Letters 9/10/2009

Sept. 8, 2009
A reader who once worked at GM recalls some less than stellar moves on the automaker’s part, ones he believes foreshadowed the demise of a once-great engineering company.

The beginning of the end for GM?
A reader who once worked at GM recalls some less than stellar moves on the automaker’s part, ones he believes foreshadowed the demise of a once-great engineering company. Another reader, one who has probably not been a defendant in a product-liability lawsuit lately, complains that consumers are too eager to play victim and sue, blaming design engineers for their own stupidity.

Why GM failed
Your editorial bemoaning the longterm lack of negative thinking in the domestic auto industry (“The upside of negative thinking,” Jan. 8) got me reminiscing about the reasons for my leaving GM back in 1978. Your observation matched what I and others saw: the coming demise of our largest industry.

Being a graduate fresh from college in 1972, I was in complete awe of the stunning technical prowess exhibited by some of the technical leaders. Yet it soon became obvious that GM just didn’t want to hear any bad news. So poor quality was accepted by many of the engineers, the union, and GM management.

For example, GM management arranged for the first Honda Civic to be imported to the U.S., which they put through an engineering review (a great idea) and a durability test (another good idea). But their review was dismissive before it ever ran the durability test. The official take was odd. They could only criticize its size, “too small,” and its cost, “too expensive.”

Management, but not us engineers, totally ignored the stunning craft work and the attention paid to dimensional assembly. Then the car was checked for durability. It ran mile after mile without a breakdown, completely unlike domestic vehicles. It was truly a remarkable achievement, but one that was totally ignored by the design and manufacturing side of GM. The report was buried.

For another example, look at GM big-block motors in the 60s and 70s. There was one for trucks and a modified (for noise) version for passenger cars. The quieter one used a timing gear with nylon teeth; the noisier model had an all-metal design. Unfortunately, the nylon version was guaranteed to fail — outside warranty — at around 70,000 miles. And when that gear failed, it wiped out the entire valve train, making repairs unfeasible. GM built the same gear for over 14 years, shrugging off the customer complaints.

All this, and more, made me reevaluate GM’s future. When I resigned a few years later, seeing absolutely no recognition of the huge storm clouds gathered on the horizon, I told my manager I could see the day when GM would go bankrupt and I didn’t want to lose my retirement. His reply was to look over his glasses and snicker at my “insanity.”

Charlie Stanton

Safety’s for sissies
I wanted to comment about a recent “From the Safety Files” column (“Poor Design Contributes to an Eye Injury,” July 9). First off, it should have been titled “Poor thought process contributes to an eye injury”. The column was typical of wanting to find fault and blame for someone’s stupid actions. First, let’s blame the guy who rented the “victim” the mower. Then, let ’s blame the bag-attachment design. And finally, let’s blame the misplaced warning on the mower.

No product is perfect and people who don’t understand how to operate a piece of machinery do get injured. But if you don’t know how to properly use and operate a lawn-mower bag attachment or any piece of equipment, you shouldn’t be using it. The person who got injured could have found the mower’s instruction manual online, as I did, if they had a question on any aspect of its operation. They could have phoned the business they rented it from to confirm the bag was installed properly. And they could have let go of the handle instead of being an idiot and trying to work on something while it was still running. This column is not about an engineering-based problem. It’s about operator error.

Adam Blakely

When a person designs a product, they should take into account all its reasonably foreseeable uses and misuses. That is inherent in good hazard analysis and in good design. Everyone is not as logical, intelligent, and knowledgeable as you, and these are the people who get injured by products and sue. So before any design goes into production, and after every revision to it, there should be a hazard analysis. After proper analysis, it is far less likely a person will be injured. A good example is John Deere farm equipment. They have a safety manual that should be used by all designers. Their marketplace is one of the most dangerous, yet they have few lawsuits. In cases with which I have been involved where John Deere was the defendant, the designers had not followed their own company’s manual.

Your statement that “no product is perfect” is correct, but the differences between perfect and the design of the lawn mower under discussion are huge. It is obvious the mower did not undergo hazard analysis and that the rental company did not perform any maintenance other than possibly lubricating it.

It is obvious you do not agree with a good product-safety approach, and that you consider poor design as God’s way of thinning out the gene pool. But the example in the column that you refer is the result of both poor product design and deficiencies at a rental company.— Lanny Berke

Help on safety standards
I just finished reading your article about skylights (“Walk on the wild side — but not on skylights,” May 21). I’ve never thought about the dangers. Thanks for the warning. While I’ve got you, I need help finding the right OSHA standard(s) for steps, ladders, and hand rails. My experience with buying standards is that once I get them in hand and take a close look, they sometimes don’t have what I’m looking for. But then it’s too late because I’ve already paid for them.

George McCall

The first thing I would suggest would be taking an OSHA class. Check around, possibly with your local OSHA office, and find out where the OSHA Ten Hour Class is offered. The most important thing you will learn from that class is how to use the OSHA Regulations Manual. For specific questions on steps, ladders, and hand rails, you will find each of your subjects listed in the index of the OSHA Regulations Manual. — Lanny Berke

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