Jimmy Neutron meets the Woz

Dick Morley, father of the modern PLC, believes a renaissance in industry technology will be the thrust for the next several decades. Will we, the control engineering geeks, be ready for simple innovations in the Age of Invention?

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 By Dick Morley

J

ames  Isaac Neutron is the hero of a popular animated television series on Nickelodeon. A feature film titled "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius" was nominated for an Oscar. Jimmy will also be an attraction at Universal Studios in Florida, replacing the Hanna-Barbara ride. And I am a fan.

I first met Jimmy cruising the satellite TV while recovering from knee surgery. Whizzing by the Nickelodeon channel, I saw Jimmy in his pre-puberty classroom. The classroom blackboard had on it some math and vocabulary lessons. These blackboard items were sophisticated and correctly presented--most surprising. “This can’t be a kids  cartoon,” thought I. I looked, hesitated and was hooked.

           

 


 

"What do you make here?" cynically asked the visitor. "Eighteen percent," was the answer.

 


 

 

What has this to do with this magazine? We are control geeks, not kids. Oh no? Jimmy tries to control his town, Retroville, with his high-tech genius. His purpose in life is to avoid simplicity and pile on the gadgets. In one of the TV spots Jimmy’s mother wants him to hang up his pants. Jimmy spends an inordinate amount of time applying nanotechnology and chaos theory to make the pants hang themselves. The now-intelligent pants start a revolution with the help of the local clothing store. So Jimmy must invent a super static cling gun to put down the revolution. After all of this adventure, Jimmy's friend, Carl, suggests that maybe it would have been simpler to hang up the pants himself like his Mom asked him to.

Engineers all over the world have a Jimmy complex. We have an outdoor spa at my wife's house, where I live. We use this spa all year round, including during the New Hampshire winter. Our winters have lots of  snow. Last year’s snow load on the spa broke the insulating cover. Me, being the engineer, gleefully launched into a redesign of the “bad” cover. The materials budget alone now exceeded the price of a new cover. My long-suffering bride suggested a PVC pipe internal to the spa as a mid-support for the cover. It took me a while to suppress my testosterone to accept her solution. But, alas, I could not leave it alone. I ended up with an adjustable PVC pipe with feet on both ends. Feature creeps everywhere. I was Jimmy Neutron with the pants.

Why did I do this? I can’t help it. My engineer DNA operates as an independent embedded software application, and I can't shut it down. I have the feeling that my DNA came out of Redmond, Washington.

Last fall, I took the cure. I attended an emerging technology conference at MIT. I even slept at the MIT hotel--an experience all by itself. The conference hosted speakers concerned about the impact of  new technology upon the business, political and economic issues. The speakers represented large companies, technologists and geeks. To name-drop but a few of the speakers: managers from GM, IBM, Xerox, 3Com and Kurzweil were the opening keynoters.

Most of the suits wanted to purchase continued corporate success with the currency of innovation. They focused upon the need for discipline, budgets and “faster, better, cheaper” systems and products; not truly disruptive thinking.

What the speakers did suggest was that the “age of invention” is coming. A renaissance in technology innovation will be the thrust for the next several decades. Will we, the control geeks, be ready? What must we do to stay out of the sandbox and participate in the cocktail party of true innovation? An answer was suggested at the MIT foray.

Steve Wozniak (the Woz), who helped shape computers by designing major portions of the Apple Computer, had some suggestions:

 

Never design anything you can’t throw away. The key to innovation is being lazy. Fewer parts means less cost. Cost reduction is a design function, not an efficiency issue. Solving problems takes more than horse power. Computers (and control systems) are defined by software. Computers are telescopes, microscopes and time machines “plus God.”
The Woz suggests that the control engineer is more than a lackey of the MBA or CFO. The idea of production and manufacturing costs being the efficient replication of poor designs is flawed. We need to think and innovate from lust to dust. Design needs to be woven into control considerations.

I am reminded of early PLC manufacturing. We were very efficient, but had low profits. We were, as IBM puts it, in “commodity hell.” Efficient and flawless, yes, but the protein of profit was missing.

A new company revisited a controller design used for buildings and substantially removed parts and basic costs compared to competition. Visitors would stand in awe watching the PLC manufacturing floor and sneer at the building control assembly.

The new company's assembly floor was a mess—with parts and other things strewn about—it had the look of a diner kitchen. “What do you make here?” cynically asked the visitor. “Eighteen percent,” was the answer. You can overcome the lack of apparent inefficiency with good high value design. We achieved one-third the cost with three times the profit.

The lesson for us is to be as old as the Woz (he says he’s eleven now) and think the whole problem. It is tough for us to sell the halls of management, but we need to do this. We need to understand the real needs of the enterprise and communicate a strong, well thought-out business case for simple designs leading to simple factories.


Don’t let today overwhelm the future, KISS.

 


Commonly credited with creating both the modern PLC and building automation control system, Dick Morley quit working so he could wear t-shirts and ride his Hawg, or go skiing on Thursdays, depending on how he tells the story. He lives in Shirley’s house and works in a barn in New Hampshire. Contact him at morley@barn.org.
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