A Manhattan Project For Battery Power

From Computer World:

Improving battery technology is seen as pivotal to transportation and storage, particularly around the need to store solar and wind energy.

Chu said the idea of seeking a 5X improvement is really around getting the battery and energy storage prices to a point where they will gain widespread adoption.

“We look very carefully at the price points,” said Chu, who cited the impact of falling prices on cell phones of PCs, as examples of how low prices trigger mass adoption.

This is way overdue. Batteries rule our lives already in cell phones and will rule them even more as they invade transit. We need the ability to store power more efficiently if we’re going to be making optimal use of electricity going forward.

US Army Is Interested In 3D Printers

From BBC:

By putting 3D printers behind the front line it hopes to be able to produce spares more cheaply and quickly than it can get them from manufacturers.

The army embarked on the project to produce its own printer as commercial devices were too expensive.

Early versions of the printer cost $695 (£436) compared to $3,000 (£1,880) for a commercial model.

It makes total sense if you think about it. One of the biggest weaknesses in Iraq for a long time were supply convoys. They were constantly being attacked and subjected to IED’s. Keeping the front lines supplied is critical to any battle. If they could refabricate just a few critical things it would reduce the impacts of this vulnerability.

Of course one also wonders why the military, especially after Iraq doesn’t stress alternative full supplies more than they do. One in eight casualties was due to fuel supply convoys. It’s apparently something they are working hard on. It would be a major strategic victory if they had such technology they could rely on. Perhaps in the future, our military on the front lines will actually be self sufficient and not relying on convoys to bring supplies. It would save many lives.

Not to mention, applying these things to other non-military uses would be a major win too. Imagine being able to deploy such capabilities to a natural disaster. First responders would be much more productive than they are capable of being today.

Logistics is expensive, and time-consuming at best. Reducing logistics makes dangerous situations better. These technologies can and likely will eventually change the world and how our military and first responders will respond to a crisis. It’s pretty impressive to see where things are headed.

Efficency End To End

From The Economist:

ENGINES on airliners are highly efficient when they are in flight, but not when operating on the ground. When a plane is taxiing under its own power, the engines burn vast amounts of fuel. A Boeing 747 can consume a tonne of fuel and emit several tonnes of carbon dioxide during an average 17-minute taxi to take-off. And when the aircraft lands there is likely to be another long drive to the passenger gate. Which is why there are various methods being developed for aircraft to use other means of propulsion while moving around an airport.

If you think about it, this was an area ripe for innovation for a long time now. Obviously having a second engine for taxi purposes on board is ruled out for weight and space reasons. Something external is obvious since these negatives are shed when it’s detached. Since engines would only need to start shortly before takeoff it would also mean less noise at airports.

It’s interesting that in engineering you focus on the primary use case and make it efficient. Once you’re done you continue to refine and make it more efficient. The folly is when you forget about other low hanging fruit near the edge cases, in this case when the plane is on the ground. While not a huge savings, it can potentially add up.

Microsoft Goes Carbon Neutral

From the giant itself:

Beginning in fiscal year 2013 (which starts this July 1), Microsoft will be carbon neutral across all our direct operations including data centers, software development labs, air travel, and office buildings. We recognize that we are not the first company to commit to carbon neutrality, but we are hopeful that our decision will encourage other companies large and small to look at what they can do to address this important issue.

This is actually rather impressive as Microsoft is a rather large company with a large data center operation. Back in 2009 they were looking at hitting 300k servers. Now with Windows Azure and a larger cloud presence, presumably that’s climbed quite a bit.

I’m sure it’s not purely a good dead, Microsoft notes in their blog post:

  • A smarter buildings pilot on Microsoft’s Redmond campus that uses software solutions to make our buildings more energy efficient, projected to achieve energy savings of approximately $1.5 million dollars in fiscal year 2013, and earn back our investment in only 18 months.

