The Art of the Possible

PV panels

GE works with the US Army in the area of embedded computing. Now, you might think that this is pretty high-tech—but in many ways, the computers in our front-line fighting vehicles are not as powerful as the computer you are reading this article on right now. It’s hard to believe, isn’t it?

There are lots of reasons for this. First, there is the very long time it takes to get any device that goes on an Army vehicle qualified for use. (After all, these things must be rugged and last a long time in a very harsh environment.) This period sometimes takes so long that one or two generations of processor technology often come and go in between. Then, there is the cost of deployment and logistics. Any hardware that is put in service requires a logistics chain to maintain it in the field (a costly endeavor). Making a change to any hardware (for a more modern version) is far too painful financially and operationally as it disrupts a functioning logistics chain. So the Army tends to “stick with what we have.” But this has a cost too; old equipment is more expensive to build as in-feed technologies go obsolete.

As you can see, this is a “rock and a hard-place” problem; a paradigm that is expensive to maintain and difficult to get away from. This will change, because it must—but it hasn’t yet.

A pithy statement

Some months ago, while visiting with Dr. Paul Rogers (the head of TARDEC—Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center) he described to me what he sees as a way out of this paradigm: developing the “Art of the Possible.” A pithy statement to be sure, but what does it really mean?

The phrase took me back to when I was an engineer. In 1982, I worked for a photovoltaic (PV) system company. My job was essentially to design power systems to provide power for things like long haul microwave relays (the 220 mile Red Sea link was one). These systems had to work in any climate (solar availability, temperature and so on) in the world. One day, a program manager (one on my heroes—REL Tolbert) came up to me and said: “I’ve been given a budget and nine months to build a one million watt system in the California desert. I want you on my team.” 

Now, such a feat in 1982 was nearly unthinkable; only one company (ours) had even produced one million watts of PV in an entire year and no-one had considered how to assemble a system of that size. We had to model the climate (accounting for shadow patterns and atmosphere effects), design dual-axis tracking mounts and specify and have built huge inverters. Oh, and: “…by the way: the site will be unmanned, so everything must be fail-safe and disaster recoverable without immediate intervention.”

As a young and eager engineer, faced with a “moon-shot” I jumped in with both feet. We did not know it at the time, but our 12-person team was creating the “Art of the Possible.” We developed climate, power and economic models (on 8-bit PCs and a time-shared IBM 360), invented devices and structures where none existed, dug, wired and tested in rain, snow, wind and blistering heat. Then, one sunny day, about eight months after breaking 22 acres of ground and erecting 106 1,000 sq. ft. tracking panels, we pushed a million watts of pure solar electricity into the grid. We had done what many said was impossible. But clearly, it was possible. It was “art.”

Art defined

Art is defined as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination.” We certainly employed that because we were passionate about what we were doing (although I always like to say that we were too dumb to know how hard it would be). We were creative and innovative where we had to be and relied on existing technology where we could, understanding that time was our biggest foe so we had to be efficient in time, cost and risk.

Isn’t this exactly what Dr. Rogers is asking for, and what our military needs?

Tracker panels
Me and my 1982 Z28 Camaro beside one of the 106 tracker panels

Our fighting forces are asking us—the supplier community—to use what is available, innovate where we must and be efficient in time, cost and risk. We in the supplier community can be creative and innovative and we owe our soldiers, sailors and airmen that “Art of the Possible.” Doing so requires courage and a dedication to the task, but it also requires technological prowess and a pragmatic approach. At GE, this is how we work.

Today, as we promote embedded computers (that are orders of magnitude more potent than those we had in 1982) this experience is always in my mind; not as an engineer, but as a business development guy. In that role, I seek to challenge our team to use our considerable artistic talent to build the possible—to shatter the rock and the hard-place. 

Larry Schaffer

Larry Schaffer has been with us in a business development role since 2001, and works to create and maintain long-term, strategic relationships with key companies engaged in embedded computing for ground systems applications with a strong emphasis on image processing and distribution. He was born in Pennsylvania and educated as an Electrical Engineer in New Jersey and California (where he now lives). Just don’t ask him to tell you about being a war baby…

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