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A Fish Out of Water: A Non Engineer in an Engineer’s World

The few. The proud. The brave.
 
You know you’re out of place when short projects are identified by acronyms with no discernible words. And those acronyms represent terminology you’ve never heard before. Chalk it up to a learning experience. Now go out and confuse your friends!
 
As one of only a few of us here at Avanceon without engineering experience, you’ll find we come with some…unusual…backgrounds. Corporate contracts. Commercial real estate. Elder care. A photography degree? We’re an odd bunch indeed. But we offer an assortment of other skills that help us manage your project costs, purchase your project materials, maintain and update your project software, and even sell your project in the first place! Without us, you, potential client/potential coworker, may never have gotten to this point!
 
Now perhaps you can tell me why these are funny… I only get the one:
 
Two antennas met on a roof, fell in love, and got married.
The ceremony wasn’t much, but the reception was excellent!
 

Your Ticket off ‘Automation Island’

The Sirens are mythical creatures that used beautiful songs to lure unsuspecting sailors too close to the rocks, only to have them realize too late that they were marooned with little hope of escape.
 
ROI challenges and quick projects are the Sirens of the automation world. Many manufacturers are tempted by low hanging fruit performance improvement opportunities and then, applying corporate ROI rules, request capital to execute a project. This approach leads down a path of one-off projects, eventually leaving you adrift among many point solutions or ‘islands’ of automation. The real disadvantage? You’re left stranded without automated equipment/solution coordination and real time decision making data, and the cost to change can’t be justified with corporate ROI rules.
 
Could it be that you listened to the Sirens and are now stuck with point automation solutions and no ability to coordinate with other islands nor share real time data? You may be marooned on ‘automation island.’
 
Do not fret; all is not lost. A successful approach that gets you free automation after several projects includes a holistic automation plan, a set of standards to build each one-off solution against so that it will become a leveragable holistic solution by the time you’re done. Manufacturers that do not heed the call of the Sirens develop projects that include coordinated control, built-in diagnostics and data collection as part of your standards. After a few projects and a little dedicated budget, you will have a free platform to build lower cost, high value solutions and applications on top of such as diagnostics, coordinated and advanced control, real time data-based decision-making and execution efficiency applications. You’ll have effectively built a life raft and can paddle away from ‘automation island’ for good. Never to be lured by the Sirens again!
 
Standard applications can be leveraged on multiple projects and can be justified within traditional ROI rules. Then you can use this free holistic platform and add high value low cost solutions/applications for manufacturing excellence.
 
That’s how we do it at Avanceon. Have you been similarly successful or have you taken a different path? We would love to hear your perspective!
 

Fighting the Summer Blues at the Office

Whether an employee dreams of playing in the sunshine with their toes in the sand or binge-watching Netflix to their heart’s content, the truth is that summer is bad for business!
 
According to Captivate, summer itself has a negative impact on the workplace. Productivity goes down (20 percent), attendance dips (19 percent), project turnaround times increase (13 percent) and workers are more distracted (45 percent). The addition of summer hours only exacerbates these problems. For example, 53% of employees who leave early on Fridays report a drop in personal productivity and 23% of those who make up for fewer Friday hours by working longer hours from Monday to Thursday report that their stress levels increase.
 
So how do you boost your work productivity and still have time for fun in the sun?  Simple changes in your daily routine can help you get through your workday in a productive manner even in the summer months!  Check out Business Insider’s 5 tips for staying productive during the summer months!
 

Finish the important work first.

“Tackle the most important items on your to-do list when your energy levels are high,” says Amanda Augustine, career consultant and career management expert for Ladders. “This is especially important in the summertime when temperatures are sure to continue rising as the day stretches on.”
 
“If you’re a morning person, consider waking up and starting work earlier in the day,” Augustine suggests.
 

Send emails and make phone calls early in the day.

If you’re not the one currently soaking up the sun at the beach, then you’ve at least noticed your coworkers taking advantage of their vacation time.
 
It’s crucial to consistently communicate with colleagues year-round, but especially during the summer when schedules are hectic with social gatherings and getaways. So be proactive when speaking with coworkers about projects or deadlines.
 

Buy a cheap desk fan.

If the office is sweltering and the thermostat is out of your control, take it upon yourself to keep cool throughout the day. “Heat drains energy and concentration levels,” Augustine warns.
 
Besides dressing appropriately for the workplace during the summer heat, an inexpensive fan could be a life-saver.
 

