New Post 2 : Why Big(Big) Corporations, Grey in Tooth and Claw may need Unions as a counterparty, whereas Innovative Little Guys need Unions like they need regulations and stray holes in the head

I’ve been thinking about Walter Russell Mead’s Death of the Blue model meme and some of the ramifications.  Also thinking back on the history of industrialization and laissez-faire economics in English and American experience.  Then Meagan Mcardle had a blog piece on the Daily Beast the other day that had a tangential thoughts of interest.

To Paraphrase rather egregiously:  The United States has the largest economy in the world as well as the most dynamic and creative (though there are many who are trying to change that.) It trades a more secure safety net (which might not work in a large and heterogeneous country anyway) for more vigor and growth, even though that creates a greater disparity between rich and poor.  Many smaller nations could follow the US lead but if they did they would suffer because they would be competing against a vastly larger pool of potential entrepreneurs etc.  This makes it much more sensible for them to curl up and ride the innovation wave the US creates while providing a more comfy and fair life style for their citizens.  If the US turned and did the Comfy-Fair thing, the world would lose its innovation mainspring and everyone would suffer because to a large degree our society/economy requires innovation and change to provide the economic voltage that drives the circuits of world trade.  There is some research into this and the modeling seems to support the intuition in the main.  But the researchers commented that Unions and Regulations offer a buffer against the potential of corporations using up the employees and resources.   And it is that thought that intersects my intuition.

Essentially the problem is, and this can be shown in history, that large operations, even if owned and run by persons of great moral character become more and more ruthless as they grow.  And as the operation turns from owner/operator to corporation the inherent inhuman ruthlessness gets worse and worse.  The more successful a company is the more ruthless its ‘minions’ are going to tend to be.  Look at what happened in the Robber Baron era, and then again in the great multinational eras (60’s and 90’s 50’s to today in my mind.)  They were (are) Big Beasts, Gray not Red, in Tooth and Claw.  It was nineteenth century progressive regulation then early twentieth century unions that tamed them in regards to their employees.  Then it was the regulatory state in the 60’s-80’s taking charge in the 80’s that created Monster Corporations that ‘cared’ about the externals like the environment, customer safety, etc.

But from a libertarians viewpoint, it has always been the state’s fault that these beasts came into being at all.  It can be argued that the great corporations were purposely crafted to employ and control great swaths of the population (I don’t think this was actually planned ahead of time, I think it was/is an emergent pattern driven by economic and social realities of the time but I am sure some saw it ahead of time and some will say it was all a vast conspiracy on someone’s part.)

Small firms, networks of firms, partnerships, franchises, etc, are all different ways of spreading technology effectively if perhaps not as efficiently as monopolistic or oligopolistic ultra large firms that came into existence to industrialize the US and compete on the world stage.  In the UK this smaller/distributed model remained more common and competed strongly for a while until the incrementally crippling damage of WWI, the interwar boom-bust, WWII and the following socialist experiment so badly damaged it that it was off the world stage for thirty years, unitl Thatcher.

It is these smaller more entrepreneurial firms that are damaged by regulation and unionization the most.  Not on purpose but because both cut the small companies ability to turn on a dime and give big companies, which can support big compliance departments, a very large advantage in the ‘rent seeking’ game of playing the regulators.

So the very instruments that you need to tame the Big Beasts of large-scale corporatism are the ones that plow under the smaller firms that offer 1) growth in the economy and 2) alternatives to the big beasts.

A balance is what you seek…

Our problem is that the post WWII boom hid the damage of the Big Beasts and their Tamers for several decades, and during that time we seem to have gotten the impression that there is some natural stable state that is ‘right’ and this state has something to do with large stable corporations and their control of the markets.

It’s clear to me that the bureaucratic-regulatory-union-corporation model does not have legs in a world of real competition from Big Beasts who are not constrained to the same degree.

Sometimes I think the only real hope is that the Industrial Civilization of ‘Big Beasts’ will be supplanted by something one might call the Maker Civilization, where zero cost communications and distributed at need manufacturing cuts the legs out from under all the Big Beasts.

Technology Review-high Frequency Soft Switching inverters could be a breakthrough enabler of small and mid scale Solar PV

Novel Electronics Could Speed Adoption of Solar Power – Technology Review.

Not a new technology but if these guys can bring it to market at a significantly lower total cost of ownership number they are going to ignite the market.

