Category Archives: Producer Class Solutions

Nerdgasm—Thoughts on Tesla’s Battery Day

Like many, I was looking forward to what Elon Musk would say about what is easily the most critical and expensive part of building an electric vehicle—the batteries. The presentation was literally breath-taking. Several times I found myself holding my breath as I tried not to miss any important details. Musk and company had gone to great lengths to simplify their descriptions of what they were attempting. Unfortunately for me, I hadn't taken a Chemistry course since 1966 so I found myself fishing in some forgotten waters. Fortunately, it was easy to watch repeats on YouTube so eventually the requisite understanding returned. (I needed four tries ;-)

There is really no sustainable energy future without effective storage. Anyone who has ever lost their electricity knows that life gets extremely difficult VERY fast. Yes, I know humans survived without electricity in hazardous places such a North Dakota in winter. But those people were unusually hardy, strong, and clever. Even so, preparations for winter began the first days of spring. If you had trees, you chopped wood. Trees are stored energy. Unfortunately, there aren't many trees in North Dakota. Fortunately, there are energy sources that will sustain human life up there—lignite coal and then after the 1950s, oil and natural gas. Now that burning fossil fuels has become a big no-no, North Dakota also has abundant wind power but harnessing it as a practical matter requires storage.

Energy storage has been the big scary boogieman since the invention of fire. We like to treat the problem socially the same way we treat hauling out the trash and for many of the same reasons—it is UGHLEE. Clear-cut forests, oil refineries and tank farms, and the like smell funny and in myriad ways are offensive if not serious health hazards. Storage is especially tricky when the energy is electricity. Electricity moves at roughly the speed of light. With tiny exceptions, therefore, electricity must be used the instant it's produced. While this nearly instantaneous speed is easily electricity's most useful characteristic, it seriously hampers more widespread adoption of renewable energy.

The best and most useful way of storing electrical energy is by using batteries. This option has earned its important status because the alternatives don't work very well, if at all. Some proposed building huge flywheels. This scheme never got off the drawing boards because of the problems building a wheel precise enough to store massive amounts of energy. Bearings large enough to support a large flywheel at even slow rotational speeds were probably physically impossible. One scheme—pumping water into an elevated reservoir only to be released when the grid needs more electricity has several working examples operating in Norway. But these are only possible due to Norway's unique geography. There are also supporters of compressed air. Big money has been spent trying to make hydrogen the default storage medium. But in end, the most useful and reliable method of electrical storage is still the humble battery.

But just because batteries work, after a fashion, that doesn't mean they don't have serious problems. They are heavy, and expensive, and don't store all that much power. They are an environmental headache from mining to disposal. Lots of money and brainpower is being directed at solving those problems. There has been a lot of chirping about the potential for a solid-state battery while Samsung has made them a company goal.

But Tesla has a different sort of problem. They must use a technology that already exists at scale which means lithium-ion. So their solution is to throw resources and effort into production innovation—they intend to make terawatts of these things, after all.

In the early days of industrialization, folks who could create factories and make them run smoothly were called "millwrights"—a prestigious occupational category. Now the term has fallen into serious disuse as more and more companies that make complex products tend to outsource difficult tasks. Tesla and Musk has made a public declaration that they do NOT intend to follow that path. Instead they intend to employ the method used by most early industries—vertical integration. If someone is building a product that has not been built before, this is the only choice. If the tools of production cannot be purchased, the only alternative is to make them yourself (or find someone who can make them for you).

Musk most certainly did NOT invent vertical integration. In fact he has a ways to go before any of his manufacturing facilities equal the sophistication of Ford's River Rouge (Model A-1927) or Willow Run (B-24 bomber—1942). But while Musk did not invent vertical integration he is most certainly a true believer in its principles. This is his presentation for battery day.

Elon Musk


Reaction to the Elon Musk / Drew Baglino presentation fell into two main categories—the disappointed and the breathless. The investor classes were the most reliably disappointed. It wasn't flashy enough. It didn't introduce a new model of something. The promised new product timelines were often in the range of 2-3 years, NOT next quarter. The unearned-income crowd considers descriptions of the nuts and bolts of technological innovations to be a snoozefest—especially at the level of battery day.

