The Rules are Changing

The Rules are Changing


By John C. Zink, Ph.D., P.gif.,

Managing Editor

Use the Right Tool for the Right Job. Most Engineers Accept This as an Obvious Statement of Good Practice.

Yet engineers are notorious for not obeying the rule. We recognize that any such rule should be modified (or ignored) if engineering analysis reveals it doesn`t apply in a particular case. Whether or not this leads us to do something foolish depends on the quality of our analysis. One engineer friend of mine, an old car hobbyist, makes fun of those of us who let expediency get in the way of proper analysis by closing all his e-mails with the tag line “Every tool is a hammer, except a screwdriver; it`s a chisel.”

Management consultants like to think they have discovered the art of analysis by urging managers to “think out of the box.” Essentially, they are saying we ought to question those “everybody knows that …” statements. Times change. Circumstances change. As a result, the rules may change. This is the “paradigm shift” we hear so much about. Maybe there is something to it.

This all came to mind as I read the account of last month`s “charge across America.” This was a Hollywood film editor`s trip from Los Angeles to Detroit in his beloved EV1, GM`s electric car. Kris Trexler drove a total distance of 3,275 miles in a car with an 80-mile range. This was, clearly, not the right vehicle for the job even though Trexler`s car actually got a bit more distance than expected out of each battery charge. But more to the point, Trexler demonstrated that his belief in the reliability, economy and environmental friendliness of electric vehicle technology was not misplaced. As better batteries come on the scene, as hybrid cars become available, the rules may change and electric cars may be entirely appropriate for a cross-country trip. Technology developments have a way of changing the rules.

Not too many years ago everybody believed that, when it comes to generating electricity, gas turbines were for peaking use only. Gradually, both the market and the technology changed so that, now, gas turbines have become the dominant technology for new generation, including base-load plants.

The same thing may be happening with distributed generation. It used to be clear that small plants could not compete with the economy of scale provided by large, central station units. But now it seems the economies that come with mass production have their own role to play. Also, new communications and control technologies make economical, unmanned operation of small, scattered power plants practical. As these and other factors come together, the landscape changes gradually–perhaps so gradually that most of us miss the big picture. But if we can judge by the big investments major companies like Allied Signal, General Electric, Westinghouse, United Technologies and others are making in small gas turbines, fuel cells, etc. there are a lot of knowledgeable people who are betting the old rules are crumbling.

I am reminded of the woman who always cut the end off a ham and threw it away before she cooked the rest. When asked why she did so, she replied that her mother always did it. When her mother was asked about the origin of that practice, she said “My roasting pan was too small, so I always had to cut the end off.”

There is a lot of thought, knowledge and experience incorporated in the conventional wisdom. But the common rules of thumb should be understood, not followed blindly. It just might be that the rules are changing. p

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