Google has tried a power meter and failed. Microsoft is dogfooding it’s effort and is seemingly doing well. I could see Microsoft expanding beyond the PC in a larger effort than in the past with solutions for businesses and perhaps eventually homes. I suspect that’s what Microsoft is really doing here. Forcing themselves to to be ahead of the curve.

Engineering Efficiency

Internet companies have the unique ability to scale quicker than any other industry on earth. Never before has a company been able to position itself from being nothing more than an idea to being in the living rooms of millions around the globe in a matter of hours. While this introduces seemingly unlimited opportunities to grow it also allows for exponential waste if a company isn’t careful. It’s interesting to see how they scale. Scaling businesses in many ways isn’t very different than scaling servers and software stacks.

The Classic Example: UPS

Started in 1907 and adopting the name United Parcel Service in 1919 UPS has no real “high tech” background unless you include the Ford Model T. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t become more efficient. UPS has made a science of the delivery business. For example it’s famous for it’s “no left” policy. Simply put they found that avoiding left turns means less time waiting at lights which means less fuel is wasted. The more efficient routing formerly done by humans now computerized saves them 3 million gallons of fuel in 2007 alone. Lets do the math:

Assuming they run 100% diesel at an average cost of $2.87/gallon in 2007 [doe] multiplied by 3 million that’s $8.61 million dollars by trying to avoid left turns.

Not bad for a souped up mapping application.

By having their drivers do things like turning of the ignition while unbuckling their seat belt at the same time, and scanning for the doorbell while walking towards the door (it’s easier to see from a distance than up close) they can shave time off of their routes.

Then of course there’s package tracking. While customers might like to know in what city their weight loss taps are sitting tracking systems help reduce loss and monitor package routing for optimal efficiency.

Cutting Utility Bills: Google

Being the largest search engine, a large ad network, email provider, analytics firm, mapping service, video site, and whatever else they do means Google needs a ton of servers. Cramming servers into data centers and keeping them cool to prevent hardware failures is a complicated and expensive task. Keeping the whole thing powered is also really expensive. Google has scrutinized server designs to eliminate all waste possible. This has resulted in Google having more horsepower at a lower cost than their competitors. Having more capacity at a lower cost means Google can do more at a lower cost than their competitors. I won’t discuss Google in too much detail since they did a great job themselves recently and I mentioned it the other day in another blog post: Google’s Data Center Secrets.

Shipping Efficiency: Amazon

Amazon’s long been improving efficiency by using data collection and analysis to encouraging their customers to spend more. Their algorithms to recommend related products you might be interested in is one of the best out there. Their ordering system is streamlined to prevent customers from bailing before completion. Their products are SEO’d to appear on the top of Google searches. That doesn’t mean Amazon can’t improve other parts of their business.

Amazon several months ago started a Frustration-Free Packaging program. Here’s how they describe it:

The Frustration-Free Package (on the left) is recyclable and comes without excess packaging materials such as hard plastic clamshell casings, plastic bindings, and wire ties. It’s designed to be opened without the use of a box cutter or knife and will protect your product just as well as traditional packaging (on the right). Products with Frustration-Free Packaging can frequently be shipped in their own boxes, without an additional shipping box.

The key here is “can frequently be shipped in their own boxes”. By shipping a box alone rather than packaging they can skip a step in their warehouses (and the packaging materials that go with packaging something for delivery). This also lowers the weight as those extra boxes don’t weigh 0 oz. The frustration free packaging is also the perfect shape for efficiently filling trucks and strong enough to not crush easily thus lowering returns due to damage.

Amazon now even has a feedback form [login required] for users to share what they think of their package. This has the added bonus of helping further reduce the inefficient shipping practices so common right now.

Amazon’s also done a significant amount of work on their infrastructure to make their servers scale well using tech such as EC2 and S3. By selling capacity to other companies they able to take advantage of economy of scale as well as diversify their business beyond just retail. Of course they are planning their data centers to have access to cheap power.

These aren’t haphazard attempts at increasing efficiency, these are well calculated engineered approaches to removing even the smallest inefficiencies with the knowledge of how they compound as operations scale. Aren’t they clever?