Drink more water than usual.

You should never neglect a hearty daily intake of H2O, but hydration is especially important during the hot and humid months.
 
“Pack an extra bottle of water for your morning commute,” suggests Augustine. She recommends bringing a frozen water bottle with you to ensure an ice-cold refreshment en route to the office and throughout the morning.
 
If plain water is too bland for you, coconut water is a great option. It’s sweet, yet hydrating and an excellent source of potassium.
 
Also be sure to restrict your coffee intake. Three cups of coffee might seem like a staple, but caffeine is a natural diuretic and can lead to dehydration, a severe energy drainer, Augustine explains.
 

Take a quick walk.

If all else fails and the view of the park is too inviting to ignore, don’t be afraid to take a quick recess.
 
“Aim to take real breaks and get outside for just a bit,” says Laura Vanderkam, time management expert. “It’s like a mini-vacation in the middle of the day. You’ll return to work with a lot more energy than if you just try to soldier through.”
 
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Music: The Engineer’s Tool

Whether you play an instrument or just value the joy of listening to a Beethoven symphony, you are using your brain to help solve a problem: creating an environment that provides a heightened state of enjoyment. This state can take the form of relaxation, excitement, passion, or simply rabid agitation. All music is enjoyment to someone, somewhere!
 
Engineering may be your chosen career, but it can also be your subconscious means of satisfying your personal need for this enjoyment. Music and math have always had a direct connection, but this engineering connection is more cerebral and at times does not seem to have a specific design. Hence you mentally create the tool and the design begins to take shape in the mood or state of mind you wish to achieve. Studies have shown that while in this state of mind, creative juices are flowing (see “The Power of Music” by Elena Mannes).
 
Technically, the means of creating or admiring a set of mathematically tuned pressure waves can be easily seen as an engineering marvel, but I am talking about the use of your mind to create this tool called music appreciation. We all have it. Yes, even that curmudgeon in the next cubicle. Listen closely and you may hear him humming “I am Woman, Hear Me Roar.”
 
And how many of your coworkers are just now sitting at their desks with earbuds in place, bobbing their heads in spastic rhythmic patterns? They’re not listening to the latest YouTube Kitty vid. Well, not most of them, anyway.
 
Take a moment, use your brain and create that magical place. After all, you are an engineer!

Raspberry Pi – Not just Darren Aronofsky’s foray into children’s film anymore

Debian, Raspian, Wheezey, Jessie. No, it’s not the cast of a Snow White reboot. These are all new terms I am learning about in my latest time suck: the Raspberry Pi, the perfect automation engineer’s toy.
 
Focusing on unrelated hobbies can help me take a mental break from work, so I can return with a fresh perspective. These interests can stimulate creative thinking (see this article). And here is where the Pi fits in (I also love to bake, but more on that in a later post). Want to create a media server, personal cloud backup system (with redundancy), digital video recorder, dedicated streaming box, retro gaming console, SMART home automation controller, super-local meteorological station or any of a thousand other possibilities? Then the Raspberry Pi is for you. It allows for a great blend of open source programming combined with a large number of integration options via Bluetooth and wired or wireless Ethernet, allowing you to interact with technology you may already own. If you’ve gotten into 3D printing, pairing that with a Raspberry Pi to create a custom housing / physical aspect to whatever you’re creating gives you the power to craft almost anything you can dream up.
 
The Raspberry Pi is a credit-card sized, single board computer created by the Raspberry Pi Foundation to serve its goal of promoting basic computer science in schools. The most recent model, the Raspberry Pi 3, was released in February 2016. The 3 features a quad-core 1.2 GHz processor, 1 GB RAM and on-board Bluetooth, ethernet (wired and wireless) and four USB 2 ports. Internal storage is provided by a microSD card (not included but easily obtained). The computer itself (not including the case, which I recommend, power supply, and microSD card) costs around $35. Yup, $35. A much more scaled back model, the Model Zero, is priced at $5. All of the Linux-based software is free and fairly easy to download and support. In my experience with the different free apps and modules available, basically nothing works ‘out of the box,’ which is actually some of the fun. Figuring out why I can’t access my Samba share (Raspian sprite for auto-mounting a USB drive wasn’t allowing for easily setting the mount-point or user/group ownership that I setup with my Samba usergroup so I had to utilize a more static method by editing fstab because I’m still a noob) or why my streams won’t play (failed to change the split of CPU vs GPU memory. Noob!) just allows me to better understand how this device and subsequent software actually work.
 
