Manufacturing guy-at-large.

Filtering by Tag: amazon

Mini-review: Amazon Part Finder on iOS

Added on by Spencer Wright.

A week or two ago, Jordan gave me a heads up about a new feature on Amazon's iOS app: A "Part Finder" feature that supposedly will identify fasteners using your camera's phone. The tech press is, predictably, excited about this: It's arguably augmented reality, and AR is hot right now, and most of the people writing about AR and Amazon probably don't own a pair of calipers, metric or inch thread gages, or a thread checker set

As one might expect, I was a bit skeptical to learn that it might take a journalist ten tries to even get the app to produce a result. So this morning I gave it a shot.

More or less at random, I opened one of my parts drawers and took out a selection of parts. I tried the following McMaster-Carr part numbers:

  • 92196A581, 18-8 Stainless Steel Socket Head Screw 5/16"-18 Thread Size, 3/4" Long
  • 91771A542, 18-8 Stainless Steel Phillips Flat Head Screws 1/4"-20 Thread Size, 1" Long
  • 97517A025, Aluminum Blind Rivet with Steel Mandrel Domed Head, 1/8" Diameter, for 0.1880"-0.25" Material Thickness
  • 97395A451, Dowel Pin 316 Stainless Steel, 1/8" Diameter, 3/4" Long
  • 92196A194, 18-8 Stainless Steel Socket Head Screw 8-32 Thread Size, 1/2" Long
  • 90895A029, 18-8 Stainless Steel Belleville Spring Lock Washer for 1/4" and M6 Socket Head Screws, 0.264" ID, 0.374" OD

TL;DR: I do not find this feature even a little bit useful. A few notes:


My shop is lit mostly with task lights: Clamp-on fixtures with LED bulbs. This tends to cast shadows, which the Part Finder had a *really* hard time with; it took maybe 25 tries to get a single result. Worse yet, the app shows you the instructions every single time, making the photo process itself rather painful.

I next went outside and set up in full sun. This was even worse - the high contrast shadows seemed to throw the Part Finder off even more. Lastly I went inside in an area with a decent amount of indirect light, which worked much better - but still far from perfectly. 

In a few cases, the Part Finder couldn't even find the penny I was using, and once it claimed that it couldn't find the part. Some of these failures can fairly be blamed on my lighting, and some can probably be blamed on Amazon's image processing software. But the user experience sucked, and that falls squarely on Amazon's product team.

"Additional part details"

When I finally did get a match, the following message appeared:


Great, we have analyzed the photo and gathered specs. Please select the additional part details below:

The Part Finder seems to operate *only* on fastener diameter, length, and basic classification. It doesn't deal with head type or thread spec, and when I scanned the blind rivet the app prompted me to ask whether it was a "Drive Anchor, Post, Hex Bolt, or Blind Rivet." 

Some of this filtering may be useful to leave in the user's hands, but the range here calls into question exactly what "specs" the Part Finder has gathered. Which leads me to:

Thread spec

The Part Finder cannot distinguish thread pitches, nor can it tell the difference between metric and inch threads.

To me, this is a need-to-have feature for any fastener identifier. I almost *never* lack a method of determining a fastener's diameter and length (I bring a caliper with me if I know I'm doing much work at all), but my thread gages mostly stay in the shop. If Amazon wants to get serious about this, they *need* to include thread identification in the Part Finder.


As I've written before (see this and browse here), Amazon's total lack of product hierarchy puts them at a severe disadvantage when it comes to this kind of feature. The obvious counterpoint is McMaster-Carr, whose catalog structure is perfect for establishing the appropriate scope in a part identifier feature search. 

In other words: Partly, Amazon's Part Finder just sucks at identifying parts. But there are also institutional barriers in the way of Amazon ever being good at something like this, and (if AR gets better) I do still hold out hope for another player to tackle this problem.

Photos & notes from a visit to the Shenzhen electronics malls

Added on by Spencer Wright.

