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CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR'S BOOKS

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

ROCOCO TECH

"Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently."
-Henry Ford

One of the first things I think of when I see some fancy new technology or upgrade to existing devices is "great, more things to go wrong."  My dad worked in a technical field, repairing and upgrading technology and he raised us to understand that the more features and things a device has, the more that it can fail.  Yes, its neat your car can park its self, navigate by satellite, talk to you, see behind you and warn of objects, open the locks with a cell phone app, and so on, but all of that is complexity that increases the likelihood that something will go wrong.
A great article at Wired recently examined this principle in an article by Robert Capps about auto manufacturing:
In our Moore’s law-driven age, we expect devices to continuously be getting smaller, lighter, more powerful, and more efficient. This thinking has seeped into our expectations about lots of product categories: Cars must get better gas mileage. Bicycles must get lighter. Washing machines need to get clothes cleaner with less water. Almost every industry is expected to make major advances every year. To do this they are constantly reaching for new materials and design techniques. All this is great for innovation, but it’s terrible for reliability.
This world is made up of a series of balancing acts and compromises.  Because we're in a fallen world, every good thing has a bad side to it: nuclear power gives us nuclear weapons.  Electric lights gives us burnt fingers and coal power plants.  Medicine gives us healing and side effects
The Weibull distribution curve in product failure
You never get everything exactly the way you want it without any flaws, ever.  There's always something wrong, somewhere.  So the more features and benefits you get in a product, the more of a price there is to pay elsewhere - and not just in your wallet.  The first I-Pod came out clean, simple looking and solid, except... you couldn't replace the battery, the batteries would sometimes overheat and destroy the thing, the control wheel soon started to malfunction, and the operating system had strange glitches and problems.  It was, like all Apple products, deliberately designed to be obsolete soon as well, but that's another issue.
Everything has problems, and that's part of the price you pay.  But the eternal demand for newer, fancier, and smaller means you're compounding the problems.  And businesses try really hard to avoid admitting those problems exist, too.  It costs them sales, reputation, and money to say "we screwed that up!"  The X-Box 360 is a classic example of how this works:
Microsoft released the Xbox 360 during Thanksgiving week in 2005. Within a day of the machine going on sale, the game consoles were overheating and dying. As time went on, these failures earned a name: the Red Ring of Death. The moniker came from the fact that when an Xbox 360 failed, three lights around its outsize power button glowed red rather than the normal green.
Microsoft did extend the warranty to one year but still denied that there was a problem, insisting the 360′s failure rate wasn’t exceptionally high—3 to 5 percent at most, well within the normal range for a new game console. But there was clearly a problem, and angry gamers were becoming more and more vocal.
Microsoft stonewalled on the issue until Fourth of July weekend in 2007—a full year and a half after the launch. ...In a stunning admission of how badly it had messed up, Microsoft also revealed the amount of money it was setting aside for the program: between $1.05 billion and $1.15 billion. It was a monumental disaster.
The Xbox 360 was one of the most public warranty debacles in the past decade, but it was hardly the only one. “There’s an Xbox in every industry,” Arnum says. “They try their best to keep it quiet, to minimize it, whatever they have to do.”
It hurts your business to admit you produced a junker.  And the fact is, they all do, eventually.  Its a matter of time before you put out something that has a problem you didn't anticipate or properly protect against - or worse, could have anticipated and didn't care about to save money or rush the product out on a schedule.Interestingly enough, Ford Motor Company has been pretty good about not having these problems.
Here's a chart comparing Ford with Microsoft, showing the waranty claims and costs over the last nine years:

As you can see, Ford has gotten a lot better at controlling waranty costs, and that's not because their contracts have gotten stingier. Its because the company has taken a very strong position to produce a product which is reliable, cost effective, and quality.  They had a choice: keep making crappy cars and rely on bailouts to survive, or make a product people want and survive on your own.  They went the opposite route of GM and Chrysler.
But that doesn't mean Ford is the new Toyota (and Toyota these days isn't Toyota, either).  They're just working harder at it.  There are still problems, and these problems are largely caused by the demand for cheaper, lighter, and fancier.
Compounding that effect for auto manufacturers is the government's demand that cars carry more and more safety and control equipment yet get better and better gas mileage.  The Wired article focuses on one device in a car: the gas pedal hinge.  When you press that accelerator, you are putting strain on the hinge and that's a predictable place the car can fail at.
Car manufacturers are facing a dilemma with every single device in the car.  They can make it very reliable and strong, but that means they make the devices big and heavy.  Since cars take more energy to move the heavier they are, that means they use up more gas.  But consumers want more efficient cars and the government demands the fleet be more fuel efficient (more so every time Democrats are in charge of the federal government), so heavy is a problem.
And all those GPS locators, airbags, and safety features the government requires make the cars heavier.  Which means they get worse gas mileage, so they have to find other places to cut back on weight.  So the cars get more plastic and less metal, the hinges get skinnier and lighter, and things are more brittle.  So Ford works hard to find the right balance between weight and reliability, and that can be tough.
Its easy, sitting in a chair in the capitol building, to demand that cars must have both weight-adding safety features and gas sipping economy, but in the real world, that tends not to work.  That's why economy cars in the 1980s got better gas mileage than they do now with all the technological and design enhancements over the years.  A car that gets 60 miles a gallon is unthinkable today, even with hybrids.
And the more fiddly and fancy they get, the more things that can go wrong.  Maybe they will finally get a car that can parallel park its self properly one day - I've yet to see one demonstrate that safely, ever, in any setting.  But even if it does, after bouncing over potholes and living through winters, its going to stop doing that.  Those alarms that tell you when someone is too close behind you will eventually malfunction and your keyless entry system runs out of batteries.
The simpler and more basic a system or device is, the fewer things that can go wrong and more importantly, the easier they are to fix.  Any idiot with a few tools could fix a car in the 60s.  Now it takes a computer and a garage full of special equipment and expensive replacement parts.  Those old grease monkeys who could could tune your engine's performance with a screwdriver and your carburetor throw up their hands in confusion now.  There's a reason those guys tend to focus on old hot rods and vintage cars today, and its not just because the modern designs tend to suck in a sadly ticky tacky manner.
Something that a major disaster or economic crash would likely bring about is a new emphasis on simplicity and reliability.  I don't need my car to park its self, but I do need it to stay driving.  And really, after a certain point, those features just become ridiculous, like the Rococo movement in art: fancy and excessive for its own sake.

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