Biggest issue with SftSwt has always been complexity and consequent reliability issues.  If these guys have reduced the parts and interconnect count (in other words integrated the controls and sensors)they are on the right path.

Another Celebrity Seeker…and the Apple Culture

As far as I can see the whole mess with Mike Daisey is the common American confusion between celebrity and profundity.  The Wikipedia entry above starts out :

“Mike Daisey (born 1976) is an American monologist, author, and actor best known for his full-length extemporaneous monologues…”

And that sums it up, he’s not a reporter, does not purport to be one and yet his monologuing is taken as a serious expose of Apple’s factories in China.  The whole problem is that NPR got confused about what they had, it was in some ways not even Daisey’s fault…until he denied any fault as with so many things today, “ wasn’t the break in it was the coverup…” inept spinning.

Now Apple knows that its old core and even its younger adherents are biased to the progressive/lefty “down with capitalism” side.  Apple is also forced to build their products in China these days, they could not keep their products in the painfully but not prohibitively expensive category otherwise.  They will not purposely turn a blind eye to abuses at their Chinese factories, especially as they know that they are likely to depend on Chinese customers for a lot of growth in the not too distant future.  

Victor Russell Mead at Via Media has the best overall take on the Daisey mess, I won’t go into it any more.

However thinking about Apple and China does bring up other issues about manufacturing and the outsourcing of said.  Two Questions of Apple: 

  1. The iPad, iPhone, iPod are all flat, sandwich build products, why not automate the production and do it in the US?
  2. Aren’t you  afraid of giving your products intellectual property to the Chinese, who have quite blatantly set about appropriating everything they can from anyone with good ideas?

And the answer is the same in both case.  Apple has an extremely short product cycle most of the time and tries to keep their products under wraps until the last second. They use a very deep supplier base on the Asian shore to the fullest extent, the parts are cheaper and more available there, and Apple parcels the parts out so its hard for their competitors to figure out what’s coming until the last month or so before introduction.  Final assembly of many gadgets is the most labor intensive part of the process and the hardest to automate, it can be done but if you are only going to build the product for a couple of years then completely rejigger why put the capital into a fixed site?  And its the Social IP of how you design and proof out a product like the iPad in a very short time that is the secret sauce as much as anything else.  And that IP the IP of the Apple way, the Apple Corporate Society, that gives them the edge, and its not one that anyone can copy easily.  The whole infrastructure of design spin, parting out, having multiple products at various levels of development at one time, and staying mum, that keeps Apple ahead, their competitor’s head’s spinning and the Apple paparazzi merrily dancing in trail.

Mirasol (Butterfly Wing eReader Screen) out in Asia

An update from TechnologyReview regarding the Qualcom Mirasol based products.  Only in 5.3″ and all obviously based on the same hardware platform right now.  5.3″ is more in line with Asian tastes than US so it makes sense to focus there first  The long hang time (4 years from first hoopla) and small size indicate issues with the manufacturing technology, but nothing helps ManTech more than going to volume.  Hopefully 7, 9 and 11 inch units will follow soon.

Nano Robots Move Out



A fascinating set of articles came out recently discussing the progress in micro and nano robotic techniques above. Is the picture from a short piece in IEEE Spectrum discussing the work of Dr. Ada Poon at the Standford Poon Group who are working on medical applications of beamed power. 

Poon Group Tech Map

Poon Group Tech Map

The basis is this technical paper (PDF).  Which talks about the chip, it essentially couples the beamed energy with a tiny antenna and converts the energy to a form needed to drive the chip using a electromagnetic propulsion fabricated on chip.  Very cool.  I will also point out that the Poon Group appears to be reasonably focused, some similar organizations I have run across or worked with have gotten way too diffuse and seem to wander off topic all the time.  Dr. Poon is doing a good job focusing on some key enabling technologies in the field.

So every battle platform needs its weapons, and what do you know these guys seem to have just the ticket.

Researchers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University have developed a robotic device made from DNA that could potentially seek out specific cell targets.

DNA Nanobot Shell

DNA Nanobot Shell

Obviously they are looking to ways to use this in the form of a more traditional delivery system, say a shot, but the Dreadnought could also use these for delivering deadly loads into exactly the right spot possibly repeatedly over time without repeated shots etc.

On its own very cool, in combination with everything else going on, mind-blowing!!

