Friday, February 14, 2014

Does Maturity Matter?

In 2009, the designer Thomas Thwaites attempted to build a common household toaster from scratch. Beginning with mining the raw materials he aimed to create a product that is built from common and highly standardised components and sold for a few pounds in the local supermarket.  This ambitious project required “copper, to make the pins of the electric plug, the cord, and internal wires. Iron to make the steel grilling apparatus, and the spring to pop up the toast. Nickel to make the heating element. Mica (a mineral a bit like slate) around which the heating element is wound and of course plastic for the plug and cord insulation, and for the all important sleek looking casing”.

After nine months and at a cost of several thousands of pounds, Thomas finally managed to create a sort of toaster.  However along the journey he had been forced to resort to using all sorts of other complex devices – from microwaves to leaf blowers – in order to achieve his goal. 

Our society, the wondrous technologies that surround us and those that we create are all dependent upon the provision of standard components. Whenever you attempt to remove this and go back to first principles, such as building your own nuts and bolts for a home made toaster then the wheel of progress grinds very slowly and becomes very costly. 

But nuts and bolts weren’t always a standard component. The invention of the first screw thread is often cited as 400BC by Archytas of Tarentum (428 BC - 350 BC).  Early versions of this and the subsequent nut and bolt were custom made by craftsmen with each nut fitting one bolt and no other.  

In the 1800s, the introduction of Maudslay’s Screw Cutting lathe enabled repeated production of uniform nuts and bolts with the same threads where one nut fitted many bolts.  The artisan skill of building the perfect nut and bolt was replaced by more mass produced and interchangeable components.  Whilst those artisans might have lamented the loss of their industry, those humble components also enabled the rapid creation of more complex machinery and new industry.

Volume production of uniform mechanical components enabled faster building of ships, guns and other forms of machinery.  It also allowed for the introduction of novel manufacturing systems that took advantage of these components such as the Portsmouth System (which later became the American System).  Without this change of the artisan nut and bolt to more industrialised and mass produced forms then we would all be following the example of Thomas Thwaites and toasters would be a luxury few could afford.

However, the progression of the nut and bolt wasn’t smooth.  Whilst they could be manufactured in volume with inter-changeable components, the lack of any agreed standards thwarted general inter-changeability. For example, the railways of Great Britain all used different screw threads and whilst some companies' in-house standards spread within their industries, there was no agreed standard.

In 1841, James Whitworth collected a large number of samples from British manufacturers and proposed a set of standards including the angle of thread and threads per inches. This was rapidly adopted in industry and became known as the "British Standard Whitworth". But how much of an effect could this make?  The following quotation from an obituary to Joseph Whitworth in the Times, 24 January 1887, should be fairly illuminating.

“The Crimean War began, and Sir Charles Napier demanded of the Admiralty 120 gunboats, each with engines of 60 horsepower, for the campaign of 1855 in the Baltic. There were just ninety days in which to meet this requisition, and, short as the time was, the building of the gunboats presented no difficulty. It was otherwise however with the engines, and the Admiralty were in despair. Suddenly, by a flash of the mechanical genius which was inherent in him, the late Mr John Penn solved the difficulty, and solved it quite easily. He had a pair of engines on hand of the exact size. He took them to pieces and he distributed the parts among the best machine shops in the country, telling each to make ninety sets exactly in all respects to the sample. The orders were executed with unfailing regularity, and he actually completed ninety sets of engines of 60 horsepower in ninety days – a feat which made the great Continental Powers stare with wonder, and which was possible only because the Whitworth standards of measurement and of accuracy and finish were by that time thoroughly recognised and established throughout the country.”

The standardisation of basic mechanical components had a profound effect in enabling more complex systems such as ships to be built. But all those components had originated as something novel, new, different and without standards.  We live in a world where there’s a constant flow of change, where the novel and different becomes commonplace, standard and mature. These more industrialised components then enable novel systems of greater complexity and the cycle repeats.

In the Theory of Hierarchy[1], Herbert Simon showed how the creation of a system is actually dependent upon the organisation of its subsystems.  As an activity evolves and becomes provided as ever more standardised components, it not only allows for efficiency in use but also increasing speed of implementation, rapid change, diversity and agility of systems that are built upon it.

In other words, it’s faster and cheaper to build a house with more commodity components such as bricks, wooden planks and plastic pipes than it is to start from first principles with a clay pit, a clump of trees and an oil well.  Furthermore the diversity and volume of different housing structures is a consequence of these standard components. This is the same with electronics and every other field you care to look at.  It’s also the same with nature.

This doesn't mean that change stops with the standard components. Take for example brick making or electricity provision or the manufacture of windows, there is a still significant improvement hidden behind the "standard".  However the "standard" acts as an abstraction layer.  The float glass method introduced by Pilkington changed how windows were produced but not what windows were.  Equally, just because my electricity supplier has introduced new sources of power generation (e.g. wind turbine, geothermal) doesn't mean I wake up one morning to find that we're moving from 240V 50Hz to something else.

If the constant operational improvements were not abstracted behind the standard then all dependent higher order systems would need to continuously change.  For example, all consumer electronics would need to continuously change as operational improvements were made in electricity supply.  The entire system would either collapse in a mess or at the very least technological progress would be hampered. Hence standard interfaces once they’ve emerged rarely change. There are exceptions to this but it usually involves significant upheaval and often Government initiatives e.g. changing electricity standards, decimalisation and the changing of currency or even simply switching from analogue to digital transmission of TV.

The importance of separation by the introduction of an interface is equally relevant with evolution in biology.  The rapid growth and diversity of life is a function of the underlying standard building blocks that have evolved to allow higher order systems.  If there weren’t underlying components from DNA to RNA messaging to transcription to translation to basic cell structures within more complex organisms then you and I would never have evolved in the time frame.  The interfaces provide a separation from the evolution of higher orders to evolutionary improvements of lower orders and are critical to progress overall.

So let us now consider a business. An organisation consists of a mass of activities, practices and data but those don’t stand still as new things are constantly introduced and diffuse – someone invents a telephone, a computer, a fax machine or the nut and bolt.  These new objects not only diffuse but through waves of ever improving examples the activity they represent seems to mature – the custom built nut and bolt becomes the British Standard Whitworth.  It’s this maturation or evolution to a more industrialised form that enables profound change in building more complex systems. 

The humble nut and bolt enabled machinery like generators that in turn enabled standardised electricity supply and this in turn enabled lighting, radio and computing. Hence, when you consider a business it not only consists of a mass of activities, practices and data but all of this is evolving to a more industrialised form and as it does so it enables new activities, practices and data. 

This leads to another question which has a critical importance in understanding change.  What matters more in our society, the invention of something new or the provision of something in a more industrialised form?

I'll examine this in a latter post.

[1] Herbert Simon, The Architecture of Complexity, American Philosophical Society, Vol 106, 1962

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