Posts about engineers

Electric Wind

photo of William Kamkwamba on his windmillphoto of William Kamkwamba on his windmill from his blog.

I have written about William Kamkwamba before: Inspirational EngineerHome Engineering: Windmill for Electricity. And along with the post, Make the World Better, donated to his cause. His new book, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, is quite enjoyable and provides an interesting view of how he persevered. His talk of the famine, not being able to afford school and putting together a windmill using scrape parts and a few books from the library (donated by the American government – much better foreign aid than all the military weapons that are often counted as aid) is inspirational. And should help many sitting in luxury understand the privileged lives they lead.

“I’d become very interested in how things worked, yet never thought of this as science. In addition to radios, I’d also become fascinated by how cards worked, especially how petrol operated an engine. How does this happen? I thought? Well, that’s easy to find out – just ask someone with a car… But no one could tell me… Really how can you drive a truck and not know how it works?” (page 66)

“Using Energy, and this book has since changed my life… All I needed was a windmill, and then I could have lights. No more kerosene lamps that burned out eyes… I could stay awake at night reading instead of going to bed at seven with the rest of Malawi. But most important, a windmill could also rotate a pump for water and irrigation.” (page 158)

William set out to demonstrate his windmill for the first time to a skeptical crowd saying (page 193)

“Let’s see how crazy this boy really is.”… “Look,” someone said. “He’s made light!”… “Electric wind!” I shouted. “I told you I wasn’t mad!”

I like how the story shows how long, hard work, reading, experimenting and learning is what allowed William to success (page 194-5)

For the next month, about thirty people showed up each day to stare at the light. “How did you manage such a thing?” They asked. “Hard work and lots of research,” I’d say, trying not to sound too smug…
[to William’s father] “What an intelligent boy. Where did he get such ideas?”
“He’s been reading lots of books. Maybe from there?”
“They teach this in school?”
“He was forced to drop. He did this on his own.”
The diagram demonstrated twenty-four volts being transformed to two hundred forty. I knew voltage increased with each turn of wire. The diagram showed the primary coil to have two hundred turns, while the secondary had two thousand. A bunch of mathematical equations were below the diagram – I assumed they explained how I could make my own conversions – but instead I just wrapped like mad and hoped it would work. (page 200)
Soon I was attacking every idea with its own experiment. Over the next year, there was hardly a moment when I wasn’t planning or devising some new scheme. And though the windmill and radio transmitter had both been successes, I couldn’t say the same for a few other experiments. (page 215)

William is now attending the African Leadership Academy in South Africa, with an amazing group of classmates. See how you can support the Moving Windmills Projects.

Related: Teen’s DIY Energy Hacking Gives African Village New HopeMake the World BetterWilliam Kamkwamba on the Daily ShowWhat Kids can Learnappropriate technology

Statistics Insights for Scientists and Engineers

My father was a engineer and statistician. Along with George Box and Stu Hunter (no relation) they wrote Statistics for Experimenters (one of the potential titles had been Statistics for Engineers). They had an interest in bringing applied statistics to the work of scientists and engineers and I have that interest also. To me the key trait for applied statistics is to help experimenters learn quickly: it is an aid in the discovery process. It should not be a passive tool for analysis (which is how people often think of statistics).

José Ramírez studied applied and industrial statistics at the University of Wisconsin – Madison with my father and George Box. And now has a book and blog on taking statistics to engineers and scientists

The book is primarily written for engineers and scientists who need to use statistics and JMP to make sense of data and make sound decisions based on their analyses. This includes, for example, people working in semiconductor, automotive, chemical and aerospace industries. Other professionals in these industries who will find it valuable include quality engineers, reliability engineers, Six Sigma Black Belts and statisticians.

For those who want a reference for how to solve common problems using statistics and JMP, we walk through different case studies using a seven-step problem-solving framework, with heavy emphasis on the problem setup, interpretation, and translation of the results in the context of the problem.

For those who want to learn more about the statistical techniques and concepts, we provide a practical overview of the underpinnings and provide appropriate references. Finally, for those who want to learn how to benefit from the power of JMP, we have loaded the book with many step-by-step instructions and tips and tricks.

Related: Highlights from George Box Speech at JMP conference Nov 2009Controlled Experiments for Software SolutionsMistakes in Experimental Design and InterpretationFlorence Nightingale: The passionate statistician

Stat Insights is a blog by José and Brenda Ramírez.

