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Archive for the ‘Software, Technology, and Wow I Didn't Know That’ Category

Quantum computing encryption is secure, fast, hack-proof so far, and getting big in China.

We’ve written here before about quantum computing, the latest leap in computer technology.  Those of us involved in the industry since the dawn of the PC can only marvel as the technology keeps marching forward, beyond even the tacit bounds of Moore’s Law, and into the realm of quantum physics.

That branch of physics, often typified by the Heisenberg Principle which states, in simple terms, that at the very sub-microscopic, atomic-small level of physics, one can know a particle’s position or direction of travel, but never both simultaneously.  In quantum computing terms, this means that, unlike a normal ‘binary’ computer transaction in which a switch is either ‘on’ or ‘off,’ that instead, a particle (or a bit) can be both on and off simultaneously.  That new realm of multi-state properties defies our logical, if somewhat limited, knowledge of the larger world, but it opens up a lot of new possibilities.  And quantum computing is already beyond the theoretical stage; it’s already operational.

A physics professor at the University of Geneva, Gregoire Ribordy, has developed something called quantum key distribution, using the unique properties of quantum computing technology to create a data encryption system so secure that he says it can’t even be deciphered by an advanced quantum computer (and as reported recently in a Focus/Security special section at Bloomberg BusinessWeek).

Ribordy, formerly a researcher at Nikon in Tokyo, believes “our challenge is to help governments be ready.”  His company ID Quantique SA is based in Switzerland, and recently signed a joint venture agreement with a Chinese company.  As a result, sales of his quantum key equipment – whose quantum servers sell for about $100,000 a pair – are said to have surged at Chinese banks, government agencies, and even the China Railway Corp.

Ribordy reports he’s sold fewer than 100 servers in the U.S., but predicts the growing interest in China will spur interest elsewhere, and notes, “If China’s doing it, maybe it’s a good idea to look at why.”  Recently the Chinese claim to have launched a quantum-enabled satellite to securely transmit data.  Ribordy’s Chinese partner has built the world’s first commercial network secured by Quantum technology between two major cities, according to Bloomberg.

Quantum key does have one drawback, it is reported, in that there is a limit to how far about the machines can be from one another.  According to BusinessWeek, “quantum computers communicate by firing photons over fiber-optic lines, which become unreliable at distances beyond a few hundred miles.”

Still, the transition is beginning, and the U.K.’s National Cyber Security Centre predicts the cost will drop rapidly which, along with the highly secure nature of quantum encryption is bound to increase its popularity everywhere.  Recently, China has begun to pull ahead of the U.S. in some key quantum areas according to industry insiders, while the level of investment there continues to grow.

And of course, just to square the circle in a world in which hackers are always looking to leapfrog the security teams, Richard Murray of Innovate U.K., a government agency that helps foster new technologies recently noted, “The reason there is a market for this now is to prepare for the threat of a quantum hack in the future.”

And the beat goes on.

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There’s big business in finding and exploiting the software flaws we seem to hear about nearly every day now.

Google pays bounties of $200,000 to hackers who find holes in its software, and payouts of $20,000 or more are said to be common.  Companies like Google, Microsoft and others would rather pay this one-time bounty to the best of the hackers then risk the damages implicit in an exploit from ‘the bad guys.’

Last fall, a company called Zerodium boosted the rate they’ll pay for exploits that hack the iPhone from half a million to 1.5 million dollars.  According to The Economist (5-20-17), mundane exploits for web browsers that a few years ago earned $5,000 now sell for many tens of thousands.

Oftentimes, today’s brokers will buy hacks themselves from freelance hackers who make it a profitable hobby.  They then sell these to someone who can use them.  Government agencies in the U.S. and Europe are eager customers.

On the other hand, messages on WikiLeaks show that at least one broker called ‘The Hacking Team’ sold exploits to Egypt, Russia, Sudan and UAE among others.  It’s a complicated market.

As one can imagine, there’s a big demand in the shadow markets, where many customers are simply criminals.  The most recent famous ransomware hack, called WannaCry, is said to have been exchanged in this way.  Often, “someone will sell you an exploit,” notes The Economist, “so someone else will sell you a warning.”

A firm in Phoenix, AZ called CYR3CON produces reports of possible threats based on its online scraping of posts and blogs in 15 languages from hackers involved in the field.

