Enough: as much or as many as required.

Things I’ve had enough of:

  1. Exceptional students,
  2. Support from the upper administration,
  3. Original ideas,
  4. Time and resources to develop those ideas,
  5. Family support.

So when folks tell me I’m, “at the top of the list of people that could be poached by another institution”, I can say I’ve had enough of that too. Things are about as good as they can be. Really! Here’s a few from the past year:

  1. Hydrogen is not just a cool fuel to me these days.
  2. COVID teaching went as good as it could’ve (literally).
  3. I’m ready (nearly, again) to launch the concept that could define my research career.
  4. We’ve had an amazing year with even more students achieving new heights. Examples include Jordan Raymond winning the AFW Founders Award as the top female master’s student at WSU, the NASA Big Ideas grand challenge team, Carl Bunge (soon to announce), and the Protium Company fully transitioning to a startup.
  5. We successfully launched the Consortium for Hydrogen and Renewably Generated Electrofuels (CHARGE) at WSU with an inaugural conference featuring Washington Governer Jay Inslee and DOE Director Sunita Satyapal.

The thought crossed my mind that I should quit while it’s as good as it gets. So when is enough enough? What will I and the HYPER lab strive to accomplish by 2030 that can top what we’ve already achieved? We are just getting started.

HYPER’s 2030 Goals

The HYPER lab got to where it is for a reason. Our lab mission is to make hydrogen the safest, most economical, highest performing fuel of choice. Being the only lab in US academia to do this for cryogenic hydrogen helped with the mantra, “Don’t be the best at what you do, be the only one at what you do.” But anybody can state a mission and being the only one doesn’t work for long after you’re grabbing attention. Sustaining success relies almost entirely on how you go about doing it; a hyper-focus on the daily routines that make the difference. That’s why our primary focus as a lab community has always been, and will continue to be, on developing exceptional professionals. A focus on the people. People who will achieve far more than I was ever able. Enter the goals we plan to achieve before 2030 and the conclusion of our second decade:

Goal #1: The HYPER lab will become the leading research laboratory in the West for teaching engineering practice

It doesn’t matter where someone went to school or who they studied with. Ask a practicing engineer about what they do on a daily basis and how it related to the curriculum they were taught in school and you will hear that they were totally different. Engineering, in general, is problem solving that involves people. Both the training and practice of engineering rely heavily on iterative problem solving processes. However, the curriculum is totally different from practice on purpose. The engineering curriculum is about building a foundation of core competencies like thermodynamics and statics. It is necessary to build the basic vocabulary and techniques, through structured problem solving, to be able to communicate with and understand professionals. Engineering practice requires defining those problems, allocating resources, managing expectations, designing solutions, delivering functioning products, and tracking the life-cycle success of those products. This ‘how’ of engineering practice is very different from ‘how’ we train. With the knowledge base of engineering continuing to expand it’s only natural to run into a resource limitation that prevents us from teaching both foundational skills and practicing those skills within a short four year curriculum. I’ve had enough of great students making it through the curriculum only barely starting to realize how much they still need to learn.

The HYPER laboratory is uniquely positioned to circumvent this limitation. Our laboratory relies heavily on engagement with industry. All of our ‘scientific’ research has an end user and application in mind. We use complex engineering systems (some with over 6000 parts) that are considered to be incredibly challenging and have been iteratively improved for over a decade to accomplish this research. We have engineers training and practicing from first year Freshman up through Post-Docs with over a decade of experience. We are practicing cutting-edge engineering in parallel with the curriculum training. Fine. But what I’ve learned over the years is the practicing part of engineering practice lacks, well, practice. I’ve had enough of messy approaches to research and research labs.

