Staying on Top of Change

By Catherine
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By Catherine Bolgar

 

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Just as humans develop from a single cell and end up with some 13 trillion cells by the time they’re born nine months later, so too do products start with a concept or definition—essentially a single data point.

Whether that definition is expressed as a design on paper or digitally, it represents data, explains Callum Kidd, lecturer and leading configuration management researcher at the University of Manchester, U.K. The data then evolves, matures, is iterated and eventually becomes a defined configuration, which is a collection of more data. That process turns out a product whose use, maintenance, quality and lifecycle may be monitored, generating still more data.

We have created a digital world and [have] become more and more adept at creating data. But we haven’t created awareness of managing data, from creation to disposal,” Mr. Kidd says.

Just as in the single-cell example above, “We create life in data from day one, not by adding in something along the way. True, nature has taken millions of years to perfect this, but we need to learn lessons faster if we are to manage products and systems through life effectively.”

86661501_thumbnailKeeping track of this process can be mind-boggling, due to the many changes along the way—and especially when it involves many partners, suppliers and sub-tier suppliers. This is where configuration management enters the scene.

Configuration management is how we define a configuration, which is essentially data at some level of maturity,” he says. “By evolving that data, and managing changes to it reflecting the evolution of its definition, we create physical structures, or systems. These, however, are just data represented in a physical form. Essentially, we manage [product] design and [product] definition data through life. The validated physical representation is merely proof that the data was valid.

Configuration management is like just-in-time [manufacturing] for data,” he adds. “It gets the right data in the right format to the right people at the right time.”

Configuration management is closely linked with product lifecycle management, or PLM, which follows a product from concept to disposal. But “that’s a one-dimensional, linear view of the world,” Mr. Kidd says. “In reality, we share information backward and well as forward.”

Taking the aerospace industry as an example, “it’s highly possible that due to complex work-share arrangements, we could be managing changes in the design, manufacture and support phases of the life cycle concurrently,” Mr. Kidd says. “This adds considerable complexity in managing the status of data at any point in time. We need to know exactly what we have if we are to manage changes to that data effectively. That is one of our greatest challenges in a modern business environment.”

A survey of more than 500 companies last year, Aberdeen Group, a technology, analytics and research firm based in Waltham, Massachusetts, found that for many companies configuration management remains a manual, handwritten process. Aberdeen separated the companies into “leaders” and “followers,” and found that only 54% of leaders and a mere 37% of followers had automated or digital change management.

Yet, keeping track of frequent engineering changes during the development process is the top challenge, cited by 38% of companies. Among industrial equipment manufacturers, 46% named frequent engineering changes as their biggest challenge.

Changes are amplified by the increased complexity of products themselves. In another report, published in 2015, Aberdeen found a 13.4% increase in the number of mechanical components, a 19.6% climb in the number of electrical components and a 34.4% rise in lines of software code over the previous two years.

“Especially for industrial equipment manufacturers, products are getting more complex and customizable,” says Nick Castellina, vice president and research group director at Aberdeen Group. “Configuration management helps manage the flow of all that data and the lifecycle and needs of the shop floor. It centralizes all the visibility into the needs of each new product being built and how that interacts with any materials you’re trying to get at any stage.”

Visibility is important, because “sometimes it’s the minutest of things that can cause the biggest failures of all,” Mr. Kidd says. Automated configuration management not only ensures that all changes are recorded, along with the reasoning behind them, but also serves as a record in the future of every decision that was made in respect of a configuration’s life.

Businesspeople working togetherChange boards, which gather the relevant stakeholders, are the primary mechanism for approving change in configuration management. These boards are dealing with greater volume of change and complexity of the impact. That’s why “every piece of information in that room is retained and digitized. Notes that somebody makes but doesn’t communicate may be relevant,” Mr. Kidd says. Even emails are archived.

“We live in a litigious society,” he says. “Configuration management can prove you did the right thing, even if in the future a decision is called into question. You can show you made decisions based on the best possible information, and in the knowledge that you understood the status of the configuration at that point—in short, proving that you took due diligence in the process.”

 

Catherine Bolgar is a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe, now working as a freelance writer and editor with WSJ. Custom Studios in EMEA. For more from Catherine Bolgar, along with other industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion on LinkedIn.

Photos courtesy of iStock

MIT’s experimental 3D-printed sneaker shape-shifts to your foot

By Alyssa
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Byline: Marc Bain

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At the moment, 3D printing is still mostly about experimentation. While it hasn’t quite taken off to revolutionize the way consumer products are made just yet, it does offer a lot of exciting, innovative ideas, especially in the realm of sneakers.

MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab, a group focused on research into “active” materials, is working in collaboration with product designers Christophe Guberan and Carlo Clopath on one of the most unique footwear possibilities involving 3D printing: It’s a shoe that can be “programmed” to match the contours of your foot.

Their Minimal Shoe, as they’ve dubbed it, is created in a unique process. They stretch out a textile and then 3D-print lines of plastic in varying layers and thicknesses on it—essentially, the structure of the shoe-to-be. Next they cut out the portions of the textile they want. Released from the original stretch, the textile will “jump” into a new shape according to the arrangement of the 3D-printed lines left on it. Hypothetically, you could either custom print a shoe for each wearer with just a few lines of extruded plastic, or you could make a nearly one-size-fits-all shoe, since the stretchy textile will conform to any given shape.

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Skylar Tibbits, one of the directors of the lab and a research scientist in MIT’s architecture department, tells Quartz they’re investigating both possibilities, and that the “morphability” of the textile could make for a more comfortable and adaptable type of performance footwear.