In fact, just ahead of the WannaCry attack which froze data on Windows PCs around the world, CYR3CON’s software “picked up chatter about exploits designed for just that task.”  It later noted that over 60,000 computers had had the exploit installed but not yet activated.  Many were medical facilities that had previously paid up “without unnecessary conversations.”  Those subscribing to CYR3CON’s services could take precautions.  Others, Economist’s editors point out, “were not so lucky.”

People increasingly seem to have a fundamental disregard for security, nots independent security expert Bruce Schneier, despite the fact that worms and other malware infections caused billions of dollars of damage in the previous decade.  The defenses keep getting better but, it seems, so do the hacks.

 

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In our prior post we suggested how additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, will be a major consideration in the customized world of the factory of the future.  We’ll wrap up the line of thought today with a few observations on why, and the economic impact, with some help from editors at The Economist (7-1-17).

Manufacturers often start production either by building small runs of prototypes, or sometimes by making small numbers of high-value items for special applications or markets, before tooling up to larger production runs on more mass-market items.

One British company called Domin Fluid Power is using 3D printing to change the equation.  When this design service company decided to start making its own products, they picked high-performance hydraulic pumps and servo-valves, devices that control fluids in a variety of applications from aviation and aerospace to factory plant floors.  The question they faced was which market to go after.  The answers are revealing.

While aerospace offers good profits from high margins, it’s a low-volume business, fraught with time delays, layers of prototyping and costly risks.  The industrial and general equipment markets are generally broader and arguably easier to enter, and they can help companies get up to volume production quickly; however, they’re price sensitive, with inherently lower profits and margins.

Domin had acquired a 3D metal printer from a German firm, and realized that economies of scale were different with 3D.  Changing designs meant only software modifications, not wholesale shop floor retooling.  Operationally then, unit costs were roughly the same whether they made five of an item, or 500 or 5,000.

And importantly, manufacturing with 3D requires less material.  Unlike traditional methods that require removing excess materials, as well as burnishing, abrading, cutting and drilling… 3D products can emerge fully formed with little or no waste.  Over time – and production volumes – that adds up to significant savings, and a reduced cost of goods.

An analysis done by Domin revealed that, as always, reduced product weights held value to varying degrees across applications.  For instance, saving a couple pounds of weight when building a Formula One racecar might be worth over $100,000 relative to the value of a win in a world of tight tolerances.  (“A kilo saved is a trophy won.”)  In spacecraft, they calculated the value at about $25,000, in aircraft, from $1,200 to $13,000, in automotive from $20 to $600, and finally, in factory equipment, from zero to perhaps $6 per two pounds of weigh saved.

All this makes for lighter, less expensive (i.e., less material) and often more valuable end products.  And with 3D printing, the costs per unit were essentially the same across any size product run.  In Domin’s case, the analysis led them to decide to enter the low-end of the market first with a competitively priced servo-valve.  But since essentially the same valve could be used in mobile hydraulics in tractors and trucks, they can move up the profit scale at little added cost.  And in fact, they’ve found aerospace applications for which they hope to qualify, and with some modification, they say they can crack the racecar market too, thus opening the way to automotive.

3D printing opened all these markets to them, and is making them competitive on the low-end and capable at the high end, all while managing production at lower costs very effectively.

The benefits of 3D will spread throughout industry, as Domin illustrates.  And weight reduction and cost reduction will always have the manufacturing marketplace advantage.

 

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We return again to the growing importance of additive manufacturing, commonly known as 3-D printing, as its impact upon our country’s industrial base continues to expand.

3-D printing will prove to be one of those “manufacturing revolutions” that, like others before, take time to be transformed – and transformational.  As The Economist notes in a recent (7-1-17) article on the matter, way back in 1733 a fellow by the name of John Kay, a British weaver, invented the “flying shuttle” which allowed for the production of wider pieces of cloth than previously possible.  Because it could be mechanized, it was one of those innovations that displaced workers and gradually paved the way for the Industrial Revolution.  In the early 1900s Ransom Olds came up with the idea of an assembly line to speed up production of the Olds Curved Dash – a decade ahead of Henry Ford.

Fast forward to the 1980s and Taiichi Ohno’s Toyota Production System had a similarly profound effect on modern automotive production, with its “curious methods,” (to quote The Economist), like just-in-time parts delivery and continuous material flow procedures that presaged today’s lean thinking.

