Complexity is the Nature of Technology Growth – Part One: The Non-SSL Perspective

Posted: December 11, 2013 in General Commentary
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I’ve gone around in circles over the expanding complexity we find ourselves in. While I understand the benefits we enjoy, it comes at the price of elevating product beyond the understanding and serviceability of a growing number of end users. At least that’s what I once thought. In deeper reflection, the reality is most end users don’t understand how things work at the less complex level, so any elevation from that has little real impact. For example, the internal combustion engine has been around for a century. The percentage of the population that drives cars, who understand the fundamental principles of this technology is probably on the order of 25%. Of those, what percentage understand the basics of fuel injection? Of those, how many can explain why the engine in a modern day Corvette can generate 50% more power of the 1972 426 Chrysler Hemi, using 70% less fuel, generating 97% less emissions, and last 3 times as long? While there is a romantic notion that previous eras were simpler, that products were hand made and tougher than they are today, these are unsupported fantasies. Old products are almost always heavier, lower performing, and requiring of more regular service.

The ultimate in old School. All iron, 130HP, heavy, but simple as a nail.

The ultimate in old school. All iron, 130HP, heavy, but simple as a nail.

Old-school romantics miss two significant points. First, old technologies were thicker, heavier and appear to be stronger, because metal sciences until the 1950’s required it. Cast iron cracks and bends under stress, so parts cast from this ancient metal are necessarily heavy. This is why an engine built in 1940 weighed 700 pounds and made just 130 horsepower. Today, modern aluminum, steel and titanium alloys are not only lighter, they are stronger, producing engines weighing just 200 pounds, delivering 500 horsepower. In Formula One, a 2.4L V8 weighs under 140 pounds, but delivers over 700 horsepower.The second point missed is that technology delivers capabilities to individuals that would otherwise be out of reach. Here’s what I mean by that:

I have an old lathe. It was built in 1967 by South Bend, and is a wonderfully useful machine. It is made from cast iron, and has led a long hard life. I love working with it. However, what really elevates it in usefulness is the addition of a modern DRO system that provides me precise digital readings as to the position of the tool in relation to the work-piece. While old school machinists are expert at calculating the turn of little knobs, and “feeling” which side of the decidedly large tick marks on the dials controlling the cross slide, and using stops and other methods to move the carriage along the bed – the DRO (Digital Read Out) display tells me within 0.0001″ where the tool is – at a glance. Further, while this is a great improvement, the CNC mill sitting next to this modernized lathe kicks its butt for both accuracy and ease of use. For the CNC machine, I take a drawing from SolidWorks, feed it through a tool assignment and path program, open the file in the mill, mount a block of material on the bed, and make the part. No measuring or guessing, just thrown shavings until the part I saw on the screen is in my hands. While not super simple, I do know that cutting the same parts on an old school manual machine would not be possible for me. I have not idea how some of the machinists of the manual era cut some of the shapes I can now do without the many years they invested in learning that skill. Even further, I have a 3D printer that is even simpler to operate. It very quickly takes 3D files and turns them into solid plastic parts I can use to test ideas, or put into use. This machine is capable of making parts that cannot be made in any other process. In other words, technology delivers to me a level of part creation that would otherwise be out of my reach. By out of reach, I mean I can make parts that are so far beyond my skill set using manual equipment, that I would be unable to attain what I do if they were not available.  You can see this in quality graphics created in software by individuals with little or no art training, and quality photos and videos using equipment that enhances non-photographer capabilities.

I have heard comments made by those who believe we are being imprisoned by technology. I contend that technology delivers liberation from having to invest in training, apprentice programs, and the hiring of specialists to realize quality results. When properly applied, technologies bring a higher level or performance, at a lower cost in less time. There is nothing imprisoning about this. Without this, I would be imprisoned by the most precious commodity of all – time. If I were forced to hand make everything I needed to get my work done, I would be far less productive, and deliver a lower quality product. This would mean I could only charge a fraction of what I do, thus would suffer a reduction in standard of living. I’m as romantic and nostalgic as any other 55 year old on this planet. I like old cars and classic artifacts. What I like more is having a lifestyle, the time, and the resources to entertain that nostalgia. That is made possible by use of technologies that set those wonderful things aside for what they are – history.

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