Making a LiDAR – Part 2

The Holistic Design Problem

By: David
Principal Consultant, Data Exploration

9th April 2019

3 minute read

Home » Insights » Careers & People » Page 2

The Holistic Design Problem

I’m tempted to say that designing software for a word processor is easy, and whilst many will quite rightly disagree, my point is that a word processor software architect doesn’t have to think about anyone other than themselves and a few well published APIs (and perhaps the user interface if we are lucky, but that’s perhaps the subject of a different Blog!). It all gets far more complicated when we are designing something with electronics and moving parts. That’s because we have a set of disciplines with circular dependencies. The mechanical design team need to understand the limitations and requirements of the electronics and software, but that’s hard to do until the electronics and software teams understand the mechanics. In other words, we have a chicken and egg problem to solve.

We are going to build our Lidar with a laser range finder, and we will want to spin the range finder around on the azimuth, and after every 360 degrees, we will need to bump it in elevation. We could use DC motors, we could use gimbal motors, we could use stepper motors, or we could even use servos. Whatever we pick, we can be sure that we face choices that make things easier for one discipline and harder for another. We need to make the choice that is best for the design.

Our electronic designers might decide that the simplicity of a DC motor is rather attractive, but we have to ask if our software engineers are going to be grateful when they have to start counting rotary encoder pulses to figure out how much a DC motor has moved. Equally, the mechanical engineers will thank nobody when they have to add a rotary encoder to the design. In fact, everybody apart from the electronics engineers will much prefer a stepper motor (the precise movement of a stepper motor is implicit, so they are great for applications like 3D printers). So, with that all said, we will make a decision for our Lidar and use stepper motors. We’ve made our electronics more complicated, but we’ve saved on software effort, we’ve simplified mechanical design, and we have reduced the bill of materials.

With the stepper motor decision made, the mechanical design can start. We can also start writing our embedded control software and designing our PCBs – or can we? If you’re familiar with embedded microcontrollers you’ll likely know they are software configurable with a multitude of different functions, and with a choice as to which, functions appear on which pins. So here is our cross disciple problem again; we need to make sure the software engineers don’t make a bad decision. A wrong software decision at that start could force our PCB designers to try and route four signal lines between two 0.5 mm pitch pins. Equally, a bad decision on pinout by the PCB designers might have subtle but severe consequences to our software engineers.

Needless to say, my examples are of course tongue in cheek, but I’m sure you’ll understand the point I’m making. It’s a really important concept that design needs to be multidisciplinary and that success only comes with cross-domain decisions made by people that understand the complete picture.

I’m tempted to say that designing software for a word processor is easy, and whilst many will quite rightly disagree, my point is that a word processor software architect doesn’t have to think about anyone other than themselves and a few well published APIs (and perhaps the user interface if we are lucky, but that’s perhaps the subject of a different Blog!). It all gets far more complicated when we are designing something with electronics and moving parts. That’s because we have a set of disciplines with circular dependencies. The mechanical design team need to understand the limitations and requirements of the electronics and software, but that’s hard to do until the electronics and software teams understand the mechanics. In other words, we have a chicken and egg problem to solve.

We are going to build our Lidar with a laser range finder, and we will want to spin the range finder around on the azimuth, and after every 360 degrees, we will need to bump it in elevation. We could use DC motors, we could use gimbal motors, we could use stepper motors, or we could even use servos. Whatever we pick, we can be sure that we face choices that make things easier for one discipline and harder for another. We need to make the choice that is best for the design.

Our electronic designers might decide that the simplicity of a DC motor is rather attractive, but we have to ask if our software engineers are going to be grateful when they have to start counting rotary encoder pulses to figure out how much a DC motor has moved. Equally, the mechanical engineers will thank nobody when they have to add a rotary encoder to the design. In fact, everybody apart from the electronics engineers will much prefer a stepper motor (the precise movement of a stepper motor is implicit, so they are great for applications like 3D printers). So, with that all said, we will make a decision for our Lidar and use stepper motors. We’ve made our electronics more complicated, but we’ve saved on software effort, we’ve simplified mechanical design, and we have reduced the bill of materials.

With the stepper motor decision made, the mechanical design can start. We can also start writing our embedded control software and designing our PCBs – or can we? If you’re familiar with embedded microcontrollers you’ll likely know they are software configurable with a multitude of different functions, and with a choice as to which, functions appear on which pins. So here is our cross disciple problem again; we need to make sure the software engineers don’t make a bad decision. A wrong software decision at that start could force our PCB designers to try and route four signal lines between two 0.5 mm pitch pins. Equally, a bad decision on pinout by the PCB designers might have subtle but severe consequences to our software engineers.

Needless to say, my examples are of course tongue in cheek, but I’m sure you’ll understand the point I’m making. It’s a really important concept that design needs to be multidisciplinary and that success only comes with cross-domain decisions made by people that understand the complete picture.

