Read a good paper lately?

No, I am not wringing my hands about the decline in readership of regular newspapers.

I am referring to technical papers presented at conferences, or published in trade publications and sites (such as EETimes, TechOnline, or even this site) as well as more specialized, academic-like publications. I am sure you have attended sessions or read papers which ranged from great down to, shall we say, perhaps not-so-good.

What brings this issue to my mind now is that I just finished reading an excellent 2003 paper “Ground Validation of the Inertial Stellar Compass” from an IEEE publication (you can read it online here). This is more than just a well-written, understandable paper on a fascinating, sophisticated, tangible project (at least it is fascinating to me, since I have long been interested in inertial navigation and space mechanics, as well as the testing of related instrumentation).

The three authors, from the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, Inc (better known simply as Draper Labs) in Cambridge, MA do more than describe design goals and intentions, project plan, construction, test, and performance, as well as provide additional references. I expect that kind of content, of course.

What they did which has equal, or perhaps even greater, benefit to readers is to close with two valuable sections: “Things That Were Good” and “Things That Could Have Been Better”. The first identifies and explains things such as the gyro simulator, camera modeling, and night-sky testing that helped the project along in various expected and perhaps not expected ways.

The second part, in contrast, noted things that, if available or improved, would have helped the project, including a better two-axis rate table, a better star simulator, anda simulator for the camera gyro assembly.

It's the public telling of these “lessons learned”, and of identifying what helped the project and what hindered it, that helps engineers and scientists learn from their experience, build on the hard-won lessons of others, and improve the overall process. That's what true engineering expertise is about.

I wish that more of the technical presentations and papers I see did this type of project-process and project-tools analysis. It would help the project team, of course, and the engineering community as well.

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