When Zach and I were in the Pearl River Delta for The Public Radio in late July, we took a few trips to the infamous Shenzhen electronics malls. A few notes:

  • This is an ecosystem. Calling them "malls" kind of misses the point. Western style malls are just the end of the supply chain; the Shenzhen electronics malls are almost a full supply chain unto themselves.
  • I don't know how many independent businesses actually work in these places, but it seems like it must be in the high four figures at least. Many of them (especially on the lower floors) don't seem to be any bigger than a chair and a tiny countertop; others are weird outposts owned (apparently) by major international brands.
  • Everywhere in the malls, work is being done. I can't stress this enough - people are doing real, tangible work. This is perhaps the most striking part about them, and it contrasts directly with what we're used to in the US (where teenagers at Abercrombies mostly sit around, stock shelves, and run credit cards). You don't even have to look that hard - at the mobile phone mall on the south side of Shennan Middle Road, there are people at almost every shop who are literally putting phones together in plain view. Similarly, at Huaqiangbei you can see people (for instance) making wire assemblies at their tiny counters. The fact that you're buying services is totally apparent here.
  • *Nobody* was phased by our presence. There were very few white people in sight (especially on the upper floors, and at more obscure malls), but (aside from small children) nobody really cared that we were there at all.

As a final note, a rather remarkable thing happened since we returned from China. My old MacBook Pro had a hardware failure, and the problem appeared to be the hard drive cable (apparently they tend to go bad on my particular model). I ordered a new one on Amazon, and when a week went by (I hadn't really looked at the shipping time estimate), I checked to see its status. Well it turns out that the cable was sent to me directly from Shenzhen. I have no way of knowing, but I wouldn't be surprised at all if it came from one of these malls.

Notes on Amazon Business and decisions in B2B ecommerce

Added on by Spencer Wright.

This week, while in Seattle, I had the pleasure of visiting Amazon and talking with some folks there about Amazon Business. To prep, I spent a bit of time reflecting on the B2B ecommerce world, and how the major players in it have approached & prioritized their efforts there. I've written about both Amazon and B2B ecommerce a bit before, but what's below clarifies my thoughts on their position in the ecosystem significantly.

To an outsider, Amazon has always struck me with two core messages:

  1. We are insanely customer focused.
  2. We have built a massively impressive logistical operation - the biggest of its kind, outside of China.

Also of note: Amazon has always seemed to target specific audiences in its external messaging. Most prominent to me are:

  • Consumers; people who would otherwise be shopping at Walmart or local retail stores. Basically everything on the website is directed towards this group.
  • Other retailers/competitors. This is a bit less immediately evident, but it’s my impression that Amazon’s willingness to talk openly about their fulfillment centers (one of which I toured last year) and the way they’re thinking about logistics & delivery (cf. drone delivery, rumors about a NYC store, etc) are intended specifically to scare off firms that might want to compete with Amazon’s retail business.
  • Google/Apple/Microsoft. This is specific to AWS, which has become increasingly in focus over the past year (but was always assumed to be huge).
  • Investors. The best example of this is the shareholder letter, which is always a good read. The core intent here seems (and I’ll admit that this is a half-baked theory at the moment) that investors should trust Amazon, because they’re a truly visionary company - like Apple and Google, NOT like some retailer that should be focusing on short term objectives.

What’s missing in the list above is business customers. I’ve bought plenty of business related stuff on Amazon, but it’s usually been from my personal account, and the shopping experience isn’t aware (or doesn’t care about) the context shift that I (presumably?) go through when I clock in and out. The “Recommendations for you” sections switch over, but it’s on a visit-by-visit basis. Amazon treats me as a person, and it simply recommends that I look at things that are similar to what I looked at recently. 

Now, I’m sure that plenty of businesses have Amazon accounts that are just for business purchases. I worked at one such business a few years ago, and again recently. In both of these cases, I got the impression that (and please, pardon the pseudo Christensen here) Amazon had trickled *up,* being used first at home (whether by the person in charge of purchasing, or someone who was bugging them to buy something) and then later at work. As a result, it always made sense that the Amazon product we used at work was the same as the one we were using at home. I was used to it, and it has gotten *so* easy to buy stuff for personal use there, and changing my mindset a bit to use Amazon for business stuff was really very easy.

The arrangement worked well. When I was running a prototyping shop, I made a *lot* of purchases from McMaster-Carr and MSC and Rutland. Those companies’ catalogs were tailored for the work we were doing, and they (especially McMaster) do *such* a good job of providing a consistent browsing, purchasing, and fulfillment experience, that once you get used to their system it’s hard to imagine life without it. But there were plenty of times where I used Amazon too, especially when it came to items that fell more on the “office supplies” end of the spectrum. Amazon’s search features are really good, and it’s great to have ratings sometimes as well. Amazon’s product discovery system is dramatically different from those of the industrial suppliers, and there are a lot of cases where I’ll hit the wall with one system and really just want a change of pace.

