Why Giant Pandas are Endangered

By Kim Smiley

Panda breeding programs continue to struggle, a fact unfortunately highlighted by the recent death of a week old panda cub at the National Zoo on September 23, 2012.  Breeding programs are an important part of the panda conservation effort since the adored animals are endangered with only an estimated 1,600 remaining in the wild and about 300 in captivity.

The factors that contributed to pandas becoming endangered can be analyzed by building a Cause Map, a visual root cause analysis.  A Cause Map is an intuitive way to show the cause-and-effect relationships between the different causes that contribute to an issue. In this example, a good starting point is to ask why pandas are endangered.  This happened because there aren’t enough viable habitats, pandas have a low birth rate and panda cubs have a high mortality rate.

The panda habitat has significantly decreased because the bamboo forests are being cleared as the region becomes more industrialized.  Pandas also need a large habitat.   They are large animals who consume mostly bamboo so a lot of it is needed to sustain them.  The average panda can consume 20 to 30 pounds of bamboo shoots each day. They are also solitary, territorial creatures and do not like to live close to each other.

Pandas also have a notoriously low birth rate, in the wild and especially in captivity.  Female pandas are only fertile once a year for a very short window, about 36 hours.  In the wild, pandas have to find a mate (that they don’t typically live near) while fertile to produce a cub for the year.  Pandas in captivity struggle with conception even when they share an enclosure with a potential mate because they seem to lose interest in “natural breeding”.  The recent cub born at the National Zoo was the product of artificial insemination.  If a panda does manage to conceive, she will still only raise a single cub per year.  Most of the time only a single baby is born, but even if twins occur only one usually survives.

Panda cubs that are born also face a high mortality rate.  Twenty-five percent of panda cubs born in the US don’t survive their first year and the numbers are lower in the Chinese breeding centers.  This occurs because panda cubs are born very small, about the size of a stick of butter, and immature.  The newborns are helpless, pink and blind and require a lot of care taking to survive.  There is also the heart breaking chance that a mother panda can inadvertently injure her cub because she is much larger than her newborn and needs to handle it frequently to nurse it and care for it.

At this point, no captive panda has successfully been reintroduced into the wild and it’s unlikely that they will be in the foreseeable future.  Only time will tell if conservation efforts are successful for the giant pandas.

To view a high level Cause Map of this issue, click “Download PDF” above.

Rising Grain Prices 2003-2012

By ThinkReliability Staff

Grain prices have more than doubled since the year 2003, even down from their record high prices in 2008.  Grain is used for food, animal feed, and ethanol.  The demand for grain for all of these uses is increasing, but the supply is not keeping up.  This, along with other factors, has increased the price of grain to the point where it can be disastrous to the world’s poorest citizens.

We can examine the effect of the increased price of grain in a Cause Map.  A Cause Map allows us to lay out cause-and-effect relationships in an easy to understand, visual format.  To begin the Cause Map, we determine the impacts to the goals.  In this case, because we are looking at the grain price increases for the years 2003-2012 worldwide, our goals are broad.  The safety goal is impacted because there has been a high impact on the nutrition of the poor.  Grain prices have led to food riots in many locations, which is another impact to the safety goal.  The environmental goal has been impacted by the loss of usable cropland.  The increase in food prices can be considered an impact to the customer service goal.  Demand outpacing supply can be considered a production goal (considering the worldwide demand and supply).  Lastly, the increase in the price of grain itself can be considered an impact to the property goal.

Beginning with the safety goals: nutritional deficiency and food riots resulting from the increase in the price of food.  The increase in the price of food affects the poor in two ways – it reduces individual buying ability and reduces the amount of food aid that can be bought for the same amount of money.  In short, a country providing a consistent monetary amount of food aid will provide less aid when the food is more expensive.  This double whammy is further worsened considering the impact of the cost of fuel – as it increases, even less food can be bought per aid dollar.

The increase in the price of food is directly impacted by the price of grain.  Grain is used as a food itself, as well as feed for animals that are used for food, and is a component of many other produced foods.  The cost of all these foods go up as the price of grain increases.

Why is the price of grain increasing?  There are many factors that result in the increase in the price of grain.  Firstly the cost of grain goes up as the cost of the fuel needed to transport it and the cost of fertilizer needed to grow it increase.  As the demand for fertilizer grows, the cost grows.  The demand grows, as the demand for all crops grows.

The supply vs. demand equation also contributes to the cost of grain.  When demand increases, and supply does not keep up, cost goes up.  The demand for grain has been increasing – for food to feed the growing population, and to produce input-intensive foods, which actually require more grain.  (For example, about 7 kg of grain are required to get 1 kg of beef.  As the demand for input-intensive foods increases, the demand for grain increases even more.)  The government mandates and subsidies that require the use of grain for bio-fuels – driven by the   increasing cost of oil – also substantially increases the demand for grains.  Making matters worse, in order to attempt to protect their population and agricultural industry, countries have been restricting exports and/or hoarding, further decreasing available supply for trade.

