Jan 28, 2019

Connectors and Connections

All Rights Reserved © 2014 Thomas W. Day

Anyone who has designed, repaired, or suffered the failure of any sort of modern electronic product knows that way too many product failures come from poorly designed, selected, or applied electrical connectors. My VW-based Winnebago Rialta was no exception, in fact it could be used to prove that rule. VW and Winnebago did some really dumb, cost-cutting, poorly thought-out amateur engineering moves with connectors on this van that contributed substantially to the vehicle and both companies’ poor reputations. In fact the connector applications alone would convince me that neither Volkswagen or Winnebago employs actual engineers.


Under the best conditions, selecting the right connector for simple products isn’t an easy task. It’s hard enough to pick connectors for products that won't be exposed to the elements or high and low temperatures, drawing high (or extremely low) currents, and applications where either end users will abuse the connector or there is a lot of movement and vibration. Engineers have to balance all of the important qualities of the connector with price and delivery (which means instant availability for a JIT manufacturer). Too many consumer product engineers push the price decision to top priority and hope for the best with the rest. That’s an easy decision to make, if you have never done anything other than take a few college engineering classes and played a few video games. It’s a coward’s move if you are pretending to be a real engineer. The real world is a brutal place for electrical and mechanical connectors.

My winter of 2013-2014 was all about troubleshooting the electronics on the VW portion of my Winnebago Rialta. Based on the decisions I’ve seen from Volkswagen’s “engineers” and a few other similar product experiences, I have to assume too many modern product designers are kids with an experience database that does not extend beyond academia. Not one thing that I learned about from 30 years of engineering was applied to either the connector selection or application knowledge in our VW Eurovan. Like a lot of what I learned about management from years of working in mid-sized and large corporations, owning a Volkswagen is a lesson in “how not to” engineer and manufacture a product that contains electronic components. That is not an experience I will go through twice.

One of the first considerations an engineer has to make in connector selection is matching the materials to the application. If the connector will be exposed to heat, humidity or water, vibration, corrosive elements, and/or customer handling, the connector choice gets complicated. Hardware is where the expense lies in most modern electrical/electronic equipment, so the old “price, delivery, and quality; pick two” rule comes into play fast and brutally. If you’ve never had to consider those compromises, you’re building military-industrial crap that doesn’t have to work and nobody cares what it costs. The rest of us have to compromise something and often quality gets the axe because low cost rules everything in consumer products.

One of the jobs I had in my 30-year manufacturing career involved compensating for low-cost connectors. Long before anyone with engineering ability thought about the product, the marketing dweebs had set the price point and other gross product specs based on their many years of ignorance and arrogance. Once the price point was locked in, the design engineers specified low dollar connectors that often reacted poorly to pretty much every environmental component of the intended application. The connectors were contributing to a product failure rate that exceeded the design criteria. In one instance, when those products were returned for repair to my Tech Services department, the field failure rate for the same connectors dropped to zero. The difference was that our repair procedure for every returned product included cleaning all connectors with Caig Labratories’  Cramoline®  (now called DeOxit®). Since that treatment worked so well for the returned products, manufacturing started treating all of our new products' connectors with Caig's products on the assembly line and our connector problems vanished. Personally, I have used Caig Laboratories'  contact cleaner/protector/rejuvenator products for nearly 40 years as a post-design method of getting around non-ideal contact material selection. Spraying or scrubbing a little of those chemicals on to new and used connectors has prevented and resolved nearly a lifetime of connector problems. Likewise, locating and cleaning my Winnebago Rialta's plethora of crappy connectors with DeOxit® brought most of the vehicle's electronic systems back to life.


A drip loop, the way wiring should be routed to prevent water from draining into the connector.