My mother always talks about how she only saw the back of my dad’s head for about nine months when I was very little while he built a Commodore 64 from scratch. He then taught himself how to program using it and even wrote some simple educational games for me. That computer ended up playing a large role in my life as well; I can remember learning how to load, run and manipulate files and programs when I was five years old (not such a big deal in today’s day and age with computers being ubiquitous and intuitive GUIs helping to drive user interface). That played a large role in shaping my interest in computers and my ability to learn how they operate. The Raspberry Pi is a very nice evolutionary parallel to that old Commodore 64, with endless functional and software development possibilities replacing the intensive physical build that was the ‘old’ technological hurdle. I absolutely see this as a fantastic way to get my daughter interested in computers and to provide her with an extraordinary tool to develop a personal connection to programming.
 
So next time, don’t gasp when you hear me yelling “chown” from down the hall. It’s not as dirty as it sounds. Ubuntu! (Isn’t that how Doc Rivers got the Celtics to win that championship? He must have already had his fill of Pi!)

Engineering into the Real World: An Intern’s Perspective

Being an intern, new and under-skilled, is a daunting position to find yourself in when starting at any company. However, real world application of the skills and knowledge gained in the classroom environment is a priceless contribution to any student’s resume and well worth overcoming the initial jitters.
 
My first day at Avanceon was both exhilarating and a bit horrifying; my main focus was not to have sweaty palms as I was walked around the cubicles meeting the team I was now a member of. I noticed two things immediately. First, everyone was very pleasant and greeted me with a smile. Second was the feverous attention everyone paid to the work at hand. I heard the steady clicking of keyboards throughout the cubicles; the computer screens I passed displayed an alien landscape where nothing looked familiar. I wondered what I had gotten myself into. Unfortunately, and most likely due to poor funding, the educational environment tends to be equipped with archaic technology and programs from yester year, completely the opposite of the technology and equipment used here at Avanceon.
 
This internship has proven to be a highly technical and hands-on position. I’ve worked both individually and as part of a team on all aspects of system integration: design, needs analysis, design review, testing, implementation, and validation. This wide experience has taught me the value of being both a team player and a self-starter, ready for the next challenge. No sweat! Avanceon has provided a tremendous opportunity and I strive to become an asset to the company in exchange for the priceless knowledge and experience bestowed upon me.

The Power of Partnership

Partnership not only benefits the customer but also the integrator.  The good news is the benefits for the integrator only feed into the customer’s needs.  Integration’s circle of life!

 

In a successful partnership, the customer gets consistent deliverables and resources along with a depth of knowledge for all their processes, including execution methods.  Did I mention trust and reliability? What’s that in the business world?

 

For the integrator, the promise of more work is an obvious benefit.  But partnerships run deeper than that. While working for Avanceon for eight years now and other integrators previously, I have worked with multiple customers.  The hardest part always seems to be kicking off the project and understanding its scope.  That “feeling you out” stage can be as awkward as a blind date.   With a partnership, you can skip that step.

 

A partnership’s true power is the culture it grows.  That culture is a reward to both partners.  Seeing the same faces on projects, already trusting each other, understanding requirements right away or working more closely together to develop them simply leads to more success on both ends.

 

Also, that strong culture helps to onboard a new engineer, one of the hardest things for any company to do.  This applies to both the customer and the integrator.  There isn’t a better atmosphere you can train someone in than the one your company has an overwhelming depth of knowledge in.  Also the new engineer is part of an already trusted team, which gives him or her confidence.  This leads to more engineers the customer knows and trusts for future projects

 

How else does partnership benefit the customer? Just recently I worked on a large project with a long-time customer whose lead engineer was new to their company and leading projects.  But because of the trust and the depth of knowledge we had regarding the way they execute projects, we basically trained their new lead engineer, simply by working together.  In the end, the project was highly successful.

 

Have you benefitted from a successful customer-integrator relationship?  Post your experiences below!

Project Management for Beginners

I am not a project manager (and I don’t play one on TV, either). But I do work closely with PMs and have picked up some of their secrets. Unfortunately these aren’t juicy, salacious secrets, but they do offer some good insight for engineers, administrative team members, and clients alike.
 
1. Communication is Key: Good project management relies on communication. PMs often play the vital role of liaisons between the customer and the team, and serve as the voice for all parties. One silent player and the whole project can go down like dominoes.
 
