If you ask me

This week's double bill looks at the much overlooked spin offs from the motorsport industry's advancements and BlackBerry dependency - have you been affected?

We can work it out

Sustainability and efficiency are two of the key drivers for the engineering and technology sector. It is not just a commitment to more environmentally aware solutions that is driving this approach. The vagaries of the economic outlook also mean that greater efficiency is needed, now more than ever.

Against such a backdrop, some see the pursuit of speed offered by the disciplines of motorsport and land speed record attempts as somewhat superfluous. However, performance development drives greater technical knowledge. And it is only by exploring limits that we will improve areas such as aerodynamic efficiency and the internal combustion engine, a pragmatic necessity given the finite levels of fossil fuels remaining.

Yet it is not just the efficiency of aerodynamics and the combustion engine that are improved through professional motorsport endeavours. It also has a critical role to play in other areas, such as the evolution of new materials that will bring lower fuel consumption, and also in other, less obvious ways, such as through personnel development.

The drive for efficiency brings a general need for weight improvement and material advancements and structural composite design practices that have emanated from motorsport have been utilised to meet challenges elsewhere. These will come to play an ever-greater role in more environmentally-astute solutions for the next generation of road vehicles, once mass production hurdles have been overcome.

Across professional motorsports, the desire for success, a prerequisite for collective responsibility and a unification of internal teams, all lead to a motivated workforce. The more open culture means that knowledge sharing can thrive across an organisation. In more conventional automotive sectors, individuals would not be open to information sharing, with departments often working in isolation.

Motorsport and land speed record disciplines can often act in a fast track career role for individuals - a fact not lost on a number of vehicle manufacturers who have, over the years, put some of their most talented rising stars through the motorsport 'process' in order for them to be exposed to that open, results-driven culture.

The need for pace in the motor-sport design and manufacturing process also means that practices such as concurrent engineering become critical. Concurrent engineering, loosely, is the process aimed at bringing products to market in a more timely fashion, through the simultaneous application of the development, research, design and prototyping phases.

Across motorsport, there is not the time available for the conventional pre-prototyping phases of manufacturing, with updated iterations of designs often needed extremely quickly. Concurrent engineering can act as a solution here - it is an evolutionary procedure that requires clear planning at the outset of any project, while also demanding strong management internally within a business to drive it through.

Greater efficiencies are critical for the future of a sustainable approach to the automobile, particularly as we continue to rely on fossil fuels, while developing other energy sources. Motorsport has an invaluable role to play in the process of improving efficiencies and with that drive come other benefits that also have other wider implications for us as a society.

Kevin Lee is managing director of motorsport and automotive research organisation Menard Competition Technologies

Picking on BlackBerrys

Although the techno-democracy practised by affluent societies means that RIM's BlackBerry is not the status symbol that it used to be, they are still capable of stirring up strong reactions. In his entertaining memoir 'Cityboy - Beer and Loathing in the Square Mile', Geraint Anderson castigates the BlackBerry for blurring the work/life divide to the point where its users receive - and respond to - work-related emails at any time, causing them to lose focus on their family life.

"I firmly believe that this dreadful invention will cause more divorces and neglected childhoods than any other recent technical innovation," Anderson warns. "Most City workers are sleepwalking to death anyway, and the BlackBerry just gave them another excuse to avoid sucking the marrow out of life."

The symptoms of BlackBerry dependency are well on the way to becoming a recognised medical condition, and need not be repeated here. As contemporary comment on the societal impact of new technology, Anderson's spleen is somewhat passé, for BlackBerry enthrallment is but the latest in a long line of gadgety fads that have renewed that strain of compulsive behaviour that one is either prone or immune to. Just think back 10 years to the affront you felt the first time your best friend abruptly cut out of a recondite pub conversation to answer the trills of their first mobile phone; a gulf in sensibilities had opened up between you. Your relationship would never be the same again.

We've all been irked by colleagues who sit through group meetings clicking away at their BlackBerrys, and missing the point of what's being said - blithely adrift of the debate until email confirmation of the actions that have been assigned to them arrives in their inbox. Such behaviour annoys the group dynamic, and cocks a snook at the rules of traditional interpersonal team work.

But consider this situation from another perspective, and you may wonder whose way of working is the more productive. Look at a video recording of a typical two-hour business meeting, and its overweening tediousness is a clue to the fact that most such gatherings comprised of more than three people consist largely of 'dead air': pauses, misunderstandings, repetition, fruitless discursive meanderings. Edit out all this, and you are probably left with maybe two or three decisions that, I'd suggest, do not justify the time taken to produce them.

From this its advocates might argue that BlackBerry-ing shows the way toward a more efficient model for workplace collaboration and interaction. I'm not very convinced by that argument; indeed, the supporting evidence seems rather to the contrary, for if RIM's PDAs are such good productivity tools, why is it that BlackBerry users seem cursed to key away day and night, and are still not any more on top of their workloads than the rest of us?

James Hayes editor, E&T IT section

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