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Petroski on Engineering: Made in Japan

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Beth Stackpole
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Making its mark
Beth Stackpole   11/30/2011 7:47:46 AM
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Interesting that a reporter was so heavily immersed in trying to spread the cause of Japanese innovation. Somehow the rotating pencil design leaves me flat (and I suspect also the legions of consumers going gaga over tablets) given its relatively low-tech appeal. The erasable pencil is another story. Low tech, but high utility. Somehow, however, both don't seem in keeping with Japan's status as an innovative consumer products leader.

Dave Palmer
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Re: Making its mark
Dave Palmer   11/30/2011 10:38:48 AM
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@Beth: As Professor Petroski alludes to, it's a cultural thing.  In general, writing implements are not highly valued in the U.S. - we buy them by the bag at the dollar store.  The cheaper the better, as long as they write.  There is a small circle of people who like fancy pens, but generally they are interested in ornate old-fashioned fountain pens, and are not interested in technical innovation.

Apparently, in Japan, writing implements are more prized.  As you mention, writing with pen and paper may be something of an anachronism in this day of mobile devices.  A fascination with anachronisms - combined with a fascination with technological innovation - fits with what I know about Japanese culture.

People in the U.S. like old things (as evidenced by this article by Charles Murray), and we also like new things, but we tend to keep them separate.  The Japanese have a talent for bringing the two together.

Beth Stackpole
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Re: Making its mark
Beth Stackpole   11/30/2011 11:12:39 AM
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Good perspective, Dave. I like the thinking re: bringing together the old and new in Japanese culture vs. our way of keeping separate.

 

 

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Making its mark
Rob Spiegel   11/30/2011 11:16:58 AM
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Yes, this might be a cultural thing. But there is also a practical aspect to it. In the choices we have in writing tools, I haven't seen any advances that really improve on the cheap handful you buy at the dollar store. The mechanical pencils I've tried in recent years break fairly quickly. As for ballpoint pens, the expensive ones come with cartridges that run or dry up as quickly as the cheap ones -- even Cross.

I use pencils. The quality of pencils seems to be holding up. If we saw innovation in writing tools, and if those tools didn't fail so quickly, we might feel the same way the Japanese do.

Alexander Wolfe
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Re: Making its mark
Alexander Wolfe   11/30/2011 5:10:50 PM
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A fascinating slice on engineering life as regards how cultural differences impact approaches to design. Since it's about writing implements, it makes me recall your groundbreaking book, The Pencil.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Making its mark
Ann R. Thryft   12/6/2011 2:21:35 PM
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I'd bet that the difference here is definitely cultural. In Japan, the traditional writing instrument was a beautiful fine-pointed brush, combined with a block of solid ink containing a shallow well on top for adding a little water to mix the ink to the right liquid consistency. This toolkit is the same one used to create their exquisite brush paintings. I learned to use it in school back when we were studying Japan. It's also very Japanese to combine the new and the old.


Jack Rupert, PE
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Re: Making its mark
Jack Rupert, PE   12/16/2011 5:51:40 PM
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I was thinking along the same lines as Ann when I was reading this article.  There is a big cultural component to the Japanese preferences.  Meanwhile, on this side of the Pacific, we're reading articles about whether or not to even teach cursive writing in grade schools.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Making its mark
Ann R. Thryft   12/28/2011 12:52:22 PM
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Jack, I really agree with you on this one. Much as we hear that cursive writing is unnecessary and so rarely used today that many younger people cannot even read it--a concept I find astounding--I still think that it bears learning. At the very least, there are still lots of non-digital "texts" lying around written in cursive. Historians, for example, can't do without it. But there are also family documents and other materials written in cursive. 


kurturethane
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Re: Making its mark
kurturethane   12/1/2011 9:26:17 AM
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As a pencil & pen geek myself and one who's fortunate to go to Japan once in a while, the big Japanese office supply stores are always on my agenda during a visit. The Japanese enthusiasm for small things and their focus on perfecting the details is evidenced in the quality of their writing instruments. I will agree that some of the things are gimmicky (30 years of R&D to perfect a self-rotating lead? I would've killed that project in the first year!). But on the whole, their offerings are very practical and priced well. I really enjoy their "fude pens" which are like calligraphy brushes and their disposable fountain pens, neither of which can be found in the U.S. (well, I just found a website called JetPens.com that sells the good Japanese stuff!)

Walter
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Re: Making its mark
Walter   12/1/2011 1:45:38 PM
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To be honest, who cares?  I haven't replaced the lead in my mechanical pencil in years even though I have a drawer full of leads of all types and colours.  I sharpen my wood pencil about once in six months.  A dispoable ballpoint lasts a year.  The paperless revolution is in the mopping up phase.

I've noticed that historically the biggest, most advanced of any technology is generally the last one before the whole concept goes obsolete.  Think of the Great Eastern, the B-36 and Cheop's Pyramid.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Making its mark
Rob Spiegel   12/1/2011 2:51:04 PM
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Good point, Walter. Writing implements are simply not used as often as before. I bought a gross of pencils 10 years ago. I used the first half in the first two or three years. The balance will last for another 10 or 12 years, maybe more. Most of my writing has shifted to the computer.

ricardo
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Re: Making its mark
ricardo   12/1/2011 6:08:08 PM
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I use mechanical drawing pencils a lot, ever since university.  When I get a chance to visit a big stationers (rare as I'm presently a beach bum), I'll always browse through their pencil department to see if I can find a better one.  But the ones I like were chosen nearly 3 decades ago.