On the other hand, the folks who stayed awake in science classes had what one wag called a nerdgasm. That's what it felt like to me. A friend called two days after battery day and less than one minute into the conversation he asked, "What's up with you? I haven't heard you so happy in 35 years." Guilty as charged.

There are several main reasons Tesla's battery day was so appealing.

It was strategically solid. The Tesla scheme requires the least amount of social change. I am a HUGE fan of high-speed rail and live on what would be an important link if USA built up its passenger-rail system. However, I am reasonably certain USA will never build such a system for the simple reason that the cities we have in USA were built during the age of petroleum and individual transportation devices. Cars and filling stations can serve such cities—light rail, buses, etc. cannot. The roads are built—assembling the land for dedicated high-speed rail alone is an unimaginable nightmare. The zero-carbon transportation future will be a function of electrifying the existing infrastructure. The success of this venture will be a function of how efficiently we can convert the internal combustion transportation system into an electric one.

The devil's in the details. Instead of chasing a breakthrough such as a solid-state battery, Tesla chose to chase smaller production upgrades. The reason this works is that it addresses a host of problems that needed attention anyway and if there are enough "small" improvements, they are likely to add up to breakthrough numbers.

Borrow, steal, copy. The example that made me giggle was the admission that Tesla had learned a LOT from the food-packaging industry—specifically bottling. This technology has been around for awhile. The all-aluminum beer can has been around since the late 1960s and it is still used as an example of metal-forming sophistication. The amount of pure genius expended on food packaging is usually beyond belief. So it not surprising that kind of genius could accelerate battery assembly speed by 7x.

And on it went—one technological triumph following another. Elon and Drew just rapping like they were sharing a barbecue. No notes or teleprompters—just a sound industrial pragmatism on an intense search for what will actually work in the real world. The biggest advantage the Producer Classes have is that they can subject their theories to real-world testing pretty easily. Objects that cannot perform are culled pretty quickly. Industrial pragmatism turned up past 11. 

Elon Musk often claims that manufacturing doesn't get nearly the appropriate amount of respect AND has vowed to make Tesla manufacturing world-class. Apparently he learned some important lessons trying to make the Model 3 assembly line work. In a few 120 hour weeks, Musk discovered why "millwright" has been the most difficult job humans do.

Greta Thunberg comes to New York

The Fridays for Futures movement inspired by the frankly incredible Greta Thunberg has been fun to follow since it started only a year ago. She was a disgusted child who decided to skip school to camp out in front of the Swedish Parliament. The goal was to remind the politicians that they were not doing enough to arrest the climate crises. Her logic was absolutely impeccable:
  • The scientific consensus is that unless there are significant changes in how societies operate, we only have twelve years before the CO2 tipping points have been breached and all hell is going to break loose.
  • The most commonly reported tipping point was 1.5°C (2.7°F) We are almost there.
  • 2018 broke records for high temperatures and widespread forest fires in Sweden. Anyone who wasn't frightened to death by these developments was probably clinically unconscious. It was an amazing demonstration of what environmental collapse could look like.
  • Greta did the math. She was 15. 12 years and she would be only 27. This is a very grim future.
  • "Why educate yourself to be a useful and productive citizen when the future is so hopeless?" reasoned Greta. Besides, she was extremely studious so missing a little school to make a political point seemed a logical path. Her grades weren't going to suffer.
A typical angry teenager, she distilled her beef with the world in the perfect summation, "You adults are shitting on my future." It is almost impossible to imagine a more powerful battle cry if the goal is to unite the world's young into a vast protest movement. But I am almost certain that not even Greta had any idea of the firestorm she was igniting.

She has spoken to the European, British, and French Parliaments. She went to Davos to scold the filthy rich for their role in the crimes against the climate. She has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. And her latest was her decision to address the UN General Assembly which meant a transatlantic trip. Since she doesn't fly, this left her with few options. The one she chose was to sail on an environmentally-friendly racing yacht.

