to keep in mind that an electric vehicle is only as “clean” as the method to create the electricity was.  It’s possible to have a very polluting coal plant, for example, creating electricity.  (I haven’t looked at the data recently about where our electricity comes from on average; perhaps that can be the topic of a future post.)  However, it is certainly true that it’s easier and cheaper to control emissions when you’re doing so in a stationary location rather than a vehicle.  Several concerns, like how much would it weigh, or how it would perform in a crash test, simply go away and thus simplify the problem somewhat.

All in all, electric vehicles is something that I’m going to keep watching!