Why is 5G Technology key for Smarter Cities?

By: Shahzad Nadeem

Head of Smart Cities

19th June 2020

5 minute read

Home » radar » Page 2

As cities become bigger and more densely populated, technology is seen as the key to growing our urban landscape successfully. Technologies can support our work, our living spaces, our supply chains and much more. In this blog, I will introduce 5G technology and briefly explain its applications for future smarter city living.

Background: why is 5G the real breakthrough?

Mobile communications technology has come a long way from the times of Analog tetra band and voice-based GSM cellular systems. Gradual advancements brought new dimensions to communication technologies. 2G, 3G and 4G focused on improvements in throughput to enable faster applications. However, the incremental advances in communication technologies along with Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality, Edge Computing, Cloud Computing, Software-Defined Networking and Network Function Virtualisation have led to the development of super-fast, ultra-reliable, very high capacity and highly secure technology called 5G. This is the technology that ‘understands reality’ on the go. The opportunities and use cases of 5G are unlimited and we can only expect a better experience in all walks of life.

While the earlier technologies concentrated solely on improving speed, 5G caters for speed, low latency and high connection density. The three dimensions of 5G applications are eMBB – Enhanced Mobile Broadband, uRLLC – Ultra-Reliable and Low Latency Communications and mMTC – Massive Machine Type Communications. These dimensions cater to applications that need very high bandwidth or are very sensitive to latency or need large numbers of low-speed connections.

5G will enable applications like fast wireless broadband, virtual reality, augmented reality, self-driving vehicles, machine to machine communications, industrial automation, and many other smart city applications.

What is 5G?

5G is a cellular technology using the new kind of radio called 5G NR (New Radio). 5G NR brings together OFDM (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing), advanced channel coding, massive MIMO and mm-Wave to deliver the advanced 5G features.

5G NR will be mainly used in three frequency bands:
• 700MHz will give marginal improvement on speeds of 250Mbps max compared to LTE
• 3.5GHz will give a max speed of 900Mbps
• 26/28GH called the mmWave band will get us up to 3Gbps.

As we go higher in frequency, the coverage area will decrease so much so that the mmWave band will hardly cover a mile in dense urban areas.

Which applications need 5G?

eMBB demands 20Gbps DL /10 Gbps UL, 4ms user plane latency and mobility of 500km/hour. It caters for applications like VR, AR, Virtual meetings, Fixed Wireless Access, UHD video and Video monitoring. These applications need high throughput to deliver the high-quality user experience. These applications are already in use but mainly use cable broadband rather than mobile broadband. 5G adds the wireless mobility factor that enables all of these applications on the go.

mMTC require 1 million devices / sq km and 10 years+ battery life. It enables applications like wearables, social networking, Smart Homes, Smart Cities, Health care monitoring, Vehicle to infrastructure communications and specific industrial applications. These applications need long battery life and high connection density to cater to millions of devices in a small area.

uRLCC needs 1ms user plane latency, high availability and high security. It supports applications like remote surgery, public safety, vehicle to pedestrian applications and mission-critical specialised industrial applications. These applications demand quick decision time, precision and high levels of security.

Who is winning in 5G?

TIM Italia took the lead in deploying the first 5G network in Europe but several mobile operators across the world almost simultaneously claimed to be the first in 5G launch. Oreedo Qatar, STC Saudi Arabia and Etisalat UAE announced the deployments of their 5G network at around the same time. In Europe, Vodafone, Telefonica O2, EE and Three mobile have limited 5G deployments in place. AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-mobile seem to be leading the market in America. In the Asia Pacific, China mobile, NTT Docomo and Telstra announced their 5G launch at around the end of 2019. The race is on and the operators across the world are trying to take a lead in offering 5G services.

If you have any questions about how 5G can enhance your technology roadmap, please get in touch for an initial chat.

As cities become bigger and more densely populated, technology is seen as the key to growing our urban landscape successfully. Technologies can support our work, our living spaces, our supply chains and much more. In this blog, I will introduce 5G technology and briefly explain its applications for future smarter city living.

Background: why is 5G the real breakthrough?

Mobile communications technology has come a long way from the times of Analog tetra band and voice-based GSM cellular systems. Gradual advancements brought new dimensions to communication technologies. 2G, 3G and 4G focused on improvements in throughput to enable faster applications. However, the incremental advances in communication technologies along with Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality, Edge Computing, Cloud Computing, Software-Defined Networking and Network Function Virtualisation have led to the development of super-fast, ultra-reliable, very high capacity and highly secure technology called 5G. This is the technology that ‘understands reality’ on the go. The opportunities and use cases of 5G are unlimited and we can only expect a better experience in all walks of life.

While the earlier technologies concentrated solely on improving speed, 5G caters for speed, low latency and high connection density. The three dimensions of 5G applications are eMBB – Enhanced Mobile Broadband, uRLLC – Ultra-Reliable and Low Latency Communications and mMTC – Massive Machine Type Communications. These dimensions cater to applications that need very high bandwidth or are very sensitive to latency or need large numbers of low-speed connections.

 

5G will enable applications like fast wireless broadband, virtual reality, augmented reality, self-driving vehicles, machine to machine communications, industrial automation, and many other smart city applications.

What is 5G?

5G is a cellular technology using the new kind of radio called 5G NR (New Radio). 5G NR brings together OFDM (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing), advanced channel coding, massive MIMO and mm-Wave to deliver the advanced 5G features.

5G NR will be mainly used in three frequency bands:
• 700MHz will give marginal improvement on speeds of 250Mbps max compared to LTE
• 3.5GHz will give a max speed of 900Mbps
• 26/28GH called the mmWave band will get us up to 3Gbps.