Further Reading

Making a LiDAR – Part 1

LiDAR Mechanical Aspects

By: David
Principal Consultant, Data Exploration

8th April 2019

3 minute read

Home » Insights » Careers & People » Page 2

LiDAR mechanical aspects


In concept, a LIDAR scanner is a rather simple way of capturing 3D scans of a physical environment, and in this series of 5 blogs I’ll take you through my various thought processes in building a working LIDAR prototype. In our LIDAR prototype, we will see if we can use a GARMIN laser range finder sensor to build a working LIDAR. We will spin the range finder on its azimuth, and after each complete revolution, we will nudge it slightly to point upwards at increasingly steeper angles. At the same time, we will continually capture the measured distance data to the target. When the scan is complete we will have a data set called a point cloud that represents the distance from the LIDAR to every point in the room and that’s just perfect for rendering on an Oculus Rift VR headset. But, before we get ahead of ourselves, we have a few mechanical problems to solve first.


If you’ve seen the press hype about 3D printed firearms you might be surprised to hear me express 3D printer disappointment, and In fact, you might have expected a 3D printer to be my perfect “drawing board to the physical word” prototyping tool. But, I’d say the reality is rather different. It’s hard to say if my scepticism comes from the PLA filament unravelling, the shrinkage leaving questionable tolerances, the poor finish, or the print times in excess of 12 hours. Either way, I’m unconvinced by the results of consumer and light industrial 3D printers. So, we’ll build our LIDAR parts old school with a manual lathe and mill. (There is just one niggling point and very important points that we will come to later where we use a 3D printer to enable everything!) I should also add that my industrial design colleagues producing beautiful flowing curved case works may have a very different opinion to myself. For them, 3D printing comes into its own.

We’ve also got an electrical wiring problem to solve, and that’s because we need to get power and data to our range finder without our wires getting twisted. We’ve got three obvious choices on how to do this; we can spin 360 degrees and then unwind the wires by spinning the other way, or we can build a complicated inductive power system with RF\optical to carry data (no wires to twist), or we can use a slip ring (a slip ring works just like the brushes on an electrical motor). The first solution is ugly and will slow the scan down with all the stopping and starting. The second solution sounds robust, but it’s a design exercise in itself that adds unnecessary burden to our budget. Ideally, we’d rather not have that for a prototype. The third solution is quick, very low cost, but will eventually fail as the slip ring brushes degrade. None the less, even a low-end slip ring is rated 5,000,000 revolutions, which is more than enough for our prototype.


Our slip ring will need to fit through the body of a rotating shaft, and it needs to be mounted with screws that clamp the slip ring flange onto the shaft. There isn’t anything we can do to change the slip ring dimensions, so follow it through and the shaft diameter comes in at around 22mm. We’ll need the shaft to fit through bearings, and we want the shaft to rotate. We’ll do that with a timing belt and timing gear around the shaft.

In concept, a LIDAR scanner is a rather simple way of making 3D scans of a physical environment. In our LIDAR prototype, we will see if we can use a GARMIN laser range finder sensor to build a working LIDAR. We will spin the range finder on its azimuth, and after each complete revolution, we will nudge it slightly to point upwards at increasingly steeper angles. At the same time, we will continually capture the measured distance data to the target. When the scan is complete we will have a data set called a point cloud that represents the distance from the LIDAR to every point in the room and that’s just perfect for rendering on an Oculus Rift VR headset. But, before we get ahead of ourselves, we have a few mechanical problems to solve first.

If you’ve seen the press hype about 3D printed firearms you might be surprised to hear me express 3D printer disappointment, and In fact, you might have expected a 3D printer to be my perfect “drawing board to the physical word” prototyping tool. But, I’d say the reality is rather different. It’s hard to say if my scepticism comes from the PLA filament unravelling, the shrinkage leaving questionable tolerances, the poor finish, or the print times in excess of 12 hours. Either way, I’m unconvinced by the results of consumer and light industrial 3D printers. So, we’ll build our LIDAR parts old school with a manual lathe and mill. (There is just one niggling point and very important points that we will come to later where we use a 3D printer to enable everything!) I should also add that my industrial design colleagues producing beautiful flowing curved case works may have a very different opinion to myself. For them, 3D printing comes into its own.

We’ve also got an electrical wiring problem to solve, and that’s because we need to get power and data to our range finder without our wires getting twisted. We’ve got three obvious choices on how to do this; we can spin 360 degrees and then unwind the wires by spinning the other way, or we can build a complicated inductive power system with RF\optical to carry data (no wires to twist), or we can use a slip ring (a slip ring works just like the brushes on an electrical motor). The first solution is ugly and will slow the scan down with all the stopping and starting. The second solution sounds robust, but it’s a design exercise in itself that adds unnecessary burden to our budget. Ideally, we’d rather not have that for a prototype. The third solution is quick, very low cost, but will eventually fail as the slip ring brushes degrade. None the less, even a low-end slip ring is rated 5,000,000 revolutions, which is more than enough for our prototype.

Our slip ring will need to fit through the body of a rotating shaft, and it needs to be mounted with screws that clamp the slip ring flange onto the shaft. There isn’t anything we can do to change the slip ring dimensions, so follow it through and the shaft diameter comes in at around 22mm. We’ll need the shaft to fit through bearings, and we want the shaft to rotate. We’ll do that with a timing belt and timing gear around the shaft.

Further Reading

Food for Thought: Food Industry Innovation 2019

Nicholas Hill, Plextek

By: Nicholas Hill
CEO

4th April 2019

6 minute read

Home » Insights » Careers & People » Page 2

Food Industry Innovation 2019 was both stimulating and thought provoking. Organised by Innovate UK, it was a mixture of presentations, audience polls, pitch sessions and exhibitions by start-ups, and covered everything from novel food science and manufacturing engineering through to the future of supply and distribution. Some themes kept recurring throughout the day, both from presenters and audience polls, and I thought it would be interesting to look at some of these.