She arrived Wednesday (28 AUG 19) in New York and immediately answered questions at an arranged press conference. She wobbled a bit as her sea legs adjusted to solid ground but mostly gave good answers to questions she probably expected. She was obviously weary, dying to take a shower, and eat food that hadn't been freeze dried.

Sailing the Atlantic is, by its very nature, an adventure. When this one sinks in, she will have probably changed. The boat was crazy fast. They hit over 30 knots in spots. (I have sailed since 1971 and never seen 10 knots.) Even so, it required 15 pretty stressful days to travel the distance you can fly in eight hours. Yes, Greta, aviation deposits large amounts of CO2 at high altitudes. Yes it is probably a good idea to get people to eliminate frivolous air travel—and if guilt trips work, keep preaching. But at the current state of technological development, there is simply NO commercial aviation without burning petroleum.

It is quite possible that an invitation to address the UN was simply something a polite Swede could not turn down (Sweden is a country where they still take the UN very seriously). Even so, Greta is already one of the most famous people on earth. Anyone remotely interested can watch multiple speeches of hers on YouTube. So it is possible that her trip to New York and Chile could be considered frivolous. It is also possible that the political statement she would have made by addressing the UN over the Internet would have done wonders for cutting back on the hundreds of utterly frivolous do-nothing climate change conferences that cause thousands of scientists to fly hundreds of thousands of air miles to exchange papers.

Greta has noticeably matured in only one year. Sooner or later she is going to come to the realization that marches with signs are not going to reduce CO2 emissions. She was caught on camera today looking quite bored at a rally. The sail probably had something to do with that too. In 15 days at sea, she probably noticed that moving around on a rich man's toy was not a solution for trans-continental travel. That yacht is a technological marvel built with scientific rigor and may in fact have a zero-carbon footprint under way—but it will not solve the problems of climate change—not even in a symbolic way.

Greta's most serious problem is encapsulated in a slogan plastered all over her super sailboat and even on her foul-weather gear. It says, "unite behind the science." The flaw in her understanding is quite understandable. The climate scientists are absolutely magnificent in describing the problems—CO2 buildup in the atmosphere and oceans, the speed at which glaciers melt, etc. However, when it comes to actually proposing real solutions to these problems, they are quite unhelpful. For example, James Hansen, the former head of NASA, the man who gave such compelling testimony in 1988 before the Senate warning of the catastrophe which would befall humanity if nothing was done about climate change, has been reduced to lobbying for carbon taxes, lawsuits against the government for inaction, getting arrested for chaining himself to the White House fence, and of course, marches.

Because basic science, while helpful in understanding the problem, is not helpful in the drive for useful solutions because Climate Change is a problem of technology, engineering, industrial design, and the sociology and economic theories that drives these great art forms. Humanity has spent at least 10,000 years organizing societies that run on fire. It's not the production of petroleum or coal that causes Climate Change—it's burning them. We are a species that literally worships fire. Many cultures actually have fire gods—the Greeks have Prometheus, the Romans had Vulcan, those from the Judaeo-Christian traditions tell stories of their God appearing as fire.

Greta, you have done a spectacular job of proving, one more time, the ultimate power of articulating the facts. You leave people breathless because that is the default reaction to the unvarnished truth. Your clear, short, and deeply profound sentences compel people to understand hideously complex ideas.

Because you are so good at what you do, it is highly likely that folks will soon expect a whole lot more by way of how to fix things. Just remember, you have trained a whole host of followers who sincerely believe that the key to progress is better complaining. And you are certainly correct that the adults have been sitting on their thumbs for the past thirty years and must show at least a LITTLE more urgency. But when that host begins to demand that YOU should have the working plans, your life could get a LOT more complex.

