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Elegant Technology:

Chapter eight:

(1) Quality as a function of tooling cannot be understood if quality is measured by the selling price of a product. For example, it would be difficult to conceive two products more dissimilar than a Toyota and a Rolls Royce even though both are automobiles. The Rolls is very expensive, costing 10 times what a Toyota costs--or more. The Rolls is made in limited numbers while the Toyota is the soul of mass production. Rolls Royce has made fewer cars in its over 75 year history than Toyota makes in a month.

Because people often associate quality with a high price, the natural conclusion would be to assume that the Rolls is a technologically superior product. Such a conclusion would be wrong. The engine in the Rolls is of a design over 30 years old. Rolls Royce has not had the resources to design a new engine even though it is outdated and needs replacement. By contrast, Toyota has introduced 10 new engines in 10 years. Rolls must buy major components such as automatic transmissions and air conditioning systems from outside suppliers (in this case, General Motors.) Toyota designs everything in house. The Rolls is not particularly enjoyable to drive because driving is the work of a chauffeur. It is slow, ponderous, and inefficient. Operating costs, ease of maintenance, and fuel efficiency are considered irrelevant. The Toyota is faster, more reliable, cheaper to maintain, more rust resistant, and a great deal more fuel efficient. It even has better seats.

The difference is not one of intent. Both automakers strive hard to make an excellent vehicle. The difference is the resources associated with mass production and sophisticated tools. Toyota has an army of engineers able to attack the smallest problem. Rolls Royce relies on skilled labor to work around production problems. Toyota believes that with enough design effort, every assembly operation can be made idiot-proof. The Rolls is a magnificent automobile even if only a monument to primitive technologies.

Ferrari, another expensive car of limited production, was even less sophisticated than Rolls in its early days. The left and right sides of early Ferraris are not mirror images which gives them a personality not unlike a human face. Only the purchase of Ferrari by Fiat saved Ferrari from becoming the perpetual "kit-car" whose attractions were a jewel-like engine, a barbarous top speed, limited production, and high cost. These were supposed to be enough to make an owner forget that the door handles fell off. Does this mean that an inexpensive Toyota is a better car than an expensive Rolls or Ferrari? By any objective standard, the answer is yes. The reason is that when it comes to product sophistication, large companies with huge design staffs can simply overwhelm small companies with fewer resources. These business leviathans have it within their power to set the industrial standards. The Japanese have set the standard for a sophisticated, cost-effective automobile. Such size and strength comes only from mass production and marketing. Toyota has also proven that once it is learned how to make a cheap car better than an expensive car, making an expensive car better than anything on the planet is only a matter of time.

Those who dislike large companies must face the fact that without large companies, a large segment of the industrial reality would simply not have happened. The value of the telephone is not in the cost of the handset, it is in the number of people that can be called. Television would not exist without mass production. A $250 television would cost $250,000 if a company only made 100 per year (even if such an unlikely company were possible.)

(2) Richard Preston, American Steel: hot metal men and the resurrection of the Rust Belt. Prentice Hall Press (1991).

This book describes the characteristics of the men who first built and operated the continuous casting steel mill. While this will hardly resurrect the Rust Belt, it is a stunning achievement. It is tempting to cheer the can-do spirit of Nucor until it is realized that the casting machinery must be imported from Germany where it was invented and perfected. The American cowboys are confronted by the reality that the Germans treat this sale as merely another installation in an underdeveloped area of the world. Anyone who doubts the magnitude of American deindustrialization will find this book sobering.

(3) The ultimate way to understand the role of design in industrialization is to consider the recipe. It is not only food preparation that involves a recipe--everything made by humans has one.

For example, near every wheel on virtually every motor vehicle in the world is a simple item that Americans call a shock absorber and the British more properly call a damper. The job of a damper is to damp out the natural oscillations of a spring. Once a spring is set in motion, it will remain in motion until the internal friction of the spring causes the motion to cease. Without dampers, a car that hits a bump will bounce up and down like a pogo stick all the way down the block. Not only is this very distracting to the driver and can cause motion sickness, it is very dangerous because the wheels can actually bounce off the road. Terrific tires, superb steering mechanisms, and brilliant brakes are all absolutely worthless any time the wheel is off the ground. Dampers allow the springs to absorb the shock of a bump and return to their original position with a minimum rebound. No bouncing: no wheels flying off the road: no driver getting motion sickness. No question about it, dampers (or shock absorbers) are very important parts of an automobile.

Like most things important, dampers are extremely unglamorous. They operate close to the road in filthy, hot environments. They take a terrific beating. The life of a damper is not easy. Dampers wear out and must be replaced. The average life of a damper is about 3-4 years; shorter if the vehicle travels unpaved roads or New York streets; longer if the vehicle is lucky enough to reside in an area where the roads are maintained. There are 150 million vehicles in the United States with at least 4 wheels and theoretically over 100 million dampers should be made just for replacement purposes every year; not to mention the 50 million or so for new vehicle manufacture. Dampers may be unglamorous but economically they are a very big deal; 150 million of anything is a large order.

Even though dampers are simple in concept, good dampers are very sophisticated. Basically dampers work by sliding a piston up and down in a cylinder filled with oil. Oil is forced through an orifice from one side of the piston to the other. How much damping effect is produced by the damper is largely determined by the size of the piston and the size of the orifice. Changing the size of the piston changes the production cost of the damper. Changing the size of the orifice does not change the cost of the damper. For all practical purposes it costs the same to drill a .345" hole as a .362" hole. The person who decides the size of the orifice has a pure design problem: there are no accounting complications. Pure design problems are those problems which can cause the difference between product success and failure, yet the only evidence of a solution is the correct design specification. A pure design solution should be thought of as an industrial recipe. When the subject is the size of the orifice, the only consideration is the correct answer.

Dampers are part of a larger subsystem of a vehicle called the suspension. Designing a suspension is a very complicated process using calculations involving the suspension geometry (the path the wheel takes as it bumps up and down), the weight of the tire, brakes, etc. which must be controlled, the weight of the vehicle, and the spring constants. Every one of these factors bears directly on damper design. Designing a new suspension takes thousands of hours of computer time weighing these factors against each other followed by equal efforts in testing preproduction prototypes. This is not as scientific as it sounds because the design goals are as subject to fashion trends as the rest of the vehicle. Not all goals can be satisfied. A damper designed to provide a silky ride over rough roads cannot provide the control for high-speed driving. The dampers on a Buick and an Indianapolis 500 racer are not interchangeable. As roads get rougher in industrial countries, suspension philosophy changes. The trend in automobiles is towards softly sprung, heavily damped suspensions because roads are getting worse. The French automaker, Peugeot, makes arguably the best dampers. They claim their dampers are so good because their extensive experience in Africa with terrible roads has given them a head start in designing a car that can negotiate the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago.

Not only are damper designers important because their industry is so large, they are important because they are part of the fashion segment of automotive design. If the damper designer specifies the wrong orifice, the car can become an ill-mannered, dangerous vehicle. But if the damper designer solves the problem of the orifice size (as well as other problems) very well, the car becomes such a sweet-handling device, that people will pay extra. Good damper design not only sells dampers, it helps sell the whole car. Yes indeed, in an industrial sense, simple, production cost-free considerations can have a very large economic impact, but while there may be no production cost considerations, either labor or resource, there are serious design cost considerations. Design efficiency can be measured by how quickly the ideal solution is reached. A design solution which works on the first attempt is obviously cheaper than a solution which has taken 1000 attempts to reach.

RETURN TO--Elegant Technology: Chapter Eight

GO TO--Elegant Technology: Chapter Ten

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