This is worth highlighting: 

  • McMaster-Carr’s search is very good, but their browse features are just *awesome.* This works because they’re basically a walled garden: McMaster curates their catalog well, and they do a really fantastic job collecting & displaying (consistent!) data about every product that they sell. 
  • Amazon is basically on the other side of the spectrum. Their catalog is enormous, but it’s full of stuff that comes from third parties, and is often really poorly documented. Plus there’s a lot of stuff that you can buy on Amazon that’s basically a joke (that 55 gallon drum of lube comes to mind). This is partly made up for by their review system, which is really helpful when you’re evaluating multiple products whose data doesn’t line up directly. But it also feels like a crapshoot sometimes, especially with decidedly consumer products (that three wolf shirt comes to mind). In the end, the Amazon shopping experience is definitely less consistent than McMaster’s - but then again, McMaster won’t sell you a 55 gallon drum of lube. (I’m being facetious, but the point is real. Amazon’s huge catalog is definitely a feature.)
  • The other industrial players are a mixed bag. None of them are as good about data keeping (or, consequently, browsing/filtering) as McMaster. None of their searches are as good as McMaster or Amazon, and none of their catalogs are as large, either. They make up for these shortcomings with depth: Uline does shipping, MSC and Rutland do tooling, etc. They have niches, and their capabilities within those niches make them incredibly valuable.

It’s also worth noting that these companies each take a different approach to knowing/caring who (or what type of entity) their customers are:

  • It’s implicit from McMaster’s site, but I’ve been told in person that they take it very seriously that they do *not* treat different customers differently whether they’re a business or an individual. The prices I see as some schmo on the street are the same prices I see if I’m an engineer at Lockheed Martin, and they don’t give quantity discounts either. They’ll even turn away large orders, and are in general happy to send customers to their suppliers if it’d make more sense to cut McMaster out of the transaction. 
  • A lot of the same could be said of Amazon, with the caveat that there’s a public perception that Amazon is constantly optimizing their pricing - definitely for time of year (supply and demand), but possibly also on a person-by-person basis. I have no way of knowing how much of this is true, and personally I wouldn’t find it offensive if it was. But it does strike me that Amazon takes the stance that “everyone sees the same site, but that ‘same site’ is one that’s constantly shifting depending on who you are and when you’re looking at it and what you looked at recently, and when we talk about the ‘same site’ we’re talking about something that might vary in layout, graphic design, product recommendations, pricing, and any other number of variables.”
  • Most of the industrial players, on the other hand, do kind of want to be selling to actual businesses. Some of them will go so far as requiring EINs or sales tax IDs (this is more common with suppliers that sell products at wholesale), but almost all of them will at least have the “business name” field be required.

If it’s not clear, I *like* these differences. I enjoy living in a world where companies put philosophical approaches to commerce up for debate, and let consumers decide which they prefer. The variety is good, and I find myself enjoying trying to use each to its most powerful effect. But the differences are worth noting, and it’s fun (and possibly useful) to project outward where each of these perspectives might lead in the future.

A brief intro to The New York Infrastructure Observatory

Added on by Spencer Wright.

So. What's up with NYIO?

Almost a year ago, I wrote an email to Tim & Craig telling them I wanted to launch an East Coast version of their Bay Area Infrastructure Observatory. I knew them through friends and from the internet, and was interested in building a community of like-minded people in NYC.

Shortly after, I started a list of locations to visit and began slowly planning trips. Over the past six months, I've organized three tours under the NYIO banner. The first was to Amazon's Delaware Fulfillment center; the second was to Sims Metal Management, and the third (just last week) was to GCT Bayonne. They've been sporadic, but they've caught steam; the last trip filled up within a few hours.

These locations were chosen mostly according to how easy they were to schedule, and I plan on taking a similar approach towards upcoming trips. But I'd also like your input - whether to suggest a site I'm not aware of, or to take over scheduling & logistics for an upcoming trip. If you've got a location you think is worth visiting, please be in touch

NYIO Session One Notes: Amazon's Middletown, DE Fulfillment center

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Last week I visited Amazon's Delaware fulfillment center with the New York Infrastructure Observatory. The whole group posted notes in a public Google Doc, which I'd encourage you to check out; my overview is here.

Location: Amazon’s Middletown, Delaware fulfillment center

560 Merrimac Ave, Middletown DE.


  • Spencer Wright
  • Rob Snowden
  • Dan Suo
  • Jason Spinell

Arrived at 0945

Tour began at 1000

Tour completed at ~1115, and was quick almost to the point of being rushed.