The following is a list of issues you might want to brush up on. The day is coming soon when folks will expect you to be the adult in the room.
  • Actually lowering the output of CO2 will be very difficult. Worse, the higher the rate of installed infrastructure, the more social impediments (investments in houses, cars, power grids, etc.) there will be to change. This means building a solar infrastructure will be easier in a city like Nairobi than Washington DC because there will be so much less to replace.
  • When the "adults" start accusing you of fear-mongering and alarmism, they will end up asking, "How can we pay for this? What you are claiming will cost TOO MUCH MONEY to fix. Virtually every country and person on this planet is hopelessly in debt. Etc. And in some minor way they are right. Converting human society from fire-based to solar-based will be extremely expensive. But that is the good news! If we get serious about solving climate change, we must spend SO much money that we should have at least 50 years of prosperity.
  • Actually, pro-growth development monetary policies have been around for a long time- Some argue that the Sumerians invented them. Benjamin Franklin argued for the American Revolution based on them—he argued that playing by the rules of the Bank of England would impoverish Americans. My favorite historian on the money question is a British lawyer who moved to California where she discovered the longest-running debate in North American politics. Her name is Ellen Brown. Bottom line—of all the impediments to solving the climate crises, The supply of money is, by FAR, the easiest to fix.
  • As you no doubt discovered on your 15 day sail, such a transportation option will never substitute for air travel. Some solutions for the climate crises ARE effectively impossible. If anyone tells you that all the hardware to build the sustainable society  has been invented and just needs funding to accomplish, they are grossly exaggerating. We are thousands of inventions away from building a battery-powered airplane that could fly the Atlantic with a load of passengers. 
  • There are parts of the solution which have been invented. The Swedes figured out the super-insulated house in the 1980s. The high-quality battery-powered car was on the roads by 2013. Yet only a tiny fraction of the houses worldwide could meet Swedish building codes even today. And electric cars are but a tiny sliver of the worldwide small vehicle fleet. The reasons for this are very interesting. Not doing what we CAN do is where the sociology of change comes in.
The following are two fascinating discussions on the sociology of electric car adoption. The first is about an old Missouri codger named Jack Rickard who has devoted a significant fraction of his life to figuring out how to convert fossil cars into an electric cars. He has done it successfully so knows the hundreds of difficult steps it requires to pull it off. He is quite unhappy about all the impediments that the petroleum industry and internal combustion automakers create to make the conversion FAR more difficult than it needs to be.

This video features a guy named Sandy Munro whose business it is to tear down cars in order to discover how they were made, what was done well, and what could be improved. He explains the sociology of why the legacy automakers not only did not invent the good electric car, they still cannot compete with a novice company that treats the electric car as a computer on wheels. This video is extremely informative and discusses the human foibles that shape our built world.

Good luck Greta! You are quite literally a global treasure.

The triumph of the squares

The 50th anniversary of the first moon walk has caused me a full-blown geek-out. I remember the space race with fondness. Aerospace was the biggest story out there. The 50s and 60s saw an explosion of technological growth. Some favorites of mine from that era include the F-104, the U-2, the SR-71, the Boeing 707, 727, and 747—the "jet age" planes that changed travel and even music by democratizing flight.

I "graduated" from my Erector Set stage straight into model airplanes—the ones that flew and made a bunch of noise. And even though the space race was on, I was never seduced into model rocketry. It was expensive and the available examples didn't do much—restricted as they were by the same sort of regulations as fireworks (which where I lived were essentially outlawed.)

Real-world rockets were kind of boring as well. The most notorious of the test pilots out at Edwards Air Force Base (Chuck Yeager) even labeled the early astronauts as nothing more than "spam in a can." After all, the first "American" in space was a chimp. But that wouldn't last long. The original astronauts were extremely competent test pilots and before long, they were demanding greater control of their missions.

Even so, I was far more interested in the flight testing at Edwards where they pushed the limits of supersonic flight with real airplanes like fighters jets. But soon, they eventually embraced rocketry with the incomparable X-15. They had to. If you want to set speed and altitude records, eventually you run out of atmosphere where air-breathing power-plants simply do not work. The X-15 was insanely fast, complex and dangerous. It wasn't going to be piloted by a chimp. In fact, these things required the skills of the best pilots we could find. And I had a favorite—Neil Armstrong.

