Posts in "Engineering" category / Page 2

Of phones and backups, and the perils therein

So one of the issues I have with my business is that I must stay in touch via phone and the internet. I have landed in Calico Rock, Arkansas(pop 991) and done 50k worth of business while siting in the (relative) coolness of the shade under the wing while online via aircard and talking on my cell phone. So, phone and internet, golden, but no phone or no internet, very very bad. I have, for years, had my company accounts with AT&T, and carry a primary and a backup AT&T phone. As an emergency backup and secondary wifi hotspot (my primary internet connection in the field is an AT&T aircard) I picked up a line through Verizon. Using this setup, I figured I had a backup AT&T phone if the primary went south, and both a backup phone and internet connection if everything on AT&T went down.

Ignorance is bliss….

So while traveling, I had some problems getting my phone to forward. It appeared initially to be a problem with my iPhone (although I later found that it was a problem with AT&T), so I went by the AT&T store to swap sim cards between my iPhone and my Nexus 6p. They very kindly did so, without reprovisioning the accounts to account for the phone changes. So now BOTH phones are messed up, and I can’t forward to the Verizon phone, because phone forwarding is messed up on both as well. Multiple calls to AT&T latter, and with most of the day lost, the phone were finally (mostly) unscrewed. But, this pointed up a hole in my planning, which was with both of my physical business lines on AT&T, the phone company itself was a single point of failure. I should note that I have several different lines I use for business 2 “real” lines and a couple of Google Voice lines, all forwarded into my primary phone. With call forwarding down, I could have called AT&T and had both phones forwarded to my Verizon line (which is not used as a business line), but then I wouldn’t have been able to get the phones fixed. So after loosing more than a few $$$ on that day, I have come up with a new plan. I have been watching Paul Thurrott’s experiments with Google’s Project fi, and have decided to put the Nexus 6p onto a Project fi account. That will give me hotspotting and a phone line through Fi, to back up the AT&T line, and may cause me to eliminate my Verizon line entirely. With one business line coming in through AT&T and one through Project Fi, I will be able to loose one (and forward if able) to a completely different network (and still troubleshoot the down one). If I cannot forward, I can still get half of my calls (or more, as I can change the forwarding on the Google Voice lines).

As with many things in life, you think you have a solution going until such time as it actually gets tested and you find out notsomuch. I have gone through several data backup plans, and have one now that works pretty well, but I have lost data more than once when my “Foolproof” plan was thwarted by someone making better fools. Phones are apparently the same way. One of the things I love about the 21st century is that with phones or computers, using cloud services, you can now loose a unit, walk into a store and buy a new one and in under 2 hours be back in business (don’t ask how I know that). The trick now is choosing the proper plans and providers, so that you have no single point of failure. That is where I went off the rails in the past and will do better now.

I hope…


Those who don’t know….and the Internet

A chemistry professor of mine used to offer up a fount of truisms and sayings, one of which that stuck with me was “Those who don’t know, don’t know that they don’t know, whereas those that know, know that they don’t know”.  As I have gotten older, I continue to relearn how true this is, both with myself, and with other people.

I live in a rural area, which has several advantages. My nearest neighbor is about half a mile away, and the next nearest is a lot further than that. It isn’t quite as remote as living in Kansas (2.5 and 5 miles, respectively) but it is nicer here without having to drive 25 miles for a average steak. One of the things that is not nice is internet access. Over the course of the years I have used a separate phone line, satellite internet, DSL, Multiple DSL with a load balancing modem, Verizon HomeFusion (which was a joke) and finally my own wireless tower relay to bring 50Mb internet to my home office. I would not have said that “I didn’t know”, but getting significantly faster internet has opened up a new world. My Surface Pro 4 was misbehaving and so I tried blowing away the installation and reinstalling Win10 from scratch. So far, no further misbehavior, but it would have only have been possible with this sort of connection. My desktop machine is on Win10 Insider (Technical Preview), and instead of taking all night, this now updates in a matter of minutes. Ditto for flight updates for avionics. Even writing this blog is now much easier. Between me and Mrs Dr Thinking Engineer, our internet usage has tripled in a couple of months, and is still going up.

