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Engineering Muscle Memory

Mike Jensen

Mike Jensen

Posted May 21, 2013

I have written a time or two about my daughter’s piano recitals. As luck would have it, springtime is yet another popular recital season. This time my daughter had two – one for her own piano teacher’s studio, and the other as an invited duet accompanist to play in a friend’s recital. All-in-all, not a bad way to spend a mid-spring evening. As I listened to students play their prepared pieces, I noticed that some sat down at the keyboard with printed music in-hand, while others sat down with the notes and fingering stored in their brains. And even some of those that did bring music did not appear to give it much attention – the printed music just a crutch in case their memory froze while performing. While watching the performers, particularly those playing from memory, I realized that each relied on both muscle and auditory memory. Each had trained their hands and fingers to be in a certain position at a particular time in the piece, and listening to themselves play was how each checked for errors.

As I thought about this, I remembered my days playing basketball in high school. We spent part of each practice drilling on fundamental skills: dribbling, passing, shooting, etc. Not really very exciting work, but necessary so our muscles would know how to respond automatically in game-time situations. It turns out this focus on fundamentals is not just for collegiate and pre-collegiate players. I heard a radio interview recently of a former NBA basketball coach, who won a record 11 NBA championships during his coaching carrier, explain how he regularly led his players, the folks getting paid millions of dollars for their on-court expertise, through practice drills focused on fine-tuning fundamental skills. Just like the piano players at the recital, his teams’ success depended in part on practicing and memorizing skills, then recalling them when needed.

So what does this have to do with mechatronic system modeling and simulation? I think plenty, especially for companies that design and build complicated systems with long lifetimes. Not long ago I was listening-in on a customer conference call. We were discussing modeling and simulation as a way to archive system information – partly meant to preserve design info, and partly meant to preserve engineering expertise. In my Preserving Expertise blog post from last October, I mentioned a colleague’s proposal to use modeling and simulation as a way to pass system and engineering expertise from one generation of engineers to another. One of the customer engineers on the conference call recognized that this potential knowledge drain could present a real problem for his company. He called it the “boomer cliff” since engineers from the baby boomer generation are retiring and taking their years of system knowledge and expertise – their engineering muscle memory – with them to their favorite golf course, fishing hole, or Caribbean cruise. And he saw modeling and simulation as a possible way to preserve the expertise that would certainly leave his company in coming years.

Companies really are faced with a dilemma. While one solution is to hire back retiring engineers as highly paid consultants, this will only work for a time until the siren-song of retirement activities grows stronger than the allure of a post-retirement paycheck. The more I think about it, the more using modeling and simulation to preserve engineering knowledge really does make sense. When archived with the proper model, simulation, and data analysis information, packaging a system design for future reference is a great way to preserve engineering muscle memory for any system. Does your company need to preserve system and engineering expertise for the future? If so, how do you plan to do it?

Modeling, Mechatronics

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About Mike Jensen

Mike JensenMost career paths rooted in high technology take many interesting (and often rewarding) twists and turns. Mine has certainly done just that. After graduating in electrical engineering from the University of Utah (go Utes!), I set off to explore the exciting, multi-faceted high tech industry. My career path since has wound its way from aircraft systems engineering for the United States Air Force, to over two decades in applications engineering and technical marketing for leading design automation software companies, working exclusively with mechatronic system modeling and analysis tools. Along the way, I’ve worked with customers in a broad range of industries and technologies including transportation, communications, automotive, aerospace, semiconductor, computers, and consumer electronics; all-in-all a very interesting, rewarding, and challenging ride. In my current gig, I work on technical marketing projects for Mentor Graphics' SystemVision product line. And in my spare time I dream up gadgets and gizmos, some even big enough to qualify as systems, that I hope someday to build -- providing I can find yet a little more of that increasingly elusive spare time. Visit Mike Jensen's Blog

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