As we go higher in frequency, the coverage area will decrease so much so that the mmWave band will hardly cover a mile in dense urban areas.

Which applications need 5G?

eMBB demands 20Gbps DL /10 Gbps UL, 4ms user plane latency and mobility of 500km/hour. It caters for applications like VR, AR, Virtual meetings, Fixed Wireless Access, UHD video and Video monitoring. These applications need high throughput to deliver the high quality user experience. These applications are already in use but mainly use cable broadband rather than mobile broadband. 5G adds the wireless mobility factor that enables all of these applications on the go.

mMTC require 1 million devices / sq km and 10 years+ battery life. It enables applications like wearables, social networking, Smart Homes, Smart Cities, Health care monitoring, Vehicle to infrastructure communications and specific industrial applications. These applications need long battery life and high connection density to cater to millions of devices in a small area.

uRLCC needs 1ms user plane latency, high availability and high security. It supports applications like remote surgery, public safety, vehicle to pedestrian applications and mission-critical specialised industrial applications. These applications demand quick decision time, precision and high levels of security.

Who is winning in 5G?

TIM Italia took the lead in deploying the first 5G network in Europe but several mobile operators across the world almost simultaneously claimed to be the first in 5G launch. Oreedo Qatar, STC Saudi Arabia and Etisalat UAE announced the deployments of their 5G network at around the same time. In Europe, Vodafone, Telefonica O2, EE and Three mobile have limited 5G deployments in place. AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-mobile seem to be leading the market in America. In the Asia Pacific, China mobile, NTT Docomo and Telstra announced their 5G launch at around the end of 2019. The race is on and the operators across the world are trying to take a lead in offering 5G services.

If you have any questions about how 5G can enhance your technology roadmap, please get in touch for an initial chat.

Process Optimisation, business growth, product development, business improvement practices, engineering solutions, creativity?

Is Process Optimisation Killing Your Business?

Part 3

Nicholas Hill, Plextek

By: Nicholas Hill

CEO

28th May 2020

5 minute read

Home » radar » Page 2

In Part 2 of this blog series, I described some of the less desirable side effects that an increase in the process over time can have, how it can have a negative impact on your business, and most importantly, started to show what to do to prevent it. In this, the final part of the blog series, I’ll complete my exploration of ways in which you prevent being dragged down by process by exploring the role of environment, business model and communications.

Environment

A single workspace and set of tools are unlikely to satisfy the needs of starters and finishers.

Early stages of a project, and starters, are more likely to require open spaces for lively group workshops, tools that support rapid prototyping and modelling and surroundings that inspire creativity. The latter stages of development, and finishers, will need quiet space for concentrated work, CAD systems, document management systems, and comprehensive test and verification facilities.

To be effective, the organisation needs to understand the difference and provide the right environment for everyone.

Business Model

The business of delivering ideation workshops, exploring product concepts or creating proof-of-principle demonstrations are examples of activities for which the outcome is ill-defined. The commercial engagement often comes down to ‘having a go’; sometimes one can pull a rabbit out of the hat, sometimes not. When it comes to the invention, for example, there are no guarantees. Perhaps the customer will like our design concepts, perhaps they won’t. Everyone understands that.

On the other hand, if we agree to develop a product for a customer and introduce it into manufacture, we are making very specific commitments to the deliverables at the end of the project. There will be a very precisely defined outcome, and we haven’t finished until we’ve ticked all the necessary boxes. There is a much higher degree of risk in this type of work. This risk must be considered in advance and it must be clear who carries it (us or our customer).

This doesn’t just affect the project delivery processes, as described above, it influences our business model and has a big impact on the sales process. The overhead involved in early-stage projects tends to be very low because the risk is low, whereas the overhead involved in later-stage projects can be huge because of the degree of detailed analysis that is required before a timescale and price can be agreed upon.
Be clear about which it is before you start bidding for a project.

Internal Communications

One day you are exhorting staff to focus on efficiency, process optimisation, risk reduction and refining company systems so that projects can be delivered on time and within budget; the next day you are emphasising the benefits of taking time out for navel-gazing and experimenting with nebulous ideas in the name of innovation. Not surprisingly staff can be very confused by such mixed messages: “how am I expected to spend quiet time following a train of thought that might lead to some new insight when I have a project manager chasing me to meet a critical deadline on Friday?”

You are going to have to set things up such that the tension between these two modes of working is balanced in some way.

You’ll rightly have some processes that make project delivery manageable, repeatable and efficient.

Resource managers will be putting staff into teams to best match supply (new projects that need resource) to demand (staff with the right skills for the job). Project managers will be making sure that their teams stay focussed on project deliverables.

But clearly, if you want to ensure that your staff have the space for some quality ‘off the clock’ time they will need that time allocated. And done in such a way that resource managers recognise it as equally valid to ‘on the clock’ project time. You might need a project manager for off the clock time to make sure the time is being put in.

External Communications

A somewhat analogous situation exists in external communications. Your organisation may genuinely be able to execute pacey, short, speculative projects and also large, complex, rigorous and demanding projects, but you will have a difficult job getting that message across to customers.

The sort of shop window that would attract a potential customer who is looking for some very rapid ideas development or a ‘quick and dirty’ proof-of-the-possible demonstration will not attract a customer who is looking for rigorous design methodology, highly detailed work breakdown, thorough verification plans and precise deliverables. The former will be looking for evidence of disruptive thinkers who can create novel opportunities, the latter a team who can precisely specify and then deliver reliably what it promises, with a high degree of risk management.