Armstrong was a superb pilot. On one mission a failure of a new instrument caused him to fly nearly 50 miles beyond where he was supposed to turn back to Edwards. His propulsion was spent so he was flying a glider with the aerodynamic performance (4:1 glide ratio) of a brick. He nursed that X-15 back to Edwards coming over the lake bed at less than 100'. This would be the same guy who landed on the moon with less than 30 seconds worth of fuel.

His degree in aeronautical engineering came from Purdue. This is NOT a school that grants engineering degrees to goof-offs. In fact Purdue would contribute a serious fraction of the top engineers to the space program. The rest mostly came from State Universities in the USA Midwest like Michigan.

He grew up in Wapakoneta, Ohio about an hour north of Dayton—the home of the Wright Brothers. His father paid for a ride in a Ford Tri-motor at 6. He soloed an airplane on his 16th birthday (the legal minimum age) and spent much of his childhood building model airplanes. This last fact is what endeared him to me. I too built model airplanes which were insanely difficult to get to fly well. The problem is that models and real airplanes conform to the same laws of nature which means to indulge in this hobby, it really helps to learn things like fluid dynamics, lightweight structures, and drag coefficients. You know—kid stuff.

Yes that is me with a model that required at least 150 hours to build. Didn't fly very well—too little power and too much paint.

Flying is something that only happens on the boundaries of perfection. You can get 15,000 things right and one wrong and your precious airplane is a flaming heap. Good pilots are followers of check lists—as diligent on the 1000th time through as the first. They read the operator's manuals. They know what all those switches do. They understand that dishonesty and corner-cutting could end their lives.

Armstrong was notorious for insisting on understanding every part of his aircraft. He wanted to know what everything was supposed to do and what it COULD do in an emergency. But even better, he understood that flying is a team effort and it was critical for every member of the team to take their jobs seriously. Here's what he says about the people who built Apollo.
Armstrong: Each of the components of our hardware were designed to certain reliability specifications, and for the majority, to my recollection, had a reliability requirement of 0.99996, which means that you have four failures in 100,000 operations. I've been told that if every component met its reliability specifications precisely, that a typical Apollo flight would have about [1,000] separate identifiable failures. In fact, we had more like 150 failures per flight, [substantially] better than statistical methods would tell you that you might have.

I can only attribute that to the fact that every guy in the project, every guy at the bench building something, every assembler, every inspector, every guy that's setting up the tests, cranking the torque wrench, and so on, is saying, man or woman, "If anything goes wrong here, it's not going to be my fault, because my part is going to be better than I have to make it." And when you have hundreds of thousands of people all doing their job a little better than they have to, you get an improvement in performance. And that's the only reason we could have pulled this whole thing off.

The Triumph of the Squares

Nearly a year after the landing of Apollo 11, NASA head Thomas Paine gave a commencement address at Worcester Polytechnic Institute where he declared that the successful moonshot was a triumph of the squares, the validation of the values of "Squareland" which he listed as foremost a profound faith in reason. It was "outward looking and mathematical," was "time oriented...and deeply concerned with future consequences." It "accepts as true only rational facts and theories which predict future events with mathematical precision under rigorous standards of reproducibility. Only Squareland's rationality could ensure the "crops yield, lights light, bridges carry loads, children avoid polio, and men walk on the moon." In fact. to Squarelanders, a solid definition of "truth" might be "that which successfully takes two men to the moon."

This speech made me groan and roll my eyes. On one hand, going to the moon really DID require the "square" virtues that Paine so celebrated. Beside, I was clearly a prototypical "square" (see photo above.) Building airplanes sort of demands squareness. I was also the son of a small-town clergyman—building airplanes was one way of staying above the reproach of the church ladies. On the other hand, this speech set off the scolds who assumed that "square" virtue included an unquestioning support of the Vietnam War, a marked preference for booze over pot, white shirts and neck ties, and above all, short hair for men.