My favourite is a Staedler 0.7 mm with a cushioned lead.

Next is the ubiquitous Pentel in 0.7 or 0.5  Not quite as good as the Staedler (fixed lead) but more easily available & reliable.

A good pencil is essential in the eary stages of a design.  I don't think any CAD tool is as versatile in the important thinking stages.


I also use them for sketching and drawing. I pretend to be an artist at times.  It's a good way to get girls to take their clothes off.

My brother's archictectural practice achieved some fame as an early adopter of fancy CAD systems but he still impresses clients and his younger architects by sketching out ideas on the spot.

We underestimate the importance of tools which enhance creative thinking.  These have to be VERY quick, simple and expressive to keep up with human thought.

It will come but it will be some time before an iPad application (with stylus) allows the facility and sheer volume of info that can be expressed on the traditional back-of-an-envelope.



Charles Murray
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Re: Making its mark
Charles Murray   12/1/2011 10:52:34 PM
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True, the paperless revolution has changed the use of pens and pencils. I do use pens, however, all day, every day. I also get ink on my fingers, all day, every day. I've yet to meet the pen that doesn't cause that problem. I'm wondering if Japanese pen makers have a solution for that.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Making its mark
Rob Spiegel   12/2/2011 8:43:52 AM
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Glad to hear you're still analog when it comes to pens, Chuck. I've always liked pencils, not because you can erase, but simple for the feel in the hand and the look on paper.

Yet I do find myself using pencils less due to writing on Word documents (or in comments such as this).

Maybe Japan is advancing the hand writing tool, but here in the U.S., I've seen that expensive pens do not surpass the efficiency of cheap pens any longer. They sued to. Over the past ten years, the cartridges in quality pens seem no better than they are in cheap pens. They still dry out and leak. Maybe it's because I live in the desert. 

Charles Murray
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Self-rotating pencil
Charles Murray   11/30/2011 9:53:06 PM
Because I spent two years working as a draftsman in a bridge department, I can fully appreciate the value of a self-rotating lead. In my two years, I never quite got the hang of rotating my pencil and creating the uniform thicknesses that so many of our elder draftsman did so well. By comparison, my drawings always looked messy. I would have appreciated having such an item in the late '70s. The big problem, though, is that the idea is 30 years too late. Few engineers would even care about about self-rotating lead these days.  

JimT@Future-Product-Innovations
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Re: Sel-rotating pencil --> Pens-In-SPACE !
JimT@Future-Product-Innovations   11/30/2011 10:50:23 PM
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I too, appreciate the technique of rotating the pencil –comes from years on the drafting boards back in the 70’s – its how I was taught by the Mechanical Drafting instructor in high school, but its clearly a lost art today; what’s the point? (good pun,,,).  But your article took my mind somewhere else; contemplating why Japan would be so intrigued with pens & pencils.  It reminded me of  the story told when NASA put forth an R&D effort for Zero-Gravity pens so astronauts could write mission notes. Development ensued of a tiny, complex hydraulic system in a pen to always keep the ink flowing;  The story goes, that NASA was so proud of the invention that when they shared it with the Russian Space Agency, they were told that Russia also solved the same problem by using a #2 pencil. That anecdote always made me laugh.

etmax
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Re: Sel-rotating pencil --> Pens-In-SPACE !
etmax   12/1/2011 6:15:31 PM
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We always got punished by low grades if we used pencils for drafting, we were instead encouraged to use Indian ink based drafting pens. We had these little erasers that were a fibreglass bundle to scrape the ink off the drafting film. By was I glad when computer based CAD came along. For the last 10 years the only thing I used my pen for was signing a credity card receipt, I can't even do my signature properly anymore :-) thank GOD they allow use of a PIN now. :-). On the subject of erasable ink, the Germans have at least since the early 1970's had a chemical eraser that makes fountain pen ink disappear like magic. It was advised then to only sign cheques with a ballpoint pen to avoid cheque fraud.

William K.
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Petroski on engineering: in Japan
William K.   12/1/2011 10:24:12 AM
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I was taught to rotate my pencil about the same time that I was first taught to write, which was probably in first grade, although the turning lessons may have come in second grade. I have used a lot of pencils and pens since then. I was in seventh grade when ball-point pens became the fad, and there certainly was, and still is, a huge spread in quality. Still today I use both wood and mechanical pencils, and it is still true that the quality spread in mechanical penciles is huge.

Today pencils and pens are mostly commodity items that don't occupy much of engineering's attention. Rather than attempt to find some small nich, most of our engineering is involved with more important things, such as increasing efficiency and reducing the use of resources. Our engineering tends to be more toward creating what never was, rather than polishing some comodity item that many others have already improved on many times.

Of course, there is also the marketing wonk driven push for product differentiation that some find so very important. That does seem to be a different way to waste talent and resources.

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