CONCLUSION

About two years ago Plextek started thinking about how to introduce new innovation strategy and design services to our business, to complement our existing technology and engineering services. All the tensions discussed above were very much in our minds. The people needed to deliver these services would have a very different mindset to our engineers, even those at the ‘starter’ end of the spectrum. Processes would need to be minimal to allow the maximum amount of flexibility and pace. The environment needed to be open, inspiring, suitable for interactive workshops rather than functional and lab-based. The office culture would be quite different, led by ‘creatives’ rather than scientists and engineers. It would be difficult to present our traditional services and our new services within one marketing ‘shop window’.

After much discussion, we concluded that the tensions were just too great to exist within one entity, so we made the decision to set up Ignite Exponential as a separate business unit to provide these new services. Although it was closely coupled to our existing business, Ignite Exponential would have the freedom it needed to support its own flavour of people, process, business model, environment and marketing.

This is an extreme example, where it seemed it was not possible to create sufficient space for two such different ways of working under one roof. It’s important that a business can recognise when this is the right solution. But it must also be prepared to work hard to allow very different ways of working co-exist under one roof wherever possible, to suit the type of project being undertaken.

As a keen traveller, what I learned from this is that I needed a new checklist. It’s called ‘Minimal Gear’. The rules work in the opposite sense to my traditional ones. When I come back from a trip I look at what I took that I didn’t need or could have done without, and cross it off the checklist. The list gets shorter and shorter over time rather than longer, and I regain that ability to make ad hoc decisions without feeling encumbered by heavy bags or the value of what I’m carrying. I haven’t thrown away the old checklists: quite often they are appropriate to use. But I now have the luxury of two modes of travel, with a system that can support both of them.

In Part 2 of this blog series, I described some of the less desirable side effects that an increase in the process over time can have, how it can have a negative impact on your business, and most importantly, started to show what to do to prevent it. In this, the final part of the blog series, I’ll complete my exploration of ways in which you prevent being dragged down by process by exploring the role of environment, business model and communications.

Environment

A single workspace and set of tools are unlikely to satisfy the needs of starters and finishers.

Early stages of a project, and starters, are more likely to require open spaces for lively group workshops, tools that support rapid prototyping and modelling and surroundings that inspire creativity. The latter stages of development, and finishers, will need quiet space for concentrated work, CAD systems, document management systems, and comprehensive test and verification facilities.

To be effective, the organisation needs to understand the difference and provide the right environment for everyone.

Business Model

The business of delivering ideation workshops, exploring product concepts or creating proof-of-principle demonstrations are examples of activities for which the outcome is ill-defined. The commercial engagement often comes down to ‘having a go’; sometimes one can pull a rabbit out of the hat, sometimes not. When it comes to the invention, for example, there are no guarantees. Perhaps the customer will like our design concepts, perhaps they won’t. Everyone understands that.

On the other hand, if we agree to develop a product for a customer and introduce it into manufacture, we are making very specific commitments to the deliverables at the end of the project. There will be a very precisely defined outcome, and we haven’t finished until we’ve ticked all the necessary boxes. There is a much higher degree of risk in this type of work. This risk must be considered in advance and it must be clear who carries it (us or our customer).

This doesn’t just affect the project delivery processes, as described above, it influences our business model and has a big impact on the sales process. The overhead involved in early-stage projects tends to be very low because the risk is low, whereas the overhead involved in later-stage projects can be huge because of the degree of detailed analysis that is required before a timescale and price can be agreed upon.
Be clear about which it is before you start bidding for a project.

Internal Communications

One day you are exhorting staff to focus on efficiency, process optimisation, risk reduction and refining company systems so that projects can be delivered on time and within budget; the next day you are emphasising the benefits of taking time out for navel-gazing and experimenting with nebulous ideas in the name of innovation. Not surprisingly staff can be very confused by such mixed messages: “how am I expected to spend quiet time following a train of thought that might lead to some new insight when I have a project manager chasing me to meet a critical deadline on Friday?”

You are going to have to set things up such that the tension between these two modes of working is balanced in some way.

You’ll rightly have some processes that make project delivery manageable, repeatable and efficient.

Resource managers will be putting staff into teams to best match supply (new projects that need resource) to demand (staff with the right skills for the job). Project managers will be making sure that their teams stay focussed on project deliverables.

But clearly, if you want to ensure that your staff have the space for some quality ‘off the clock’ time they will need that time allocated. And done in such a way that resource managers recognise it as equally valid to ‘on the clock’ project time. You might need a project manager for off the clock time to make sure the time is being put in.

External Communications

A somewhat analogous situation exists in external communications. Your organisation may genuinely be able to execute pacey, short, speculative projects and also large, complex, rigorous and demanding projects, but you will have a difficult job getting that message across to customers.

The sort of shop window that would attract a potential customer who is looking for some very rapid ideas development or a ‘quick and dirty’ proof-of-the-possible demonstration will not attract a customer who is looking for rigorous design methodology, highly detailed work breakdown, thorough verification plans and precise deliverables. The former will be looking for evidence of disruptive thinkers who can create novel opportunities, the latter a team who can precisely specify and then deliver reliably what it promises, with a high degree of risk management.

CONCLUSION

About two years ago Plextek started thinking about how to introduce new innovation strategy and design services to our business, to complement our existing technology and engineering services. All the tensions discussed above were very much in our minds. The people needed to deliver these services would have a very different mindset to our engineers, even those at the ‘starter’ end of the spectrum. Processes would need to be minimal to allow the maximum amount of flexibility and pace. The environment needed to be open, inspiring, suitable for interactive workshops rather than functional and lab-based. The office culture would be quite different, led by ‘creatives’ rather than scientists and engineers. It would be difficult to present our traditional services and our new services within one marketing ‘shop window’.