This was neither easy, or inexpensive. The cost per month is more than my house payment, and if I was not running an internet based business, I couldn’t justify it at all (justification is still a bit shaky, but there you go).  On the other hand, I have started several new business ventures just on the strength of having this sort of connection. It makes me wonder why cities aren’t doing more about this. The mayor of the local municipality will spend time, effort and money on some quixotic wind farm that will generate “Millions of Dollars” without ever explaining how, and yet the one thing that he could do relatively simply to generate new business and tax income is something he hasn’t even thought of, put in a high speed internet system in town. It’s a relatively small town, it is entirely possible that you could hit 90% of it using wifi off the same tower I am using. If that gets 900 people, and 10% of them have an idea for a business and 2% of those make it, then that is 18 business and money coming into town that wasn’t there before. For the rest of the town, quality of life goes up, and their children have a leg up on the future.

It’s a lot of money. But it is already worth it, and we have had it a very short period of time.

The University of Football at Arkansas

Mrs Doctor ThinkingEngineer has a PhD of Chemical Engineering from the University of Arkansas. It is a shining achievement, a jewel in her crown that she was able to go back 20 years after a BS in Biology and get a PhD in a very nearly unrelated field. Because of the requirements of the time (they have since changed), she had to take very nearly every undergraduate engineering course before she started the graduate work. We figured at one time that she needed 6 additional hours (all in Freshman courses) to get a BSChE to go with the MSChE and the PhD ChE. My admiration for her in this achievement knows no bounds. There is no way I could have done what she did.

The “from the University of Arkansas” is a bit more problematic. The UofA is a land grant school, and as such, I have certain expectations of them. I should say that I graduated from a land grant school (along with Mrs Dr ThinkingEngineer), the University of Missouri at Columbia. The UofA makes Columbia look like Harvard. The single most important thing with the UofA is Athletics, Football and Basketball. Basketball has taken second seat lately, while neither of the teams is great, Football makes money even when it isn’t doing well. What I expect of a land grant school is that the tuition and fees are reasonable, that they have relatively small classes and the labs are stocked with equipment that works.

What you get at the University of Football at Arkansas is Thermodynamics classes with over 80 students in them taught by a first time graduate student instructor. What you get at the University of Football at Arkansas is an Engineering School that just BARELY scrapped by its ABET accreditation, so close that the seniors put the near failure of the school into their senior skit that year. What you get at the University of Football at Arkansas is a Chemical Engineering Department without a permanent Dean, for YEARS, because none of the candidates who were offered the job would accept. What you get at the University of Football at Arkansas is a Chemical Engineering Department that isn’t allowed to replace retiring professors, despite the fact enrollment is high and tuition is at an all time high. Where is all that money going??? What you get at the University of Football at Arkansas is laboratories that are stocked with broken equipment. I had to get Mrs Dr ThinkingEngineer numerous pieces of Lab Equipment, simply because waiting for the school to replace the equipment would have cost her additional YEARS of time.  Yet the fees (in addition to the tuition) at the University of Football at Arkansas just keep going up.

Having graduate Engineering programs should enhance the entire state of Arkansas. However, when the Engineering programs are being starved of money, when they lag behind on the most basic quantifiable areas, is it no wonder that the graduates tend to move out of state instead of staying to help Arkansas? What you get at the University of Football at Arkansas is very little help with post doctoral work, or with help starting a business. The Genesis Center, the new company incubator is currently merely providing state sponsored space to several companies that no longer fit the term “startup”. If you can’t afford your own space after 3 years, you need to get out (or at least be forced to show an upward trajectory). If you get bought out by a larger firm, you should have 30 days to pack your bags.