Go ahead and try it. Ask any engineer how they ‘practice’ (i.e. daily routines, like playing scales in music, running routes on a football field, reviewing the cuts in a surgery, or reading case law) and you’ll get a smattering of replies. The most common of which is, “engineers solve problems, you can’t practice solving problems because every problem is new and different.” — arrogant bullshit that contributes to long term irrelevancy of engineering as a discipline. Moreover, this arbitrary notion of practice coupled with a lack of a basic understanding of continuous improvement, inevitably leads to mediocrity. I don’t care how smart you think you are. I’ve had enough. We need exceptional daily practices.

Goal #2: The HYPER lab will develop HYPER-katas: daily routines that sustain proficient engineering research

I’ve tried to infuse Lean Manufacturing principles (i.e. the ‘Toyota way’ and continuous improvement) into the lab and curriculum for over a decade. I have mostly failed. WSU, as a culture, is the opposite of lean. This is because of WSU’s position nationally. We have outstanding state-level support and are good enough to compete with anyone for top talent. We are not good enough to sustain that talent. Our top folks can get poached by universities with more funding and connections. As a result, our community has a transient mindset where folks come here simply as a stepping stone to somewhere else, because they rarely have a reason to be here. As soon as we start to get traction in an area, we end up having to start over. It’s a vicious binge-purge cycle. We seldom get good at continuous improvement and we rarely get the opportunity, or experience, to sustain something great. I’ve had enough. This MUST change.

I recently started reading the book “Toyota Kata” by Mike Rother which focused on why the US has so failed with lean manufacturing philosophies. My experience failing with lean is actually common in the US. Our culture is entirely focused on outcomes — being first, winning, being great, more research dollars and publications. As a result we overlook the daily practices and routines that help us to achieve those merits in the first place and then to sustain. Although this daily training is common in the performing arts and athletics, it is very uncommon in STEM disciplines. When I ask the lab members about why we’ve struggled to sustain lean principles or develop routines the answer is usually, “We produce 1-off prototypes and never get the repetition of making something that would benefit from being lean or continuous improvement. We’ve had several lean trainings and the philosophies never stay.” What is revealing from this response is 1. the focus on the outcome (the 1-off prototype), 2. a lack of basic understanding that continuous improvement is a focus on process, not the product, and 3. the only time the lab has been exposed to lean ‘trainings’ is via 1-off ‘events’, which only reinforce the binge-purge status quo, instead of daily coaching from professionals. I’ve had enough of doing lean wrong.

The two primary “Toyota Katas” described in Mike Rother’s book missing from US culture are the Continuous Improvement Kata, and the Coaching Kata. I feel like I spend the majority of my days coaching the team leaders of the lab. But I seldom spend time teaching the team leaders how to coach, which is a key oversight considering the nature of being a leader. It was silly of me to expect a culture of continuous improvement without training the coaches necessary for such a culture. So I’ve hired Impact Washington to train our team leaders and management team on the Coaching Kata. With a management team trained to mentor the team leaders in implementing the Coaching Kata, we have enough coaches to fully infuse the Continuous Improvement Kata to all 30 of the team members.

We have a start to the Continuous Improvement Kata, or at least a HYPER-kata version. The engineering process generally includes design, build, test, repeat. More specifically:

  1. Design — What problem solving tools do we have in the design ‘toolbox’? Are we proficient at applying those tools? In what situations do we apply them? What are the limitations associated with each tool? Every problem solving process has limits, which result in new and different problems. Some examples include: my thermodynamics problem solving process, my systems design problem solving process, my experimental design process, our agile project management process, and the Lean/A3 problem solving process. Applying these tools with structured repetition in class is one thing, knowing when and how to apply these with confidence in practice is another.
  2. Build — What are the seven forms of waste in a build and how do we minimize them? What specialized manufacturing processes and jigging do we need in-house? How do we develop systems like 6S to sustain those processes? How do we error-proof the build process so that it cannot be done incorrectly? How can we continuously improve our builds?
  3. Test — What is the key performance metric that matters to the client/customer? What is six sigma? How do we assess confidence and uncertainties? How do we test safely? How do we build kits that allow us to quickly provide standardized testing services with our unique facilities? How do we report the test results as efficiently as possible?
  4. Repeat — How do we minimize the time and resources required to iterate this process towards the eventual solution? How do we make it simpler? How do we get more practice? How do we structure teams to accomplish this with a healthy work-life balance? How do we onboard and train the personnel as efficiently as possible? How do we reflect and tell the stories of what we achieved? How do we use our refined processes to help other researchers and labs?