After much discussion, we concluded that the tensions were just too great to exist within one entity, so we made the decision to set up Ignite Exponential as a separate business unit to provide these new services. Although it was closely coupled to our existing business, Ignite Exponential would have the freedom it needed to support its own flavour of people, process, business model, environment and marketing.

This is an extreme example, where it seemed it was not possible to create sufficient space for two such different ways of working under one roof. It’s important that a business can recognise when this is the right solution. But it must also be prepared to work hard to allow very different ways of working co-exist under one roof wherever possible, to suit the type of project being undertaken.

As a keen traveller, what I learned from this is that I needed a new checklist. It’s called ‘Minimal Gear’. The rules work in the opposite sense to my traditional ones. When I come back from a trip I look at what I took that I didn’t need or could have done without, and cross it off the checklist. The list gets shorter and shorter over time rather than longer, and I regain that ability to make ad hoc decisions without feeling encumbered by heavy bags or the value of what I’m carrying. I haven’t thrown away the old checklists: quite often they are appropriate to use. But I now have the luxury of two modes of travel, with a system that can support both of them.

Process Optimisation, business growth, product development, business improvement practices, engineering solutions

Is Process Optimisation Killing Your Business?

Part 2

Nicholas Hill, Plextek

By: Nicholas Hill

CEO

27th May 2020

5 minute read

Home » radar » Page 2

In Part 1 of this blog I described how, for well-intentioned reasons, the trajectory of the business process is always in the same direction: increasing over time. In this part of the blog, I’ll describe some of the less desirable side effects that this increase in the process can have, how it can have a negative impact on your business, and most importantly, what to do to prevent it.

THE EFFECTS

All of these well-intentioned drivers add positive value to a business because most of the time they are attempting to ensure best practice is followed. However, they also add friction and reduce flexibility, hindering the organisation’s ability to execute projects with short timescales or react swiftly to changes of scope.

A typical tendency of process improvement is to apply it across the board. So if a process is introduced or changed as part of a remedial action that came out of one project, it will be applied to all areas under the guise of ‘preventative action’. The improvement that was relevant for one instance in one project is now attempting to fix problems that may not have existed in other projects but just adds friction to the process. In effect, the height of the quality ‘bar’ is pushed up to that which the most demanding project demands. But now all projects have to get over that bar, whether it is appropriate or not.

If you are writing software for critical applications, such as aerospace or medical device, you rightly need a consistent and rigorous approach, accurate specification, careful execution, painstaking verification and lots of checks and balances. So your organisation builds these features into the quality procedures for writing software. But somewhere else in the business someone is trying to rapidly put together a technology demonstrator for a new product idea. The demonstrator is built around a Raspberry Pi and needs some quickly written code to show how the product might interact with a user. Someone argues that although this demonstrator is only there to show how something might work and not actually deliver a solution, there’s a danger that some of the code might get carried over into a subsequently developed product. So you apply the full-blown software quality process just in case. And you find you can’t possibly get the job done in the timescale available and the cost is out of all proportion to the task.

The similar setting of the quality bar according to the highest need can happen everywhere. For example in the sales process (when the controls appropriate for selling the largest jobs get applied to small ones), or project management (when the process used to start, run and close a project have been scaled to handle the largest, most complex projects and put an unacceptable overhead on smaller projects). This may have been done with the best of intentions, but reflects that fact that it’s much easier to argue for more process than less. The latter is seen as risk-avoiding and so “good”, the latter inviting risk and thus “bad”.

Over time it is easy to get into a situation in which a company is very well set up for executing the largest, most complex, most difficult projects, but has lost the ability to both sell and execute the more pacey, short or risky projects. The organisation has become too slow and too expensive because of the process overhead that has accreted to the business.

In this mode, the organisation is behaving like a railway train, following a carefully controlled path to a pre-defined destination, with specified milestones along the way, and with a large amount of scrutiny, oversight and supervision. So how can we get it to behave like a 4×4 when we need it to, possibly just exploring the landscape, possibly finding the shortest route to the destination, constrained only by the terrain? In disrupted times like we are currently experiencing, these questions become even more pertinent.

THE SOLUTIONS

The first step to avoiding this situation is becoming aware of the problem and realising that action is needed.
A business will typically see an inevitable slow accretion of process over time, so something must be put in place to push back against this tendency. And that takes conscious action. The dialogue must be changed from one of risk-taking versus risk-aversion, which inevitably tends to favour the latter, to around the benefits versus potential costs of any proposed increase in the process. Any business contains a mass of compromises, and finding the right balance is key, but you can’t do that if only one side of the equation is considered.
Many businesses would benefit from the ability to be schizophrenic: sometimes rigorous and risk-averse, sometimes pacey and adventurous. When developing a medical device or aerospace product, design staff need to be able to work in an entirely different mode to when they are brainstorming ideas and putting together experimental models and prototypes. Although process and standards must be applied across the business, a one-size-fits-all template should be avoided. I’ll illustrate this with some examples of how this could be applied in practice.

Process

Overhaul company procedures with the aim of reducing the mandatory process to the minimum. All activities must comply with these, so think very hard about the cost and benefit of each individual requirement before putting it in place. Handle more complex or demanding projects by adding in an additional process that is tailored to that project’s requirements.
Company procedures can end up containing a large amount of excellent advice that has accrued over time. While much of this may be useful it has two detrimental impacts. Firstly it contributes to procedures growing very large and nobody will read long quality documents. Secondly, it may not be clear where the end of the mandatory instructions and the guidance begins. Address this by stripping out all of the guidance and putting it into separate documents that can be referred to when needed.

