Peter BigelowAsk only for what you need for practical decision-making.

Not a day goes by that I am not asked, or demanded, to provide volumes of data on what appear to be trivial things. Between DFARS flow-downs, NIST protocols, Dodd/Frank requirements and AS/ISO documentation, the verification and validation needs have reached hyper levels. But as time spent providing these data grows exponentially, I keep returning to two simple questions: Does the requester really know what they need? And is the information provided truly accurate?

We are a product of our experiences. My career commenced in the mid-1970s. Then, I was the “young pup,” the gofer and protegee to more seasoned coworkers. That was the era when businesses were just starting to adopt computers as management tools. The hot new area in every large corporation was the “Management Information Systems” department. They had the sexy new mainframe computers that took up the entire basement, typed code on snazzy keypads, and were able to generate reams of reports containing tons of data.

Read more: Data Dumps Got You Down?

Peter BigelowThe pursuit of a vision, such as a driver-free car, has invaluable benefits.

Technology development has been on a tear in the global automotive sector, an industry that could be leading all others in the development of sophisticated electronics. Event after event, the globe has been laser-focused on developments, trials and efforts underway in transportation to make this newly developed technology robust and ruggedized to operate – safely – in the varied and harsh environments automobiles operate. Virtually every system has been redesigned, with electronics and electronic sensors displacing electromechanical and mechanical components. The automobile of today is safer, quicker and more fuel-efficient than was imaginable even a decade back.

In the auto’s transition from a “hunk of bolts” to “elegant high-tech machine,” no aspect has sparked the imagination of engineers, or the greed of investors, more than the development and commercialization of the autonomous vehicle. On one level, I am amazed we are on the verge of harnessing an array of technology that could more safely transport people and cargo than a skilled, experienced driver. But on a different level, I am highly skeptical of the commercial viability of autonomous vehicles. This skepticism is rooted in a simple question: Who really wants an autonomous vehicle?

Read more: Autonomous Thinking

Peter BigelowFaced with a host of software and machines, is a data-driven electronics shop a pipe dream?

Over the December holidays I had an epiphany: My company is just like a Christmas tree!

My epiphany occurred amid the annual ritual of putting up holiday decorations. Like every year over the past decades, a freshly cut tree is proudly lugged into a prominent place in the house. In a water-filled stand the tree majestically fills the room with a rich pine smell as decorations are pulled from storage and readied to adorn it. When decorating a Christmas tree, the first step is putting the lights on. And every year that begins by taking lights that worked flawlessly the previous year, unraveling them and testing they still work. And like all previous years, the result is the same: most light, some do not.

This leads to the next ritual: figuring out why. This entails fidgeting with bulbs and fuses, and hours lost determining whether it would be easier to just replace one of the strings. Even with new lights, however, the problem can occur, prompting a similar ritual of triage, exploration, frustration and finally, success. “Success” often means (reluctantly) living with a tree that may have something like 588 of the 650 lights working. In the end, creative placement of decorations to camouflage the missing lights is an invaluable talent.

Read more: The Disconnected Factory

Peter BigelowIs automotive, not military or space, the impetus behind today’s electronics innovation?

Never say never. Every time I even think of saying “I will never,” something happens that makes me regret it. And yet here I am, once again, admitting to another of those instances of “I will never.”

This time, I allowed my experiences and background to cloud the reality on the ground. I started my career in the shadows of NASA. That great American technological juggernaut began when Kennedy challenged us to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth. Conceptually, it all seemed so simple. For generations the US government, originally through the military and later with NASA’s help, drove dramatic technological advances by investing in new technology and the materials and processes necessary to achieve them, so that besides filling their immediate needs, those technologies would eventually become commercial standards integrated into consumer products.

Read more: Drive Me to the Moon: Has Automotive Supplanted Military in High-Reliability Electronics?

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