What you get at the University of Football at Arkansas is a 120M bond issue for a nearly 200M project to put 3000 more seats in a stadium that is rarely sold out. Those are 3000 “high value seats”, that the university is spending more money on for use about 14 times a year than they do on students. Former Senator Pryor made a blazing statement against the expansion, as did five former members of the Board of Trustees (including Springdale’s own John H Tyson). I salute these men of courage and principle, coming out against a football proposal in Arkansas is like standing in front of a Tidal Wave with a 3″ umbrella out of a beach drink. People say that it will be paid back by Athletic Funds, but they always say that, yet the fees keep going up. If the Athletic Department is such a moneymaking proposition, why do they have a budget from the University? Is the best thing that we can say about the University of Arkansas is “Thank God for Mississippi”?

I don’t know what the solution is. Obviously, college athletics rules the roost (or hog pen as the case may be). What I do know is that the University of Arkansas has lost sight of it’s mission. What I do know is that to get through the PhD program, we had to contribute much more than I expected to get the lab space up to a level where the work (that was expected for graduation) could be performed. What I do know is that I recommend to anyone who can afford it to go to a better Engineering School than the UofA. But, Mrs Dr ThinkingEngineer has her degree. While we might have some additional dealings with the University, there is one group that can stop with their mailings.

It will be a cold day in HELL when I donate any more money to the University of Football at Arkansas.

The importance of not under performing.

There are a few things that engineers mostly agree on. The three laws of thermodynamics, the law of conservation of energy and gravity. They also agree that Lt Cmdr Montgomery Scott pretty much ruined engineers for life on Star Trek, as he would report to Kirk that it would take weeks to repair the Enterprise, and then when the Captain shouted “You have 20 minutes!”, he would simply go “Okay” and manage to save the day. I cannot tell you how many plant managers I have met that have felt that raising the volume of an unreasonable demand would result in Scotty’s “Okay” and they could go back to the corner office and dream of green women adoringly staring up at them in various stages of undress. Informing them that this wasn’t the Enterprise, I am not Scottish, and they sure as hell weren’t Capt Kirk did not seem to help matters any.  It would be finished when it was finished and while I could probably tell them a probable date, it would depend on other people doing their job too, people who I had no control over. So there was always some margin of error in the estimate, and I would typically pad the estimate with 10% for unexpected delays and 10% more for unexpected, unexpected, delays. Usually this came out about perfect, or gave me a bit of room to be a hero.

I have been dealing with a aircraft detail and paint touchup crew lately. They are based on my field and I have been having them do a clean and polish of the plane for about a year. I then had them do a bit of paint touchup, and some sort of paint coating for protection. The results weren’t bad, but they missed the delivery date by a week, without telling me. This caused me to miss a flight after heading up to the airport. Many apologies and free cleanings later, I decided to give them another go with carpet and some interior work, along with doing some paint work on an area that they hadn’t had access to the first time. I impressed on them that I would need the plane back when they said it would be done. Once again, they missed the date. When it got to the revised time that it was supposed to be done, they brought it over at the end of the day. Like with shipping, getting a package at 5pm doesn’t qualify as getting it “that day”.  Having the airplane show up at 5-6pm in the hangar doesn’t do much unless I am willing to do a test flight at night. So, got the airplane back on a Monday, and then it rained all week. Friday, my instrument instructor came up with his airplane (or his employer’s aircraft) and we talked about going up while the aircraft was being worked on. Decided not to as 1) ceilings were persisting in staying quite low, and 2) my plane hadn’t been flown after getting it back, and breaking into 400′ ceilings as you discover you have some sort of airframe or instrumentation issue caused by the work is not often survivable. Being cautious (and still alive) pilots, we decided to wait for a day either better in conditions or (more likely) after I had flown the aircraft in visual conditions. Today was a perfect day, little wind, few clouds. I pulled the plane out after a thorough preflight, and got in to start boring holes in the sky as a Jr Aviator, only to find the pilot’s seat stuck at the full aft position.