People

In order to work across the full range of potential projects, we must recognise that different people are more comfortable with different types of project activity. This is nothing to do with their technical specialism: it is about where they sit on an axis that we could call “starter-finisher”. Those at the “starter” end of the scale will be more comfortable with the typical early stages of a project: more experimental, more open-ended, riskier, less well defined. Those at the “finisher” end of the scale will be more comfortable working on the later stages of a typical project: with a clearly specified requirement, with a strong process or framework, with clear boundaries around who is responsible for what and with a desire to push on until every bug is fixed and verification step is complete.

The starters will be great at getting fresh ideas on the table and demonstrating what could be achieved but will get bored long before the product hits the production line. The finishers won’t cope at all well with the somewhat nebulous and ill-defined state of the early project but will make sure we deliver the fully finished article that the customer needs. There’s nothing wrong with this, though both starters and finishers may have difficulty understanding each other!

What is important is that the business recognises these traits and realises that starters work best with minimal process whereas finishers work best where there is a strong process. Accommodating this in a single business is not always easy.

In Part 3 of this blog, I’ll continue to show what you can do to prevent being dragged down by process, to be able to be both rigorous and a fleet of foot, discussing the role of environment, business model and communications.

In Part 1 of this blog I described how, for well-intentioned reasons, the trajectory of the business process is always in the same direction: increasing over time. In this part of the blog, I’ll describe some of the less desirable side effects that this increase in the process can have, how it can have a negative impact on your business, and most importantly, what to do to prevent it.

THE EFFECTS

All of these well-intentioned drivers add positive value to a business because most of the time they are attempting to ensure best practice is followed. However, they also add friction and reduce flexibility, hindering the organisation’s ability to execute projects with short timescales or react swiftly to changes of scope.

A typical tendency of process improvement is to apply it across the board. So if a process is introduced or changed as part of a remedial action that came out of one project, it will be applied to all areas under the guise of ‘preventative action’. The improvement that was relevant for one instance in one project is now attempting to fix problems that may not have existed in other projects but just adds friction to the process. In effect, the height of the quality ‘bar’ is pushed up to that which the most demanding project demands. But now all projects have to get over that bar, whether it is appropriate or not.

If you are writing software for critical applications, such as aerospace or medical device, you rightly need a consistent and rigorous approach, accurate specification, careful execution, painstaking verification and lots of checks and balances. So your organisation builds these features into the quality procedures for writing software. But somewhere else in the business someone is trying to rapidly put together a technology demonstrator for a new product idea. The demonstrator is built around a Raspberry Pi and needs some quickly written code to show how the product might interact with a user. Someone argues that although this demonstrator is only there to show how something might work and not actually deliver a solution, there’s a danger that some of the code might get carried over into a subsequently developed product. So you apply the full-blown software quality process just in case. And you find you can’t possibly get the job done in the timescale available and the cost is out of all proportion to the task.

The similar setting of the quality bar according to the highest need can happen everywhere. For example in the sales process (when the controls appropriate for selling the largest jobs get applied to small ones), or project management (when the process used to start, run and close a project have been scaled to handle the largest, most complex projects and put an unacceptable overhead on smaller projects). This may have been done with the best of intentions, but reflects that fact that it’s much easier to argue for more process than less. The latter is seen as risk-avoiding and so “good”, the latter inviting risk and thus “bad”.

Over time it is easy to get into a situation in which a company is very well set up for executing the largest, most complex, most difficult projects, but has lost the ability to both sell and execute the more pacey, short or risky projects. The organisation has become too slow and too expensive because of the process overhead that has accreted to the business.

In this mode, the organisation is behaving like a railway train, following a carefully controlled path to a pre-defined destination, with specified milestones along the way, and with a large amount of scrutiny, oversight and supervision. So how can we get it to behave like a 4×4 when we need it to, possibly just exploring the landscape, possibly finding the shortest route to the destination, constrained only by the terrain? In disrupted times like we are currently experiencing, these questions become even more pertinent.

THE SOLUTIONS

The first step to avoiding this situation is becoming aware of the problem and realising that action is needed.
A business will typically see an inevitable slow accretion of process over time, so something must be put in place to push back against this tendency. And that takes conscious action. The dialogue must be changed from one of risk-taking versus risk-aversion, which inevitably tends to favour the latter, to around the benefits versus potential costs of any proposed increase in the process. Any business contains a mass of compromises, and finding the right balance is key, but you can’t do that if only one side of the equation is considered.
Many businesses would benefit from the ability to be schizophrenic: sometimes rigorous and risk-averse, sometimes pacey and adventurous. When developing a medical device or aerospace product, design staff need to be able to work in an entirely different mode to when they are brainstorming ideas and putting together experimental models and prototypes. Although process and standards must be applied across the business, a one-size-fits-all template should be avoided. I’ll illustrate this with some examples of how this could be applied in practice.

Process

Overhaul company procedures with the aim of reducing the mandatory process to the minimum. All activities must comply with these, so think very hard about the cost and benefit of each individual requirement before putting it in place. Handle more complex or demanding projects by adding in an additional process that is tailored to that project’s requirements.
Company procedures can end up containing a large amount of excellent advice that has accrued over time. While much of this may be useful it has two detrimental impacts. Firstly it contributes to procedures growing very large and nobody will read long quality documents. Secondly, it may not be clear where the end of the mandatory instructions and the guidance begins. Address this by stripping out all of the guidance and putting it into separate documents that can be referred to when needed.

