Friday, March 27, 2015

Role of Open Design in inventing our future



Who invented the Steam Engine?

"James Watt!"





The inventor who changed this world and played an instrumental role in bringing about the Industrial Revolution.

“You definitely agree with me, don't you?”

But, what if I tell you a completely different story retold by Boldrin and Levine (Against Intellectual Monopoly).

James Watt was a prolific inventor. A brilliant man who got the idea of allowing steam to expand and condense in separate containers while repairing a small Newcomen steam engine. In 1768, he applied for a patent after doing a series of improvements. Soon he made an alliance with the rich industrialist Matthew Boulton, who secured an act of Parliament extending his patent until the year 1800.

In the name of economic freedom, the great statesman Edmund Burke spoke eloquently in Parliament against the creation of this unnecessary monopoly – but to no avail. After his patents were secure and the production started, Watt devoted a substantial portion of his energy blocking off rival inventors.




In the 1790s, when a superior Hornblower engine (compound steam engine) was put into production, Boulton and Watt sued Jonathan Hornblower and brought him down. Many new improvements to the steam engine were made, but they never saw the light until 1804 when the Boulton and Watt’s patent expired, as none of those inventors wished to incur the same fate as Hornblower.

The unfolding of events after Watt's patents expired was quite surprising. Not only there was an explosion in the production and efficiency of the engines, but also steam power came into its own as the driving force of the Industrial Revolution. Steam engines were modified and improved leading to the development of the steam train, the steamboat, and the steam jenny over the next thirty years. The high-pressure steam engine was one the key inventions whose development was blocked by Watt’s strategic use of his patent.

In most histories, even the one which we read, we buy into the "myth of the lone inventor" - an idea that creates a simple and entertaining narrative, like - James Watt was a heroic inventor, responsible for the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Although, these facts suggest an alternative interpretation of the history.

Was Watt’s patent a crucial incentive which triggered his inventive genius, as the traditional history suggests? Or did he push back the Industrial Revolution by a decade or two through the legal system he used to gain a competitive advantage?

Is the current system of "intellectual property" – patents and copyrights – a necessary evil that provides an incentive for invention and creativity? Or are they just unnecessary evils, the relics of the past when authorities granted monopolies to favoured bourgeois?

It is up to you to decide.

As an engineer I was always taught that our purpose is to solve real life problems, making this world a better place to live.

Through this article I am not trying to spread a libertarian propaganda, raising my voice against intellectual property, dogmatically disregarding consequences, insisting on principles of building a utilitarian society at any cost. But to show you that there exists an alternative way to push technology forward for a sustainable future – Open Design.
Open design is a form of co-creation which leads to the development of machines, systems and other physical products by using publicly shared design information using both free and open-source software (FOSS) as well as open-source hardware (OSHW). James Bessen and Alessandro Nuvolari wrote in their recent research paper, Knowledge Sharing Among Inventors: Some Historical Perspectives, how aggressive patenting had put an end to the period of extensive knowledge sharing which could be traced back to the 18th and 19th century. While many outstanding individuals made important contributions in the development of various technologies, the histories that we are exposed to, focus exclusively on “heroic inventors” which is often misleading and incomplete. The term "Open Design" was not coined in that era, but its essence was quite prominent even back then. They strived towards a common goal – pushing technology forward collectively for the greater good.

Today this idea of open design has been taken up by several groups and individuals. Marcin Jakubowski is one such US based farmer and technologist. After completing his PhD in fusion physics from University of Wisconsin, he realised that he lacked practical skills to solve pressing world issues which had rendered him more or less – useless. So, he started a farm in rural Missouri and spent his time learning the economics of farming.
He bought a new tractor. A few months passed, then it broke.
He got it repaired and a few months later it broke again.
Then pretty soon, he was broke too.

He realized that to start a sustainable farm and settlement, the truly appropriate, low-cost tools he needed just didn't exist. So he started building tools that were robust, modular, highly efficient and optimized, low-cost, made from local and recycled materials that would last a lifetime, not designed for obsolescence. He tested those tools and found that industrial productivity could be achieved on a small scale. He published the 3D designs, schematics, instructional videos and budgets on a wiki. Contributors from all over the world joined his movement and started a group - Open Source Ecology with a mission to create an Open Source Economy, an efficient economy that increases innovation by open collaboration. They identified the 50 most important machines that takes for modern life to exist - tractors, bread ovens, circuit makers, brick press, etc. Then they set out to open source the set of blueprints, called the Global Village Construction Set, allowing anyone to build their own tractor or harvester from scratch. So far, fourteen of the fifty machines have been designed, blueprinted, and prototyped, with five of those reaching the documentation stage. And now the project is about to enter the high velocity development phase.