I don’t think they are going to get a recommendation from me….



Engineers as managers, the worst of all possible worlds?

My father spent 25 years in Industrial Relations, back when it meant negotiating with unions for contracts that spanned many plants across the country. One benefit of this for me growing up was that I got a chance to see how the business world worked. Another was that I got to meet a whole passel of pilots, astronauts and assorted engineers as they came through on business tours. Dad figured out pretty early that instead of taking them out to dinner at a nice restaurant (on a trip undoubtedly full of nice restaurants), he would offer them the choice of coming home with him to a home cooked meal (with me in attendance). It was, a great way to grow up during the space program, and one of the many ways that my father was truly the best father a boy could ever have.

Another interesting part of growing up was that I continually heard how horrible engineers were as managers. The other side of it was that professional managers could rarely get engineers all headed in the same direction (the phrase “Herding cats” comes to mind), because they were not really respected by a group of people where your standing was based on your technical and project completion skills. When my choice of careers became obvious to me (in the second grade, after my first Tom Swift book), I resolved to do better than my average compatriot.

I succeeded, but to a great extent because it was a pretty low bar. My average compatriot had little or no idea how to run a crew, shop or plant. It wasn’t part of their schooling, and honestly, most engineers are a bit introverted to start with. I, at least, had the benefit of 20 years of my father’s work environment. Even then, I found working with folks who were a lot older, and with a lot more experience, rough. Most of those problems went away as I got older, but as far as mentors went, most of my superiors were worse at managing than I was, in some cases, horribly worse.

The final straw came when at the staff level, I was tapped as a plant manager. I wanted to be a plant manager about as much as I wanted open heart surgery without anesthetic, so I took that as a sign from the universe as it was time to get out of the business world and into running my own company.

My point is, most engineers don’t like the idea of being managers, don’t want to be managers (no matter what the pay) and will, therefore do a lousy job at it. The ones who do well at it, often are sneered at by their compatriots as folks who couldn’t make it as an actual engineer. Finding an engineer who can manage well, and has the respect of his peers is like the guy with the beard and the lantern looking for an honest man. Most companies make do with what they find and wonder why things blow up after awhile. I don’t know all the answers, but I do know if I had a pretty good engineer who could also manage, it would be worth a bit of training. Send him to some week long classes on management theory and such. It’s a situation where just trying to hire the right candidate probably isn’t going to help, you need to build him on your own. You will probably loose him after the training (or within a few years) because HR will not keep up on salary, but that is a whole ‘nuther issue…

Safety Tech warnings in Indradrive using Safety Technology

With the Indradrive product, you get a whole new range of error reporting (as evidenced by the 5 digit error codes, one more than the earlier Diax04 product). Some of these errors are the same (F8022 is the same as F822 in Diax04 and 22 in Diax02, it’s always the feedback cable), some of these errors are more granular than before. Sometimes there is a whole new class of error.  Safety warnings are part of this new class. E3xxx series errors have to do with Safety Technology add-ons to the drives, options that allow the use of more positive safety control. Some of these errors show that there is a problem in the external safety wiring (E3100 is an example of this) or a problem in the safety hardware itself. These errors have to be approached with some caution, as this falls into the same class of problems as an Estop failure, something that must be resolved properly for the safe operation of the machine.

Proper repair of these units is also critical. Compare the cost of an injury with the cost savings from using a 3rd party repair shop, the choice will be clear.

