Can Elon Musk Get SolarCity’s Gigafactory Back On Track?

Elon Musk clearly has a blind spot about manufacturing. Building a giant factory for the first use of a new process does not work, and theoretically it cannot work. Even if it did work, it would be non-competitive. Once a factory is built and machines installed, subsequent new discoveries/knowledge cannot be incorporated, except at the margins.

To reach the 100-megawatt goal, sources indicate that the pilot production line in Fremont would eventually need to yield between 800 to 1,000 high-efficiency Whitney panels per day. But the team was not able to automate the process consistently enough to produce more than dozens of Whitney panels per day, according to people familiar with the matter. Most of the production resulted in “scrap,” they say. “The big problem was simply that they couldn’t scale up the technology to the point where you could run it in a factory,” a source familiar with the development explains.

Source: Can Elon Musk Get SolarCity’s Gigafactory Back On Track?

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Art to Science: in making whiskey barrels

Whiskey is aged in oak barrels, and oak wood is highly variable. But barrel-making can still become much more scientific.

“Twenty-five years ago, it was more art than science. Now we have a healthy dose of science in with the art.” Larry Combs, the general manager for Jack Daniel’s

Recently, the two companies completed the decade-long Single Oak Project, in which they made 192 barrels, each using the wood from a single log, to find what constituted the “perfect” bourbon. (Among other things, they found that wood from the bottom of a tree made for the best aging.). Computers track each stave as it moves through assembly, while sensors analyze staves for density and moisture content. Instead of guessing how much to toast a barrel, operators use lasers and infrared cameras to monitor the temperature of the wood and the precise chemical signature that the heat coaxes to the surface — all subject to the customer’s desired flavor profile.“They’ve developed technologies so that if we say we want coconut flavors, they can apply this or that process” — like applying precise amounts of heat to different parts of the wood to tease out certain flavors — “and we’ll have it,” said Charles de Pottere, the director of production and planning at Jackson Family Wines…

… Black Swan makes barrels with a honeycomb design etched on the inside, which increases surface area and reduces a whiskey’s aging time.

Their approach: learn by experimentation, and use the new knowledge for tight process control. Same approach as machining, aviation, …. And this is a 400+ year old industry. Now I just need a word that’s better than “science” to describe this approach. (See my previous post.)

Last comment: according to the article, one of the main forces driving willingness to learn was competition from superior French barrels.

Source: Packing Technology Into the Timeless Barrel – The New York Times

Hospital Hand-Washing – how long should it take?

There is a large literature on the importance of frequent hand washing in hospitals, to prevent spreading infectious diseases among patients. It’s a major problem, since hospital-caused infections are growing, and have nasty effects.image5b135d

Brad Stats recently sent me two papers he co-authored on the topic. Both are based on an analysis of  behavior by 4100 caregivers. They led me to ask two sets of questions. First, if everyone did comply with the recommendations on hand-washing frequency and duration, how much time would it take out of their work day? Second, while there have been lots of projects using  electronics for monitoring compliance, has there been any work on straightforward manufacturing-style interventions to make compliance easier?

Here are my questions in more detail, taken from an email to Brad.

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Art and science of baseball bats

Shattering bats are dangerous for both the players and the fans. Why do bats shatter? Why did the incidence jump? 

Source: The Reason Baseball Bats Break Is More Complicated Than You Think Gizmodo, which  pulled the story from YouTube’s Practical Engineer.

Comment: In terms of technological knowledge, the shift from ash to maple wood for bats made some of the manufacturing and hitting knowledge obsolete. It took an MLB study to identify the problem. The solution was to adjust a seemingly minor design decision — the direction they place their logo. The intermediate causal variables were the different grain structures of the two woods.

Recently, bat-makers have started rotating their logos by 90 degrees on maple bats, as well as marking the grain on the handles. Bat breaks have gone down about 50 percent as a result

The Hardware Startup Valley of Death — Bolt Blog — Medium

An interesting short article by Chris Quintero, about what goes wrong when hardware startups are ready to start selling actual production units.  The company faces simultaneous “manufacturing hell” and “fundraising hell.”

My response: It’s a good analysis, but it’s symptomatic of the problem that the author does not include a single recommendation about manufacturing.

Manufacturing 1000 units is a whole different world than making 10, and I’ve seen many idealistic startups founder because the team thinks they can outsource all the manufacturing issues (and, to the least expensive contract manufacturer). Not understanding tolerances and not designing for manufacturability, for example, cause months of delay, that eat cash needlessly and often fatally. But some startup teams don’t have this expertise. If you are in that situation, work with an appropriate US-based partner such as (No affiliation except that one founder is a former student of mine.)

Source: The Hardware Startup Valley of Death — Bolt Blog — Medium

You can guess that this author knows mainly about finance and marketing. Classic MBA profile!  (I don’t know CQ and don’t know his background.)

The amazing story of Apple’s chips

With the new A9 and A9X chips in its iPhones and iPads, Apple has mobile chips that are better than Intel’s. In fact Apple’s chip business is a very impressive technology story. I don’t have time to put together a full analysis, but I have collected some recent articles. figure-2

Many sources are suggesting that Apple’s current chip generation (A9 and A9X) is better than Intel’s in low-power (mobile) performance. I guess it’s not news that Intel is behind Qualcomm in mobile, but I still find it surprising that Apple’s own chips are apparently better than X86 for Macintosh low-end laptops!

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