It is very important to understand that hardware plays a pivotal role in the Open Design philosophy. An open source hardware is a component or device that has been licensed to allow anyone to examine, duplicate and modify as you wish. In the past few years, this openness in hardware has definitely taken a leap. Projects like RepRap – 3D printer and Arduino – microcontroller are some of the perfect examples of open hardware projects. It is important to focus on hardware because it is hardware that can change people's lives in a tangible way.



RepRap Project

The idea underlying Open Design can be well summarized by Nikola Tesla who wrote way back in 1934 - "The scientific man does not aim at an immediate result. He does not expect that his advanced ideas will be readily taken up. His work is like that of the planter — for the future. His duty is to lay the foundation for those who are to come, and point the way. He lives and labors and hopes."

Today technology advancement has reached such a level that individual invention happens with the help of hundreds. Even Issac Netwon will agree to it - "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."

Open platforms like OpenXC has already entered our vehicles. Motorola's Project Ara, the smartphone of the future, is also completely open-sourced. You are already living in the decade of Virtual Reality which coupled with open Brain Computer Interface will offer you a choice to remain in your everyday life or to enter the Matrix, giving you the ability to freely manipulate the simulated reality of the Matrix to manifest these abilities as various superhuman powers.

What started as the open source software movement decades ago, empowering people, is now finally inspiring and even extending its arms to support open source hardware, open product development, open enterprise and open design. There are lessons we can learn from these collaborative trends as we enter the next step in the evolution of both technology and economy. But first, we need to ask ourselves whether we have the courage to grab this opportunity and march ahead together?

If we do, then definitely we are about to enter the next phase of human evolution.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Shell-FOM CSER (Computational Sciences for Energy Research) PhD 75 Programme 2014-15 [Part 5]



Click Here to Read Round 3 Details



Round 4: CSER Matching Phase

30 candidates were selected for the final round which was the CSER matching phase. In this phase the principle investigators of selected PhD project proposals (hereafter PI's) and the candidates for the resulting PhD positions who were pre-selected by Shell (hereafter candidates) had their very first interaction.

1. Some background information

Permanent staff at Dutch universities and academic institutes was invited to submit research proposals for PhD projects, from which a number of excellent proposals was selected.

In parallel, STCB selected a pool of approximately 30 'high potentials' who want to obtain their PhD in the Netherlands and to afterwards continue their career at Shell in Bangalore. The application process for PhD students included various interviews at selected locations in India.

2. Aim of the matching process


The aim of the matching process is to establish an optimal match between the selected project proposals and the pre-selected candidates from the aforementioned pool of 'high potentials'. A successful match will result in a granted research project for the PI, a signed employment contract between the PhD student and FOM in the Netherlands, and a letter of intent from Shell for a job in Bangalore after completion of the PhD. The first PhD students can start in their projects in the Netherlands early 2014.

3. The matching process

The matching process took place in November 2013 according to a tight time schedule with distinct steps:

Step 1. November 1: FOM will send candidates this document ('Rules of play'), as well as a link to the selected research proposals and the information form to be completed.

Step 2. November 7: the candidates will read these proposals and send FOM their ranking of at least five proposals by order of preference. Simultaneously, the candidates will return the completed information form and a copy of their passport.

Step 3. November 8: FOM will send the curriculum vitae and original motivation letters (that were sent to Shell at the original application step) of all candidates that indicated preference for a certain project proposal to the corresponding PI.

Step 4. November 12: the PI's will, by e-mail, invite a number of their candidates for an interview by Skype (or phone), providing a proposal for a date and time (taking into account the time difference) and a Skype name. These interviews will take place from November 12 to November 26. The PI's will also send a motivated rejection by e-mail to all candidates they do not wish to invite for an interview. The PI's will simultaneously inform FOM on this first selection. The candidates shall respond to the PI's invitation (accepting or declining) by 18 hours after receipt of the PI's e-mail.

Step 5. November 12 – November 26: interviews. These interviews will form the basis of the priority lists (rankings) that the PI's will make of the candidates interviewed. Please note: as there will be many combinations of projects and candidates to be considered it will NOT be possible at this stage that PI and candidate come to a final mutual agreement. The PI will not make comments to any of the candidates on his/her preferences.

Step 6. November 26: the PI's will inform FOM of their priority list by mail. PI's should also clearly indicate which candidates (if any) they do not deem suitable. Please note: including a candidate on the priority list implies the PI will accept this candidate even though he/she might not be the highest ranked candidate.

Step 7. November 26: the candidates will inform FOM about their preference of projects (in the form of a priority list). Candidates should also clearly indicate which projects (if any) they would not like to work in. Please note: including a project on the priority list means the candidate will accept this project to work in even though it might not have his/her highest preference.