Third party repairs again

So after the dust has settled a bit on a customer, let me tell you about their problems, relating to improper installation of a regenerative power supply and a third party repair of a motor. Get a call a few months ago for a regenerative style power supply. Talk to the customer a bit and they had a raft of F860 faults before the power supply finally gave up. F860 is a short, either in the drive, the motor power cable or the motor. They were worried about just putting in a power supply, and I was too, but they meggered out the motor and cable and everything looked ok. Power supply in and they started running just fine. For a month. Then the drive blows. At this point I hear the story of the third party repair of the motor, but they will not hear of sending the motor out to have it checked as it was done by a local shop that “they have good luck with”. So, we send them a drive. It will not start as it is getting a F860 constantly. We send them new cables, and tell them they should get the motor checked again. New cables are installed, they run about a day and then blow out the drive and power supply. So we send everything in for repair and eval, including the motor. For the motor, freshly “Repaired” we get…


– Physical condition: Fair condition, Output shaft has light grooved damage.
– Pre-repair assessment: Thermo check is within Bosch Rexroth specification, HiPot test passed,
Winding test passed, EMK test passed, brake test failed.
– Operational Test: Failed, Encoder give out 89 fault and 22 fault.
– Disassembled the motor for visual inspection and found that Front beairng is severely worn out,
Bearing cup race is worn, Encoder is severely worn out and contaminated with dust. Rear bearing
and brake are worn out. Brake is overheated. Brake resistor is missing. The cooling fan has been
modified, Instead of cooling fan blowing the cool air to the motor, it instead it is pulling the air out.

So the “repaired” motor needed – Replaced: Front and Rear bearings, Brake, Front flange, End shield, Encoder, Supporting disc, Shim, Rotary shaft lip, Shim ring, O-Rings, Brake pins, Brake
connector and resistor, Cooling fan.

The interesting thing is that this didn’t even fix the problem. We had one more iteration to go before noticing that this motor was of a date code that had extended windings which required a different end plate. That was listed per serial number and was only something the manufacturer of the motor would have had (along with the special extended plate).

End result, customer down 4 weeks because of a badly repaired motor. The money they saved on the first repair was pointless, as it had to come back in for repair.

The Importance of Airports in Small Towns

I spent yesterday training back up on instrument flying. It is a Sisyphean task, especially in the Midwest. I have been instrument rated for about 12 years. Of that 12 years, 6 of them have seen the plane down,  and most of the rest have been working back up to “comfortable” with instrument flying after an extended period out of the clouds.

My current instrument instructor is also a lawyer (no, really, he is a nice guy), and a graduate of the most excellent OSU aviation program. He has a very good “real world” attitude about flying, he was the first instructor who has us do at least one approach on full automation (and one with all the movie screens turned off) that I have had. Instructors are very much a personal flavor. I have had some really good ones, and some really bad ones. I fly over an hour to train with this guy, just because he and I mesh well. Stay with me, we are getting to the point…

I typically meet up with him in Hope, AR, at airport M18. Hope is a relatively small Arkansas town, mostly famous for being the childhood home of Bill Clinton, and the place (on the airport) where they stored all the FEMA trailers at one point. The airport is a ex-WWII military facility and has the possibility of being quite nice given a bit of attention from the city. Instead, it looks about like what it is, a neglected piece of infrastructure, that the city is making money off of renting one runway out for storage. The runway markings are unreadable, and the runways themselves are in need of attention. In a town of 10k people, in need of additional business injection, that is very nearly unforgivable, considering how much money the airport has and could bring in.

On our flight, we landed at Magnolia (KAGO).  Magnolia is also a 10,000 pop town, but is a completely different town than Hope. There are several small and medium businesses in Magnolia, the town is quite dynamic, and the airport reflects this. There are about 10 hangars, mostly new. The runway is freshly repaved and marked, there is an AWOS II being put in and the fuel is working and reasonably priced. The terminal buildings are fresh and in very good shape. Altogether, it is the type of place that if you were on a quick trip around several towns, in search of a place to locate a business,  you would remember. It’s a showplace for the town, and the first step to luring business into town.

A good airport will always help support a town. A bad airport is barely better than no airport at all. You look at Hope, and you see a town that has given up. You look at Magnolia, and you see a town that is working hard at getting to the next step, whatever that is.