Tour guide was named Evan

Notes taken retrospectively by everyone above.

This facility is 1.2 million square feet. The parking lot had somewhere around 2-3000 parking spots, and was mostly full. There was a sign saying “First Day Starts Here” in the front, and a number of what looked like brand new employees doing orientations. This is a “sort” facility, as opposed to a “non-sort” facility. The difference is that all of the items in a sort facility fit in a yellow bin (about 14”x14”x24”).

There are two sides to the facility: Inbound and Outbound. Inbound receives stuff from suppliers and also from other Amazon facilities (“transfer”). They’re doing a lot of transfer right now in prep for “peak season” (i.e. the holidays). Outbound ships orders to customers, and also presumably to other distribution facilities.

Most of the time, employees work 4x10hr days. There are two daily shifts, leaving the facility closed for a few hours a day. There are about 3000 people in normal employment at the facility. During peak season, they ramp up to 6x10hr days. I believe they also shift the schedules a bit, such that the facility is humming 24x7. They also increase their staff, up to about 6000 people.

At inbound, pallets come in and the bill of lading is checked. Then the boxes are loaded onto a conveyor. One team of associates *just* open the boxes. Then another team picks a box out, empties the items out, and checks quantities. Then (I think) they add an ASIN if the item doesn’t have its own UPC.

They use random storage at the facility. There are cubbies everywhere, and each has a bar code. Inside each cubby is up to 6 unique SKUs. If a SKU is in one cubby, it CANNOT be in any adjacent cubby.

There are about 300 Pickers at this facility. They are managed by two managers. Pickers find the cubby they’re assigned to look for, scan its barcode, and then find the item within that cubby that they’re supposed to pick. They scan the item’s barcode, and drop the item into their bin. If a picker finds a broken item, they put it in a red bin at the end of the aisle, where QC can find and fix/dispose of it. If a picker finds an item that’s not in its proper cubby (e.g. on the ground), they put it in a blue “amnesty” bin, where QC can pick it up and return it to its proper location.

Once they get all the items on their current list (which does *not* correspond to a customer order), they put the bin on a conveyor, and it goes up to sort.

At sort, an associate has a bin (from the pickers) and an 8020 rack on casters that has a few dozen cubbies on it. They pick an item at random out of the bin, scan it, and then a monitor tells them which cubby to put it in. Here, the cubbies *do* correspond to customer orders. Once the rack’s cubbies are all full, the rack gets wheeled over to the pack stations. Each cubby has a packing list in it.

There are about 100 Packers at this facility. They have one manager, and two or three assistant manager types. The packers take a packing list and its items out of the rack. They scan the packing list and it tells them which box to use. Different packers have boxes of different sizes; so one packer might have small/medium boxes, and another might have larger boxes.

They pack all the items into the box and fold it up, putting the packing list inside. They have a machine that wets water-activated shipping tape and cuts it to length automatically. All they have to do is press a green button and the machine already knows what kind of box they’re using and spits out a piece of tape that’s just the right length.

Each packer has a set of Andon lights above their station, which indicate their ability to perform their work. During normal operation, the Andon light is green. If the associate is running low on supplies, they turn it to blue; if they have a serious blockage or shortage problem, they turn it red. Andons are constantly monitored by support staff, who will come to assist if a packing associate is unable to do their job.

They seal the box up. Then they take a barcode sticker off of a reel, scan it, and put it on the box. At this point that barcode is assigned uniquely to the customer’s order. The box goes on a conveyor. It is automatically scanned, and has a shipping label printed and slapped onto it by a machine (this was *cool*). A spot on the conveyor weighs the package, and if the weight is off then it goes into QC. 

The packages are sorted roughly by size and go onto a long oval conveyor. At one point on the conveyor, a 360* scanner checks the barcode and figures out which truck (by shipping zone) the package needs to go on. Then, as it’s going around the conveyor, little pushers kick the package off the conveyor at the right chute, and it’s sent down to the truck to be loaded. 

Humans load the trucks, creating big walls layer by layer. They try not to stack the same box size very high, because it’ll become unstable unless the stack is interlocked at a lot of points.