Step 8. November 29: on the basis of the priority lists of both PI's and candidates FOM will decide on the final match and inform both PI's and candidates. Please note: FOM commits itself to make an optimal match based on mutual preferences as much as possible. In the case of concurring preferences by multiple candidates, in this phase of the matching process the preference of the PI precedes. In the case of concurring preferences by multiple PI's, the PI precedes of whom the project proposal obtained the highest priority during the proposal selection process.

Step 9. FOM will send the selected candidates a labour contract in duplicate for the selected PhD project under supervision of the selected PI/responsible team leader. The candidate should return one copy of the labour contract to FOM after signing for agreement by January 1st 2014. In addition Shell will draw up a letter of intent of Shell for a job at Shell Bangalore after a successful PhD.

Please note: by signing and returning the FOM labour contract the candidate sincerely commits him or herself to join the project of the PI in the Netherlands. Please make sure there are no obstacles to do so before signing the contract! FOM and Shell expect the candidate to turn down any (later) competing offers after signing a labour contract.

Step 10. Following acceptance of the job offer by the candidate, FOM will grant the research proposal and will send an official granting letter to the PI. This granting letter will be valid only for the matched candidate. FOM will replace candidates rejecting the offer 'automatically' by the next best match. If none of the ranking candidates accepts the job a suitable agreement will be worked out.

The list of projects selected by FOM were as follows:

1)    Prof. D. Lohse - Solar Steam Nanobubbles - Physics of Fluids Group, Fluid Dynamics
2)    Dr. M.F.M. Speetjens - GEOCHAOS – Geoscience meets chaos - Mechanical Engineering + Applied Physics
3)    Prof. D.M.J. Smeulders - Numerical modeling and validation of fracture network formation in anisentropic media - Mechanical Engineering + Geosciences
4)    Dr.ir. E.A.J.F. Peters - Simulation of proppant transport for shale gas production - Chemical Engineering and Chemistry (ST), Multiphase Reactors Group (SMR)
5)    Dr.ir. W.K. den Otter - Simulating semi-solid rechargeable flow batteries - Computational BioPhysics
6)    Dr. H.J. Bulten - Wireless Seismic-sensing networks - Nikhef(Geosciences) + Computational Science
7)    Prof. J.J.W. van der Vegt - Computing Seismic Waves with Minimal Pollution Error - Mathematics of Computational Science
8)    Prof.dr. W.A. Mulder - Fast elastic wave equation modelling and inversion - Computational geosciences
9)    Prof.dr. S. Luding - Computational science for gas/oil exploration production and processing - Multi Scale Mechanics
10)    Prof. Dr. B. de Bruin - Mechanistic Insights in Catalytic Energy Conversion Processes - Computational Chemistry
11)    Dr. M.A. van Huis - DFT simulation of photocatalytic hydrogen production using CdS/Au nanostructures - Soft Condensed Matter
12)    Prof.dr.ir. M. Dijkstra - Plasmonic Supraparticles and Photonic Quasicrystals for enhanced light-trapping in solar cells - Nanomaterials Science
13)    Dr. P.A. Bobbert - Atomistic morphology of organic solar cells: key to efficient charge separation (ATOMORPH) - Theory of Polymers and Soft Matter (Applied Physics)
14)    Prof. P.J. Kelly - Wave propagation in layered materials - Computational Materials Science
15)    Prof.dr. M. van Hecke - Evolutionary Algorithms Designing Responsive Metamaterials - Applied Physics

I applied for the projects [1-9] and was selected for the projects [1-6] for the Personal Interview Rounds with the individual professors.

The next 6 interviews were woven around each project. The questions asked generally boiled down to these:

•    Tell us about yourself? Why do you want to pursue a PhD?
•    Did you find the proposal interesting? Why do you want to take up this project for your PhD?
•    Why do you want to join our group?
•    What are your expectations from the PhD project? There will be some managerial responsibility. Are you willing to take them up?
•    Why do you want to come to Netherlands for a PhD? Why not US?
•    Few questions to gauge your skills/competency.
•    Discussion on the proposed projects.
•    Do you suggest some improvements to the proposal? (Missing timeline for validation studies, experimental work, etc.)
•    Questions pertaining to your Master’s Thesis.

So after the process ended, we had to send a final priority list. I was selected for the project - Simulation of proppant transport for shale gas production. It was a very interesting project which had a lot of industrial scope.

Few weeks later I declined the offer.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Shell-FOM CSER (Computational Sciences for Energy Research) PhD 75 Programme 2014-15 [Part 4]


Click Here to Read Round 2 Details


Round 3: Shell Recruitment Day

 There was a long wait and finally I was invited for the Shell Recruitment Day in Oberoi, New Delhi. It lasted from 8.00am to 5pm.