A poll covering top trends in food product development had ‘sustainable packaging’, ‘plant-based/vegan foods’, ‘free from foods’ and ‘personalised food/nutrition’ in top place, in that order.

Sustainable Packaging

It’s hardly surprising that sustainable packaging is top of the agenda, with a newly found mass consumer awareness of the environmental crisis that waste plastic has created. There’s a lot of interest in alternative (e.g. bio-degradable) plastics. In their favour they would permit a ‘business as usual’ approach, allowing manufacturers to continue to use the same volume of plastic packaging but making disposal more practical. However, plastics that retain all their functionality while storing food or drink while degrading rapidly and safely in the environment are still a good way off.

Take cPPA for example, which has been known for decades to depolymerise rapidly on demand. The trick that is still being perfected is how to prevent it from degrading while still in use, under the full range of environmental conditions. Other work is looking at catalytic methods to rapidly break down plastics that are in common use already, such as PET. And even when the science has provided the techniques that we need, actually recycling or composting the current volumes of plastic packaging would require a massive change to the current localised, ad hoc approach to recycling that we have in the UK.

It was somewhat alarming to hear one supermarket representative make an appeal for other industries to take the hit on reducing packaging waste. The argument was that the hygiene requirements in the food industry gave them a greater justification to use packaging than other industries, and holding up the toy industry as an example of a less worthy case. I don’t know about you, but I’d estimate that food packaging makes up at least 90% of the waste in my recycle bin each week.

The two most obvious approaches that can be implemented in the short term are reducing the use of plastic packaging at source and encouraging greater return of plastic packaging by consumers for reuse or recycling. Both of these require government intervention to push the problem back on the companies that are putting the plastic on to the market, for example by taxing or regulating the use of disposable plastic, or by encouraging reuse and recycling by enforcing deposit-return schemes. It is good to see that the government is starting to take action on the latter.

Diet-Driven Foods

To see the development of plant-based foods rated by the audience as the second most important trend was music to my ears. Having lived a meat-free diet for almost thirty years, seeing the dramatic rise in interest in plant-based and vegan diets in the past year or so has been rather astonishing. Whereas the traditional motivation for non-meat diets came from animal welfare concerns, it seems that the current trend is being driven by awareness of the health benefits of a plant-based diet and of the environmental destruction caused by livestock farming. Whereas in the past the vegan consumer has been served exclusively by niche suppliers, the mainstream food industry has finally engaged with this market. I would expect this to create a welcome increase in innovation in the area, due to the size of research budgets at the disposal of the mainstream producers and the untapped potential in the market. If you’re reading this, someone please come up with a vegan cheese that really tastes like mature cheddar!

Somewhat related to the former topic is the rise in provision of ‘free from’ ranges of food. If vegetarians and vegans have had a hard time in the past finding acceptable food, people with dietary intolerances have had at least as great a struggle. It’s great news that ‘free from’ is also gradually moving into the mainstream, and likewise the engagement by the major manufacturers must aid rapid innovation leading to more appealing products and greater choice.

Personalised Nutrition

At fourth place in this list of trends was personalised food/nutrition. There was an interesting mix of ideas about what this might mean. From the online shopping perspective, this could be just increasing the intelligence of the virtual grocer that helps suggest foods that you might like; eventually, it might be a match for the real local grocers we used to have before the supermarkets took over. A proponent of wearables technology suggested that fitness trackers and smartphones could be making dietary suggestions based on activity or other deductions about lifestyle, and then ordering appropriate groceries or meals for you. Something like: “no pizza for you this evening as I see you skipped your scheduled run”. Into this mix was added the idea of using genetic profiling to identify foods that might be compatible, or not, with a particular individual.

Another section of the conference was looking at technologies that might have the biggest impact on manufacturing efficiency. While many of the identified technologies were predictable: automation, AI, big data, robotics, blockchain, some of the applications were interesting.

Supply Chain Traceability

A theme that caught my attention was traceability in the supply chain. I hadn’t realised what a huge issue tracking the provenance of food as it passes through the complex supply chain is. If I purchase some organic tomato soup, someone needs to be able to check that the original tomatoes were organic, that the same tomatoes made it to the soup factory, and through the factory’s many processes, that the resulting soup made it to the warehouse, and finally to the supermarket shelf. Blockchain technology was presented as the foundation for creating a distributed ledger that allowed multiple parties to track to provenance and progress of an item as it passed through the supply chain. In addition to the basic benefits of provenance checking, health and safety benefits due to the ability to organise swift and accurate product recalls were highlighted.

This is a really useful deployment of modern technology to an old problem. Its principal limitation is of course that you are only really following the provenance of the label that was attached to the tomatoes in the example used or the box they were in. You’d currently have no way of knowing if they were switched out for alternative products bearing the original labelling. Embedding RFID tags into our food is clearly a non-starter, so further technology would be needed to provide non-invasive scanning of food items to backup their provenance claims. There are plenty of chemical and optical detection solutions in existence to identify types of fruit (a Granny Smith from a Golden Delicious), or ripeness or damage to items. To detect pesticide residues on supposedly organic products, or prove that the country or region of origin is as claimed on the label, we’d need sophisticated sensing technology in small packages and at low cost – this appears to be coming, but we’re not there yet.