Other notes:

  • The whole place was rather spartan. 
  • Our tour guide used an iPhone, but claimed he’d use a Fire if he wasn’t locked into his carrier.
  • Our tour guide is normally an Ops guy; tours are *not* his full time job.
  • Their “___ Days since last workplace injury” sign was *not* filled out.
  • They had Grainger vending machines with “free” PPE supplies inside - but they track employees use of those supplies.
  • They were very excited about FBA (fulfillment by Amazon) and their MOS (make on site i.e. print books on site) programs. FBA packages get plain brown packing tape (as opposed to the Amazon branded tape), but otherwise the whole process seemed to be very similar to Amazon owned items.
  • Our tour guide was very enthusiastic about a few TPS things. He mentioned Kaizen (literally “good change”), which to Amazon is a program where people from throughout the organization get together to propose and implement significant improvements in their processes. The Andon lights in the packaging department are also a derivative of a Toyota production feature.
  • Amazon has a number of “etiquette” policies, which refer to the “nice” way of doing things. For example, heavy items shouldn’t be stored on shelves above head height). It was unclear whether these guidelines were substantially different from rules, but with friendly names.
  • The whole place was highly automated. The box & tape length selection systems were really interesting, and have the effect of making the packers into just highly adaptable robots.
  • When the tour was over, Evan (with some enthusiasm) gave us all Amazon branded cigarette lighter USB chargers. 

B2B sites

Added on by Spencer Wright.

I've spent some time over the past few weeks thinking about my favorite B2B ecommerce sites. Here are my current faves (in no particular order), and why.


Box's "Business" page is an easy-access portal to a complete set of product features & use cases. While I tend to recoil a bit at talk of "product features and use cases," the way they display them here is attractive and convenient.


Considering the breadth of Cat's product line, their main site is an exercise in simplicity. My primary complaint is their browse feature, which uses multi-layered dropdown menus.



Olympus NDT's video gallery gives one-stop access to hours of content - covering the lion's share of their product line. Considering that many of these devices run into (and past) the tens of thousands of dollars, being able to see them in action is a nice feature. 

Olympus video gallery.png


(I know they're primarily b2c, but whatever - *tons* of businesses buy tools on Amazon)

Amazon's "Improve Your Recommendations" helps users tailor the products that the site recommends them. For small businesses in particular, this feature can be really helpful in separating personal from business purchases.

A smart thing that McMaster-Carr does really well

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Commoditization of everything.

Tool selection is often a difficult process. Manufacturers are keyed on branding, and often use brand terminology to describe what may (or may not) be useful product features. As a customer, a lot of my efforts are spent trying to interpret this information, and cut through the terminology to get to a head-to-head comparison.

Most retailers repeat brand product descriptions verbatim, but McMaster-Carr does customers the service of stripping brand copy and providing only the relevant product features. They even go a step further, formatting those features consistently across product lines.

See the Amazon results for "nailer":

Amazon's results show four products. Customers can see the brand name, a large color photo, pricing, consumer (star) ratings, shipping availability, and one product feature/description.

McMaster, on the other hand, shows eight products (plus two accessories). Each product has nine features, a price, and a detailed description - including a wide range of associated products (mostly nails, in this case).

Amazon seems to think that what I really care about is the color of the tool and when it's available. McMaster gives me real product data, and their global shipping policies (which are a worth a thousand words unto themselves) give me all the information I need to make a timely decision. While Amazon focuses on brand language - both the manufacturers' (who needs the 9-digit alphanumeric part numbers?) and Amazon's ("Prime"; "#1 Best Seller"; "More Buying Choices") - McMaster focuses on what the tool actually does.

As a consumer, I want to comparison shop by technical product features, so that I can quickly find the right tool for the job.

Brands are beside the point. McMaster commoditizes products, reducing them to the features & methods they use to solve my problems.

One type of swing, etc.

Added on by Spencer Wright.

A number of things struck me about this Cubed podcast from a week or two ago, which was primarily a discussion about Apple's place in the market. They're all a bit non sequitur, but I think there's a lot of insight here. Throughout, emphasis is mine.

