The Egg-laying Wool-Milk Pig

Last week, I wrote about two recent projects of mine that serve as cautionary tales in keeping projects simple — you probably can’t simplify everything, so it’s worth the time to find out which simplifications have the most bang for the buck. This week, I’d like to share a tale of lack of design focus.

German has the eierlegende Wollmilchsau: a mystical animal that lays eggs, while producing wool, milk, and meat to boot. It’s a little bit like the English “jack of all trades, master of none” except that the eierlegende Wollmilchsau doesn’t do each job badly, it plainly can’t exist. This is obviously a bad way to start a design.

The first surfboard that I made by myself was supposed to be an eierlegende Wollmilchsau. It was going to be a longboard, because we had months with smaller waves that just weren’t all that suitable for shortboarding, but it was also going to turn sharply off the rails like a shortboard. To help it turn, it was going to have tons of camber (bend like a banana), and small fins. And along the way, I thought I’d make it thin to cut through the water.

Of course what I ended up with, not helped by my heavy fiberglassing hand, was a plow that dug into the water, would turn unexpectedly when you managed to get it onto the rails, and couldn’t pick up a small wave to save its life due to the camber and aforementioned plowing. I surfed it anyway, as a matter of pride, but I had no illusions of it being anything but the the worst board I owned. And that’s comparing it to the $30 used rasta-graphic plank that had been taking on water for at least five years, unrepaired, and was rotting out from the inside. At least it had design focus.

My surfboard didn’t suffer from feature creep, where you start piling on features until the project crumbles from overload, but rather from wanting to have my cake and eat it too. Or from failing to realize that certain design goals were necessarily tradeoffs. The “raily” behavior that I wanted when it was in bigger waves was necessarily “diggy” in small waves. Good boards trade off these features, and getting the balance between them is the art of shaping a board.

So when you start up a new project, think about which facets of your design are jointly achievable, and which are necessarily tradeoffs. Ignoring tradeoffs is a recipe for disaster, designing an eierlegende Wollmilchsau. But viewed constructively, it’s exactly these nuanced decisions that separates the simply possible from the truly marvelous. May you identify your trades, and make them well!

32 thoughts on “The Egg-laying Wool-Milk Pig

  1. Where do you surf?

    I once mounted two 6 DoF sensors aft of the nose rocker section, and embedded a strain gauge in the forward fin. The more interesting data came from the trestles area, but most of the mundane data from just north of Huntington Beach pier, where I used to hang out before I became another corporate minion.

    1. This was fifteen years ago now, but Blacks Beach down to Scripps Pier was the morning routine. I know Trestles pretty well, though. Small world.

      I was in grad school at UCSD and went out pretty much every day for four years. Would be writing stuff on the blackboard during my office hours, and get the drip in front of the students. Good times!

      Love to see the data from the fins! What can you learn?

  2. The one real key is the prototype and testing the begesus out of it with the full intention of completely abandoning it for a right and proper design. In the real world, however, many companies will photograph the prototype, make brochures, take them to trade shows and internet sites and start taking orders from distributors.
    Then start demanding production and delivery. Eventually you have 10,000 surfboards instead of 1. Marketing comes up with explanations to claim the deficiencies are features and sales will start pointing fingers why revenues aren’t meeting projections.
    My recommendation is to make sure each first design or prototype at least has an obvious physical anomaly that requires a rebuild so that nobody in a suit would contemplate marketing or production of the unrevised prototype. Maybe a slightly smeared silkscreen or crooked or outsized logo. Maybe a slightly out of place knob. Nothing that would compromise testing or performance just ugly.
    One of the best elemental books on product development is the mythical man month. Even though it’s old school, there’s a lot of information in it. It says the Mark I is always better than the prototype and the Mark II is sometimes over featured and over priced, not selling well. It’s really more about human nature and the culture of corporate decisions than it is about manufacturing. It also says that if you have a cake that requires 1 person 40 minutes to bake you can’t decrease the time to 10 minutes by assigning 4 people to the project…

    1. If companies would apply some WW2 era methods to getting things out the door… The P-51 Mustang (original recipe, not the D model) took a mere 149 days from initial proposal by North American Aviation to first flight, and then directly to production. That was with umpteen thousand hand assembled parts, designed with pencil and paper.

  3. A good technique is to record the Initial inspiration clearly. Perhaps write it down, stick it above the project. Create a pitch, or choose a project name that encapsulates the inspiration. On first seeing the final design, the original inspiration should be clear to a newcommer. Iterative design is good, as long as the original inspiration is honored. Unfortunately the more time we spend on the project, the more we lose the original inspiration. Investigative documentary producers have similar problems. During an interview one may be struck by certain aspects, but over the many months or years of filming and editing, a person sees the same footage over and over, and the initial viewer’s angle is lost. Every night, right after the days interviews, producer Cassie Jay would the vlog her inital reactions. This Vlog later guides the final cut to ensure the focal point remains close to the initial impression.

    1. The process of how a movie like “Artemis Fowl” ends up so stupidly far off from the source material would likely be both fascinating and frightening. What kind of insane decision path converted Artemis from a kid who abhors any strenuous physical activity (the most exercise he does is horseback riding, because the horse does most of the work) to opening the movie with a scene of him *surfing*?

      Another point they changed was that while the fairy folk are technologically more advanced than humans, in some social ways they lag behind, emphasized by Holly Short being the first female in LEPrecon. Nahhh, they just tossed that out and also made Commander Root female. Basically they waved the book in the general direction of the camera, as Jane Yolen said of the ABC Storybreak animation of her book “Dragon’s Blood”.

