Tuesday, April 19, 2011

64 ounces

Economic growth springs from better recipes, not just from more cooking. Paul Romer

Oddly, there once was a time when convenience stores couldn't sell a 64 oz fountain drink because it wouldn't fit in most car cup holders. An innovation solved the 'problem': a plastic cup that had a 16 oz bottom and ballooned out a few inches later to a massive, almost need to hold it with two hands, width.

Simple, right?

Plastic cups are typically made by sucking a sheet of molten plastic into a mold (notice the little spur of plastic on the very bottom of the cup, that's where the air was sucked out and the plastic ran a little bit into the hole). When the mold is continuous and straight on the side, molding is very easy. Throw a big bend in it, like the 64 oz cup, and it changes the plastic flow. You see, hot plastic doesn't flow like water, it flows like....well, it is gooey, elastic complicated flow.

Without someone very knowledgeable in the physics of plastics, the 64 oz cup would be a mess, thin in some areas, thick in others. In addition, an engineer (or two) had to redesign the mold to meet the plastic physicist specifications. Then a few process engineers had to make adjustments to the production line because of changes in production rate, cooling times for the plastic, volume throughput, all resulting in hundreds of complex interrelated changes.

Simple? Sure, so simple it required a half dozen engineers and scientists. But yes, simple compared to developing a new drug or increasing the storage capacity of a computer chip or the hundreds of other innovations we've come to rely upon to solve tomorrow's problems.

If you look to ANY innovation, at the roots of its implementation will be engineers and scientists, often with PhDs. More engineers and scientists most likely equals more innovation.

But in the USA, we don't have more, we have LESS. The number of scientists, engineers and technologist graduations has been flat for a decade while the world has become more complex and competitive. Subtract from the number of graduates the foreign students who return home (often because immigration laws force them to do so) and it is a very bleak picture.

If we want a better tomorrow, then we must invest more in our future scientists and engineers. Create learning environments that encourage kids to pursue the sciences. Support the research funding that expands career opportunities. And expose our children at every opportunity to the wonders of innovation.

Now you know that it could BE different, if you help.

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