The discussion started out with Horace Dediu talking about what he calls "the innovator's curse." He applies it to Apple, with the point being that although Apple has repeatedly demonstrated an ability to produce massively successful products, financial analysts use that fact against them - expecting a regression towards the mean. He cites a quote by Steve Jobs as a jumping off point: "Babe Ruth only had one home run, and he kept hitting it over and over." The conversation takes off from there; here's Dediu:

So, Apple is in the business of hitting home runs. And I would use the analogy of Pixar, which only makes blockbusters - they are just a blockbuster manufacturing company. If you *knew* that any company was only in the business of making only home runs, then you would conceivably price them as a discounted current value of all of the home runs they might hit. Why is it, then, that Apple isn't valued at even the net present value of all of the current products that they have? And actually, the expectation is that the iPhone will diminish, and go to zero, and thereafter the company will be worth nothing. That is indeed what you would get if you did the simple arithmetic of their P/E ratio...So my point was that if [Apple's ability to produce successful products] was a repeatable process, then why doesn't the market believe that it's going to actually repeat? [the innovator's curse] is that you've proved that you can do something over and over again, but nobody believes you. In other words, you've done five home runs in a row, and the expectation the next time you're at bat is that you will never hit another home run, *ever.* That's how the market thinks, and it's believable to think that way. Because they say "it's hard enough to hit *one* home run - how do you expect that you can hit *six*?"

So if you use the markets as they were originally conceived, as a source of funding, and you've had six home runs in a row and you go back to the market to raise money and say "give me the chance to hit seven," and they say "no way - we're not going to give you a penny."

The more successful you are, the more likely it is that you won't be to get funding going forward. And that's why Apple needs so much to have the [financial] resources internally - because no one will trust them.

The consensus on the podcast is, of course, that Apple's success *is* repeatable, and that the market has it wrong. 

Later, Benedict Evans on Apple's resurgence:

One of the things that strikes me is that in a sense, Apple has been doing the same thing for 30 years - it's just the market's changed. So Apple has always been about product fit & finish and the user experience, and not going below a certain level of quality in order to hit a certain price point where there's a market opportunity. And in the days of the PC industry, that model didn't work, because that wasn't how PCs were bought. They were predominantly bought by corporate buyers who wanted 500 with a certain number of features and a certain price and they were going to go under the desk so they didn't care what they looked like and they were never going to be configured after they were bought, so they didn't care what the user experience was. So Intel had product-market fit, but Apple didn't.

As we've now come around to the smartphone and the tablet world, products are bought in line with Apple's values - with the way that Apple tries to make products. And so part of the reason that Apple has been winning for the last ten years, say, is that the market came around to where Apple was, rather than that Apple created out of thin air some amazing product that nobody could have conceived of before.

Next, Evans again on Apple skeptics:

If you don't see what the common thread is between Apple's products, then you will think that each one of them was somehow some unique stroke of genius. And it's only if you see what it is that unifies all Apple products, and their approach - and it's not unique to Apple, you see the same kind of product quality in Nokia Lumia phones, for example, which are lovely pieces of hardware which aren't selling for a bunch of different reasons; or you can see it in some HTC product, or in some Sony product, but you probably don't see it in some South Korean product.

But if you come from position which says "I don't see any difference between an iPhone and a high end Samsung and a high end Nokia," then you will look at the iPhone with a degree of mystification, and you will say that it's somehow because of marketing, and it's because Steve Jobs had some unique genius to create that product, rather than seeing that it flows out of an underlying approach to creating product. It's a bit like the way that communist governments used to explain failure by saying it was sabotage, because they couldn't actually understand what the real process was that was causing the problems. That wasn't something their mindset could deal with, so it had to be sabotage. So you get a class of minds that look at Apple products and say "Well it's all a fad."

And Ben Bajarin on the importance of having a shared vision, regardless of what it is:

They [Pixar] believe that they are making the best motion pictures on the planet. And what is key to that is [Pixar employees] believe that these things are the best, and their talent and skill sets validate that and actually create the best. And so it comes down to the talent thing: you've got to have the right people with a shared vision about what the best is. And the best is going to vary. What's the best for Google might be very different from the best for Amazon or the best for Apple. But the point is that you acquire these people who share a vision of what the best is. 

And so you read this article about John Lasseter and these guys at Pixar and they'll say "We were working on this movie and halfway through we realized it really wasn't what we wanted it to be. And so we said well, we could ship it, or we could work a *ton* of overtime and stretch ourselves and really it right." And that's what they did - whenever they saw those things happening, they worked their tails off to make it right. Because they were so proud of what they were creating that they basically said "If I'm not willing to put my name to that, then I'm not going to ship it." And whether that meant being patient, whether that meant a complete restructure...

The culture is both dependent on a shared vision of what the best is - so for Apple, it's "what are the best personal computers on the market," or "what is the best products on the market with the best experience" - like I said, their vision might differ from Microsoft's and others' - but it comes back to hiring the people who believe that that is the best, and who more importantly will not ship a product with their name on it unless they believe that [it is the best].