Visions of the Future

A lot of the drive for automation is coming from the desire for increased productivity, and the grandest vision presented painted a picture of a field-to-table manufacturing and supply chain that had no human involvement at all, with robotic harvesting, shipping, sorting, warehousing and delivery, all driven by vast amounts of AI. On the plus side, this would certainly be great for productivity. It would also allow for a great degree of customisation and tailoring to each end customer, with the economies of scale and sophistication needed to deliver bespoke products on demand. And perhaps this technology would be an enabler for another trend – the growth in desire for artisan foods. There’s a move to the simplicity of ‘homemade’ values and away from mass-market, highly processed foods. What’s needed to support this are ways of making artisan goods without the labour intensive processes traditionally required. Proponents of robotics and AI would claim to have the answer.

On the other hand, food isn’t just another consumer product. We have a much more basic, emotional connection with food than anything else we buy. Millions of years of evolution have given us a sensory system that allow us to assess, judge and select the food we eat. Fresh food is a complete multi-sensory experience – we can see it, smell it, touch it, feel it, taste it, and sometimes even hear it. Boxing in a person behind a computer screen so that purchasing decisions are made using only one sense – our eyesight – surely sanitises and diminishes the experience. Can technology ever replace the human experience of the classic fresh food market? There’s a challenge.

Food Industry Innovation 2019 was both stimulating and thought provoking. Organised by Innovate UK, it was a mixture of presentations, audience polls, pitch sessions and exhibitions by start-ups, and covered everything from novel food science and manufacturing engineering through to the future of supply and distribution. Some themes kept recurring throughout the day, both from presenters and audience polls, and I thought it would be interesting to look at some of these.

A poll covering top trends in food product development had ‘sustainable packaging’, ‘plant-based/vegan foods’, ‘free from foods’ and ‘personalised food/nutrition’ in top place, in that order.

Sustainable Packaging

It’s hardly surprising that sustainable packaging is top of the agenda, with a newly found mass consumer awareness of the environmental crisis that waste plastic has created. There’s a lot of interest in alternative (e.g. bio-degradable) plastics. In their favour they would permit a ‘business as usual’ approach, allowing manufacturers to continue to use the same volume of plastic packaging but making disposal more practical. However, plastics that retain all their functionality while storing food or drink while degrading rapidly and safely in the environment are still a good way off.

Take cPPA for example, which has been known for decades to depolymerise rapidly on demand. The trick that is still being perfected is how to prevent it from degrading while still in use, under the full range of environmental conditions. Other work is looking at catalytic methods to rapidly break down plastics that are in common use already, such as PET. And even when the science has provided the techniques that we need, actually recycling or composting the current volumes of plastic packaging would require a massive change to the current localised, ad hoc approach to recycling that we have in the UK.

It was somewhat alarming to hear one supermarket representative make an appeal for other industries to take the hit on reducing packaging waste. The argument was that the hygiene requirements in the food industry gave them a greater justification to use packaging than other industries, and holding up the toy industry as an example of a less worthy case. I don’t know about you, but I’d estimate that food packaging makes up at least 90% of the waste in my recycle bin each week.

The two most obvious approaches that can be implemented in the short term are reducing the use of plastic packaging at source and encouraging greater return of plastic packaging by consumers for reuse or recycling. Both of these require government intervention to push the problem back on the companies that are putting the plastic on to the market, for example by taxing or regulating the use of disposable plastic, or by encouraging reuse and recycling by enforcing deposit-return schemes. It is good to see that the government is starting to take action on the latter.

Diet-Driven Foods

To see the development of plant-based foods rated by the audience as the second most important trend was music to my ears. Having lived a meat-free diet for almost thirty years, seeing the dramatic rise in interest in plant-based and vegan diets in the past year or so has been rather astonishing. Whereas the traditional motivation for non-meat diets came from animal welfare concerns, it seems that the current trend is being driven by awareness of the health benefits of a plant-based diet and of the environmental destruction caused by livestock farming. Whereas in the past the vegan consumer has been served exclusively by niche suppliers, the mainstream food industry has finally engaged with this market. I would expect this to create a welcome increase in innovation in the area, due to the size of research budgets at the disposal of the mainstream producers and the untapped potential in the market. If you’re reading this, someone please come up with a vegan cheese that really tastes like mature cheddar!

Somewhat related to the former topic is the rise in provision of ‘free from’ ranges of food. If vegetarians and vegans have had a hard time in the past finding acceptable food, people with dietary intolerances have had at least as great a struggle. It’s great news that ‘free from’ is also gradually moving into the mainstream, and likewise the engagement by the major manufacturers must aid rapid innovation leading to more appealing products and greater choice.

Personalised Nutrition

At fourth place in this list of trends was personalised food/nutrition. There was an interesting mix of ideas about what this might mean. From the online shopping perspective, this could be just increasing the intelligence of the virtual grocer that helps suggest foods that you might like; eventually, it might be a match for the real local grocers we used to have before the supermarkets took over. A proponent of wearables technology suggested that fitness trackers and smartphones could be making dietary suggestions based on activity or other deductions about lifestyle, and then ordering appropriate groceries or meals for you. Something like: “no pizza for you this evening as I see you skipped your scheduled run”. Into this mix was added the idea of using genetic profiling to identify foods that might be compatible, or not, with a particular individual.