Unfortunately, the prime culprit in our vehicle's disability was the obsolete-and-completely-unobtainable Transmission Control Module (TCM). In the Eurovan's design, VW engineers demonstrated a complete lack of understanding the most basic concepts of connector and wiring harness design. Water leaking in through their poorly-gasketed windshield had followed the wiring harness into the connector. A common and necessary connector design tactic is to make sure the connector wiring has a “drip loop” to prevent water from following the wiring into the connector body. While it should be obvious that leaving some slack in the wiring to prevent connectors is critical, it isn't obvious to many rookie engineers/techs that water follows wiring back to the source unless there is an easier path. Worse, allowing a few inches of extra wire in a multi-wire harness costs a few pennies. Amateur engineers, like the kiddies from VW, cut the harness as short as possible to save those pennies, sacrificing any hope that the TCM would be safe from any water intrusion. Not only was our vehicle exposed to the elements but the wires drained so much water into the connector that two pins corroded completely away. The only available solution to this problem turned out to be hard-wiring around the damaged pins.

One of the other issues buyers need to be aware of in any product involving connectors is that many products will incorporate one-off connectors, which effectively become unrepairable when the OEM stops providing support. For example, Germany requires auto manufacturers to provide service parts for seven years after the last unit of a model rolls off of the assembly line. For our Eurovan/Winnebago, that support time limit ran out sometime in 2012. Unlike some companies, Volkswagen does exactly what it is required to do and not one tiny bit more, so if our electronic control components completely failed our only option was to find used parts. I have to suspect that Ducati owners will be experiencing that dilemma now that VW owns that label.

Finally, connectors should be secured so they do not shake themselves to pieces when the vehicle is in motion. Since the connector will usually be the heaviest section in a portion of a wiring harness, the connector will tend to move with the vehicle motion causing stress on the points where the wire is secured to the connector. Because of that, it is important that connectors are secured to something solid so they can't move and fatigue the wire and terminal connections.

The sad fact is that, even if you do all of the things I've described in this article, the weak link in any wiring harness is always the connectors and the point where the wiring joins to the connectors. Because of that, whenever I'm troubleshooting vehicle electrical problems, the place I always look first is the connectors involved. I haven't kept track, but I'd bet at least 50% of the problems I've resolved began and ended with connectors.

Jan 21, 2019

Ancient History

All Rights Reserved © 2013 Thomas W. Day

My wife and I took a west coast driving vacation during the winter of 2012-13. We rented a car in Portland and drove it to San Francisco in a lazy week. Not much of a motorcycle story there, right? The fact is, my wife isn't much of a pillion fan and that trip was pretty much about her. Her father died a few months earlier and he'd wanted to have his ashes dumped in the Pacific Ocean, so a lot of our travel focus was about that ceremony and her memories of growing up in the San Francisco Bay area, family trips north, and other nostalgia. If we'd have wanted to rent a motorcycle, the nasty fact is you can rent a decent car for about 1/6 the price of a barely-half-decent motorcycle in Portland. The whole trip was going to be planned around PCH and 101, so it would have been an amazing motorcycle trip, but one of the things you do to stay married for 47 years is compromise and that means letting the wife travel the way she wants to travel. She does the same for me on my solo trips.
When we arrived in Portland, it was a perfect motorcycle day; 48oF and sunny. I saw exactly 2 motorcycles in the whole city during the 6 hours we toured Portland and both were parked. We left town on the early edge of the evening rush hour and didn't see a single motorcycle all the way to the coast. I guess that should have made me feel sort of justified in travelling by four wheels, but it mostly reinforced my suspicion that motorcycles are a vanishing form of transportation. For the next 920 miles, I logged every motorcycle and scooter I saw in Oregon and California and until we arrived in San Francisco it didn't take much more than my fingers to keep the tally. All but four of the motorcyclists were on 650 V-Stroms: for a total of a dozen people on bikes. One guy was on a KLR, one on a KTM, and the other two on unidentified cruisers. Add three scooters, all spotted in Arcada, CA, and that describes all of the two wheel action between two major cities on the best motorcycling highway in North America. On a positive note, everyone--including the scooter riders--was geared up, but maybe that was due to the "weather." 
Once we were in range of San Francisco, the number of riders moved out of the statistical capacity of my digits; but not by much. In the home of lane-splitting, filtering, and sharing, motorcycles are still as rare as '57 Chevy station wagons and Ferraris. "One-in-a-million" might not be all that far from fact, considering that the estimated population of California is somewhere around 38,000,000 and the San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland metropolitan area has almost 8 million residents. Berkeley was a minor scooter Mecca, especially around the UofC and there were a fair number of beater bikes chained to posts outside of the clam-like million dollar rowhouses near Golden Gate Park. Since it was 62oF and clear on our day in SF, I suspect most of those bikes were some kind of New Year's holiday decoration rather than actual transportation. If you're not going to ride on a perfect January in California, you're not really a motorcyclist. 
None of this was what I'd expected or hoped to see on the west coast. The California I remembered was decorated with motorcycles on every sunny day. The only days I didn't motorcycle to work were days when I bicycled. But California is a different place than it was in the 80's. Back then, motorcyclists got ticketed for loud pipes and we had to suffer the annual emissions inspections where you'd get sent back to "fix it" if anything in the fuel or exhaust system path was not OEM. Today, loud pipes and gross emissions violations are tolerated by the CHP and local cops and motorcyclists are widely despised in the Golden State. Our minimal contribution to traffic flow has been nullified by our generally hooligan character. 
The Minnesota "Start Seeing Motorcycles" campaign does not make it across the Rockies or the Sierras. The only sign I saw in the whole state that acknowledged motorcycles at all was a normal billboard near Santa Clara that said, "Pray for Your Favorite Coffin Cheater," illustrated with a picture of a crashed motorcycle and the usual crowd of cops and EMTs surrounding what appeared to be a body bag next to the trashed motorcycle. There was a time when it seemed like California might be leading the rest of the country into accepting motorcycles as valid transportation, but that appears to be ancient history.  If California really does lead the nation's trends, these are interesting times for the future of motorcycles in the United States.