I really recommend listening to this show yourself - it's got a lot of really interesting analysis and dialog.


Added on by Spencer Wright.

From the Amazon Shareholder Letter, 1998

During our hiring meetings, we ask people to consider three questions before making a decision:
Will you admire this person?
If you think about the people you’ve admired in your life, they are probably people you’ve been able to learn from or take an example from. For myself, I’ve always tried hard to work only with people I admire, and I encourage folks here to be just as demanding. Life is definitely too short to do otherwise.
Will this person raise the average level of effectiveness of the group they’re entering?
We want to fight entropy. The bar has to continuously go up. I ask  people to visualize the company 5 years from now. At that point, each of us should look around and say, “The standards are so high now -- boy, I’m glad I got in when I did!”
Along what dimension might this person be a superstar?
Many people have unique skills, interests, and perspectives that enrich the work environment for all of us. It’s often something that’s not even related to their jobs. One person here is a National Spelling Bee champion (1978, I believe). I suspect it doesn’t help her in her everyday work, but it does make working here more fun if you can occasionally snag her in the hall with a quick challenge: “onomatopoeia!”

Jeff Bezos on being misunderstood

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Amazon's Jeff Bezos at the Aspen Institute in 2009. Via The Motley Fool (emphasis mine).

If you look at where we are today, it's half luck, half good timing, and the rest has been brains. So in some ways, I think we have not been tested. You know, we were unprofitable for so long, and people predicted our demise for so long, that we did develop thick skins - which I think is very valuable for invention, because often times invention requires a long-term willingness to be misunderstood. You do something that you genuinely believe in, that you have conviction about, but for a long period of time, well-meaning people may criticize that effort. When you receive criticism from well-meaning people, it pays to ask, 'Are they right?' And if they are, you need to adapt what they're doing. If they're not right, if you really have conviction that they're not right, you need to have that long-term willingness to be misunderstood. It's a key part of invention.


Jeff Bezos on regrets

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Amazon's Jeff Bezos, quoted by The Academy of Achievement in 2008. via The Motley Fool (emphasis mine).

So, it really was a decision that I had to make for myself, and the framework I found which made the decision incredibly easy was what I called -- which only a nerd would call -- a "regret minimization framework." So, I wanted to project myself forward to age 80 and say, "Okay, now I'm looking back on my life. I want to have minimized the number of regrets I have." I knew that when I was 80 I was not going to regret having tried this. I was not going to regret trying to participate in this thing called the Internet that I thought was going to be a really big deal. I knew that if I failed I wouldn't regret that, but I knew the one thing I might regret is not ever having tried. I knew that that would haunt me every day, and so, when I thought about it that way it was an incredibly easy decision. And, I think that's very good. If you can project yourself out to age 80 and sort of think, "What will I think at that time?" it gets you away from some of the daily pieces of confusion. You know, I left this Wall Street firm in the middle of the year. When you do that, you walk away from your annual bonus. That's the kind of thing that in the short-term can confuse you, but if you think about the long-term then you can really make good life decisions that you won't regret later.

Feature Requirements: Parts Storage System

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Parts storage has been a key aspect of my product development career, and has consistently frustrated me. A few reasons for my ire:

  • Parts cabinets are expensive. I probably spent $200 on my cabinets, which were mostly used; at my last employer, we spent over $2K on "standard duty" parts drawers, shown here, from McMaster-Carr.
  • Traditional parts organizers are time consuming to organize, and often aren't formatted to hold the size and quantity of parts you need to store.
  • Most management systems don't allow for reorganization without significant amounts of work.
  • Every organization & labeling system I'm aware of is disconnected from the part specs that I usually want to have on-hand when making a selection from physical inventory.
  • Keeping a digital catalog of parts inventory on-hand is time consuming, difficult, and totally disconnected from the location and quantity of the parts themselves. 

In order for the full implications of digital product development, manufacturing and distribution to come to pass, I believe that industry will need to completely rethink how it addresses, organizes, processes and tracks parts inventory. I have a few ideas of what this will look like, but I'd like for now to focus on the requirements for such a system. 