And yet we also complain about the costs of medicine.  The reason that money is put into these efforts is both altruistic and profit driven:

  • Medicine is after all about making life better for human beings
  • These techniques promise profound effects with minimal collateral damage
  • These devices can be fabricated in their thousands using ultra clean and precise techniques that will both lower cost and improve performance.
  • The price performance should move towards a Moore’s Rule like model of decreasing price AND increasing performance on a steep slope.
  • Conditions untreatable today will be treatable
  • People who would have died will live…some with health issues that will make them a drain on the economy.
  • Early clinical trials and during ramp up and cost recoupment the prices will be high because of limited supply and price controls…and people will complain about the cost of medicine.

And so the cycle will go on.  Do not take my screeds against Health Care costs and the Medical Establishment as any kind of Luddism, I want more technology more quickly, its the only path to better human lives.  What I hate is the almost Medieval Economic model of the existing ME in the US.

Mirasol the Butterfly Wing Display

Mirasol Color eReader display

I had heard about this technology several times over the years and had not realized that Qualcomm had commercialized it and is actually selling some units though they have not yet had a big ‘insertion’ win as like Nook, Kindle or the like.  Unfortunately the first application the Kybo Reader is disappointing and if Qualcomm is not careful it could relegate the technology however good, to backwater.

Mirasol is like eInk a micro machine reflective display and not an emitter of light like an LCD, AMOLED even a plasma display is.  The early insight that lead to the Mirasol is that the ‘scales’ on the wings of a butterfly get their vivid colors from an optical ‘trick’ rather than from brute coloration. The scales are very thin and essentially colorless, made of that basic creep bug shell stuff, chitin. The scales are made up of layers of transparent chitin of varying thickness.  Light passes through the first layer and is selectively reflected because the thickness of the layers creates an optical cavity that selectively reflects light of a certain frequency while absorbing other frequencies. 

Official description Here:  Mirasol is made up of millions of pits with reflective bottoms with a multi layer thin-film ‘scale’ floating in the pit.  The pit is a form of capacitor that can be positively or negatively charged, in one state the ‘scale’ floats to a position where the pit is a light trap, so it looks black, in the other state the ‘scale’ floats to a position where it reflects Red, Green or Blue very strongly.  While changing charge state takes energy once changed there is all but no power demand.  The ‘floating’ up and down is over a very short distance and happens very quickly, so you can create a video image with the technology, even in video mode its much less energy intensive than an LCD.

Since it is reflective not emitting it is sunlight readable, in fact like a book the brighter the light the better.  It’s an efficient reflector so it’s actually quite readable in dim light and would need only a modest book light to make it readable in the dark.  This may make it marginally less compatible with capacitive touch screens, but its possible that other technologies will replace the capacitive screen (I hope) like this interesting concept that turns any surface into a multi-touch interface.

This technology seems ideal for an eReader like the Nook Color that is not intended as a full function tablet but wants to be more the an eReader (eInk really sucks at anything other than page rendition) though it’s quite possible the technology will come on gangbusters for all portables if the technology is really as good as it purports.

Who is Qualcomm and why does it seem strange for them to be in this business?  Qualcomm is the company that developed the CDMA (code division multi access)technology used in many phones today, as well as related technologies and has managed to leverage that into one of the significant if somewhat odd players of the mobile tech.  For many years they were pushing the PCA phones, the first digital microcell technology that disrupted the old analog cell phone monopolists.  THough they started on the digital side eventually they got into the business of designing the chip set for the radio in the phones. I believe it was Qualcomm that effectively proved that SiGe and even pure Si could compete with GaAs chips for the high performance radio frequency parts.  Especially when they showed that they could integrate the radio on a single chip and eventually on the chip with the digital parts. They were an early SOC (system on a chip) player.  Now they license the ARM technology used in most smart phones and they build one of the competitors in the tablet and smartphone processor offerings.  The work on Radio frequency devices gave them experience in MEMS (micro electro mechanical systems) which is the manufacturing technology behind Mirasol.  I would imagine that they see a long-term synergy between all these pieces, they essentially build the complete electronic kit set (including smart screen) that a OEM (original equipment manufacturer ) can put in a custom case with their choice of battery and interface thus providing the ability for and OEM to have highly distinctive product without having to have the expensive engineering resources required to design custom electronic ‘guts’ of their custom (semi custom really) product. 

Its a bit like Chrysler designing a car kit, the sub frame, engine, suspension, transmission, electric and electronic systems that some custom builder then can take and design a shell around, making it into a sedan, hatchback, coupé, minivan, pickup truck, delivery van, taxi etc….which come to think of it is how many car companies work these days with ‘platforms.’

