Engineering is all about resource management, and balancing cost with value delivered in the end product. In our case, operating on a super-accelerated timeline of three months from project brief to system delivery, the most important cost we have to consider is engineering time.
How to Prioritize Ideas
In the concept phase, we've been lucky to find a veritable wellspring of awesome ideas. From measurement and process to physical tooling, there are TONS of things we could develop to fulfill project goals. But with three people and three months, there simply isn't engineer-time to address all of them. We simply have to pick and choose.
The ideas that have floated to the top of the concept phase, in our own minds and with CalEarth as well, are:
- Compass Improvements
- LIDAR Compass
- Pipe Compass
- Bag Filling
- Hand loader
- Machine loader
Each idea has a (somewhat unquantified) development cost associated with it, and a (somewhat unquantified) value as well, in terms of the expected productivity improvement in end-use. The idea of resource management is to focus the input on the ideas which promise highest end-use value for the lowest input effort.
For instance: the machine loader idea is highly promising. Unfortunately, it's also likely very expensive to prototype and refine, and nearly impossible to develop without in-situ use on a CalEarth project. The likelihood of developing it to maturity on our short timeline is low, even with substantial effort. Even if it promises high ultimate value, it doesn't promise high value/cost.
Something similar is probably true of the LIDAR compass - on the one hand, there's a ton of excitement for this idea both on and off the team. But in my professional experience with complex products like this one, there's a huge risk that we develop the product to 90% maturity in three months and produce something that works and proves the point, but lacking the extra 10% polish, it's simply not useful in the hands of end-users and can't deliver on its high promise. It would be a huge bummer to spend this time and energy on something that's "close, but no cigar."
Luckily, the two remaining ideas on our list are low-tech and, at least in theory, should be quite simple and fast to develop.
The Hand Loader is really the epitome of low-tech: a simple structure with no moving parts that could be made out of any number of materials. The prototyping path for this product is terribly straightforward: Build the idea out of whatever material is easiest, try it out filling bags, and see what needs improvement. Then, use this learned experience to select better materials, and minimize production effort and cost from there. Most of the effort for this idea is in testing, which is a pretty good place to be in terms of a product design lifecycle.
The Pipe Compass has a bit more to go wrong in practice, but falls into a similar vein that most of the effort seems likely to be in testing. Luckily, "testing" probably doesn't require full-scale super adobe dome construction to get good feedback. Simply building an example and "going through the motions" should glean lots of useful insight.
Given that the two "simplest" ideas also promise excellent end-use value, it's clear that those should be prioritized. We've collectively decided to apply about 20% of our time and effort to the hand loader idea, and the other 80% to the compass ideas. Specifically within the realm of the compasses, the priority will be the pipe compass, operating under the expectation that we can develop that to maturity with time left over to address the LIDAR compass, minimizing risk that we end up delivering "a lot of nothing useful."
As a team, we feel strongly that we'll be able to deliver "all of the above." The idea of this strategy and effort breakdown is to attempt that in a way that maximizes value delivered in the event we fail to achieve every goal. As a secondary goal, any loose ends we do end up leaving...
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