Friday, 22 June 2007

If it's not your job, whose is it?

Having complained recently about the lack of consideration of mechanical engineers designing something which works but is difficult to work on, I was informed by Phil (love the blog name, incidentally) that this is not the engineer's problem.

Which is precisely my point. It bloody well should be their problem! Somebody's, at any rate. If for no other reason than that having to remove the rear bumper in order to check the spark plugs (Smart Coupe) is, via inconvenience and big servicing costs, going to have a negative impact upon customer satisfaction, reputation and therefore sales. The world is too full of ingenious user-friendly devices to be able to claim that something which is an absolute nightmare, and for such a simple reason as sharp-edged plastic, is anything other than carelessness, incompetence or not caring at all.

How much care we can expect at any given price point is another question. The idle set screw on my XJ600, for example, requires someone with small hands to reach through a maze of cables and tubes, feel for it, and not touch anything that will give them a nasty burn. But that engine was designed to be as simple and cheap as possible while still performing, so I'll live with the tradeoffs. It's a similar situation with adjusting the preload on the rear suspension, which requires a special tool and more leverage than is safely available. On the other hand, buy a BMW and you get a remote adjusting knob that is easy to get to and can be turned by hand. And that's creeping into more affordable Japanese bikes, as well.

The absolute last thing I want to see is for quality or performance (or pick your appropriate measure) to be ignored at the expense of ease of access, but who the hell thought of putting the water pump, which has fairly disastrous consequences if it fails, where it could only be accessed by removing the engine from the vehicle, then removing the timing belt and the pulley attached to the crankshaft? I bent the biggest screwdriver we owned trying to get enough leverage to undo that pulley bolt before giving up. In comparison, it took my partner and I half an hour to change the water pump on her Commodore V6, including the tedious job of removing the old gasket material.

That strikes me as negligence or lack of foresight on the part of management at best and probably a lack of stated specifications or supervision, and has faint echoes of "Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department, says Werner von Braun."

Apropos of almost nothing, but to show that I do admire good engineers, a little story:

One of my favourite engineering stories is when Jaguar founder William (later Sir William) Lyons was planning his company's post-war future during overnight fire watch during the London Blitz, sharing the duty with his two chief engineers. Lyons wanted the best available, which meant twin overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder and hemispherical combustion chambers, which had never been done in a road car before. His engineers were horrified: It's too complex! Nobody will be able to work on it! Mechanics will stuff it up! Lyons was adamant: He wanted the best, and the best he was going to get.

The inline-six XK engine that resulted was the first road-car engine with all three features, set the world production car speed record almost by accident (they weren't really trying to make the XK120 that fast, but they weren't averse to naming it after its top speed when they did) and 13 other class speed and distance records (except the 24/7 one they were aiming for, thanks to a technicality), won the Le Mans 24hour endurance race five times in 7 attempts (including Jaguar's first factory race entry and the first use in anger of disc brakes), won the inaugural Australian touring car championship with Bob Jane (I think it was the inaugural anyway: I know he won it twice), was in production using worn-out equipment long after it should have been allowed to retire and surviving examples, provided they weren't built towards the end of its life when tooling qualities were fading and the workforce was getting disillusioned by management, are still reliable in club racing (the engine, not the electrics attached to it).

Jaguar have spent most of their career since the 1970s struggling to survive the sort of incompetent management that stalled development on the Mini and killed off MG, Sunbeam and Triumph, and the reason they survived at all was largely due to the surviving passion of its employees.

We need a little bit more passion like that.

1 comment:

phil said...

Ah yes, let's turn Jaguar into "Large car plant no 6" or whatever (I've forgotten the actual terminology and can't be arsed googling, it's Friday night etc etc).

Nice post, I'll be passing this to a few friendcs and see if we can get some conversation going.

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