In the Loop: When all else fails - Part 1

June 1, 2004
You will find in this issue, on page 46, a tribute to Nobel Prize winners who made their mark in physics from 1901 to 1950

You will find in this issue, on page 46, a tribute to Nobel Prize winners who made their mark in physics from 1901 to 1950. The names and accomplishments should be an inspiration to all who read this magazine.

Like most people who arrive at the pinnacle of success, many on this list would admit that much of their journey was fraught with doubt and despair. You almost have to expect that. No one goes where no man or woman has gone before without becoming lost. Forget all the psychobabble about the goal-oriented person. Trailblazers — Roentgen, Curie, Marconi, van der Waals, Planck, and others — are not as much drawn by some beacon of light flickering in the distance as they are propelled by an internal urging to know what’s beyond the next bend in the road, and the next one, and the next one. Granted, most people driven like this toil away in obscurity most of their lives, but they’re no less happy (or unhappy) than the few who are honored for reaching a significant milestone like those listed in this month’s Brushing Up.

With that in mind, I offer a few strategies that will help you take your focus off your intended goal. When your next project stalls and nothing else seems to work, steer yourself down one of these paths and see where it leads. You may not win a gold medal, or even solve your problem, but you’ll have the pleasure of seeing a dark, dead-end street open up into a glimmering field of imagination and discovery.

Turn it inside out — Engineers often piece together components working inward from the periphery of the design envelope. Nowhere is this approach more evident than in the early multi-unit camcorders. The design envelope was defined primarily by the electronic content within; hundreds of components residing on stacked circuit boards. In other words, you had two boxes — one that hung at your side, another that laid across your shoulder. Eyepieces and controls were less than ideally placed along the available surface area.

The design approach in the modern one-piece camcorder is completely opposite. Here, designers worked from the inside out. They laid out the optics and controls in the most efficient manner, encasing them in an envelope defined by the space formed by placing a cupped right hand up to the right eyesocket.

A similar twist can be applied to motion system design. Instead of working outward from the machine frame, requiring everything to align to this arbitrary frame of reference, work backward from the motion or process itself. In other words, envision the desired operation occurring in free space, then arrange (backfill) the necessary motion components around each line of action. If you really want to get creative, try integrating some of the component functions (torque, force, sensing, etc.) into the skeleton of the machinery.

Focus on the negatives — In some cases it doesn’t pay to focus on the positives, particularly when they’re masking the problem. Let’s say your goal is to turn an axis with a servo belt drive, but you can’t seem to get enough torque to the load. All the positives check out. The motor is sized properly, it has enough current, the belt drive is ratioed more than adequately, and the couplings are snugged and firmly in place. Whatever’s tripping you up isn’t due to an insufficiency in components. It has to be something else: an overlooked limiting factor. Often, the surest way to maximize something is to key in on what’s holding it back. Consider every negative, or limitation, you can — making up some if you have to — and be sure to blow each one entirely out of proportion.

Reverse logic — Optimization in design is a two-way street. Usually, the knowledge and insights required to maximize an effect, say thermal expansion, are equally applicable when trying to minimize it. A case in point is the legendary Charles Kaman and his pioneering work on twin-rotor helicopters. Kaman knew that one of his biggest enemies was vibration. Early on, he dedicated himself to understanding its causes as well as its modes of propagation. Later, Kaman applied this knowledge to another line of products, acoustic guitars, except here the goal was quite the opposite — he wanted to maximize vibration. Kaman’s foray into the music world, beginning with his renowned Ovation guitar, has since grown to include electric guitars, amplifiers, and an extensive line of top quality percussion products. Moral of the story: If you can’t make something better, try making it worse. In the process, you might come up with a solution to your original problem.

Speaking of problems, I see that I’m out of space. Next month, we’ll pick it up right here. We’ll also finish the list of Nobel Prize winners, giving them their due in Brushing Up.

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