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.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Is this why those kiddy-safe powerpoints were developed?

Having had to spend a night in hospital, recovering from anaesthetic and with my face hurting like hell from where the metal plates were inserted, unable to sleep thanks to the snoring and occasional Tourettes-style swearing of the old gentleman in the bed next to mine, I can sympathise with this kid. But that won't prevent me laughing in derision at his stupidity.

Is he going to grow up to be a mass-murderer, do you think?

Repeat after me: It's only a coincidence

This is the perfect sequel to my last post.

Fucking technology. Actually, fucking vehicles.

This morning, a day not quite as terrifyingly coldest-recorded (in Toowoomba, at least) as yesterday, I nipped out early to check that my oil topup the other day had been accurate, and found that it wasn't, and put more oil in my car.

Which rewarded me for my care by not starting. This has happened before - it's something electrical but not the starter motor, which therefore means that there are gremlins and black magic involved, being auto electronics, and not something I feel mentally tough enough to tackle at the moment.

So I ran indoors, trying not to wake my partner, threw on bike gear (no way in hell I will ride in work pants - I prefer something that offers a little bit of protection), threw work clothes into gearsack, grabbed rest of riding gear, took everything outside, pulled cover off bike... Which wouldn't start. This vehicle at least turned over, slowly, and then the battery died.

Okay, so it's been sitting for two weeks thanks to weather and a bout of illness, but not even a battery that small should lose that much charge that quickly. The XJ600 is notoriously cold-blooded, but it should at least crank vigorously even if it doesn't catch. Hell, the TRX was left for two months in storage and still started first time. Which probably means I need a new battery. Which, being a low-volume-manufacture bike battery, will be into three figures, never mind the fact that it's about the same size as a Dolphin torch battery.

So I'm standing there half-dressed in riding gear, about to start getting late, swearing because my two available vehicles won't start. Try and bump-start bike? I'm not pushing that to the top of the driveway for a roll! Not to mention lack of traction on a gravel surface to kick over the engine's compression. Jump-start? That requires a running vehicle to jump-start off which, as we have established, I don't have. Or the time to get it right if I used my partner's car. Wake her and ask if I could borrow said vehicle?

Try car one last time...

Which starts...

Grab work clothes from gearsack on back of bike, run (quietly) into house, get changed, leave riding gear thrown over a windowsill, throw brief-case and lunch into car, check pockets, grab wallet and mobile from gearsack, check head, can't find sunglasses, find on seat of car under lunch, drive off...

Get to work and send explanatory SMS to partner.

Who reported, at lunchtime, that XJ600 had started, reluctantly.

It's coincidences like this that lead people to believe in malicious forces of nature beyond the ken of physics.

There's a mediaeval fair on in Brisbane this weekend and I'm looking forward to being surrounded by no technology and women in corsets.

Monday, 18 June 2007

First design, then TEST.

As I type this I have a gentle but insistent pain in my right thumb, the result of wrestling with the oil-filler cap on my car while checking the fluids this morning (a slightly overdo routine maintenance inspection). It actually represents less damage than I was expecting to happen.

It reminds me of an idea I had long ago and haven't abandoned:

All engineers, designers and anyone else who is responsible for any piece of interface - paper form, electronic form, program interface, vehicle controls, engine accessible bits... - needs to be forced to live with it for long enough to work out if they, the people who designed the bloody thing, can deal with it without screaming in frustration and setting fire to an effigy of themselves.

In particular, I think that Toyota's 3S-FE engine could have been made much kinder on mechanics if the engineers had been forced to:

  1. Change the oil. The plug is angled so that it's extremely difficult to get a wrench onto if you're lying on your back feeling above your head, the filter is angled so that neither of the two commercially available styles of filter wrench will fit and the filler cap is an absolute nightmare of destructive intent to break the seal on.
  2. Change the spark plugs. The leads are horrible things to try and get the right grip on to remove, and most people will need to buy an extra long socket extension just for that job.
  3. Change the alternator. Yes, there really are easier ways to attach it and to adjust the drive-belt tension. Springs, for example.
  4. Change the water pump. This is the clincher. I can guarantee you that if the engineers responsible for both the engine and the layout of the engine bay in the SV21 Camrys were forced to change the water pump using home tools, something which is theoretically possible, they will be curled up in a ball on the floor begging for forgiveness and promising to fix it, change it, anything but this!
The sad thing is that it's such a sweet, willing, eager, reliable engine when you don't have to do anything to it. It's almost like a Peugeot.

There's a lot of arguing back and forth about user interfaces in the computer world, and people spend a lot of time arguing about layout and everything else, but I firmly believe that most of it argued by people who don't actually have to live with what they've done.

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