Sorry used to play in these waters a bit, and still find the technology and business fascinating, Qualcomm is an interesting success story who flies under the radar most of the time.  I think the are like a company I work with today, they feel that constant PR flack barrage some companies put out are more about ego and stock price massaging than anything else, while being both a waste of money and potentially self-defeating by giving away too much information and setting the participants up for a fall.

This can be interpreted as negative, but is it? And are there other factors?

Plant Power alone sucks up $$$

From Technology Can We Build Tomorrow’s Breakthroughs? I think the answer is a resounding yes though I agree there is reason to be cautious.

Charts discussing manufacturing in the US
Does this represent net loss or just change?

As I have discussed before there is at least reasonable evidence that manufacturing in the US is on the upswing and while the charts paint a disappointing picture one has to be a bit careful about what is being measured. If mass production were giving way to boutique build +value add, might one miss it because we are importing what are essentially the bricks and mortar (which we by the way mostly designed or own a big part of) and the customization and final build (with their higher margins and more creative content) is done here?

There is an interesting section in here dealing with the founder of A123 and then with a couple of solar cell manufacturers.  And the author makes some very telling points.  I think they should be emphasized:

  1. Unless there is a very fundamental change in a product, improving process technology to produce a that product will not start out producing a cheaper product and unless you can get over the hump of higher cost and lower sales the guy with the bog standard product and highly refined standard process will eat you alive.
  2. Controlling one (however important) process or input material does not mean you control the market, a sudden change in market dynamics, possibly one you created, can suddenly pull the prop out from under you and if you only have one prop you are finished.
  3. Getting from prototype to production is horribly expensive especially in a mass market (which are almost by definition price sensitive and commoditzed ones) A first article will cost you K, getting that product in front of customers is likely to cost you 2 time K and getting into production 5 times to 10 times as much again, sometimes many times more. 
    1. Why you Ask? Because you can do a lot of research for say $1M, that’s enough to support three or four researchers for a year.  But once you have to show it to a customer you have to be able to replicate the work and make either a full scale device and or prove you can do so repetitively or have a process that scales from desktop to garage at least and that usually takes 2 or 3 years or 2 or 3 times as much effort and expense.  The when you go to production you now have to build a factory staff it, train the staff, fill out all the paperwork, pay the lawyers to make sure you’re not doing anything illegal etc, etc.  And you then have to make enough of your product to put on the shelf and most of the time you have to price it at well below cost because the first batches and the smaller batches are much, much, MUCH more expensive than the run of the lot will be later and you cannot charge 10x the expected price.  Selling the first  ???  units at an average of 1/?? their actual cost can eat up a huge amount of money.

The first comment after the article makes the point that established companies have in my way of thinking ‘normalized and processed’ innovation out of their main line business because of the costs.  It is easy to project cost and risk with incremental improvements.   The costs and risks of really new products/processes (disruptive ones) are much more uncertain, and few managers are allowed the latitude to innovate in big, risky ways. 

But this circles back around, does this in fact facilitate the creative destruction that the US industrial base has depended on.  Once large corporations run by bull-headed industrialists did the risky stuff.  When that generation was replaced by the MBA brigade they froze up.  Then the innovations erupted in a series of mid rankers with mavericks at their head or in a series of entrepreneurial start-ups who then took down many of the old guard.  Are we seeing the wake of another change of phase…

Anyway a good article but don’t take it as gloom and doom, its pretty evenly pro as well as con.

Ink Jet electronics progress

Ink-Jet Printed Graphene Electronics

Okay this brings back memories, as a young engineer I supported-oversaw ManTech R&D on ink jet printing of electronic circuits and the development of ink tech. Different time, place, technology but still cool and promising especially for the US I think the center of custom/additive manufacturing.

To get the geek juices flowing in any ManTech junkies here is the abstract:

We demonstrate ink-jet printing as a viable method for large area fabrication of graphene devices. We produce a graphene-based ink by liquid phase exfoliation of graphite in N-Methylpyrrolidone. We use it to print thin-film transistors, with mobilities up to~95cm^2V^(-1)s(-1), as well as transparent and conductive patterns, with~80 % transmittance and~30kOhm/sq sheet resistance. This paves the way to all-printed, flexible and transparent graphene devices on arbitrary substrates