Aug 29, 2010

Following the Leader

"If all your friends jumped off a bridge then would you too?" I must have answered this question a million times when I was a kid, followed by asking my own kids the same question two decades later. In a recent column, Kevin Cameron despaired at ever again seeing new technology because all of the good ideas in motorcycle engineering have been polished and repeated on every brand of motorcycle and, now, every bike has every good idea incorporated in its design.

I just got home from a week trip to meet my new grandson. When I opened the kitchen door, I discovered a red, gory, bloody smear all over my kitchen floor.

As we were leaving the house, my wife or I did something in the refrigerator and when we closed the door the pressure cracked open the freezer door. During the week, everything in the freezer thawed and melted and distributed itself all over the kitchen. This is a fairly new refrigerator, purchased a couple of years ago by my wife with absolutely no input from me. She got a deal on it, but the several hundred dollars of food I tossed probably wiped out any savings she might have realized.

It's a Maytag and like all of the Maytag appliances we've ever owned, it is a piece of crap. My bet is, if the Maytag repairman really doesn't get much work, it's because his phone number is unlisted. All he'd need to do to get busy would be to do a Google search on the words "Maytag sucks" and 44,400 hits later he'd be occupied for several generations. The door gaskets on the refrigerator are magnetic and they are worthless; dissolving into cracked plastic junk in the first year. The temperature varies like a Minnesota spring. The shelves are fragile and expensive. After a year, the only real "feature" the refrigerator provided--quiet operation--vanished and the damn thing sounds like an electric Harley. The appliance claimed to be energy efficient, but I have found no evidence of that. Pissed off and ready to impulse buy, I went to the local appliance store looking for a real refrigerator with real door latches. There are none. Every idiot engineer on the planet has decided that those weak-assed magnetic gaskets serve as perfectly sufficient latches. I couldn't find a single refrigerator at any price that uses a mechanical latch. So, I'm stuck with my POS Maytag until I find an alternative.

This experience started me ques
tioning how well motorcycle and other engineered devices have sorted themselves out through the "never reinvent the wheel" philosophy of design. For example, in my other field of employment pro sound systems have all gone the way of small speaker, array systems with compact and high-power-absorbing sub-woofers and lots of electronics to compensate for the flawed theory behind arraying speakers for efficiency. Everyone in the industry makes these systems and they all sound like crap. If you have been to a large venue rock concert in the last decade, you have experienced the wonder of array speaker design. If my car system sounded as bad as the best of these aural disasters, I'd yank it out and sing to myself for entertainment. Rather than sound quality being the goal, sound companies lusted for light weight and small transportation requirements and the result is an industry that is driving its customers away in droves.

Engineers aren't all brilliant. I had that fact reinforced during my stint in medical devices. Some are barely capable of cutting and pasting someone else's design into their company's drafting format. Some can't rise to that low bar. Companies are even lazier. Instead of nurturing young engineers and developing a corporate culture of design and creativity, most engineering companies simply raid the engineering departments of their competitors for solutions. This results in an industry with carbon-copy products and "inventive" design departments that wrangle over color combinations and the cosmetics of bend angles rather than actual engineering issues. Many of these engineering departments are more like dress designers than product inventors.
"Alright, Mr. Wiseguy," said Douglas Adam's marketing girl when his character complained about how long it was taking to release the wheel for use, "if you're so clever, you tell us what colour it should be."

This isn't a problem I'm proposing to resolve. In fact, I'm heading toward retirement and entropy as fast as I can gather the momentum. However, it does make me suspect that a good deal of invention is left to be done. I don't think many large corporations are up to the task, but maybe a good old fashioned long-term depression will rectify that serious error in cultural design. In the meantime, I'm buying a pair of childproof latches to keep my crappy Maytag refrigerator's door shut.


Anonymous said...

Tom, I think the magnetic or at least non-latching refrigerator door latches are required by law so kids can't get trapped inside and smother. You'll have to take this one up with the legislators, not the engineers!


T.W. Day said...

That's probably true for the "non-latching" aspect. However, my point is that these designs don't work well for refrigerators and innovation appears to have stopped altogether in several fields as engineers cut-and-paste each other into oblivion.

As for the kid-proofing, why would people want their kids to spoil? Seems like a firmly latched refrigerator would solve all sorts of parenting problems.

Anonymous said...

Anyone who works on cars knows all about this. You would think with the engineering budgets and testing budgets these companies have that they could design cars where you can change the oil, filter, and air filter without dismantling stuff and/or using some horrible combination of socket extensions, universal joints, and swear words. Couldn't they at least put all the gas tank fills on the same side to avoid traffic jams at the gas station?

T.W. Day said...

Well said. I think engineering budgets have been overwhelmed by non-productive, highly political departments like finance, marketing, and the corporate executive branch. In the US companies where I've worked, engineering gets the hand-me-downs, last dibs on investment, the first to see cuts, the least security and lowest salary-per-education in the company. Hell, at Guidant the execs got their names on patents that they couldn't describe with a gun at their head. The actual design engineers were given $1 for their efforts (and for releasing all rights to the patents) and a pink slip.