Thursday, April 28, 2011

I was at COFES, too

If you haven't gotten enough of COFES during the weekend of the event, or if you haven't gotten enough COFES with all the updates and blog posts shortly after the event, then you surely must have been waiting for my perspective.

Most of my readers are probably aware of The Congress on the Future of Engineering Software that occurs annually over an April weekend in sunny Scottsdale, AZ at the Scottsdale Plaza Resort (not the Scottsdale Resort like some shuttle drivers would insist) and hosted by Cyon Research.  If you are not familiar with the event, I highly recommend you visit their website and save me the trouble of name dropping.  I am probably one of the unique few that attend this event that is not a software vendor, component supplier, industry analyst, hardware OEM, or media.  Even though I blog about CAD and engineering, during the event I represent my employer as a user.  So while some people are there to gauge the industry or take pictures for interesting articles, I'm there to gauge where my business critical applications are heading and figure out how to position my company to best prepare for and utilize the future of engineering software.

This was my second year attending COFES.  Last year I knew a few people and got some great advice on how to get the most from COFES.  This year, I was actually able to put that advice into practice and my head is still pounding with the wealth of information I took home from the event.  Writing down four jam-packed days of information into a trip report or blog post just doesn't do justice to what actually happens at COFES, but I'm going to try anyway.

DaS Symposium
Even before COFES officially starts, there are events.  The big event that most interests me is the Design and Sustainability (DaS) Symposium.  The key takeaway from last years Symposium was the creation of the Green Keystone Alliance (GKA) containing participants of the Symposium like Sustainable Minds, Ford, and partnerships with NIBS. The purpose of the GKA is to be a central advisory panel to all of the other organizations that are trying to define sustainability. The presentations were about creating long lasting products, getting rid of designed obsolescence (like needing a new cell phone every 2 years or less), planning for the entire life cycle of a product including disposal, and creating products that use less raw materials. But, none of these concepts were able to put an economic model together. They were not able to answer the question on how companies can stay in business if they are not selling new products. Is the market (even in a non-recession) willing to pay 3 or 4 times what they pay now for a cell phone? The Symposium did, though, try to make an argument for putting “green” as part of the accounting value statement. Software vendors are trying to collect data on all environmental costs associated with a product: mining, growing, shipping, processing, packaging, all the things that use energy before the end item is actually shipped, and then how much energy is needed to dispose of said product. A new science termed LCA (Life Cycle Assessment) is being employed in many industries to try to capture this data and put a value to it. I wouldn’t be surprised if graduates start appearing with LCA degrees.

Computer Interfaces
The mouse and keyboard are dead. The physical keyboard and mouse are being replaced by virtual keyboards (like on the iPad) and visual tracking like used by the Xbox Kinect. Because of new technology like Kinect, typing in mid-air is possible on a virtual keyboard. The intelligence of auto correct is getting better (in theory at least) so typos are not a huge concern. The point here is because this change affects the physical layout of offices. Monitors will be replaced with touch screens and cameras will be everywhere.  What does that mean for the security of your work environment?

The "Cloud"
What discussion about the future of engineering software is complete without mentioned the word CLOUD?  I don't know about you, but I'm as tired hearing about this nebulous philosophy as I am hearing about green washing.  In my opinion, internet based cloud is not something I would like but knowing that computer hardware technology is also taking a chapter out of history I'm a bit more optomistic. Distributed desktop workstations are going the way of the dodo and being replaced with thin clients. Compute power is more scalable at the server level now rather than the desktop level. Running applications from the server and pushing the input and feedback across the network results in better performance than buying a faster workstation CPU or better graphics card. Compression technology makes this possible without maxing out bandwidth. Maintaining software is easier because there is only one installation to update (on the server). Performance is easier to track and when it lags, easier and cheaper to improve because only the server needs a hardware upgrade. AMD gave a great presentation on what they have available on the market today that already does this with HP hardware. And, unlike another cloud demo, AMD’s didn’t blow up because it was on local hardware, not on some amorphous server farm somewhere in the world that depended on an internet connection. But, that brings me to my second point. Microsoft is pushing their “cloud” solutions via the Azure platform. Microsoft may be the creating the new Windows killer OS. Are we ready for that infrastructure change? Just upgrading to Windows 7 is met with resistance in some corporations and industries.

Systems Modeling
One my more enjoyable aspects of COFES is the small group discussions.  I attended one hosted by Allen Behrens of Taxal Limited.  The discussion was about how modeling of physical systems is growing with each advance in computing power. No longer is a single FEA sufficient. All simulations require multi-physics. One step beyond mult-physics is systems modeling, where the results from a vibration and braking analysis in an automobile are used as inputs to the suspension system and then the suspension system design is used again in the vibration and braking analysis (and design). These are very complex interactions and very complex systems to model. The only way to model them is with mathematics (the partial differential equations kind of math). Matlab with Simulink kind of does this; Simulia kind of does this; Labview kind of does this. The solution to the problem of systems modeling is creating a library of domain-specific functions so each engineer doesn’t have to reinvent the math (aka wheel) for each analysis. Modelica is a solution provider trying to do just that in an open environment. This is a software tool that is definitely worth watching.

