Blinding flashes of the obvious

Challenge yourself to spend a day with those who use your designs.

09/21/2011


We all get used to inconveniences that don’t need to be there. As engineers, though, it’s your responsibility to design things that are easy to use and understand. How can you do that on a regular basis, practiced so it’s as much a part of you as breathing? The purpose of this article is to provoke your thinking so that becomes the case.

Having flown more than 2 million miles, I’ve repeatedly encountered the inconvenience of airplane bathroom faucets that make it so hard to wash your hands. One of the major manufacturer’s designs makes you hold down the lever with one hand to rinse your other hand between that little space under the water flow. To be considerate, you rinse the soap bubbles off the sink so they’re not there for the next person. But often, the drain is in a closed position so you’re holding that down while simultaneously pushing the water lever and collecting water in your other hand to rinse the sink.

Clearly there are bigger issues in our world. But why are semifunctional bathroom sinks in airplanes tolerated?

The point of this musing is that we’re all guilty to some degree of missing key points in what we do. Blinding flashes of the obvious:

  • A university library built on a landfill that started to sink once the books were brought in because the books’ dead weight hadn’t been included in the calculations.
  • Red lighted exit signs placed high up on corridor walls, where smoke rises and quickly covers them, instead of being placed at floor level, where people would be crawling in a smoke-filled hall.

Why do we miss these blinding flashes of the obvious? There’s no single answer, but listening closely to customers and, more importantly, putting yourself in their shoes to experience how they use products and services, helps.

A challenge to you: Spend a day with whoever is the recipient of what you do in your job. It could be the person you sit next to; it could be an outside customer. One day in the average 250-day work year is 0.4% of a year. Surely that small time investment will pay multiple dividends for you both. As American Indian culture so wisely puts it, “Walk a mile in their moccasins.” Observe everyone, everywhere, what they do, and how they do it. Record the blinding flashes that you see and great designs in which the designer clearly “got it.” It’ll sharpen your eye to be innately aware of good design.

Spend as much time as possible with the end users of whatever it is that you do so that you’re not just looking at what you design, but at the whole value chain and what is being provided by all players. It will give you a true sense of the real value from the end user’s perspective and may be the best indicator of who in that value chain will survive, long-term. You may be able to design in the efficiencies that shrink that value chain and provide more value to the end user as a result.

Through those experiences, learn to ask questions like: Why is there even a drain stopper? Who would actually fill an airplane bathroom sink with water and use it? Why not have a spout in the middle of a bowl with room to actually rinse your hands, with no drain stopper and timed water flow to better conserve it?

John Suzukida, PE, Minneapolis

The next time you’ve swiped your credit card at the store and are trying to sign your name, but you inadvertently end the transaction before you’re done signing because the keypad is inconveniently located where your hand rests—think of that blinding flash of the obvious as a reminder for you to not fall into the same trap.

Suzukida was Trane’s senior VP of global marketing and strategy prior to founding Lanex Consulting in 2002, which focuses on energy efficiency, product-to-solutions transitions, and strategy. He has facilitated meetings for the West Coast Zero Net Energy Coordinating Council, Daikin, Danfoss, and the National Conference on Building Commissioning, and has authored articles for industry publications. He has a BSME and distinguished alumnus award from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.



No comments
The Top Plant program honors outstanding manufacturing facilities in North America. View the 2015 Top Plant.
The Product of the Year program recognizes products newly released in the manufacturing industries.
The Engineering Leaders Under 40 program identifies and gives recognition to young engineers who...
2016 Engineering Leaders Under 40; Future vision: Where is manufacturing headed?; Electrical distribution, redefined
Strategic outsourcing delivers efficiency; Sleeve bearing clearance; Causes of water hammer; Improve air quality; Maintenance safety; GAMS preview
World-class maintenance: The three keys to success - Deploy people, process and technology; 2016 Lubrication Guide; Why hydraulic systems get hot
Flexible offshore fire protection; Big Data's impact on operations; Bridging the skills gap; Identifying security risks
The digital oilfield: Utilizing Big Data can yield big savings; Virtualization a real solution; Tracking SIS performance
Getting to the bottom of subsea repairs: Older pipelines need more attention, and operators need a repair strategy; OTC preview; Offshore production difficult - and crucial
Applying network redundancy; Overcoming loop tuning challenges; PID control and networks
Driving motor efficiency; Preventing arc flash in mission critical facilities; Integrating alternative power and existing electrical systems
Package boilers; Natural gas infrared heating; Thermal treasure; Standby generation; Natural gas supports green efforts

Annual Salary Survey

Before the calendar turned, 2016 already had the makings of a pivotal year for manufacturing, and for the world.

There were the big events for the year, including the United States as Partner Country at Hannover Messe in April and the 2016 International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago in September. There's also the matter of the U.S. presidential elections in November, which promise to shape policy in manufacturing for years to come.

But the year started with global economic turmoil, as a slowdown in Chinese manufacturing triggered a worldwide stock hiccup that sent values plummeting. The continued plunge in world oil prices has resulted in a slowdown in exploration and, by extension, the manufacture of exploration equipment.

Read more: 2015 Salary Survey

Maintenance and reliability tips and best practices from the maintenance and reliability coaches at Allied Reliability Group.
The One Voice for Manufacturing blog reports on federal public policy issues impacting the manufacturing sector. One Voice is a joint effort by the National Tooling and Machining...
The Society for Maintenance and Reliability Professionals an organization devoted...
Join this ongoing discussion of machine guarding topics, including solutions assessments, regulatory compliance, gap analysis...
IMS Research, recently acquired by IHS Inc., is a leading independent supplier of market research and consultancy to the global electronics industry.
Maintenance is not optional in manufacturing. It’s a profit center, driving productivity and uptime while reducing overall repair costs.
The Lachance on CMMS blog is about current maintenance topics. Blogger Paul Lachance is president and chief technology officer for Smartware Group.
This article collection contains several articles on the vital role that compressed air plays in manufacturing plants.
This article collection contains several articles on the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and how it is transforming manufacturing.
This article collection contains several articles on strategic maintenance and understanding all the parts of your plant.
click me