People

In order to work across the full range of potential projects, we must recognise that different people are more comfortable with different types of project activity. This is nothing to do with their technical specialism: it is about where they sit on an axis that we could call “starter-finisher”. Those at the “starter” end of the scale will be more comfortable with the typical early stages of a project: more experimental, more open-ended, riskier, less well defined. Those at the “finisher” end of the scale will be more comfortable working on the later stages of a typical project: with a clearly specified requirement, with a strong process or framework, with clear boundaries around who is responsible for what and with a desire to push on until every bug is fixed and verification step is complete.

The starters will be great at getting fresh ideas on the table and demonstrating what could be achieved but will get bored long before the product hits the production line. The finishers won’t cope at all well with the somewhat nebulous and ill-defined state of the early project but will make sure we deliver the fully finished article that the customer needs. There’s nothing wrong with this, though both starters and finishers may have difficulty understanding each other!

What is important is that the business recognises these traits and realises that starters work best with minimal process whereas finishers work best where there is a strong process. Accommodating this in a single business is not always easy.

In Part 3 of this blog, I’ll continue to show what you can do to prevent being dragged down by process, to be able to be both rigorous and a fleet of foot, discussing the role of environment, business model and communications.

Process Optimisation, business growth, product development, business improvement practices, engineering solutions

Is Process Optimisation Killing Your Business?

Part 1

Nicholas Hill, Plextek

By: Nicholas Hill

CEO

26th May 2020

5 minute read

Home » radar » Page 2

Do you travel light, or do you go prepared for any eventuality? I’ve always loved travelling, particularly when I can get off the beaten track. Although the concept of travelling light really appeals to me, perhaps because of my engineering training I like to be very organised and prepared. Over many years I’ve built up a checklist of things to take, categorised by the type of trip. Anytime I’ve found I needed something that I hadn’t taken, I would add it to the checklist when I got back. Over time the list grew and grew, and while I’m genuinely prepared for anything, I’m saddled with a large and heavy bag to carry all that gear. That makes it harder to move from place to place and so discourages ad hoc changes to plan. I might feel that a single night detour to some interesting location would be fun to do but am put off at the thought of all that packing and unpacking. I’m unable to do some of the things that I liked to travel for in the first place.

As a medium-sized innovation and technology consultancy, one of the things that our customers particularly value is our ability to work at pace. We can pick up an assignment, put a team onto it, brainstorm ideas, develop those ideas, do some modelling, get prototypes or technology demonstrators made for evaluation typically much faster than our customer could. And we can keep up that pace through the detail design and introduction to manufacture phases. That might be important because a window of opportunity is limited, or because a hard deadline is looming.

In the latter stages of the design cycle – detail design, production engineering and manufacture – another set of drivers join the need for pace. These typically fall under the ‘quality’ banner and include processes to manage rigour, verification, traceability, repeatability, integrity, and so on. As we have grown we have embedded established systems and processes such as ISO9001 and ISO13485 into the company to support the needs of these drivers. One of the attributes of these systems is a constant drive for process improvement and optimisation. On the whole, this is good, but if left unchecked it leads to a steady accretion of further process. Furthermore, some of our clients, particularly those in the defence and aerospace sectors, require a further range of stringent process so that we can satisfy the requirements of their own internal systems.

A seemingly unavoidable side effect of this drip, drip of additional process and control is a pace-limiting friction on everything that we do. The 400m sprint that we were so good at has turned into the 400m hurdles. And here’s the irony: we are in danger of losing one of the very things that our customers liked us for in the first place – our ability to work faster and more flexibly than they can. Are we producing the optimal engine to deliver a service that is not actually fit for purpose?

What follows are some hopefully useful observations that have come out of our experiences in this area in recent years.

THE PRESSURES

Let’s examine the pressures on an engineering technology business that might restrict its ability to work at pace in a bit more detail.

One set of pressures derive from developing products that are critical in some way, particularly those that have a health and safety impact. Most aerospace products and many transport products must be able to demonstrate very high levels of reliability and availability and operate over a wide range of adverse environmental conditions. Many healthcare products must show high levels of repeatability and integrity. Some of these requirements place demands on the manufacturing and production process, whereas others place demands on the design process. For example, it may be necessary to demonstrate that the design can tolerate every combination of component tolerance variability and still perform as required. Any time the design changes this analysis must be done again, so a process will be needed to ensure that it has. A typical development project for a product of this type will be littered with checklists, design reviews, process gates and carefully crafted documentation.

A completely different set of process accrues from business improvement practices. In simple terms, this is about a desire to identify and capture the most efficient or effective way of working and then follow this approach on every project. This encompasses a wide range of drivers, from avoiding underselling to avoiding project over-runs, from keeping to timescales and minimising rework to improving profits. Project managers and team members are all individuals, so if left to their own devices may approach each project in a different way. Embedding process and rules can provide helpful guidance that ensures all projects follow an optimal path. When something doesn’t go according to plan, the situation is reviewed and process changes are made that will attempt to prevent a recurrence. Although the recent rework of ISO9001 has changed its focus towards risk management, for most of its life it has been all about encoding process like this into a business.

The third set of drivers comes from business growth. As anyone who has worked at a start-up or small SME will know, job roles can be very vaguely defined. A small team can effectively share out the work that needs to be done in an ad hoc fashion without important stuff dropping through the cracks. As an organisation grows, communication gets harder and friction increases. There is a real danger that two individuals, or none, take on a particular task. Neither of these is a welcome outcome, so staff need to know where their responsibilities start and end in a much more precisely defined way. To address this issue, organisations will split into teams and groups with bounded responsibilities and won’t take on tasks that don’t fall within their scope. Job descriptions become specific. Training will become more formalised and staff may need ‘certificates of competence’ so that managers can be sure they have the necessary training to take on the assigned task.