If you can't attend COFES, at least try to keep up with the tweets, blog posts, and other media in order to find out what happens there.  Not all of COFES will apply to you, but what does apply is undoubtedly beneficial for future proofing your organization.  There are more topics discussed at COFES that I hope to blog about specifically in the near future.

Links to more COFES 2011 info:
twitter hashtag #cofes2011
Siemens PLM Blog post

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Announcement: Moving Domains

No, not this domain.  For the time being I do plan on keeping this blogger site just the way it is.  I moved my personal business domain.

When I started the business, and the domain, my preferred .com domain was not available and I really liked the option of the .pro domain.  The problem was that you were required to get a third level domain ( before you could reserve the second level domain (.pro).  The third level domain is very expensive.  For one, the registrar verifies that you really are a licensed professional.  Also, the third level domain came with some nice benefits, like free SSL certificates.  And, I got a discount on the domain through professional societies.

Well, those discounts have disappeared and the SSL certificate no longer comes with the domain.  All I'm getting now is a really expensive domain name.  Recent changes to the .pro registration policy allows for professionals to self-certify second level domains.  That means we can have the second level domain without a third level domain.  So that's what I'm doing. is set to expire. is my new domain.
My personal business email address also has the new domain (remove the .eng from the existing email address).

Please be sure to update your contact info you have my personal business email address and feel free to stop by the new domain and check out the website.  New content forthcoming.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Next Asbestos

Thinking back about posts I made regarding taking shortcuts or letting your critical thinking skills take a back seat, I've come to the realization that engineers are letting social pressures determine right from wrong more so than ethics and morals.  This is a disturbing trend if true.  Maybe it is due to the incredibly good job engineers do of making it look easy that the lack of prestige is making us lax in our profession.  I hinted that engineers are letting others define their abilities based on "requirements" to follow standards instead of using their own aptitudes to design a safe, reliable solution.

But in the context of those posts that were referring to GREEN standards, I thought of a possible shortcoming based on our own shortsightedness.  It is not a problem we can resolve, it is only human nature, and therefore deserves some discussion.

Lung Tissue with Asbestos Tumors
Historical Perspective
Consider an engineer or architect in the late 19th century.  The customer is demanding better efficiency and lower cost of ownership.  You, the engineer, look up the equivalent of matweb for a material that is inexpensive but has great sound proofing; suitable strength; and resistance to heat, electrical, and chemical damage.  You come across this cutting edge additive called asbestos.  It's naturally occurring, so it must have limited health risks.  It can be mixed with cement for structural applications.  It can be woven into fabric for wrapping pipes or hanging sheets.  It can be cast or processed into ceiling tiles, floor tiles, and even shingles.  This is a magical multipurpose material.  It is not until decades later that we realize the harm asbestos can do to lung tissue.

And now we live in a similar age.

Space Age Additives
I'm that engineer.  When I bought the house I'm currently living in, I really needed to repaint some of the rooms.  I heard about this nanoscale ceramic bead paint additive used by NASA to help insulate the space station.  It was reasonably affordable and would save me plenty of money in my energy bills, especially in the hot Arizona summer.

I bought some in bulk and mixed it in with the paint.  I even put it in the paint I was using for the ceiling, since that surface was adjacent to the attic and a large source of heat transfer.  Painting the inside of the house in August, I could literally feel a difference (when painting the ceiling) between the areas I had painted and the areas left to paint.  The areas coated with the additive were noticeably cooler.  When I get my comparison statement from the electric company, my energy usage is always significantly lower than the average home my size.  Although my family makes a very conscious effort to minimize our usage, I am from Wisconsin and don't take well to the heat, so there are times when we don't necessarily conserve as much as others.  Therefore, conservation can't be the only reason my energy rates remain below average.  But, since I painted the house right when I moved in, I don't have any numbers of the house prior to painting to know for certain.

None the less, my house is 10 years old and due for a fresh coat of paint on the outside.  I have every intention of using this additive again.  Afterall, with that level of savings from only a few rooms painted, imagine the savings with the entire house painted.  Not to mention, the additive is only 30% efficient insulating conductive heat transfer (inside walls).  It is 90% efficient at insulating radiative heat transfer (outside walls).

The Downside
Much like asbestos, there is reason to believe that these nano technologies may pose a serious long term health risk.  It is well known that benign materials take on unhealthy side effects when made smaller (and more easily absorbed into the body).  Although the additive I used is completely neutral when in the paint, there are warnings on the packaging about not breathing it in raw form.  So then, what about when he house gets remodeled.  Or what about when a microburst takes out a piece of the house.  Either way, someone will have to clean up the mess - a mess that may contain exposed nanomaterial.  Does my house all of a sudden turn into a hazardous waste site?  Am I responsible for remediation?

Much like asbestos in the late 19th century, it is too early to tell.  With the information and knowledge we currently have, there is no risk and the savings (monetarily and environmentally) is too great to pass up.  Perhaps in the future we'll know more and can make a better informed decision.  For the time being, this engineer is going to use his own brain and not wait for the government to develop a standard on its use.  The benefits out way the risks.

Concluding Remarks
These are the types of decisions we get paid for.  Engineers are supposed to use their education and experience to make decisions just like this.  We rarely have all the information.  Use of good judgement is required to fill in the blanks to make the best decision at the time.  Why delay the benefits of new technology while some administrative board determines policy?