Analyzing and Interpreting Continuous Data Using JMP by José and Brenda Ramírez. view chapter 1 online.

[We] have focused on making statistics both accessible and effective in helping to solve common problems found in an industrial setting. Statistical techniques are introduced not as a collection of formulas to be followed, but as a catalyst to enhance and speed up the engineering and scientific problem-solving process. Each chapter uses a 7-step problem-solving framework to make sure that the right problem is being solved with an appropriate selection of tools.

Teenage Engineer’s Company Launches Safety Stair

Young engineer launches stair aid by Geoff Adams-Spink

A young woman from Sheffield has turned a GCSE coursework project into an award-winning stair-climbing device for older and disabled people. Ruth Amos has launched her StairSteady handrail at Naidex 2008 – the annual disability exhibition in Birmingham.

She told BBC News that she was inspired to create the device for the father of one of her teachers who had had a stroke. She won an award for her idea and has now set up a company to sell it. The StairSteady is a horizontal rail at 90 degrees to the wall or banister that people can hold on to as they go up or down stairs.

The invention was then entered for the Young Engineer for Britain competition and won first prize.

Great stuff. Innovation doesn’t have to be amazing technology. Finding solutions that make people’s lives better is the key. And then showing some entrepreneurship is great, Ruth setup her company when she was 16. I wish her luck.

Related: posts on engineersEngineers Should Follow Their HeartsAutomatic Dog Washing MachineEntrepreneurial and Innovative EngineersMicrofinancing Entrepreneurs

Engineering: Cellphone Microscope

UCLA Professor Aydogan Ozcan‘s invention (LUCAS) enables rapid counting and imaging of cells without using any lenses even within a working cell phone device. He placed cells directly on the imaging sensor of a cell phone. The imaging sensor captures a holographic image of the cells containing more information than a conventional microscope. The CelloPhone received a Wireless Innovations Award from Vodafone

a wireless health monitoring technology that runs on a regular cell-phone would significantly impact the global fight against infectious diseases in resource poor settings such as in Africa, parts of India, South-East Asia and South America.

The CelloPhone Project aims to develop a transformative solution to these global challenges by providing a revolutionary optical imaging platform that will be used to specifically analyze bodily fluids within a regular cell phone. Through wide-spread use of this innovative technology, the health care services in the developing countries will significantly be improved making a real impact in the life quality and life expectancy of millions.

For most bio-medical imaging applications, directly seeing the structure of the object is of paramount importance. This conventional way of thinking has been the driving motivation for the last few decades to build better microscopes with more powerful lenses or other advanced imaging apparatus. However, for imaging and monitoring of discrete particles such as cells or bacteria, there is a much better way of imaging that relies on detection of their shadow signatures. Technically, the shadow of a micro-object can be thought as a hologram that is based on interference of diffracted beams interacting with each cell. Quite contrary to the dark shadows that we are used to seeing in the macro-world (such as our own shadow on the wall), micro-scale shadows (or transmission holograms) contain an extremely rich source of quantified information regarding the spatial features of the micro-object of interest.

By making use of this new way of thinking, unlike conventional lens based imaging approaches, LUCAS does not utilize any lenses, microscope-objectives or other bulk optical components, and it can immediately monitor an ultra-large field of view by detecting the holographic shadow of cells or bacteria of interest on a chip. The holographic diffraction pattern of each cell, when imaged under special conditions, is extremely rich in terms of spatial information related to the state of the cell or bacteria. Through advanced signal processing tools that are running at a central computer station, the unique texture of these cell/bacteria holograms will enable highly specific and accurate medical diagnostics to be performed even in resource poor settings by utilizing the existing wireless networks.

This is another great example of engineers creating technologically appropriate solutions.

Related: Better health through your cell phoneMobile Phone-based Vehicle Anti-theft SystemAppropriate Technology: Self Adjusting GlassesEngineering a Better World: Bike Corn-ShellerThe Engineer That Made Your Cat a PhotographerFreeware Wi-Fi app turns iPod into a Phone

William Kamkwamba on the Daily Show

Pointy haired bosses removed the video. Argh!

William Kamkwamba on the Daily show. I first posted about William’s great work in 2007 – Home Engineering: Windmill for Electricity. What a great example of what can be done by sharing scientific and engineering ideas with those who will make the effort to create workable solutions.

William has written a book on his life: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.

