Understanding and Assessing Risk

America is a country built on risk. When settlers from England came to Jamestown in 1607 no one knew how it would turn out. In fact only 61 out of 500 colonists survived during the “great starvation” from 1609-1610. The risks were well known as several British colonies were failures and abandoned, yet people still continued to come to the New World in hopes of a better life.


One of the primary goals of being an engineer is that you have to find ways to minimize risk, at the same you’re expected to innovative and solve challenging problems. At times these can be two conflicting goals. Can you be innovative and solve problems without taking major risks? Let’s look at IBM, a company inherently built on risks T.J. Watson, Sr., bet the entire company on building tabulating equipment when their was no market for tabulating equipment. But he saw a future need, and that need came when the Social Security Act of 1935 was passed, and IBM was the only company that had the necessary equipment. T.J. Watson, Jr also saw the future and bet the future of the company on computing and spent five billion dollars on building the revolutionary System/360 mainframe. If IBM stayed in a cautious mode and never branched in new emerging areas  IBM would not be the admired company it is today.

The way individuals approach risk can be divided into three categories risk averse, risk inclined and risk neutral. Risk averse individuals have a tendency to shy away from risk, risk inclined individuals are predisposed to taking risks, and risk neutral individuals lay somewhere between the two former categories.

We should ask ourselves larger questions about risks, how many risks should we take and why? A paper that was presented at the International Conference on System Science, titled, “Understand the Effect of Risk Aversion on Risk”, discusses the perils of being risk illiterate.  The paper makes a few key points, first if people are too risk averse then small incidents that have occurred will be overblown leading to hysteria and inflated importance. This occurs because some individuals don’t have the ability to perceive between small and large incidents. Consider the potential failure modes of a server, if one chip in an 8 core processor fails on a single node this does not take down the server, and it is unlikely to cause interruption and can be repaired. If the server were to lose power and take down the entire mainframe then it would be a major failure event. We must not be too careful by over-planning and over-training for specific events, instead we should be focused on determine what are acceptable level of risks for failure of systems at a variety of levels. Should we spend more time focusing on major events that could lead to system failure or should we spend time worrying about a cosmetic defect?

When I think about my own career I’m risk inclined as a young engineer, I think there’s no reason for me not to try to introduce innovative processes if it’s going to lead to improved quality and more efficient manufacturing. In my opinion settling for mediocrity is worse than failing and this sentiment that defines first-rate engineers, scientists, businessman, and investors.

3D Printers Rapid Prototyping and Development for all

This evening, I attended a talk on three dimensional (3D) printing, held by the Vermont Makers a group that encourage projects that fuse together technology and art, by utilizing open source hardware, micro-controllers and other available resources.  3D printers are truly a disruptive technology (A Disruptive technology is a term coined by Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen to describe a new technology that unexpectedly displaces an established technology), now you can print a variety of three dimensional objects instead of buying them. No longer does creating something truly innovative lie in the hands of the few. The printers work by adding layers of material to form different shapes, this is different from traditional machining where material is removed.


Growing up I always hated when one part in a toy broke and you had to throw away the entire toy and buy a new one if you couldn’t fix it. Now you might not have to, pick up the part scan it in a 3D scanner, generate a CAD (computer automated design) layout, and start printing that part out and replaced your broken part.Eventually a manufacture might send you the CAD file to download and print your own replacement part for something under-warranty eliminating the need for a warehouse of parts and making you wait until the part arrives.

An object being printed

As someone mentioned tonight this is maybe as close as we’re going to get to Star Trek’s object replicator a device that can create any object in a matter of seconds. I was pretty excited and decided to take up learning how to use some auto-cad software better so I can create my own parts, being an electrical engineer learning CAD wasn’t part of the standard fare.

A 3D Scanner
A 3D Scanner



Problems as Solutions

Technology moves at such a rapid pace as Gordon Moore postulated back in 1965 in his now famous paper, “Cramming more components onto integrated circuits,” the number of components in integrated circuits double roughly every 18 months. This pattern continues to drive the growth and diversification of the electronics industry. One of the primary questions on every technologists mind (including mine) is how can we continue to be innovative in such an environment that moves so rapidly. The question prompted me to read, “Where do Good Ideas come from,” by Steve Johnson.

Johnson does a good job explaining that most innovative ideas do not come from Eureka moments but rather are slow hunches that build up into substantive ideas over time. He also talks about how the Internet has also changed the pace of innovation where the traditional development of a product took 10 years and adoption took another 10 years. With the rise of APIs (Application Programming Interface) web development now only takes about 1 year and about 1 year for adoption due to the widespread available of an application almost immediately. When we examine websites that have seemingly pop-up overnight such as twitter and facebook both are using tools from a platform that already exist.

So the question is how do we technologists keep up? The short answer is to be innovative, well-read and make problems opportunities. What do I mean by making problems opportunities? At work I’m faced with new electrical and material science related problems arising from the unique integration of different polymers, metals, and films that are used to synthesize complex integrated circuits (or chips). Immediately, our first concern is of course figure how we fix the problem that is compromising the expected performance. In parallel, while trying to fix the problem at hand we might think about how this problem might actually be ideal in another scenario. This lateral thinking helps us generate new ideas and solutions that might be used in future applications.