In 1983, a fellow named Chuck Hull invented something called stereo lithography.  He’s the founder of 3D Systems, a producer of 3D printers.  We’ve written of these machines’ capabilities before.  They allow a product to be designed CAD-like on a computer screen, and then “printed” as solid objects by building up successive layers of material.  Hull’s invention is just one of many approaches to additive manufacturing.

3D print technology has become popular for producing one-off prototypes since users can tweak their software to create new prototypes, rather than fuss with expensive tooling on the shop floor.  3D printing has proven great at making lightweight, complex shapes in high-value products like planes and autos.  It’s worth noting that GE has spent $1.5 billion on the technology to make jet parts.

To date, 3D printing has been ideal for low-volume production, but less for high-volume, where the technology has been deemed too slow to compete at higher volumes.  Except that’s going to change too.

Recently, shoe manufacturer Adidas has started to use a form of 3D printing called “digital light synthesis” to produce shoe soles, pulling them fully formed from a vat of liquid polymer, note the authors.  Adidas plans to use the technology in two highly-automated new factories to bring a million pairs of shoes to market annually.  So much for low-volume production.

Metal printing is also being affected.   A new technique called “bound-metal deposition” can build metal objects at a rate of 500 cubic inches per hour, compared to the 1 or 2 cubic inches using a typical laser-based metal printer today.

The rise of this technology is only a matter of time.  With increasing wage pressures even in China, the demand from factories is already there.  3D printing is spreading to production lines around the world.  As global supply chains shorten, additive printing a la 3D will be used to customize and tailor a range of products to local tastes and customer demands.  And Mr. Hull and others like him are likely to get a lot better known in the not too distant future.

 

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Recently, another reseller (and good friend) who uses a trusted third-party to host about a dozen of their accounting software clients mentioned that most of those clients’ systems were down — for the third time in about as many months, including two in the past couple of weeks.  Down as in, they-can’t-do-business down.

For various technical reasons, none of the clients could access the business management software they rely on to invoice clients, ship product or generally run their business.  For the third time.  The cause of failure differed each time, but really… does that matter?

I’ll tread cautiously here.  We’re not luddites.  Quite the opposite in fact.  After all, we provide sophisticated software systems and custom-tailored business process improvement services to a wide range of small and midsize manufacturers and distributors.  It’s all we do, and we’ve done it for nearly thirty years.  It’s mission critical stuff.  So we understand.

And we too believe that ultimately, hosted solutions ‘in the cloud’ are destined to be the future of most computing.  It will evolve, just like the electrical capabilities of a century ago evolved into the grid we know today.

But then, there’s you.  Our typical client, or prospective client, with a business to run.

When those dozen-plus clients of our friend went down, there was little anyone could do.  And mind you, among a growing array of cloud providers, the one they relied on in this case was a good one, trusted, with experience and lots of other clients.  Still, it happens.

I didn’t press for full details, but I know that some of those clients flat out lost business, could not invoice and/or could not ship.  It was lost business.  Maybe lost customers too, we don’t know.

But we’re all wise to remember a simple fact: the cloud is just some other guy’s computer.  And computers fail.  The fact that you have no idea where that guy’s computer is doesn’t make it any more helpful or secure.  Now, the reason we’ll all migrate there eventually is because multi-point, colocation redundancy with rapid fail-over switching will become commonplace.  Eventually.  (This still won’t solve the problem of giving you cheap software that’s customizable to your requirements – but that’s a subject for a whole other post on the limitations of multi-threading and multi-tenancy.)

But had those servers and software been located at the client’s own site, redundant backup and power generation to a known server in a nearby location (like, just down the hall…) could have prevented this.  Now imagine that you’re a manufacturer, and your shop-floor terminals that drive all your day’s production are now also dependent on that same cloud.  So when you’re down, you not only can’t sell, you can’t make, either.  That’s ‘down’ with an exclamation point.  And a lot of people on your payroll just standing around, waiting.

A 2017 survey of over 300 companies by Colorado’s Panorama Consulting, Inc. tellingly revealed that cloud adoption for business management software actually fell compared to last year, with a decreasing percentage of adopters year over year.

The best advice for those intrepid pioneering customers is the age old adage: caveat emptor.  You know what they used to say about pioneers being the ones up front with arrows in their backs.

Cloud is becoming a very profitable endeavor for its biggest providers.  The deck is stacked in favor of a never-ending stream of revenues to the providers, and the race is on to be the biggest and the best.  Just ask Amazon, Microsoft or Google.

