Innovative Thinking: A Quick Summary for the Week of February 20, 2017

The following are a few quick summaries of innovations I find interesting and promising. I hope they stimulate your own thinking.

The Adidas Speedfactory

Process excellence is characterized, among many things, by the reduction of end-to-end lead time. Adidas is building a new factory called the Speedfactory that aims to greatly reduce its lead time to create athletic shoes. It does so by designing and testing the shoe in a virtual, all-digital environment, and then making each pair of shoes using computerized knitting, robotic cutting and additive manufacturing techniques. The goal is to reduce the lead times from up to 18 months from design to store shelves, to less than a week. Such a reduction in lead time will greatly reduce excess inventories, enable rapid and flexible responses to changes in demand, and perhaps one day support affordable production of shoes made to a scan of your feet. Nike’s Flyknit technology is a similar program to reduce the labor required to make shoes, reduce the lead time, and enable customization.

A New Way to Cool Buildings


From The Economist:

About 6% of the electricity generated in America is used to power air-conditioning systems that cool homes and offices. As countries such as Brazil, China and India grow richer, they will surely do likewise. Not only is that expensive for customers, it also raises emissions of greenhouse gases in the form both of carbon dioxide from burning power-station fuel and of the hydrofluorocarbons air conditioners use as refrigerants.

As they describe in a paper in this week’s Science, Ronggui Yang and Xiaobo Yin of the University of Colorado, in Boulder, have a possible alternative to all this. They have invented a film that can cool buildings without the use of refrigerants and, remarkably, without drawing any power to do so. Better yet, this film can be made using standard roll-to-roll manufacturing methods at a cost of around 50 cents a square metre.

The new film works by a process called radiative cooling. This takes advantage of that fact that Earth’s atmosphere allows certain wavelengths of heat-carrying infrared radiation to escape into space unimpeded. Convert unwanted heat into infrared of the correct wavelength, then, and you can dump it into the cosmos with no come back.

Dr Yang’s and Dr Yin’s film, by contrast, is made of polymethylpentene, a commercially available, transparent plastic sold under the brand name TPX. Into this they mix tiny glass beads. They draw the result out into sheets about 50 millionths of a metre (microns) thick, and silver those sheets on one side. When laid out on a roof, the silver side is underneath. Incident sunlight is thus reflected back through the plastic, which stops it heating the building below.

Preventing something warming up is not, though, the same as cooling it. The key to doing this is the glass beads. Temperature maintenance is not a static process. All objects both absorb and emit heat all the time, and the emissions are generally in the form of infrared radiation. In the case of the beads, the wavelength of this radiation is determined by their diameter. Handily, those with a diameter of about eight microns emit predominantly at wavelengths which pass straight through the infrared “window” in the atmosphere. Since the source of the heat that turns into this infrared is, in part, the building below, the effect is to cool the building.

That cooling effect, 93 watts per square metre in direct sunlight, and more at night, is potent. The team estimates that 20 square metres of their film, placed atop an average American house, would be enough to keep the internal temperature at 20°C on a day when it was 37°C outside.

To regulate the amount of cooling, any practical system involving the film would probably need water pipes to carry heat to it from the building’s interior. Manipulating the flow rate through these pipes as the outside temperature varied would keep the building’s temperature steady. Unlike the cooling system itself, these pumps would need power to operate. But not much of it. Other than that, all the work is done by the huge temperature difference, about 290°C, between the surface of the Earth and that of outer space.

Using Magnetic Tape to Store Data

You would think that today’s digital environment is ruled by data storage methods such as the micro SD cards in smartphones and digital cameras. But perversely as the quantity of data organizations produce continues to rise an old technology, magnetic tape, is coming back as the new cutting edge for the cheap, reliable, mass storage of digital data.

When physicists switch on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC at CERN), between three and six gigabytes of data spew out of it every second. That is, admittedly, an extreme example. But the flow of data from smaller sources than CERN is also growing inexorably. At the moment it is doubling every two years.

Tape has four advantages over hard disks for the long-term preservation of data. The first is speed. Although it takes about 40 seconds for an archive robot to select the right tape and put it in a reader, once it has loaded, extracting data from that tape is about four times as fast as reading from a hard disk.

The second advantage is reliability. When a tape snaps, it can be spliced back together. The loss is rarely more than a few hundred megabytes—a bagatelle in information-technology circles. When a terabyte hard disk fails, by contrast, all the data on it may be lost. The consequence at CERN, specifically, is that a few hundred megabytes of its 100-petabyte tape repository are, on average, lost every year. Of the 50 petabytes of data held on hard disk, however, it loses a few hundred terabytes in the same period.

The third benefit of tapes is that they do not need power to preserve data held on them. Stopping a disk rotating by temporarily turning off the juice—a process called power cycling—increases the likelihood that it will fail. The fourth benefit is security. If a hacker with a grudge managed to break into CERN’s data centre, he could delete all 50 petabytes of the disk-based data in minutes. To delete the same amount from the organisation’s tapes would take years.

Tape has two other benefits. It is cheaper than disks (a gigabyte of disk storage costs 10 cents, versus 4 cents for tape), and it lasts longer. Tapes can still be read reliably after three decades, against five years for disks.

Sony recently announced a tape storage device that holds 148 GBs of data per square inch of tape. A single reel would store 185 TBs worth of data, or roughly the equivalent of 3,700 Blu-Ray discs.