The whole shoe wouldn’t have to be created with this method either. Just the upper could be, or portions of it, and then it could be attached to a more traditional sole. It’s also relatively easy to make, compared to 3D printing an entire sneaker.

“Imagine using active materials to produce one-size-fits-all shoes, adaptive fit, and self-forming manufacturing processes,” a statement by the lab says. “This technique would radically transform the production of footwear forever.

Although the shoe is still a work in progress, Tibbits told The Creator’s Project that a large sportswear company is currently interested in the process, though he isn’t certain what might come of it.

Actually, of all the consumer-goods industries exploring uses of 3D printing and customizable textiles, sneaker makers could well be among the first to bring products to a mass market. Adidas has already introduced a 3D-printed midsole that could give every customer the perfect fit, and Nike’s COO recently expressed his confidence that we’ll soon be able to 3D-print Nike sneakers at home or the nearby Nike store. Both have also shown an interest in finding new ways of manufacturing lightweight textiles that can stretch and contour to the wearer’s foot, as in the knit uppers that have been so popular for both.

The Self-Assembly Lab is working on other projects too, including materials that can transform in response to outside stimuli. So, for instance, something like sneaker laces that could tighten from heat or the energy of a small battery. Currently it’s collaborating with Airbus on creating a dynamic carbon-fiber component for the company’s airplane engines.

The Minimal Shoe in particular came about when the lab received an invite to design footwear for the “Life on Foot” exhibition at the Design Museum in London.

To discuss this and other topics about the future of technology, finance, life sciences and more, join the Future Realities discussion on LinkedIn.

Greening the Link Between Land and Sea

By Catherine
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Cargo Ship APL TOURMALINE arriving at the Port of Oakland
By Catherine Bolgar

With container-port traffic having more than tripled since 2000, and today’s world container trade expected to double by 2024, ports have become important industrial centers, as well as flashpoints for environmental concerns. Regulations and technology are combining to help ports be greener.

When a port invests in green technology, it is not only good for the environment but also good for themselves, because it can make unit operating costs go down in the long run,” says Vinh Thai, senior lecturer at the School of Business IT and Logistics at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia.

As the link between land and sea, ports affect not just terrestrial and marine habitats, but also such environmental aspects as air quality and noise, especially for the often-large cities next to them.

“During the loading and unloading of petroleum products, a release can occur with consequent damage to the ecosystem,” says Rosa Mari Darbra, associate professor of chemical and industrial engineering at Polytechnic University of Catalonia in Barcelona. “The noise of the port, which works 24 hours every day, may generate disturbance and even anxiety to the surrounding population. The storage of solid bulk, such as coal, can generate particles. If they are not properly protected, they may affect the respiratory systems of citizens, especially children and old people.”

The International Maritime Organization adopted the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, or Marpol, in 1973. It aims to prevent, among other things, fuel spills with design measures such as double hulls, and prohibits dumping sewage near land. It also requires ports to be able to accept waste from ships and either recycle or treat it appropriately on land, either at the port itself or elsewhere.

In order to facilitate ships’ delivery of waste at port, Spain in 2010 established a flat rate for waste-handling, Dr. Darbra says. Even if this measure has increased work for ports, the aim is to encourage ships to be greener.

Cargo shipAir pollution has been tamed around ports in the North Sea, Baltic Sea and North America by requiring ships to switch to low-sulfur fuel when entering designated coastal areas. Some ports, such as Rotterdam, offer discounted fees to ships that can show low emissions, Dr. Thai says.

Similarly, Hong Kong and Singapore reduce port fees for vessels that switch to cleaner fuel while at berth. Nine of the world’s top 10 busiest ports are in Asia, and the ports with the highest emission levels from shipping also are in Asia: Singapore, Hong Kong, Tianjin, China, and Port Klang, Malaysia.

Ports also are cutting emissions by encouraging ships to shut down their engines while at berth and switch to onshore power systems. These power generators usually burn fuel that’s cleaner than the bunker fuel used by ships. However, the challenges are providing enough power and connectivity. “Sometimes the electrical plugs and sockets aren’t the same between countries—the voltage isn’t the same,” Dr. Thai says.

Similarly, ports can switch to cargo-handling equipment such as cranes that run on electricity instead of diesel, he adds. Even warehouses can be greener if designed to use natural light instead of electricity whenever possible.

Greater efficiency does reduce harmful emissions. “In high-traffic ports, the congestion from vessels idling for long periods of time significantly increases pollution levels. This is responsible for excessive pollution, producing greater greenhouse-gas effects when productivity does not increase equally with efficiency. It’s a vicious circle,” says Jaime Ortiz, vice provost for global strategies and studies at the University of Houston. “Economically it’s not good either, as pollution shortens the lifespans of the vessels, the cargo on board and the people working on the ships.”

forklift handling container box loading to freight trainThe design of land transportation also affects ports’ sustainability. The use of trucks to transport the cargo from the port to the hinterland involves highway congestion and pollution, Dr. Darbra says. If a maximum amount of cargo were shifted to rail, it would bring important reductions in pollution. Two other competitive solutions are short sea shipping and inland waterways.

“These three measures could improve the environmental sustainability of seaports a lot,” Dr. Darbra says. “They could help decongest traffic at seaports.”

Inland vessels have less capacity than ocean-going ships, but can carry far more cargo than trucks. Goods could travel with less pollution by inland waterways to logistical centers closer to their destination, before being shifted to trucks for just the last, short leg. Inland waterways “give more power to the logistic chain,” Dr. Darbra says.

 

Catherine Bolgar is a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe, now working as a freelance writer and editor with WSJ. Custom Studios in EMEA. For more from Catherine Bolgar, along with other industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion on LinkedIn.

Photos courtesy of iStock



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