2. Organization, Organization, Organization: Write it on paper, type it on a computer, draw it in crayons, whatever works. Meeting notes, budget lists, contact names, deliverable schedules—they all have to exist somewhere locatable and reference-able. That’s why the Avanceon team is a little obsessed with SharePoint. A live, structured home for all project data, organized and consistent. SharePoint project sites are constantly evolving during the lifespan of a project and are regularly audited through project completion.
 
3. See the Big Picture: I think anyone who can repeatedly solve a Rubik’s Cube would make a great PM. You have to see where each row aligns, how moving one piece will affect others, and have one (often concrete) solution in mind. There’s no fixed way to complete the puzzle (though changing the colored stickers is probably the wrong way), and sometimes you have to get creative. But a good PM solves it every time.
 
4. Speak Up: PMs should be willing to stop the line (an apropos reference for the manufacturing industry!). If something crucial isn’t going as planned, good project managers stop and address issues before they snowball. This interruption benefits all sides and often prevents bigger delays.
 
PMs see projects from inception to completion, every aspect from the technical to the financial. They juggle scheduling, change orders and estimates, manage expectations and communication about all of the above. It’s not an easy feat. Keep this in mind for your next project, and maybe give your PM a hug now that you realize all that they do!

A Beer Drinking Company with a Softball Problem

Eight years ago I walked into Avanceon for my first day at work.  Like many people, I was nervous about starting a new job.  My nervousness skyrocketed when a comment I made in my interview about having played softball in junior high school somehow had morphed into me being known as “the girl that plays softball” to all my new co-workers.  I was flooded with questions about what position I wanted to play and when I could start and was shown the trophies the team had won in past seasons.  I quickly learned that softball at Avanceon is a big deal.

 

I showed up on game day, fully prepared to embarrass myself since I hadn’t picked up a bat in 20 years, and was given my jersey.  On the front in bold lettering was the saying “A Beer Drinking Company With A Softball Problem Since 1984.”  I laughed, appreciating the humor, and made my way to the office kitchen to meet up with my new teammates.  I was warmly greeted and immediately handed a cold beer, which was the perfect antidote to my nerves.  As I guzzled my beer and stretched my legs, I was given a crash course in Avanceon softball.  I learned three important lessons that day: 1) We play to win 2) Having a beer before the game is a long time Avanceon tradition and 3) Having several beers after the game is an even bigger Avanceon tradition.

 

I don’t remember what position I played that day or whether we won or lost.  What I do remember is how much fun I had bonding with my new co-workers over softball and beer—something that I have been able to do for the past eight summers.  Some faces have changed, some have gotten older, but our motto is still just as true today as it was back then: Avanceon is a beer drinking company with a softball problem, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

The Opportunity to Innovate Is “Now Here”

Why didn’t I think of that?  We’ve all been there, watching “Shark Tank” or a commercial for a new product that’s deceptively simple or ingenuously innovative, something we know we could have come up with, if only we had!  Perhaps you’ve heard about a competitor’s new system or creative solution and wanted to slap your own forehead.  Why didn’t we think of that? 

 

Low energy, labor and money costs make this a great time to improve your manufacturing operations, gain efficiency and hedge future expenses.  But if your operation is running smoothly, how can you spot existing opportunities to innovate and drive more value to your organization?  Here are some areas to consider:

 

  • Data Analytics:  Are you capturing enough data?  Are you collecting the most useful data?  Have you tied your historical data to financial return and impact? Innovative data analysis can shed light on where efficiency can be improved and where cash can be saved.
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  • The Holistic, “Circular” System: Can you recycle and reuse traditionally discarded waste products?  Are there redundant elements in your current system?  Do all your system’s elements “speak the same language” and connect optimally and show their value impact?  Thinking of your system as “circular” as opposed to “linear” and focusing holistically may inspire creative solutions.
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  • Advanced Automation: Sensor networks, remote telemetry, vision systems and artificial intelligence aren’t as costly as they may sound.  Operations of any size can scale these technologies to optimize their systems and drive value to the business.
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    If you feel a little stagnant, a fresh perspective is invaluable.  Be it interacting with other departments in your organization, talking to your industry peers, reviewing the new offerings of your technical partners or working in consultation with a professional services firm, there are endless opportunities to leverage business value from today’s latest trends.  After all, depending on your perspective from the Shark Tank, the opportunity to create value is either ‘no where’ or ‘now here.’