A physical example of technical debt addressed with 3D printing

Last week a friend, at the woodshop I use, asked me if I could solve a problem he’d been having. I thought I’d share a bit of issue context, what I did to address it and the similarities to the software concept of technical debt.

Back before 2008, there was a large, thriving industry of automotive and RV customization in Northern Indiana. When the recession hit, many of these businesses closed, since the market for RVs dried up. Fortunately, this area has started to recover but the earlier collapse left many RV owners with parts they couldn’t replace, when something went wrong.  Once the part broke, their investment was less functional than it was before and there was nothing they could do about it. I’ve heard this complaint from numerous folks, so this particular situation is not an isolated incident. Even name brand companies used specialized parts from these ‘mom-and-pop’ tooling shops.

My friend had an awning (I think the brand was Carefree – how ironic). One of the support mechanisms broke. He investigated finding a replacement for quite a while and resolved that he’d have to live with an awning that no longer functioned as designed. He asked me if there was something I could do, since he knew my background as a problem solver and gave me the broken fragments (he could find) of the awning slide. He also described the functionality of the parts that he couldn’t find.

Having worked with 3D printing for about a decade, I told him I’d give it a shot. I started by creating a prototype (in PLA) that he could try and once we agreed upon the design, I’d create him a couple real ones (in ABS).

It was a fairly simple design, so I modeled it in Microsoft 3D Builder. It took a couple of attempts, but he now has an awning that moves as effectively as it ever did, as well as a spare part.

The modeled part

The problem reminded me of the software portfolio management issue of technical debt. Organizations spend much time and money creating successful software that works great until it doesn’t. The business risk is just sitting out there waiting to bite us. If there is a problem, organizations may not know how to fix it, since the folks who wrote or performed the customization are no longer around. Sometimes the software that was used to create the solution is no longer supported and available. These issues (even if known) can be difficult to address, since the software is working and adding business value, on a daily basis. Any change may be viewed as riskier than just relying on ‘hope and prayer’.

When the worst occurs, people with the right tools and expertise may address the issue quickly – if you know where to find them. If not, you may just need to ‘trade it in’ and replace the functionality while the business limps along, assuming it can.

Organizations need to assess their software on a regular basis and understand the value generation, cost, risk relationship of their software investments. This should be part of any strategic planning or business continuity effort.

Here is a picture of the final product mounted on his awning. Hopefully it will give him as many more years of service as the original.

The mounted final result

And not Or

and not or (logic)I was in an exchange the other day with some folks talking about their perspective that all companies need to be using cloud computing. I agree, but my view is slightly different. My perspective is that depending on the company’s size, needs and applications they will likely continue to have in house systems. It’s not a choice between things, but a choice among things and an acceptance of the way things are and one answer doesn’t meet everyone’s needs. You can’t look at it as: clouds the answer, now what’s the question?

Mobile computing is similar. It is the future interface of the enterprise, not really something special anymore. Embracing mobile devices and cloud computing will have a game changing effect, but it is not about the infrastructure but what we do with them and people want to do those things everywhere.

There are a number of other trends taking place like the IoT that are also shifting how organizations think about computing. It is interesting how this term is changing and how various organizations are trying to name it. It used to be ubiquitous computing, some call it ambient computing, but most still use the Internet of Things.

In any case the aggregation of sensors, devices, intelligence, and agents will shift how organizations generate value and shift IT to focus on systems of action.

Internet of Things Units Installed Base by Category (in Millions)

 Category 2013 2014 2015 2020
Automotive 96.0 189.6 372.3 3,511.1
Consumer 1,842.1 2,244.5 2.874.9 13,172.5
Generic Business 395.2 479.4 623.9 5,158.6
Vertical Business 698.7 836.5 1,009.4 3,164.4
Grand Total 3,032.0 3,750.0 4,880.6 25,006.6

Source: Gartner (November 2014)

Many still look at these opportunities primarily from an infrastructure perspective, but I definitely do not. It is about the business and the hardware side is a small (but necessary) part. Organizations that will compete effectively in the coming years are going to shift their thinking to “and” and not “or” foundation. It is not all about IT, but IT has a role in enabling this flexibility.

By the way the output of the And not Or logic circuit illustration is always a one –> true.

Longest Drive with an autonomous car – Delphi

Longest drive competitions in golf are common, but how about for autonomous cars. A self-driving car from GM spin off Delphi Automotive completed a 3,500-mile journey across the U.S. from San Francisco to New York. You may remember the DARPA grand challenge of 2004, when the furthest a car was able to get was just 7.32 miles — that is quite a bit of progress in just a decade.

Delphi’s active safety technologies enable the vehicle to instantaneously make complex decisions, like stopping and then proceeding at a four-way stop, timing a highway merge or calculating the safest maneuver around a bicyclist on a city street. Many of these driving scenarios have been a limitation for much of the current technology on the market today.

It can’t be long until we start seeing broader applications of what’s been learned in the business setting.

Full disclosure: I actually worked at Delco Electronics back in the 80s, which is now part of Delphi.