Another section of the conference was looking at technologies that might have the biggest impact on manufacturing efficiency. While many of the identified technologies were predictable: automation, AI, big data, robotics, blockchain, some of the applications were interesting.

Supply Chain Traceability

A theme that caught my attention was traceability in the supply chain. I hadn’t realised what a huge issue tracking the provenance of food as it passes through the complex supply chain is. If I purchase some organic tomato soup, someone needs to be able to check that the original tomatoes were organic, that the same tomatoes made it to the soup factory, and through the factory’s many processes, that the resulting soup made it to the warehouse, and finally to the supermarket shelf. Blockchain technology was presented as the foundation for creating a distributed ledger that allowed multiple parties to track to provenance and progress of an item as it passed through the supply chain. In addition to the basic benefits of provenance checking, health and safety benefits due to the ability to organise swift and accurate product recalls were highlighted.

This is a really useful deployment of modern technology to an old problem. Its principal limitation is of course that you are only really following the provenance of the label that was attached to the tomatoes in the example used or the box they were in. You’d currently have no way of knowing if they were switched out for alternative products bearing the original labelling. Embedding RFID tags into our food is clearly a non-starter, so further technology would be needed to provide non-invasive scanning of food items to backup their provenance claims. There are plenty of chemical and optical detection solutions in existence to identify types of fruit (a Granny Smith from a Golden Delicious), or ripeness or damage to items. To detect pesticide residues on supposedly organic products, or prove that the country or region of origin is as claimed on the label, we’d need sophisticated sensing technology in small packages and at low cost – this appears to be coming, but we’re not there yet.

Visions of the Future

A lot of the drive for automation is coming from the desire for increased productivity, and the grandest vision presented painted a picture of a field-to-table manufacturing and supply chain that had no human involvement at all, with robotic harvesting, shipping, sorting, warehousing and delivery, all driven by vast amounts of AI. On the plus side, this would certainly be great for productivity. It would also allow for a great degree of customisation and tailoring to each end customer, with the economies of scale and sophistication needed to deliver bespoke products on demand. And perhaps this technology would be an enabler for another trend – the growth in desire for artisan foods. There’s a move to the simplicity of ‘home made’ values and away from mass-market, highly processed foods. What’s needed to support this are ways of making artisan goods without the labour intensive processes traditionally required. Proponents of robotics and AI would claim to have the answer.

On the other hand, food isn’t just another consumer product. We have a much more basic, emotional connection with food than anything else we buy. Millions of years of evolution have given us a sensory system that allow us to assess, judge and select the food we eat. Fresh food is a complete multi-sensory experience – we can see it, smell it, touch it, feel it, taste it, and sometimes even hear it. Boxing in a person behind a computer screen so that purchasing decisions are made using only one sense – our eyesight – surely sanitises and diminishes the experience. Can technology ever replace the human experience of the classic fresh food market? There’s a challenge.

Further Reading

Creating the right culture to unlock innovation

Creating the Right Culture to Unlock Innovation

Adam Roberts - Marketing Consultant

By: Adam Roberts
Marketing Consultant

4th April 2018

Home » Insights » Careers & People » Page 2

Having a customer-focused mindset is essential in business today. We all know that if you build differential and customised customer service plans you can increase your loyalty, increase revenues and grow your market share.

However, the most successful brands in the world are doing more than this to stay successful and market leading. Companies like Google, Apple and IBM are applying the same customer-focused mindset to building superior employee experiences (EX). So is having the right employee culture the new competitive edge?

Let’s start with some research. In a recent study by Accenture, companies with highly engaged workforces are 21% more profitable than those with poor engagement. Furthermore, leading companies are already realising the striking comparisons between CX (Customer Experience) and EX with 51% of business leaders surveyed planning to create individualised employee experiences comparable to consumer experiences in the next two years.

So employee experiences are important, what does this mean to me?

In order to remain competitive organisations must have employee engagement plans that enhance employee satisfaction, productivity, and retention. In doing so, you’ll also promote brand equity, competitive advantage, and sustainable growth. A big part of this, I believe, is creating a culture that unlocks innovation and the keys to accomplishing this are threefold.

Tools to collaborate

Have you ever noticed the technology we use and enjoy at home (in our personal lives) doesn’t always help us carry out the roles and responsibilities of our jobs? Many people find that when they get to the workplace, every app that they have on their phone becomes an unwanted distraction that actually hinders and/or slows them down. Using the right tools enables an open and transparent environment for employees to effectively communicate and work together.

This principle is fully embraced by Google as every employee can view the personal goals and objectives of every other employee. On a similar note, software engineers at Google also get access to almost all of Google’s code on their first day. This might sound a little extreme but by valuing an open and transparent company culture, Google teaches its employees that it believes them to be trustworthy and have good judgment. That, in turn, empowers staff to collaborate as a team to deliver their best work.