In Part 2 of this blog I’ll be describing some of the less desirable side effects that this increase in the process can have, how it can have a negative impact on your business, and most importantly, what to do to prevent it.

Do you travel light, or do you go prepared for any eventuality? I’ve always loved travelling, particularly when I can get off the beaten track. Although the concept of travelling light really appeals to me, perhaps because of my engineering training I like to be very organised and prepared. Over many years I’ve built up a checklist of things to take, categorised by the type of trip. Anytime I’ve found I needed something that I hadn’t taken, I would add it to the checklist when I got back. Over time the list grew and grew, and while I’m genuinely prepared for anything, I’m saddled with a large and heavy bag to carry all that gear. That makes it harder to move from place to place and so discourages ad hoc changes to plan. I might feel that a single night detour to some interesting location would be fun to do but am put off at the thought of all that packing and unpacking. I’m unable to do some of the things that I liked to travel for in the first place.

As a medium-sized innovation and technology consultancy, one of the things that our customers particularly value is our ability to work at pace. We can pick up an assignment, put a team onto it, brainstorm ideas, develop those ideas, do some modelling, get prototypes or technology demonstrators made for evaluation typically much faster than our customer could. And we can keep up that pace through the detail design and introduction to manufacture phases. That might be important because a window of opportunity is limited, or because a hard deadline is looming.

In the latter stages of the design cycle – detail design, production engineering and manufacture – another set of drivers join the need for pace. These typically fall under the ‘quality’ banner and include processes to manage rigour, verification, traceability, repeatability, integrity, and so on. As we have grown we have embedded established systems and processes such as ISO9001 and ISO13485 into the company to support the needs of these drivers. One of the attributes of these systems is a constant drive for process improvement and optimisation. On the whole, this is good, but if left unchecked it leads to a steady accretion of further process. Furthermore, some of our clients, particularly those in the defence and aerospace sectors, require a further range of stringent process so that we can satisfy the requirements of their own internal systems.

A seemingly unavoidable side effect of this drip, drip of additional process and control is a pace-limiting friction on everything that we do. The 400m sprint that we were so good at has turned into the 400m hurdles. And here’s the irony: we are in danger of losing one of the very things that our customers liked us for in the first place – our ability to work faster and more flexibly than they can. Are we producing the optimal engine to deliver a service that is not actually fit for purpose?

What follows are some hopefully useful observations that have come out of our experiences in this area in recent years.

THE PRESSURES

Let’s examine the pressures on an engineering technology business that might restrict its ability to work at pace in a bit more detail.

One set of pressures derive from developing products that are critical in some way, particularly those that have a health and safety impact. Most aerospace products and many transport products must be able to demonstrate very high levels of reliability and availability and operate over a wide range of adverse environmental conditions. Many healthcare products must show high levels of repeatability and integrity. Some of these requirements place demands on the manufacturing and production process, whereas others place demands on the design process. For example, it may be necessary to demonstrate that the design can tolerate every combination of component tolerance variability and still perform as required. Any time the design changes this analysis must be done again, so a process will be needed to ensure that it has. A typical development project for a product of this type will be littered with checklists, design reviews, process gates and carefully crafted documentation.

A completely different set of process accrues from business improvement practices. In simple terms, this is about a desire to identify and capture the most efficient or effective way of working and then follow this approach on every project. This encompasses a wide range of drivers, from avoiding underselling to avoiding project over-runs, from keeping to timescales and minimising rework to improving profits. Project managers and team members are all individuals, so if left to their own devices may approach each project in a different way. Embedding process and rules can provide helpful guidance that ensures all projects follow an optimal path. When something doesn’t go according to plan, the situation is reviewed and process changes are made that will attempt to prevent a recurrence. Although the recent rework of ISO9001 has changed its focus towards risk management, for most of its life it has been all about encoding process like this into a business.

The third set of drivers comes from business growth. As anyone who has worked at a start-up or small SME will know, job roles can be very vaguely defined. A small team can effectively share out the work that needs to be done in an ad hoc fashion without important stuff dropping through the cracks. As an organisation grows, communication gets harder and friction increases. There is a real danger that two individuals, or none, take on a particular task. Neither of these is a welcome outcome, so staff need to know where their responsibilities start and end in a much more precisely defined way. To address this issue, organisations will split into teams and groups with bounded responsibilities and won’t take on tasks that don’t fall within their scope. Job descriptions become specific. Training will become more formalised and staff may need ‘certificates of competence’ so that managers can be sure they have the necessary training to take on the assigned task.

In Part 2 of this blog I’ll be describing some of the less desirable side effects that this increase in the process can have, how it can have a negative impact on your business, and most importantly, what to do to prevent it.

What Does Perfect Remote Communication Look Like to You?

By: Polly Britton

Project Engineer, Product Design

7th May 2020

3 minute read

Home » radar » Page 2

With the recent abrupt move to a near 100% virtual workplace, Product Designer, Polly Britton, looks at what the far future may look like for human interactions across physical distances:

In the Isaac Asimov novel, The Naked Sun, the planet of Solaria is so sparsely populated that humans living there can only visit each other by holograms of themselves into each other’s homes. The projections look and sound so realistic it is as if the people are in the same room together. (If you’ve ever watched Star Trek, the ‘Holodeck’ showed a similar technology, but they never used it to communicate.) The illusion is so convincing that the Solarians feel no need at all to meet each other in person and find the whole concept quite foreign.