Related: Inspirational EngineerMake the World Betterposts on engineersposts on Africa

Engineer Tried to Save His Sister and Invented a Breakthrough Medical Device

Here is another remarkable example of the great benefit engineers provide society.

How a software engineer tried to save his sister and invented a breakthrough medical device

I wanted to help my sister as much as I could. I went to Medline, where there are hundreds of thousands of documents describing clinical studies, to see what I could find.

There are billions of dollars spent every year on clinical studies. I was surprised to discover that there were sometimes clinical studies of treatments for which there were no clinical applications. The trials would show successful results but no clinical applications.

I found a 1987 Italian funded set of clinical studies that showed successful treatment of tumors by the application of chemotherapy directly into the tumors. But I could find nothing since then.

It took us two years to do the engineering. And it has taken the FDA seven years and two months to approve the product for sale. We were able to shorten the FDA process a little by saying that it was similar to other devices that had already been approved.

Great stuff.

Related: Cardiac Cath Lab: Innovation on SiteSurgeon-engineer advances high-tech healingHome Engineering: Dialysis machineStoryCorps: Passion for Mechanical EngineeringEngineers Should Follow Their Hearts

1979 “iPod” Music Player

1979 music player patent application by Kane Kramer1979 music player patent drawings by Kane Kramer, from Gizmodo

Suspiciously Prescient Man Files Patent for iPod-Like Device in 1979 by Dan Nosowitz

Kane Kramer, an inventor by trade, came up with a gadget and music distribution service almost eerily similar to the iPod-iTunes relationship that predates it by three decades. The guy predicted details down to DRM and flash memory’s dominance.

Kramer’s device, the IXI, was flash-based, even though flash memory in 1979 only could have held about three minutes of audio, and featured a screen, four-way controls, and was about the size of a cigarette pack. Even weirder, he envisioned the creation and sale of digital music and foresaw all the good and bad that would come from this: No overhead, no inventory, but a great push for independent artists, with the risk of piracy looming large.

He predicted DRM, though he didn’t go into many specifics, and in his one concession to the time, guessed that music would be bought on coin-operated machines placed in high-traffic areas.

Related: Freeware Wi-Fi app turns iPod into a PhoneGoogle Patent Search Fun2008 Lemelson-MIT Prize for Invention

EngineerGirl Essay: The Cure to Vitamin D Deficiency

photo of Kate YuhasKate Yuhas, an eighth-grader at Brighton’s Scranton Middle School, Michigan. Photo courtesy Kate Yuhas.

Brighton eighth-grader rewarded for her love for science

Thirteen-year-old Kate Yuhas, who plans to be an environmental engineer someday, has loved science since she was little.

Yuhas received an honorable mention certificate from the National Academy of Engineering’s EngineerGirl! Web site Imagine That! Engineering Innovation Essay Contest for her essay on a tanning booth that helps people produce vitamin D. “My whole life I’ve been interested in science,” Yuhas said. “I really like helping the environment and eating organic.”

“Kate has a talent for science and math, and she’s won medals at Science Olympiad,” said her mom, Johanna, who coaches the team. “Kate has always had science-themed parties. My husband and I are both engineers, and we talk a lot about science at home.”

The essay contest asked participants to consider one of three images on the EngineerGirl! site and to discuss its potential purposes and functions using engineering creativity.

Read Kate’s essay: The Cure to Vitamin D Deficiency

What can help prevent MS, high blood pressure, and several autoimmune diseases? The answer to that question would be Vitamin D, which you can get in three ways: food, supplements, and the sun. 70 percent of Americans lack adequate amounts of Vitamin D. The reason is that people just don’t get enough sun. That’s why my invention would be so helpful. It is a special tanning booth that only gives out the specific amount of UVB rays, the type of UV rays that is needed to produce Vitamin D, which you need.

The Engineer Girl website has done a smart thing and posted all the essays online. It is a simple act but one so often other organizations fail to do in similar circumstances.

Related: Students Create “Disappearing” Nail PolishTinker School: Engineering CampScience for KidsBuilding minds by building robotsKids on Scientists: Before and After

Google Wave Developer Preview Webcast

Google Wave is a new tool for communication and collaboration on the web, coming later this year. The presentation was given at Google I/O 2009. The demo shows what is possible in a HTML 5 browser. They are developing this as an open access project. The creative team is lead by the creators for Google Maps (brothers Lars and Jens Rasmussen) and product manager Stephanie Hannon.