      And so with those and so many other WTH changes Disney insured anyone who knows anything about the books would hate the movie, so no chance of a series, or subsequent movies would have to go even farther off the books. (I watched the movie before reading the books. I found the movie to be decent enough, but if it had told the story in the first book it could have been so much better.)

      They learned nothing from the flop of “John Carter” due to how far it was changed from the “A Princess of Mars” book.

      Every movie production needs a “THAT’S NOT IN THE DAMN BOOK!” person. Or at least someone to answer 90% of the “What if we changed…” questions with “NO!”. Make them all read all the Discworld novels that have been made into TV movies, and watch the TV movies to learn what a *good* video adaptation is. Of course there are changes but they’re different ways of showing what the books tell, or leaving out fun but minor things that don’t have a major effect on the main story.

  4. This reminds me of one of my favorite folk sayings [supposedly a Russian-Jewish proverb]: ” The true wonder of the dancing bear is not how well it dances, but that it dances at all.”

  5. You know with a little genetic engineering (a sheep, some platypus and toss in some chicken and salamander) you could make a Wollmilchsau (that means wool milk pig, right?) but I don’t know if anyone would eat what it makes.

    1. combining this many features would probably take a LOT of genetic engineering.
      Making a pig grow wool should not be too hard.
      Changing the attributes of its milk production should also be reasonable.
      But both at once? Good luck…

  6. To a certain degree, electronics and especially software is less subject to this effect. It can change it’s behavior in microseconds, and components are very small, while software doesn’t weigh anything physically.

    What usually suffers the with multi-in-one hardware and software designs is convenience, or occasionally power consumption.

    But a lot of the time, that’s because it’s just a true do it all package, but some kind of framework or solution to a general problem that expects the users to customize it for their specific needs, rather than actual being designed for a list of use cases.

    Enterprise protocols do this to an absolutely nasty level. They never say “This is what you need to comply with the spec” so much as “This interface lets you discover the capabilities of a device, with regards to this manufacturer specific way of describing them”.

    They aren’t really specs at all, they’re just ways of building custom specs, and then they stop there and let everyone do things differently.

    But look at the multimeter or oscilloscope. They can add all kinds of stuff, even unrelated stuff, to those and they’re just as good.

    1. How about modular programming where a program can use part of the features and functions of a module but all the rest of the unused stuff gets rolled into the output? That was a thing at least in the early times of modular programming.

    1. Years ago (was it in Stereo Review?) I saw a cartoon, it showed a retail manager talking to a disgruntled customer.
      The manager was saying…
      “What if we give you full refund, give you a new unit, and shoot the technician, will you be satisfied?”

  7. The technique you are looking for to manage trade-offs is Quality Function Deployment aka the House of Quality. The “Roof” of the house is where you can evaluate (and document) the interactions for each function. It’s a lot of work to compile the “needs” statement and their engineering equivalents but the real payoff is that once that is done, once the body of the house is built, it stays the same for the project. The roof for each engineering solution is different because they each have their own interactions. For example, a car meets the same needs and provides the same function to the owner regardless whether it’s gasoline, diesel, electric or rubber band driven. The interactions of each solution will be different and can be compared against each other to help come up with the best solution to the problem.

  8. Interesting. I started building my own boards years ago and made some very bad ones. But I also made some good ones. I gradually came to think that everyone should at least try to build their own board at least once to see how hard it is to make one that works. It helps make one a better surfer, whatever that is.

    1. This is true! I think that people who cook taste better than people who just eat. I couldn’t really place the hops taste in beer until I’d brewed enough of my own. Etc. Building a surfboard or two definitely helps you understand how they work in the waves a little bit better, which’ll probably make you a better surfer.

      But man, it can make a mess!

  9. The Shopsmith series of woodworking machines (and various exact copies and inspired by machines) did and does manage to integrate the functions of a table saw, drill press, horizontal boring machine, large disc sander, router/shaper, and lathe into a single unit. Changing between functions is mostly just moving the table(s), tilting the bed to vertical as needed, and changing what tool is attached to the spindle.

    Design your workflow properly and the same main table setup can be used with different spindle tooling for high precision that’s easier to achieve than having to match setup positioning across two or more separate machines.

    Then there’s the way additional tools can be mounted to be driven by the powerhead. Bansdaw, jointer, thickness planer, scrollsaw and others. For people who use those accessories a lot there are separate stands with motors, but they don’t have the variable speed drive the main Shopsmith has. (Not that a jointer or planer is usable at 200 RPM or a bandsaw at 2000 RPM.)

    Their latest thing is a DC motor with electronic programmable speed control so the exact RPM desired can be set every time, instead of the old mechanical split sheave Reeves type variable speed belt drive. If you want to saw at 1550 RPM you can saw at 1550 RPM, even after switching to drilling at 300 RPM and back to sawing.

    I’d love to upgrade the motor in my Mark V to that but the upgrade kit is around $700, or for a bit more I can trade in the whole original headstock for one ready to just slide onto the bed tubes.

    So yes, there are eierlegende Wollmilchsau that work exactly as designed and do a good job at it.

    1. Soy is great. Unfortunately a lot of it is grown in vast monocultures of glyphosate drenched genitically modified plants. Argentina alone has millions of acres of the stuff. Then it gets shipped around the world, instead of being grown locally. Thanks, Monsanto.

      I’m not trying to say “all GM crops are bad” but monocultures of RoundUp Ready (TM) crops sure as hell are.

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