All these companies know that in the long run they will make a lot more money from these recurring revenue streams than they were ever able to make, and sustain, selling software the old fashioned way.

Just remember who’s paying them all those extra revenues.

 

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Those who toil daily on PCs know the frustration of working with computers that tend to slow down over time.  So today we share a few worthwhile tips from the editors of ComputerWorld detailing 6 ways to speed up your PC if you are running Windows 10.  Space prohibits sharing all six in depth, so we’ll share a few of the best here, and let you know that you can find the full text of the article here.

  1. Change your power settings. If you’re using Windows 10’s Power Saver feature, you’re losing performance to save energy which, particularly on a desktop PC, makes little sense.  Changing your power plan from Power saver to High performance or Balanced will give you an instant performance boost.  In Control Panel, select Hardware and Sound > Power Options.  There you can choose between Balanced and Power saver.  Click the down arrow over by Show additional plans, then choose the one you want.  Naturally, High performance gives you the biggest boost, but takes the most power, which might be a consideration if you’re running on a laptop battery.  Otherwise… go for it.

 

  1. Disable programs that run on Startup. Often, too many programs running in the background can slow you down.  Launch Task Manager with Shift-Ctrl-Esc.  Clicking on the Startup tab will display the programs launched when you start Windows.  You can right-click and then ‘disable’ programs you don’t really need to run all the time.  And you can always run the application after launch, or add it back to the list later.  (Tip: stick mostly to the ones with names or publishers you can recognize, at least to start.)

 

  1. Launch the Windows Troubleshooter. Type “troubleshooting” into your Windows search box then click the Troubleshooting Control Panel icon.  Click Run maintenance tasks under System and Security, then “Troubleshoot and help prevent computer problems” will appear. Click Next.  Troubleshooting will find files and shortcuts you don’t often use and identify other performance issues on your PC.  (You may need Administrator rights to run it.)

For info on three more tips, including the Performance Monitor, “Bloatware” and Disabling shadows and animation effects, check out the full ComputerWorld article we’ve captioned above.  Because as any power user knows, when it comes to performance, every little bit helps.

 

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Manufacturing employers have for some time lamented the fact that they have plenty of job openings – said to be in the hundreds of thousands nationwide — with a distinct lack of qualified candidates to fill these newer positions in advanced manufacturing.  Today we share the hope of progress as related in a recent Time magazine article (June 12, 2017).  One answer, it would appear, lies in the growing number of community colleges that are teaming up and evolving their curriculum with local businesses to produce job-ready graduates.

One such effort at the Lake Area Technical Institute in South Dakota boasts an 83% retention rate (the national average is 50%) and that 99% of its graduates found jobs or went on to four-year colleges.  Starting salaries for graduates is over the state median, and over 300 areas businesses are participating.

Unfortunately, LATI’s success is not universal.  Community colleges educate about 40% of all U.S. undergraduates according to Time, and fewer than 40% of students graduate.  Meanwhile, states are cutting funding, and with more of the financial burden being placed on students, fewer can afford them.

Fortunately, some states are taking steps to make community colleges more accessible.  Tennessee expanded its free community-college program to accept all adults in the state.  Other states including New York and Oregon are making free or low-cost (with conditions) higher education available.

Most critically, post-recession, these colleges are starting to take a more vocational approach, and are becoming a primary vehicle for workforce training in the country, according to the director of the Center for the Study of Community Colleges.  According to Georgetown University, 11.6 million jobs were created in the post-recession recovery, and all but 100,000 went to people with some college education.

Creative ideas for job-training abound.  In Texas, a community college repurposed a shopping mall to become a high-tech learning lab with over 600 computers.  George Mason Univ. worked with Northern Virginia Community College (second in size only to Indiana’s community college, Ivy Tech) to co-develop curriculum to make it easier for students to transfer from community to four-year college.

Colleges today like LATI “shape coursework around the needs of employers and [rely] on donations of heavy-duty machinery for classrooms.”  They use miniaturized assembly lines, robots, 3-D printers and LED panels to help students learn skills required to secure a well-paying job.  As one student there noted, “Most of my class already has jobs lined up, and it’s a month before graduation.”

Education Policy Researcher Carrie Fisker says “Community colleges are now seen as the primary vehicles for workforce training in this country.

And considering recent reports that half of all retail jobs will be disappearing in the years ahead, it’s news that can’t come too soon.

 

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