Unfortunately, the space race had been sold as Cold War macho and a real-live Nazi named Wernher von Braun was chosen to head the effort. So the link between the space race and unbridled militarism was pretty damn short. NASA was acutely aware of this problem. It was one of the reasons that Neil Armstrong was chosen to take the first step—he was the only civilian pilot to have reached his advanced status. This turned out to be an excellent choice. In the goodwill tour following the moon landing, he charmed his listeners around the world into believing that this was a triumph of human (not American) genius. The reason this worked is because Armstrong deeply believed it was true.

But while the moon landing was clearly a triumph of the squares, the squares would not triumph. By 1972 the Apollo program was ended and no human has gone beyond low-earth orbit since. The can-do attitude of Apollo has so completely disappeared from American culture that many now actually believe the landing was a hoax. It is probably more accurate to call Apollo "Peak Square" because the vast majority of my fellow citizens in 2019 look on a profound faith in reason as a weird psychological disorder.

BBC calling

In the summer of 1970, I found myself in UK. I kept running into people who wanted to talk about the moon landing. Most of them were very well informed. I had to scramble to keep up at times. One night in London, a waitress in a pub sat down next to me and asked if I was the American space expert she had overheard. I humbly admitted I was probably who she was looking for but I was FAR from being an expert. Then she asked, "How did they know how long the burn for the lunar insertion midflight correction should be? And how did they know they were pointing the engine in the right direction?" I didn't have a canned response so I pulled out my understanding of inertial navigation. It wasn't a very good answer but she seemed to understand, smiled and went back to work. I was left wondering just how a random London barmaid knew enough to even ask such good questions.

In 1978, PBS would air a 10-part series called Connections starring a fascinating storyteller named James Burke. (There was a companion coffee-table book by the same name). Burke had carved out an awesome assignment for himself. He wanted to explain the products of the modern world (computers, plastics, powered flight, etc.) in such a way that his listeners would understand how their world came to be. It was absolutely brilliant. Episode #1 The trigger effect traced the development of a modern city like New York back to the invention of the plow. The nine that would follow were equally good. Somewhere along the way we are informed that Burke was the man who covered Apollo for BBC.

AHA! That explained why the Brits knew so much about the moon landing—at least partly. So in the near-infinity of Apollo 11 at 50 coverage on YouTube, I went looking to see if I could find any of Burke's descriptions. I found a good one—an hour of Apollo highlights.

Just in case you need a reminder of how utterly lame the Apollo coverage was on USA corporate media, here is an example from ABC. I am pretty sure all the CBS and ABC coverage of the whole mission can be found at YouTube.

Of all the footage of the Apollo 11 mission that I have uncovered in the past few months, the following may be my favorite. It was done by NASA and has even more in capsule footage than the recently released Blu-Ray of Apollo 11. Of course, the new version has far superior imagery because restoration techniques are so much better. But this one is narrated by Wernher von Braun himself and the technique he used is to compare the 1969 effort against the description of a trip to the moon from Jules Verne's 1865 From Earth to the Moon.

As for the speculation that the Apollo program could provide a template for how this nation should take on the challenges of climate change, my responses are:

It might work
  • If we can restock our seriously depleted supply of "squares."
  • If we can find leadership that understands that this problem will be at LEAST 1000 times more difficult than the moon landing—and that's the best reason to do it.
The HILL looked at this possibility in more depth: Apollo as model for climate change.

Sandy Munro does a teardown analysis of Tesla

This YouTube interview of Sandy Monro is interesting to the point of being profound. Some background.

Monroe lives in Michigan and has a bunch of commercial ties to the car business. His specialty is tearing down cars to see how they were built and whether better production practices could make a better car. His company has about 100 employees, because cars are incredibly complex with dozens of systems so he needs a wide assortment of specialists.

The reason Monro has become a sensation is because he tore down an early Tesla Model 3. At first he was pretty critical but as time has gone on he has become convinced that most legacy automakers are now almost hopelessly behind. He has some wonderful stories about how institutional inertia works at a place like Ford Motor. His inside look at Teslas will probably sell well for at least a decade

And then he says some really enlightening things about China and their rapid industrialization plans. His observations may be skewed because he is probably meeting their best and brightest, but even taking a hefty discount for that, the story is still about as compelling a look at China as anything I have seen in a long time—maybe ever.