Tech SMEs can start to embrace this principle of openness and transparency in their processes by adopting a number of technologies that aid communication, such as open calendar access and/or use of an intranet site or forum. One of the ways we communicate project success at Plextek is through a bespoke project management system where all engineers and project managers can access each other’s workloads. This aids collaboration in meeting deadlines and ease of communicating progress to the rest of the consultancy.

Culture to Collaborate

Create an environment that sparks creativity and innovation. Having rooms and offices that are decorated with pictures and painted with vibrant colours does more than just impress the visitors at the reception desk. There is actually some science behind the layouts of offices and how they can be the catalyst for creativity in the workspace. I’d like to demonstrate this with an office that I’m fairly familiar with – the Plextek office.

We have a completely flat organisation. Directors, Executives, Managers, Consultants, Engineers and Graduates all sit at desks just beside everyone else. There are no pop-up office walls or offices with assistants or secretaries standing guard outside. This means that there are very few barriers to stop people from going to talk to the exact person they need at that moment in time.

It sounds simple I know, however, this physical equalisation, this physical democratisation, makes people at any level feel like their ideas are just as important as anyone else’s ideas. Everyone feels comfortable to speak up and share. We also have a kitchen/coffee point (with a whiteboard) that is placed between different engineering groups. This is another intentional effort to encourage great spontaneous conversation between staff where different ideas and different solutions can take form.

Some of you might be thinking that it is too difficult to implement some of these things into what you already do but the principles are quite simple. Have monthly socials between working teams (we have a Chinese Cook Off and the food is always incredible!), host a running or walking club, whatever the activity may be, it is about creating and having a spontaneous environment for people to come together and cross-pollinate ideas.

Embedding Change

Whatever change your organisation or team is going through it is important to actually make change stick. Teams and organisations not only need to survive with this change but they also need to thrive in it. At the beginning of this blog, I posed the question “What does this mean to me?” and that will be one of the first questions employees will be asking when accepting your change. I believe you must communicate your change to the head, the heart and the feet of your employees to ensure that it becomes part of the new routine.

Head

    Make your messaging for these changes very clear and simple to understand. Customise this message to the different user groups the change will involve and have specific logical reasons that the user can easily consume.

Heart

    Have a carefully picked executive sponsor who is well known and make sure this person is trained on the change, understands it, and leads by example. Promote the desired result in overall company vision and culture with emotion. And if the change is coming from you, make sure you walk the talk!

Feet

    Do they have the behaviours they need? Do they have the training and knowledge required to walk the walk in the new world of your change?


So is having the right employee culture the new competitive edge? Yes, I believe that it plays an integral part (but only a part) of a much bigger shift for businesses in the future. Deloitte are calling this shift “The rise of the social enterprise” and ultimately summarises the need for building superior employee experiences in order to succeed in this new landscape.

“Organisations are no longer assessed based only on traditional metrics such as financial performance, or even the quality of their products or services. Rather, organisations today are increasingly judged on the basis of their relationships with their workers, their customers, and their communities, as well as their impact on society at large — transforming them from business enterprises into social enterprises.”

Having a customer-focused mindset is essential in business today. We all know that if you build differential and customised customer service plans you can increase your loyalty, increase revenues and grow your market share.

However, the most successful brands in the world are doing more than this to stay successful and market leading. Companies like Google, Apple and IBM are applying the same customer-focused mindset to building superior employee experiences (EX). So is having the right employee culture the new competitive edge?

Let’s start with some research. In a recent study by Accenture, companies with highly engaged workforces are 21% more profitable than those with poor engagement. Furthermore, leading companies are already realising the striking comparisons between CX (Customer Experience) and EX with 51% of business leaders surveyed planning to create individualised employee experiences comparable to consumer experiences in the next two years.

So employee experiences are important, what does this mean to me?

In order to remain competitive organisations must have employee engagement plans that enhance employee satisfaction, productivity, and retention. In doing so, you’ll also promote brand equity, competitive advantage, and sustainable growth. A big part of this, I believe, is creating a culture that unlocks innovation and the keys to accomplishing this are threefold.

Tools to collaborate

Have you ever noticed the technology we use and enjoy at home (in our personal lives) doesn’t always help us carry out the roles and responsibilities of our jobs? Many people find that when they get to the workplace, every app that they have on their phone becomes an unwanted distraction that actually hinders and/or slows them down. Using the right tools enables an open and transparent environment for employees to effectively communicate and work together.

This principle is fully embraced by Google as every employee can view the personal goals and objectives of every other employee. On a similar note, software engineers at Google also get access to almost all of Google’s code on their first day. This might sound a little extreme but by valuing an open and transparent company culture, Google teaches its employees that it believes them to be trustworthy and have good judgment. That, in turn, empowers staff to collaborate as a team to deliver their best work.

Tech SMEs can start to embrace this principle of openness and transparency in their processes by adopting a number of technologies that aid communication, such as open calendar access and/or use of an intranet site or forum. One of the ways we communicate project success at Plextek is through a bespoke project management system where all engineers and project managers can access each other’s workloads. This aids collaboration in meeting deadlines and ease of communicating progress to the rest of the consultancy.

Culture to Collaborate

Create an environment that sparks creativity and innovation. Having rooms and offices that are decorated with pictures and painted with vibrant colours does more than just impress the visitors at the reception desk. There is actually some science behind the layouts of offices and how they can be the catalyst for creativity in the workspace. I’d like to demonstrate this with an office that I’m fairly familiar with – the Plextek office.