A wave is equal parts conversation and document. People can communicate and work together with richly formatted text, photos, videos, maps, and more.

A wave is shared. Any participant can reply anywhere in the message, edit the content and add participants at any point in the process. Then playback lets anyone rewind the wave to see who said what and when.

A wave is live. With live transmission as you type, participants on a wave can have faster conversations, see edits and interact with extensions in real-time.

Very cool stuff. The super easy blog interaction is great. And the user experience with notification and collaborative editing seems excellent. The playback feature to view changes seems good though that is still an area I worry about on heavily collaborative work. Hopefully they let you see like all change x person made, search changes…

They also have a very cool context sensitive spell checker that can highlight mis-spelled words that are another dictionary word but not right in the context used (about 44:30 in the webcast).

For software developer readers they also highly recommended the Google Web Development Kit, which they used heavily on this project.

Related: Joel Spolsky Webcast on Creating Social Web ResourcesRead the Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog in 35 LanguagesLarry Page and Sergey Brin Interview WebcastGoogle Should Stay True to Their Management Practices

Went Walkabout. Brought back Google Wave.
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Surgeon-engineer advances high-tech healing

Surgeon-engineer advances high-tech healing

Catherine Mohr, 40, is herself a rare creature. Part surgeon, part engineer, she designs instruments and procedures for laparoscopic, or minimally invasive, surgery as well as the surgery curriculum at Stanford University School of Medicine.

The spider – better known as the DaVinci surgical robot – was created by the Sunnyvale company Intuitive Surgical Inc., where her husband, Paul Mohr, is an engineer and she is director of medical research. She designed the special surgical instruments that attach securely to the DaVinci’s strong, wristed arms, and has helped to design the next generation of the robot.

She also designed a procedure for using the robot for gastric-bypass surgery. Her paper on the procedure was published in 2006 in Obesity Surgery, a medical journal. “Someone who needs a gastric bypass has a thick abdominal wall,” Mohr explains. “It can take months for incisions to heal, so you want to do the operation through the smallest incision you can.”

The operation is also ergonomically challenging for the surgeon. “What you’re doing inside is very challenging, and you can’t stand terribly close because these patients are so large,” she says. “It seemed to me that this was something we should do with the robot.”

The surgeon uses controllers to drive the laparoscopic instruments held by the robot, and a screen to view the action. “You don’t cut what you can’t see,” she says.

Related: Moving Closer to Robots Swimming Through BloodsteamCardiac Cath Lab: Innovation on SiteScience and Engineering Blogs

Cardiac Cath Lab: Innovation on Site

photo of Cath LabPhoto of John Cooke at the Cardiac Catheterisation Labs at St. Thomas’ hospital in London

I manage several blogs on several topics that are related. Often blog posts stay firmly in the domain of one blog of the other. Occasionally the topic blurs the lines between the various blogs (which I like). This post ties directly to my Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog. The management principles I believe in are very similar to engineering principles (no surprise given this blog). And actual observation in situ is important – to understand fully the situation and what would be helpful. Management relying on reports instead of seeing things in action results in many poor decisions. And engineers doing so also results in poor decisions.

Getting to Gemba – a day in the Cardiac Cath Lab by John Cooke

I firmly believe that it is impossible to innovate effectively without a clear understanding of the context and usage of your final innovation. Ideally, I like to “go to gemba“, otherwise known as the place where the problem exists, so I can dig for tacit knowledge and observe unconscious behaviours.

I didn’t disgrace myself and I’ve been invited back for another day or so. What did I learn that I didn’t know before? The key things I learnt were:

  • the guide wire isn’t just a means of steering the catheter into place as I thought. It is a functional tool in it’s own right
  • Feel is really critical to the cardiologist
  • There is a huge benefit in speeding up procedures in terms of patient wellbeing and lab efficiency
  • Current catheter systems lack the level of detection capability and controllability needed for some more complex PCIs (Percutaneous Cardiac Interventions)

The whole experience reminded me that in terms of innovation getting to gemba is critical. When was the last time you saw your products in use up-close and personal?

Related: Jeff Bezos Spends a Week Working in Amazon’s Kentucky Distribution CenterToyota Engineering Development ProcessMarissa Mayer on Innovation at GoogleBe Careful What You MeasureS&P 500 CEOs are Often Engineering GraduatesExperiment Quickly and Often

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