Jan 8, 2019

Who Wants to Ride in This?

20190108_122155It was 29oF this morning, with a 21mph average wind and gusts of up to 40mph for a windchill of between 10oF and 14oF, grey skies, and even colder weather in the forecast for later today and the rest of the week. No reason to ride—ANYWHERE—right? Wrong.

My Radrover has just enough ePower to overcome the wind and, in pure Andy Goldfine Aerostich fashion, “there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear.” My gear is pretty decent, not up to my brilliant grandson’s level of decent (see at left), but pretty good for this kind of winter weather. Plus, I’m just starting to feel the result of riding the bike about 90 miles in the last two Minnesota winter weeks. It might be too miserable for me to get out in the next few days, so with a pair of books, a CD, and a DVD that “needed” to go back to the downtown library, I’m off for a 7 mile round-trip ride.

As always, it was fun, inspiring, energizing, invigorating, and great exercise.

Jan 7, 2019

Airplanes and Motorcycles

All Rights Reserved © 2016 Thomas W. Day

I got this note from a friend who was, like me, suckered into that camper/disaster we both know as Winnebago's "Rialta."

"Here’s a question: when I was in the Air Farce, I worked on five different kinds of jet fighters, from the oldest to the newest: T-33s to F104s. Many of those planes were flown daily, and while of course things went wrong, mostly they did not, especially major stuff. Then I think about commercial liners and how infrequently they have serious problems. So why is that cars (and motorcycles), so much simpler by far, are so problematic in comparison? Different sets of standards for mfg and maintenance, I’m sure, but can’t the auto industry step up and take some lessons, or would it be too expensive?"

That's a pretty cool question and one I've thought a lot about over my years in manufacturing. Maintenance, of course, is huge. The FAA and airplane manufacturers specify replacement-before-failure intervals and obedience to those inspection and replacement periods are expected and required. Airplane maintenance schedules require more daily (if the plane is in use daily) maintenance than most cars get in their first five years of service. Engines, prop or jet, are required to be overhauled or replaced on fixed intervals, regardless of their functional status. Preventative maintenance is a given in airplanes and nobody serious argues that being allowed to fly an unsafe airplane is a right. Access to the nation's air way is absolutely considered to be a privilege that is well-regulated by the FAA. There is no slack allowed. Every few years, some White House idiot decides to dumb-down some of the airlines' regulations and we get a 9/11 (Remember Air Marshalls?) or an Air Florida Flight 90 or some other sort of disaster. Then, the old list of rules gets reinstated and a bunch of new ones come on-line.

