Monday, July 25, 2011

Killing the vampire project

From time to time I like to offer project management tips – don’t all vision systems begin life as projects? – and this is one such occasion.

Today I’ll discuss how to deal with the vampire project. Every factory has them, and more than a few end up on the machine vision expert’s desk. So how do you recognize a vampire project, and what do you do with it?

A vampire project is one that’s dead but refuses to lie down. You may have been the slayer, or perhaps it was a colleague, either way, the vampire gets back up and comes after you. Worse still, the vampire project sucks all the life out of your other projects, consuming more and more of your energy until you’re just a wrinkled old husk.

Inspection, process control and machine vision seem to be a kind of manufacturing Transylvania, populated by projects that have no right to live. What usually happens is that a well-intentioned manufacturing manager stops by your desk one day to ask if you could put in a vision system to find the microscopic cracks that are present under the paint finish, to invent a random example. You diligently go to work, collecting samples and talking to vendors before deciding that there’s no way to give him what he wants.

If you’re the ethical type, you then go to see him and explain why he can’t have his dream inspection system. Alternatively, and especially if he’s a shoot-the-messenger kind of guy, you may just keep a low profile and hope the request gets forgotten. Either way, all will go quiet until the new kid arrives. And then the cycle repeats.

This is the vampire project: every few years, perhaps more often if your management turnover is high, you are asked to investigate options for something you know can’t be done. So do you repeat the exercise despite knowing its futility, or do you go back over it again?

The issue I encounter when I explain that I looked into this problem last year/quarter/month is that the new kid will say, “But technology keeps advancing, so perhaps it’s possible now.”

Well perhaps, but in my experience the laws of physics are pretty much unchanging, so what was impossible a year ago is usually still impossible today. Hardware gets cheaper over time but it’s rare that a new technology is invented. I wish I had a silver bullet to offer you, or even a hefty wooden stake, but I don’t. All I have is the engineering version of a crucifix: do your best to explain, in simple but not patronizing terms, the underlying physics of the problem, trusting your tormentor to figure out that you’re not being difficult but that he really is asking for the impossible.

Here’s an additional clove of garlic to help you ward off the vampire: promise you’ll stay alert for any developments that will help in the future, and keep that promise.

Good luck fighting the vampires!

1 comment:

tomb said...

The problem is the slayer himself does not admit!