We have a completely flat organisation. Directors, Executives, Managers, Consultants, Engineers and Graduates all sit at desks just beside everyone else. There are no pop-up office walls or offices with assistants or secretaries standing guard outside. This means that there are very few barriers to stop people from going to talk to the exact person they need at that moment in time.

It sounds simple I know, however, this physical equalisation, this physical democratisation, makes people at any level feel like their ideas are just as important as anyone else’s ideas. Everyone feels comfortable to speak up and share. We also have a kitchen/coffee point (with a whiteboard) that is placed between different engineering groups. This is another intentional effort to encourage great spontaneous conversation between staff where different ideas and different solutions can take form.

Some of you might be thinking that it is too difficult to implement some of these things into what you already do but the principles are quite simple. Have monthly socials between working teams (we have a Chinese Cook-Off and the food is always incredible!), host a running or walking club, whatever the activity may be, it is about creating and having a spontaneous environment for people to come together and cross-pollinate ideas.

Embedding Change

Whatever change your organisation or team is going through it is important to actually make change stick. Teams and organisations not only need to survive with this change but they also need to thrive in it. At the beginning of this blog, I posed the question “What does this mean to me?” and that will be one of the first questions employees will be asking when accepting your change. I believe you must communicate your change to the head, the heart and the feet of your employees to ensure that it becomes part of the new routine.

Head

    Make your messaging for these changes very clear and simple to understand. Customise this message to the different user groups the change will involve and have specific logical reasons that the user can easily consume.

Heart

    Have a carefully picked executive sponsor who is well known and make sure this person is trained on the change, understands it, and leads by example. Promote the desired result in overall company vision and culture with emotion. And if the change is coming from you, make sure you walk the talk!

Feet

    Do they have the behaviours they need? Do they have the training and knowledge required to walk the walk in the new world of your change?



So is having the right employee culture the new competitive edge? Yes, I believe that it plays an integral part (but only a part) of a much bigger shift for businesses in the future. Deloitte are calling this shift “The rise of the social enterprise” and ultimately summarises the need for building superior employee experiences in order to succeed in this new landscape.

“Organisations are no longer assessed based only on traditional metrics such as financial performance, or even the quality of their products or services. Rather, organisations today are increasingly judged on the basis of their relationships with their workers, their customers, and their communities, as well as their impact on society at large — transforming them from business enterprises into social enterprises.”

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Further Reading

The New Shamans? - Part 2

The New Shamans? – Part 2

Nicholas Hill - Chief Executive Officer

By: Nicholas Hill
Chief Executive Officer

6th December 2017

Home » Insights » Careers & People » Page 2

We can view the engineer today as someone who has special powers to control or influence the spirits of technology; a guardian of the magic of electronics and software; someone who can be looked to for a vision of what can be achieved if the spirits are willing, and someone in whom we must have faith that the spirits will be successfully harnessed and the vision delivered (on time and to budget).

I signed off from the first part of this blog wondering what it means for the engineer whose job it is to provide the technology under the hood, for companies who wish to bring new and evolving products to market, when the end user knows (and perhaps cares) less and less about how it all works. This engineer is in a position of considerable power and influence and needs to use that power both wisely and ethically.

Of course, we can use this power for ‘good’, or not, as we choose. There have always been ethical considerations for engineers, with some being uncomfortable working in certain fields, motivated by aspirations, such as working for peaceful ends or protecting the environment. Most people will have a red line somewhere about the intended applications of the technology they are working on, depending on their personal beliefs. However, the ethical aspect that I wanted to highlight is different to this. In a way, it is about who the engineer is actually working for, in the widest sense. If I buy a product, I might reasonably expect its designers to be ‘on my side’. Is that a reasonable assumption? It feels to me that, increasingly, it is not.

With technology becoming so obscure to the lay person, it is becoming easier to create the proverbial ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’. At the headline news end of the scale, we have seen engineers working for an automotive manufacturer designing ‘features’ into the engine management system to enable the vehicle to pass emission tests, even though the vehicle would be way over the limits in normal road driving.

As an engineering task, exploiting the way that emissions tests were performed wouldn’t have been hard once the well-specified test procedure had been studied carefully. Sadly, a collection of individuals, including the engineers involved, decided that implementing this feature was the right thing to do. Who was the beneficiary of this feature? Clearly, it’s the vehicle manufacturer and not you, the end customer.

For a much less high-profile but more pervasive case example, think of the engineers in the smartphone industry who are working with psychologists in the field of ‘behaviour design’. That desire to keep looking at your phone is not simply due to your lack of willpower. You are responding to a carefully developed rewards system that has been built into applications with the express purpose of keeping you on the phone. In receiving these rewards, such as incoming photos, messages, ‘likes’, and other notifications, we are given a dopamine-induced kick, enticing us to stay engaged.

And because they do not occur on a fixed schedule, we are encouraged to keep looking just in case. More time on the phone means more likelihood of exposure to advertising. You, the end user, are not the beneficiary of this ‘feature’ either. Concentration, once lost, takes a long time to recover, so the loss of productivity through these constant distractions is enormous. And yet many engineers are engaged in developing and refining (I hesitate to say improving) such features. Perhaps it is not surprising that the loaded term ‘WMDs’ has been appropriated in some quarters to refer to Wireless Mobile Devices.