I know where I would want to live…



Shoelace Length, and solutions

I walk about 4 miles a day on a treadmill (actually a walking desk, an amazing invention. Look it up, it will change your life). For a FAA 170 lb human, shoes are supposed to last about 400 miles. As you get heavier, the mileage you can get out of a shoe drops off substantially. Since the FAA considers me ~1.5 human, my shoe mileage runs about 300 or so miles, meaning I am getting a new pair of shoes about every 3 months. That’s not actually too bad, before my knee replacement (aviation injury, but not nearly as sexy as it sounds) I was walking 10 miles a day and blowing through a new pair every month. I use NB shoes exclusively, besides the company’s attempt at keeping things American made (or at least designed), they have a better selection of widths, and fit better. Bad shoes for distance walking, running or whatever are murder on your feet. I also wear Injinji “toe socks” to keep my toes from blistering each other. But, I digress.

The last couple of pair of NB shoes I have purchased have seemingly had shorter and shorter shoelaces. This is not just an opinion, I pulled one old set and compared them to the new ones. I am not sure if NB is getting shorted by a supplier, decided that they could save a penny or two per hundred shoes or just ran out of longer laces, but the laces supplied with the shoes are no longer usable for me as supplied. I bought a couple of new sets of laces, but then came on a better solution.

On the Internet, there is everything. For people who want to look, you can find recipes, cars, and sites specifically devoted to lacing shoes. My solution to the NB problem is to switch them to straight bar lacing, a method that allows for 28% longer lace ends. With the shorter shoelaces, this comes out about right.

But I would prefer getting the right laces for the shoes.



So, how good is that Engineering School again?

As the school year starts, I think a bit of a commentary on school quality needs to be made. Schools are in a bit of a pickle these days, and not just because of rising tuition. I am familiar with a couple of schools, but let me rail on one. The school shall remain unnamed, to protect the guilty.

There are, in my opinion, only two factors in the quality of an Engineering School. The quality of the faculty, and the size of the classes. The quality of the faculty is difficult to judge from the outside, but certain assumptions can be made. Young faculty (under 30) isn’t going to have much actual experience teaching, so the students are going to get to learn while the professor does. That may not be the best environment. Watch out for a number of classes being taught by grad-students, or post docs. These can be told usually by the instructor being listed as “Dr Smith” as opposed to “Professor Smith”.  These folks are usually on their first or second class. In a reasonable environment, they will be given notes and previous tests to look at to work up their own material. The lazy ones will just take a problem from each of the previous tests, leaving people with access to previous tests (Greek Houses have extensive test files, although often not of engineering classes) with an advantage. Smart ones will take a problem from each of the previous test and make a subtle change to it, leaving people who have memorized previous tests running off a cliff like the coyote in the Road Runner cartoons.

Famous faculty is also problematic. A good friend of mine told me of his days at MIT, where he took a class with Prof. B****, of stereo fame. The only problem was he saw Prof B, one time on the first day of class, and after that, the class was taught by a post-doc. There are at least 3 professors that I know of at a Land-grant school who have paid out for teaching so they could do research. Herein lies a problem. If you took a job at a land grant school, you should know you aren’t going to be able to devote your life to research. You are gonna have to teach. If you wanted to be a researcher full time, you should have gone to Sandia or one of the other national labs. Don’t get me wrong, I have had great professors at land grant colleges. They can, however, be overwhelmed by…


You want to know how good your school is? How big is Thermodynamics I course? If the answer is under 40, you are in good shape. If the answer is under 50, you are ok if it is taught by a real Professor with tenure (hopefully). If the answer is over 50, you have a problem. If the answer is over 70, you need to find a new school, no matter who is teaching it.

So I know a land grant school, with new stadiums and a great sports history. They just scraped past ABET accreditation, so tightly that the student body knew how tight it was. The website says the average class size is 24 in one place (but says “hard to pinpoint” in another). The Thermo I class size was over 80 the last semester, taught by a first timer. If you look at education in “bang for the buck” you are getting a wet firecracker here.  What sort of bang are you getting for your buck?

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