However, most consumer-owned vehicles are incredibly reliable (excepting your and my experience with the VW Eurovan), especially considering the idiots who own the damn things. Getting 30k out of a 1950's car between major engine work was pretty amazing and 1960's Euro bike owners thought 5-8k from an engine was "big miles." There are (and were) exceptions, for sure, but we expect ridiculous service from vehicles we barely look at, let alone maintain. Toyota's Prius owners are expecting 200k-300k out of the batteries and power train. I'd say that is pretty stepped-up.

There are limits, though. Expecting 300k from an automatic transmission says more about the kind of fools who buy cars than the manufacturer's performance. I might not know anyone who realizes that automatic transmission fluid needs to be periodically changed. And you and I know from working on VW products that that company's engineers must be kids who shouldn't be designing LEGOs toys, let alone vehicles.

There is a different standard of expectation for airplane design and maintainability, too. Things like wiring drip loops, electronic component mechanical and environmental protection, connector quality, big safety design margins, and system redundancy are required in airplanes. Mostly, that stuff doesn't get a second thought in cars and motorcycles. The closest thing to a backup system in a passenger car is the fact that when the power brake assist system fails, you still have a basic hydraulic system that will, eventually, stop the car if you are strong enough. Commercial airplanes have actual backup engines capable of keeping the plane in the air and getting it safely back to the ground.

Performance vehicles, like Corvettes, should be expected to wear quickly. Race bikes get overhauls regularly, too. If you want big power from a small, lightweight package you're going to be doing repair work regularly. Pushing lubrication costs power, so those vehicles push as little oil as possible.

Design safety margins add weight and cost. Since the initial cost of an airplane, especially commercial airliners, is so high, the expected lifetime is 25-40 years. Reliability is included in the price of the vehicle. The average age of an American-owned car is currently about 11.5 years and new car owners hang on to their vehicles about 6.5 years (which is up about 2 years from 2006). I guess that is some kind of indication that modern vehicle reliability is improving.

I think the best we can hope for, given the price sensitivity of the personal vehicle market, is baby steps in car and motorcycle reliability. Unless we're willing to put up with maintenance regulations and high initial costs, we're getting at least what we're paying for.

Jan 6, 2019

Real Luxury

IMG_9599[1]For most of my semi-adult life, I’ve been more than a little jealous of people who have a heated, comfortable workspace.

Two years ago, I put considerable effort into installing a “real door” between our basement and our lower garage. This was a big part of the reason for going through all the misery of disassembly 60 years of cobbled-together door frames. 3 layers of 2”x10” jack studs and headers tacked on top of each other as the water and rot ruined the last layer the previous owners just shrunk up the door by 4” and ignored the basement garage. You can see the old hobbit door at the far right against the wall in this picture.

A couple of the incredibly generous and cool guys from the Red Wing Iron Works Motorbike Club showed up this morning to help me wrestle the bike from the garage into the basement. It went as easily as I could have hoped (still not a one-man job, especially when the one man is an old fart). For the first time since I left California in 1991, I have a warm, well-lit indoor space to work on my bike for the rest of the winter. This will be the most fun spring motorcycle prep in decades.

I have a bunch of new parts (chain and sprockets, back tire, oil and fluids) to swap out and a couple cool mods to make and the WR will be ready to go somewhere when it warms up.