The VW case created a major upheaval, with both the company and whole emissions testing regime under close scrutiny as well as massed legal actions, multiple resignations, and one of the engineers responsible in jail. The damage to trust meant that the discussion quickly moved on to wondering which other manufacturers had been doing the same. In all cases, as technology gets more and more sophisticated, it will become easier over time to incorporate features that work against the end user.

Whether it is the car that they drive, their smartphone, a voice-activated personal assistant or any sort of connected appliance, these users may wish to evaluate for themselves whether the product they are purchasing is likely to be working for their benefit, or for the benefit of the company selling the product, or for someone else entirely. Unfortunately, the complexity and obscurity of the technology involved means that they are not in a position to make this assessment. After all, even the professionals conducting government emissions testing were fooled.

So the end user can only rely on trust and, if this trend continues, they may start to lose faith in the engineers and technologists who are designing the products that they buy. And that would not be a good thing for the engineering profession, which is having a hard enough time with its image already. As engineers, we all have a responsibility to our employers, but we should bear in mind that we also have an ethical responsibility to the users of everything that we design.

Try this test: if the feature that I am working on right now, and the reason for its existence, was printed on the product label rather than buried in a black box, would the customer still buy the product?

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We can view the engineer today as someone who has special powers to control or influence the spirits of technology; a guardian of the magic of electronics and software; someone who can be looked to for a vision of what can be achieved if the spirits are willing, and someone in whom we must have faith that the spirits will be successfully harnessed and the vision delivered (on time and to budget).

I signed off from the first part of this blog wondering what it means for the engineer whose job it is to provide the technology under the hood, for companies who wish to bring new and evolving products to market, when the end user knows (and perhaps cares) less and less about how it all works. This engineer is in a position of considerable power and influence and needs to use that power both wisely and ethically.

Of course, we can use this power for ‘good’, or not, as we choose. There have always been ethical considerations for engineers, with some being uncomfortable working in certain fields, motivated by aspirations, such as working for peaceful ends or protecting the environment. Most people will have a red line somewhere about the intended applications of the technology they are working on, depending on their personal beliefs. However, the ethical aspect that I wanted to highlight is different to this. In a way, it is about who the engineer is actually working for, in the widest sense. If I buy a product, I might reasonably expect its designers to be ‘on my side’. Is that a reasonable assumption? It feels to me that, increasingly, it is not.

With technology becoming so obscure to the lay person, it is becoming easier to create the proverbial ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’. At the headline news end of the scale, we have seen engineers working for an automotive manufacturer designing ‘features’ into the engine management system to enable the vehicle to pass emission tests, even though the vehicle would be way over the limits in normal road driving.

As an engineering task, exploiting the way that emissions tests were performed wouldn’t have been hard once the well-specified test procedure had been studied carefully. Sadly, a collection of individuals, including the engineers involved, decided that implementing this feature was the right thing to do. Who was the beneficiary of this feature? Clearly, it’s the vehicle manufacturer and not you, the end customer.

For a much less high-profile but more pervasive case example, think of the engineers in the smartphone industry who are working with psychologists in the field of ‘behaviour design’. That desire to keep looking at your phone is not simply due to your lack of willpower. You are responding to a carefully developed rewards system that has been built into applications with the express purpose of keeping you on the phone. In receiving these rewards, such as incoming photos, messages, ‘likes’, and other notifications we are given a dopamine-induced kick, enticing us to stay engaged.

And because they do not occur on a fixed schedule, we are encouraged to keep looking just in case. More time on the phone means more likelihood of exposure to advertising. You, the end user, are not the beneficiary of this ‘feature’ either. Concentration, once lost, takes a long time to recover, so the loss of productivity through these constant distractions is enormous. And yet many engineers are engaged in developing and refining (I hesitate to say improving) such features. Perhaps it is not surprising that the loaded term ‘WMDs’ has been appropriated in some quarters to refer to Wireless Mobile Devices.

The VW case created a major upheaval, with both the company and whole emissions testing regime under close scrutiny as well as massed legal actions, multiple resignations, and one of the engineers responsible in jail. The damage to trust meant that the discussion quickly moved on to wondering which other manufacturers had been doing the same. In all cases, as technology gets more and more sophisticated, it will become easier over time to incorporate features that work against the end user.

Whether it is the car that they drive, their smartphone, a voice-activated personal assistant or any sort of connected appliance, these users may wish to evaluate for themselves whether the product they are purchasing is likely to be working for their benefit, or for the benefit of the company selling the product, or for someone else entirely. Unfortunately, the complexity and obscurity of the technology involved means that they are not in a position to make this assessment. After all, even the professionals conducting government emissions testing were fooled.

So the end user can only rely on trust and, if this trend continues, they may start to lose faith in the engineers and technologists who are designing the products that they buy. And that would not be a good thing for the engineering profession, which is having a hard enough time with its image already. As engineers, we all have a responsibility to our employers, but we should bear in mind that we also have an ethical responsibility to the users of everything that we design.

Try this test: if the feature that I am working on right now, and the reason for its existence, was printed on the product label rather than buried in a black box, would the customer still buy the product?

Save

Save

Save

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Further Reading