Notice, the above list says nothing about what we’ll actually research. I fully plan to change the world with some of our hydrogen concepts in the next few years. These concepts were recently emphasized by an ARPA-E program manager in their recent lightning round talks as quoted directly from this post. So if you want to know where we’re going without reading that other post it’s this: small scale hydrogen liquefiers and refrigerators that can fit in the column of an offshore wind turbine and/or maintain zero-boiloff from a liquid hydrogen tank. That will be enough for my research aspirations.

What has become clear over the first decade is that our lab’s growth has rapidly reached the limitations of the physical spaces we were allocated and that these limitations are inhibiting our lean aspirations. Although our space is enough, we’ve reached the limit. I’ve had enough of just using a space to help with research aspirations. We can do more.

Goal #3: The HYPER lab will become a central service resource for the WSU and Hydrogen communities.

As founding members of the AIChE Center for Hydrogen Safety we’ve long had a vision to be a destination for folks training to become proficient with cryogenic hydrogen safety. The recent completion of our Outdoor Research Facility makes us the only US university setup for liquid hydrogen transfers. By 2030 we want to offer summer training courses that take people through the safety planning and implementation process. Not just any standard summer course, but something in line with the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship. The nucleus for this class is already formed with my Cryogenic Society of America Cool Fuel short course. This version will be a transformative hands-on experience. We want people to leave fundamentally changed; with a burning passion for hydrogen and cryogenics. That will be enough.

We need to infuse this passion into our local community. I’m in the process of submitting a proposal to move the HYPER laboratory into WSU’s Central Receiving Building in the heart of campus facilities at 100 Dairy Road. This location enables HYPER to complete the entire design-build-test-repeat cycle on a single building floor, in close proximity to the ORF. Moreover, we can use the technologies we are developing to implement a hydrogen refueling/recharging facility outside of the building. This could be the first fully multi-modal hydrogen refueling station for a logistical port; recharging everything from forklifts, to panel vans, to delivery semis or even drones. In the end, we want all of the facilities folks that make our campus work believing in the safety and performance of hydrogen systems. This will take WSU a long ways down the path towards a self-sustaining carbon net-zero community.

That will be the best I can do. And that will be enough, by 2030 at least.

How you can help

There are several barriers preventing us from achieving these goals prior to 2030 that you can help with:

  1. Build our management team — Our management team will have five key roles: 1. Director (me), 2. Manager of personnel and procurement (Mark Parsons), 3. Communications, 4. Lab Technician, and 5. Professional development. We are in the process of recruiting for the last three positions. If you’re interested in one of the positions then send me an email! An endowed chair position would assist in a permanent budget line to sustain this team.
  2. Spread the word — I received just one application from a prospective graduate student team lead outside of WSU last year. Students in the US apply to the top 10 schools wanting to work on rockets, fusion, and clean energy not realizing that we are the lab that is prepared to help them with cryogenic hydrogen, which all three areas are increasingly reliant upon. Have prospective grads send me an email with a personal statement and resume so I remember to look at the applicant pool. You can also just tell your state or congressional representatives that you are interested in hydrogen infrastructure — there has never been a better time in history.
  3. Share the wealth — If you’ve developed processes that circumvent or supersede some of the problems we are running into above, let me know! Or if you’d like to make a financial contribution to furthering this cause you can do so here. (I’m still working on WSU allowing me to sell lab merchandise.)

Thanks for listening! I couldn’t be more excited about what’s coming.