Demand is not keeping up with supply.  The growth in agricultural productivity – which allows for a higher crop yield – has not increased as quickly as demand.  Crops are lost to agricultural pests, droughts and floods, and a particularly virulent strain of steam rust fungus, which has affected many grain crops.  Lastly usable cropland is being lost, due to urbanization to support that growing population, as well as erosion and water depletion, which can be impacted by poor land management.  In many cases, the investment and infrastructure to allow for agricultural advances just isn’t there.

The issues discussed above become a vicious cycle, making solutions that much more difficult and important.  Specifically, world organizations have asked countries to examine their agricultural policies, including ethanol mandates and subsidies, export restrictions and taxes, and hoarding.  Work on advanced bio-fuels or Brazilian sugar cane ethanol can reduce the amount of agricultural land devoted to producing crops for biofuels, rather than food.  Investment and development funds, as well as increased aid, are being sought to help remedy the current situation.  Import taxes into many countries that have food shortages have been reduced or removed to try to reduce the cost of food.  These are big solutions – for a big issue.  It is estimated that 16% of the world’s population is chronically under-nourished.  Further increases in the cost of food will only make the situation worse, without making some of the changes discussed here.

To view the Outline and Cause Map, please click “Download PDF” above.  Or click here to read more about the crisis and actions taken by the World Bank.

How a Toothbrush Helped Save the Space Station

By Kim Smiley

Using ingenuity reminiscent of Apollo 13, the crew on the International Space Station (ISS) recently found a way to fix an ailing electrical system using handmade tools made with an allen wrench, a wire brush, a bolt and a toothbrush.

The events that led to this dramatic repair attempt can be built into a Cause Map, a visual root cause analysis to help illustrate the causes that contributed to the problem. In this example, the problem was an issue with the electrical system on the space station.  Electrical issues can obviously quickly become dangerous on a space station because the life support systems need electricity to function. The impacts to the schedule and potential issues with accomplishing all the mission goals are also worth considering.

In order to fix the problem, astronauts needed to replace a failed Main Bus Switching Unit, a component that is responsible for collecting and distributing power from the solar arrays.  The ISS has four Main Bus Switching Units and each serves two of the eight solar arrays so the loss of a one of the units significantly impacts power supply.

The units are located outside of the space station and the plan was to replace the malfunctioning unit during a spacewalk, but the two astronauts doing the work ran into a problem.  An accumulation of metal shavings caused a bolt to stick, preventing installation of the new unit.  The astronauts needed to find a way to remove the metal shavings, but none of the tools they had taken on the spacewalk could get the job done.

The nearest hardware store was over 200 miles of atmosphere away and the options were limited, but the crew found an elegantly simple solution to the problem.  They created a cleaning tool out of items onboard the space station, including a $3 toothbrush.  An extra space walk was planned, the metal shavings were cleared and the new Main Bus Switching Unit was successful installed.  A cheap toothbrush taped to a metal handle had helped fix a $100 billion space station.

And if you’re wondering which Astronaut drew the short end of the oral hygiene stick, don’t worry the tooth brush was a spare.

To view a high level Cause Map of this issue, click on “Download PDF” above.

Delivering the Curiosity to Mars

By Kim Smiley

On August 6th, the Curiosity, NASA’s newest rover, safely landed on the surface of Mars.  The Curiosity is better equipped and larger than previous rovers, weighing about five times as much as the Spirit and Opportunity and carrying ten times the mass of scientific instruments. This extra weight meant that the previous methods used to deliver rovers to the Martian surface wouldn’t work and NASA had to design something that had never been tried before.

What NASA came up with was the concept of using a sky crane to hover over the surface of the planet while lowering the Curiosity to a soft landing.  This was a brand new design and the differences in atmosphere between earth and Mars meant it couldn’t be tested before it was launched into space.  There was only one chance to get it right.

When Curiosity, inside the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) space probe, first hit the Mars atmosphere it was traveling approximately 13,200 miles per hour.  After friction had decreased the speed by about 90%, a massive parachute was deployed to farther slow the MSL.  The heatshield on the bottom was then released revealing the undercarriage of the Curiosity. The top of the probe, called the backshell, was released second along with the parachute.

This is the point when things start to resemble science fiction. Retro-grade rockets fired to slow down the machine inside the probe, known as the sky crane, until it hovered about 66 feet above the surface.  The sky crane then slowly lowered the rover using tethers until the rover was safely on the surface.

The whole process took about seven minutes.

In an amazing feat of engineering, the Curiosity was safely put on the Martian surface in the designated area.  So far the rover is functioning as designed and it is traveling the surface of another planet, transmitting data back to the earth.

Like all processes, the methods used to deliver the Curiosity can be built into a Process Map.  Process Maps can be built to any level of detail desired and used in a variety of ways.  A large Process Map could be built that included hundreds of boxes, documenting every detail of each component that needed to perform a task during the descent of the Curiosity for use by engineers working on the project or a higher level Process Map could be used to describe the process in general terms to give the public an overview of the procedure.

To view a high level Process Map showing how the Curiosity was delivered to the surface of Mars, click on “Download PDF” above.