The assessment day involved case study undertaken individually and as a group exercise, with a break for lunch in the middle. It was divided in 5 stages:
1.    Case Study
2.    CBI (Technical & HR interview)
3.    E Tray
4.    SRI
5.    GD

During the interview and assessment process your academic credentials and results will play almost no part in determining whether you're a suitable employee for Shell (except the Technical interview part). These are only really important for getting past the online application stage. Your assessors will predominantly focus on analysing your CART skills.

Stage 1: Case Study

We were divided into groups of 6 and a case study was handed over to us. I estimate that around 60-70 people got to this round all over India.
The business case study was based on a fictitious setting, a fictitious island called Opana (with 3 countries – Bouka, Yana and Goura). The case focused on one country Bouka which was ruled by the – Central Party. Shell has some activities and plan to increase the activities there by taking over more oil exploration, bidding, etc. You had to think about various issues like research and development, safety, environment, work force, corporate social responsibility, financial data, etc. A lot of information was provided to you like official reports, emails, press release, charts, graphs, etc. and half hour was given for the preparation.

The key question that you need to prepare was your recommendation for one of the 3 projects that Shell needed to undertake in that region keeping all aspects in mind – company finances, competitors, people, stakeholders, etc. So you have to read emails and headings and try to catch the key words. Think about increasing capacity of plants, ensuring safety, work life balance, local work force, satisfying the govt, stakeholders, environment, etc. also care for shell employees. You will have to think about the budget allocated and hence see how you plan for short, medium and long term like:
1) Balancing Global standardisation with local leads
2) Meeting Global energy needs whilst paying respect to the environment
3) Implementing Health, Safety, Security and Environmental controls
4) Keeping up with market innovation and technology.

There were some environmental concerns like endangering a rare species of whale in that region whose mating activities were hampered due to the noise generated by oil drilling. Your need to look and try to come up with some figures. You were also supposed to think about the short term and long term strategy and what would be the broader implications of your decision.

The three projects were:
1.    Oil Exploration Software – This software accessed the data to predict the possible oil locations. This project promoted partnership with the local technology institute. This project had a larger application if successful in the long term for exploring other oil fields around the world.
2.    Biodiesel – Help the society and environment by developing Biodiesel with the help of locally grown crops.
3.    Drilling noise reduction – The government had mandated to do this project if the company wanted to do deep sea oil rigging in order to protect the whales.
Read the entire case carefully and make your decision.

Stage 2: CBI

This round was not associated to the case and comprised a technical and HR round purely accessing your CART abilities:
The technical round stressed on your projects, applications, problems you encountered and solved, why you were interested in this program, etc.
The HR round had some of the following questions:
- A time when you had to explain a complex or difficult issue to someone?
- Example when I have had to work hard to achieve a goal? Proudest achievement?
- Example of a time when I have had to work in a group and faced differences with another member?
- Example of when I have engaged or built relationship with different people/groups/cultures and my success depended on it?
Answer these questions wisely.

Stage 3: E-tray

This round judged your organizational capability and crisis management. You were one of the project managers of Bouka East Project and the entire task was simulated in the form of an email system.
The crisis situations came in the form of the emails which you had to respond to. There was a time limit so you were required to be quick and smart. Some sample emails are as follows:
- Worker strike in one of the location due to low wage pay.
- Fraud made by a supplier.
- Green Party notice against the company activity (This political party is opposite the Central Party and is very vocal about the environment and people’s concerns and it wants to put a stop on the activities of Oil companies).

Stage 4: SRI – Self Reflective Interview

A very polite lady (probably her major was psychology) took my interview. It was based on how I approached the E-tray questions. What all things I took into consideration while answering those questions? How did I perform according to myself? Was there any change of approach midway? If so why? What did I learn from this exercise? Will I perform it better if I take E-tray again?

She will be polite, but she will ask counter-questions which will nail you. You need to escape her intelligently, and yes politely. No anger/aggression/confusion, just remain calm and composed, as your fate is in her hands.

Stage 5: Group Discussion

This was the only group activity. The GD group comprised all 6 members of your group and it was observed by around 10-12 Shell officials, who were familiar as they came in one round or the other previously to interview you.

The atmosphere was tense. There was a white board. Few markers lying on the table. And one sheet given to each member which had 2 points that can help you in the GD. There were 6 different set of points, each for one member.

A video was shown which showed the upcoming crisis as the Central Party had been voted out in Bouka and Green Party was in power. The group had to come up with ways to handle this situation and identify the stakeholders whom they need to address and how – Shareholders/Board members, Green Party, Environmental Groups, Local peoples, Employees. You need to handle the situation very carefully as you are being observed by the Shell officials. Speak up your points clearly. Make use of the white board before someone else picks up the marker. It is a gamble which I played. I went to the white board and my group members listened to me. They followed me. In your case they might continue the discussion and reject you by just dictating the points and making you write. So it will be your call. The safest thing to do is to put forward your points consistently.

Click Here to Read Round 4 Details