Simplicity vs Complexity is the wrong conversation

Posted by Andrew McQueen on Dec 21, 2016 4:30:42 PM

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I’ve never been a fan of being told that our software needs to be more ‘simple’. This hasn't been the main goal – we’ve always focused on providing the maximum functionality and then, on working out how to make that both usable and flexible. Einstein has been attributed as saying “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” I’ve always read that as ‘maximize simplicity without compromising performance; make it do what you want and then make it simple’. I think of this in three logical steps: making the system fully functional, ensuring it is completely usable, and then maximizing flexibility.

  1. Functionality

Functionality is the ability of a system to do the work for which it was intended. In a packhouse environment, this means putting the right fruit in the right box. For simple tasks like size grading this can be as easy as a sliding scale that puts any fruit between size x and size y in the box. For more complex tasks like blemish grading, a sliding scale is too simple; more control is required.

Some of you will remember the time when a steering wheel was just a steering wheel and a horn. Today’s steering wheels come with buttons, levers and paddles for other functions like indicating, windscreen wiping, cruise control, changing the radio channel or volume, and answering your phone.

Traditional steering wheels were simple but history shows that user demand tended towards the more functional. We’ve followed this trend by working with packhouses to understand the business requirements of a grading line and using that understanding to design the required functionality.

Spectrim’s functionality has been demonstrated at Titan Farms where there was a desire to separate downgraded peaches into multiple different qualities to extract more value from the processing world – this was achieved in their first season and that capability will continue to pay returns for the life of Spectrim.

  1. Usability

Usability is an approach that puts the operator, rather than the system, at the center of the process. In a packhouse this means that instead of letting the system dictate how the packhouse should operate, operators are able to work however suits them best.

Even with all the developments in technology, automobile manufacturers still provide the driver with control to use the headlights however they wish. While an automatic setting may be available, it doesn’t provide for unforeseen conditions like fog, situational circumstances like acknowledging other drivers or personal preference for drivers that feels safer with the lights on.

Kurt, our grading team lead, discussed how we achieved this in Spectrim in the recent behind-the-scenes video we made:

“What we wanted to do with the new version of software was keep the complexity that we’ve always had so that users can control it to do whatever they want, but at the same time make it simple for new operators and not-so-experienced operators, so they can get most of the job done.  The good thing is we’ve left both forms in the software so the really experienced users can go back to the old way they know and tweak things that the machine has given them upfront. This gives operators the confidence that when any new fruit comes onto the machine, they’ll be able to grade satisfactorily.” – Kurt Bagby

  1. Flexibility

I’ve written about quality and consistency before, but I’ll reiterate that a packhouse is not a production line. The incoming fruit distribution is continuously changing, as is the outgoing product composition, so the process between the two needs to be able to adapt and change at will.

Continuing with the car analogies, one button to start the engine is perfect, that job is always the same. One button to control the radio is next to useless – what happens when the conditions change and you need to change the frequency or volume? The driver needs the tools to address all situations.

One of Spectrim’s launch customers was running during their first season when they found an unexplained ‘pink’ defect coming through on the fruit. Instead of delaying the packing schedule and getting in a number of manual graders to pull it out by hand, the operator taught SmartMap with a few examples and was then able to continue running at production speeds while successfully pulling out the pink fruit – two hours later the defect was gone and it hasn’t been seen since. Having the ability to quickly adapt to the changing requirements meant they could continue to run at full capacity and not have to work overtime to meet the required packout for the day, saving them tens of thousands in just a couple of hours.

In summary, it’s always good to remember these rules:

  • Simplicity looks good but functionality drives business value
  • Simplicity is not the same as usability
  • Functionality doesn’t have to mean complexity
  • A good operator is worth their weight in gold

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Topics: Spectrim, defect sorting, software

Andrew McQueen

Written by Andrew McQueen

Product Manager: Inspection Systems