This is the standard of technology I imagine when thinking of remote communication in the future. With ever-increasing Internet speeds, high-resolution displays, and 3D surround sound, it’s a standard we could easily approach within my lifetime. It makes me wonder at what point between now and then will the technology be good enough to replace more of our long-distance journeys, and then our shorter distance commutes? It’s easy to imagine the potential benefits of this kind of technology replacing expensive business trips and tedious commuting, but to what extent will it replace our social interactions too?

What are we getting from these interactions in ‘meet-space’ (or ‘meat-space’) that is worth spending hours travelling to a physical point in space that we occupy together? In addition to the time spent, we have to consider the financial & environmental impacts of that physical journey, not to mention health risks from current and future germs.

There is certainly a multitude of signals we send consciously and unconsciously with our subtle body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice, that cannot be communicated remotely using current technology. There is no way to offer a handshake or a cup of tea. Even making eye contact is impossible using the technology most people use. To look at the eyes of the person you are talking to, you have to look away from the lens of your camera, which will give the impression that you are not looking at their eyes. To give the impression of eye contact you can look directly at the camera lens, but it feels unnatural and you can’t actually watch the person you’re pretending to look at. It could be worth investing in a system though that supports eye to contact – a new study led by Tampere University in Finland found that eye contact during video calls (or the illusion of it) can elicit similar psychophysiological responses to those triggered by genuine, in-person eye contact. It suggests that a system enabling natural eye contact during a video call could go a long way to making the interaction ‘feel’ real. This is just one problem to overcome on the way to the gold standard described in The Naked Sun.

With so many people now working from home and withdrawing from social meetings, we might see a sudden revolution in communication technology, and the way we use it. It may be enough to get us to cut down on our meat-space interactions permanently, saving us all the expenses that come with travelling.

But even with a perfect communication system like in The Naked Sun, would we not still want to visit the consultancy designing our product, and the factory manufacturing it? Would we still take a long car journey or flight to visit our families at Christmas? There is no replacement for the tactile experience of a handshake or hug, or sharing food together.

Businesses and individuals need to balance that financial/health/environmental tension against their desire for physical interactions and I would suggest that we need our technology to advance much further than it currently has in order to create a big step change in consumer behaviour.

Although we can’t know what the future holds for us, I think it’s safe to say communication technology will continue to become a larger part of our lives as it develops. It will be interesting to see which advances make the biggest difference – virtual Reality, 360-degree cameras, high fidelity audio, or perhaps some new software features that improves user interface. The advances that change our lives the most are often surprising and aren’t predicted by science fiction at all.

What are your thoughts? We would love to hear from you.

With the recent abrupt move to a near 100% virtual workplace, Product Designer, Polly Britton, looks at what the far future may look like for human interactions across physical distances:

In the Isaac Asimov novel, The Naked Sun, the planet of Solaria is so sparsely populated that humans living there can only visit each other by holograms of themselves into each other’s homes. The projections look and sound so realistic it is as if the people are in the same room together. (If you’ve ever watched Star Trek, the ‘Holodeck’ showed a similar technology, but they never used it to communicate.) The illusion is so convincing that the Solarians feel no need at all to meet each other in person and find the whole concept quite foreign.

This is the standard of technology I imagine when thinking of remote communication in the future. With ever-increasing Internet speeds, high-resolution displays, and 3D surround sound, it’s a standard we could easily approach within my lifetime. It makes me wonder at what point between now and then will the technology be good enough to replace more of our long-distance journeys, and then our shorter distance commutes? It’s easy to imagine the potential benefits of this kind of technology replacing expensive business trips and tedious commuting, but to what extent will it replace our social interactions too?

What are we getting from these interactions in ‘meet-space’ (or ‘meat-space’) that is worth spending hours travelling to a physical point in space that we occupy together? In addition to the time spent, we have to consider the financial & environmental impacts of that physical journey, not to mention health risks from current and future germs.

There is certainly a multitude of signals we send consciously and unconsciously with our subtle body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice, that cannot be communicated remotely using current technology. There is no way to offer a handshake or a cup of tea. Even making eye contact is impossible using the technology most people use. To look at the eyes of the person you are talking to, you have to look away from the lens of your camera, which will give the impression that you are not looking at their eyes. To give the impression of eye contact you can look directly at the camera lens, but it feels unnatural and you can’t actually watch the person you’re pretending to look at. It could be worth investing in a system though that supports eye to contact – a new study led by Tampere University in Finland found that eye contact during video calls (or the illusion of it) can elicit similar psychophysiological responses to those triggered by genuine, in-person eye contact. It suggests that a system enabling natural eye contact during a video call could go a long way to making the interaction ‘feel’ real. This is just one problem to overcome on the way to the gold standard described in The Naked Sun.

With so many people now working from home and withdrawing from social meetings, we might see a sudden revolution in communication technology, and the way we use it. It may be enough to get us to cut down on our meat-space interactions permanently, saving us all the expenses that come with travelling.

But even with a perfect communication system like in The Naked Sun, would we not still want to visit the consultancy designing our product, and the factory manufacturing it? Would we still take a long car journey or flight to visit our families at Christmas? There is no replacement for the tactile experience of a handshake or hug, or sharing food together.

Businesses and individuals need to balance that financial/health/environmental tension against their desire for physical interactions and I would suggest that we need our technology to advance much further than it currently has in order to create a big step change in consumer behaviour.

Although we can’t know what the future holds for us, I think it’s safe to say communication technology will continue to become a larger part of our lives as it develops. It will be interesting to see which advances make the biggest difference – virtual Reality, 360-degree cameras, high fidelity audio, or perhaps some new software features that improves user interface. The advances that change our lives the most are often surprising and aren’t predicted by science fiction at all.

What are your thoughts? We would love to hear from you.