  • Parts should be uniquely addressable. For many of my applications, McMaster-Carr, DigiKey, Sparkfun, and Amazon product numbers would be fine. Ultimately a system like IP would probably be preferable, if only to apply uniformity and allow manufacturers and distributors of all flavors to buy into a single standard. At some point, I wonder about the possibility of addressing not only each brand/make/spec of bolt, resistor, or chip - but also addressing each physical instance of each of those categories. With the enormous addressing capacity of IPv6, this is well within the realm of possibility - we simply need to find an appropriate tracking mechanism. (Side note: IPv6 has an addressing capacity of about 3.4*10^38. In comparison, there are estimated to be on the order of 7.5*10^18 grains of sand on all the beaches in the world. That's a ratio of 4.5*10^19 : 1, in favor of IPv6 addresses.)
  • Physical organization shouldn't need to be hierarchical. Hierarchical systems work fine on dynamic interfaces (e.g. on the web, where they're used in conjunction with tagging and search features), but parts organization is subject to so many other forces - not the least of which is the size and quantity of a given type of item. For example: if the bolts I have on hand vary in length from 5mm to 50mm, finding a single drawer to accommodate all of them will be difficult. Much better to allow locational organization to be loose, and instead encourage browsing through a database. Put a different way: I don't see the need to institute a browsable Dewey Decimal system on my parts; I'll just search for them on my computer, and it'll tell me where I should look.
  • Parts on hand should be treated as a subset of parts in the world. When I'm designing a new assembly and searching for a bolt to use in it, I want to access a single interface that will allow me to search either globally (the entire catalog of uniquely addressable parts in the world), from a single manufacturer/distributor, or only from my in-stock catalog. On the other hand, when I'm physically looking at a particular item in my inventory, I should have easy access to the product specs for replacement parts and compatible mating parts. 
  • Inventory should be tracked in real time. When I remove parts from physical inventory, my database of stocked components should be updated immediately. As sensor technology evolves, it is my hope that this will be possible with minimal user interaction (e.g. via the use of pressure, proximity, or chemical presence sensors within the parts cabinet). In the meantime, the parts cabinet itself (or at the very least a nearby iPad running dedicated software) should offer me the ability to quickly update quantity on hand.
  • Complete part data should be available at the part's physical location. If I'm browsing for a bolt, I should be able to have access to all available part data for that bolt - including specifications, tolerances, 3D models, compatible mates, replacements - right at the parts cabinet. For now, this could be achievable by some user gesture at the parts cabinet (e.g. pressing a tactile switch at the individual part compartment) pushing a notification to a nearby iPad. As interaction hardware evolves, I would hope that this would happen within the parts organizer itself, through the use of haptic/gestural info (picking a part out of a bin) and integrated displays.
  • My purchasing system should know what parts I have on hand. When I order parts, it's almost exclusively through webstores. When I hit the "confirm your order" page, I want my inventory tracking software to scan for similar parts in my database and alert me if I've got anything in stock that would work for what I'm doing. If I'm ordering M4x12 button head cap screws and I have M4x12 socket head cap screws in stock, it's possible that I could save time, money, and inventory space by redesigning my assembly to accept what I have in stock. Conversely: When I place an order, my inventory system should know about it and prepare my parts organizer to accept new inventory.
  • Everything should have a 3D model. This is a bit of a pet peeve of mine. It blows my mind that many PCBs are designed without a digital visual check for interferences, and the situation is even crazier when you consider integrating PCBs into mechanical assemblies. I've spent a lot of time modeling off-the-shelf components for my own use, and have begun posting them on GrabCAD  for others to use. It's my hope that this type of thing catches on, and that manufacturers find ways to support/help the effort.
  • No paper. My previous parts organizers relied heavily on sticky notes and Sharpies, as I suspect most contemporary systems do. This is absurd. What happens when you run through stock of a particular part, and decide not to reorder? Well, you spend ten minutes scraping a crusty old label off of the bin, or taping over it with a new one. Adhesives fail over time, and pen-and-paper just isn't modular enough for the rapid changes in direction that modern product development shops go through. My bins should be unlabeled. Instead, I'll identify parts by comparing them to their 3D models (viewable in my parts organizer's interactive display), or - better  yet - by my parts organizer knowing what I'm doing (through whatever gestural interaction it uses) and telling me what I'm looking at.

What I've described here is huge, but not that conceptually complex. It also has the capacity to be expanded recursively, to apply to all kinds of physical and digital objects. A cohesive, consistent system for tracking and managing parts will allow for improvements in innovation and distribution techniques to reach their full potential. And I worry that without such a system, the benefits of rapid prototyping, just-in-time manufacturing, and distributed, adaptive supply chains will be highly constrained.