Jan 1, 2019

Subjects I Avoid

All Rights Reserved © 2013 Thomas W. Day

I grew up with the advice, “Never mention politics or religion, in polite conversation.” I didn't follow that advice, but I heard it a lot. My father and I did a solidly poor job of even honoring the spirit; and our relationship pretty much proved how valid that guidance could have been. For most of my life, being who I am seems to reflexively cause that polite rule to be abused. Something about me appears to inspire the most degenerate, least informed, nosiest and noisiest, least sober, least credible evangelists into a doomed attempt to “spread the word” at the expense of my peace and quiet. (Trust me, I’ve heard the spiel—and have been hearing it since I was a child—and no matter who you are, who you represent, what god(s) you follow, what key you’re going to sing in, or what line you’re going to take, I’ve been there and heard it.)
subjects_i_avoidSo, this week’s experience at the library was just one in a long line of related bad experiences that have made me want to move to my Montana retirement mansion (at right) and keep a loaded shotgun by the door for greeting all visitors. I do plan to fire a couple of warning shots to the head to get your attention, so be ready to duck if you show up unannounced. 
On the way out the door and back to my bike, a guy ran me down to ask where I’d bought my official MMM jacket. You can’t get there from here, but I aimed him at Bob’s Cycle Supply for the next best thing. He argued that they didn’t carry it although I’d been there earlier in the week and they were still in stock at that time. Trying to politely escape (my first and often repeated mistake), I pulled off the jacket to show him the brand and model label and kept trying to get to the bike. I reminded him that the MMM portion of the jacket was custom and, probably, unavailable.
When I mentioned that the jacket’s denim cover is pretty worthless but that the armor in the jacket wasn’t bad, he said “Road rash is like military patches. It shows who you are and where you’ve been.” 
I disagreed (compounding my above mistakes) by saying “Neither says much, since the military gives away that stuff in Cracker Jack boxes and you can buy impressive-looking patches and pins at most Army/Navy stores or pawn shops and bicycle, skateboard,  or falling-down-concrete-stairs scars look pretty much like motorcycle rash unless you’ve ground off a limb.”
That inspired a long, boring story of his career in the Air Force (my least favorite of a list of least favorite government agencies) and his simultaneous experience in some sort of military biker gang. From there, he slid into a story of hitting a deer and surviving mostly unscratched. His “armor” in that incident was having spent a few moments praying over his motorcycle before leaving the bar for home. The deer hit his bike (a big Yamaha V-Star of some sort), bent some fender bits, and left some fur on a side case but he and the deer survived without serious injury. Therefore, praying worked. I should have kept moving, but I had to tell him that my more-pious-than-anyone-I-know brother had a similar dust-up with a deer and he ended up with a busted up ankle that has plagued him for the last five years (the deer didn’t survive). Knowing my brother, there was plenty of praying going on before he left my parents’ house for home.
Even if the praying wasn’t done over his motorcycle, it was done as well as that ritual can be performed. I remain unconvinced that the library dude added anything meaningful beyond what my parents and brother could do. The idea that his angel was more focused than my brother’s is simply ludicrous. Saying that inspired a lecture from this evangelist about believing vs. something I couldn't identify, probably due to my heretical nature.

Still trying to get to my bike, strap my gear on, and escape without more comment than necessary. He made some comment about all the gear I was wearing (not that close to AGAT, but a lot closer than his street clothes). I let that one pass, but did make a less-than-respectful comment about pudding bowl helmets. Surprise! That was the only kind of helmet he owns. More conversation to ignore as I plugged my ears and pulled on my helmet. Before the ear plugs sealed up, he expressed surprise that it took me so little effort to put on the helmet.

"It's just a hat, dude."

As best I could tell, the one-sided conversation swung from ranting about helmet laws to being pissed off about the "safety Nazis," but I had the sense to ignore that bait and fired up the WR. As I struggled to back the bike out of the parking space while he attempted to strategically position himself in my way, I caught snippets of unwanted information about his engineering career, his plan to dominate the three-string guitar market (He was not a player, but had read something about cheap guitars getting trendy.), and an offer to co-write something about something. I escaped cleanly, without exchanging names or other useless information.
When I got home and told my wife about the experience, she marveled at how hard it is for me to get away from salespeople and talkative drunks. "Must be genetic," I replied. I had way too much trouble getting away from my family and the same sort of conversations. 
"No," she said. "I think you're just dumb." 
Possibly. When pressed against this kind of wall, I usually look to my hero, Mark Twain, for an explanation. The best I could find was, “I am quite sure now that often, very often, in matters concerning religion and politics a man's reasoning powers are not above the monkey's.” Pretty much the same thing my wife said.