Letters 1/22/2009

Jan. 20, 2009
Your editorial (“The digital world could have been a different place,” Nov. 20) was 100% correct

What should have been

Your editorial (“The digital world could have been a different place,” Nov. 20) was 100% correct. You said: “But this would have taken vision and foresight, traits that seem to be lacking in many large corporations.” Worse yet, these large firms are often better at claiming and then killing off employee inventions than they are at supporting them.

The suppressive control these firms have on the creativity of their employees is costing America its technological leadership and the loss of billions of dollars-worth of new products, business, jobs, and spin-off firms, along with huge amounts of lost tax revenue. I have had an employer even claim and try to suppress an invention I developed in my own basement workshop with my own materials, tools, and spare time, which had absolutely nothing to do with my employer’s business or products. He didn’t even want to develop it; he just wanted full control of my brain.

Too many firms are misusing our patent system and crippling “employee agreements” to suppress innovation — exactly opposite the intent of our Founding Fathers. Here in Minnesota, we are working to require employers to either “use or return” employee inventions. This would restore our employees’ creative rights and permanently boost Minnesota’s economy — and for free.

Robert Nepper

Amazing. One would expect Polaroid to have missed the coming of the digital imaging era because film was also their bread and butter. They had reason to believe they owned the “instant” photography market. But for Kodak to have the technology to build a digital camera and do such a poor job bringing it to market in a timely manner is just another win for Japanese companies. They may not necessarily be smarter than us, but our corporations have a way of making them look smarter.

R. Sportz

Management loses some luster

Readers seem to agree with a recent editorial that the business world could and should have been a much better place. And they point to myopic or greedy management as the main reason it isn’t. They offer few solutions, but point out several examples of U.S. firms missing the boat on new technologies and bigselling consumer products.

I was working with Kodak during this period and toured the lab where many of these digital technologies were being pioneered — not just digital cameras but HDTV, thermal printing, and more. There were many discussions with Kodak managers about “eating our own babies” with digital technologies, but they always foundered on the fact that there was no way to make as much money on digital as they were making on film.

It’s easy for a company like Canon, which already made cameras, to take risks to grow a new business segment; not so easy for a film company to willingly sacrifice income to shepherd a new technology to market success. How many of us would take a 50% pay cut on a not-so-sure thing? A bigger question is: Why has American manufacturing in general been so resistant to change? The attitude that if it’s not broken, don’t fix it, has been our Achilles’ heel. Look at the loss of over 3 million factory and engineering jobs over the last few years. Where are the champions of restoring American leadership in manufacturing innovation?

J. Scweder

One might have thought those Kodak managers would have realized that if they didn’t promote digital technologies, someone else certainly would.— Leland Teschler

This is all very sad. Bell Labs invented the CCD that makes digital imaging practical in 1969, and they put a working 0.64 megapixel camera into space in Dec. 1976 aboard the first KH-11 spy satellite. This sounds like the VCR story. Seems like we need more marketing and engineering types in management, and keep the bean-counters locked away.

Tom Curran

Problems in China

While your editorial (“Manufacturing woes in the news,” Nov. 6) was largely correct, it did not really explain why many of the abuses in Chinese factories went “unnoticed.”

I did capability and compliance audits of Chinese factories for my company from 1985 to 2005. Many of those factories did not have shadow operations, they had entire showcase factories. You would be shown a factory they said was making a product without any subcontractors. But even a simple capability audit showed they were lying. Confronted with those facts, they took me to the real factory. These factories were much larger and they ran the other factory only for the benefit of auditors. These auditors are talented number crunchers but often had never seen a factory before and were not particularly good at interviewing employees.

So if you hire unqualified people to do a job you should expect to get a poor result.

David Bergman

Why engineers get no respect

Engineers do not deserve respect until they all respect and fully use technicians. Fortune magazine recently called technicians “The New Worker Elite,” saying they are as vital to America’s technical and economic position in a global economy as engineers or managers with MBAs. When congress passed the $125 million Tech Prep Bill in the 1990s, it also recognized technicians as the most vital element of America’s workforce.

Engineers should visit their local community college and learn about two-year associate degrees in technology. They will be surprised to learn that many technicians with two-year degrees can overlap with them. I am a technician who did high-level engineering and design, and also had my own factory automation consulting business. Progressive engineers and managers have always respected and fully used technicians, but I have known others who were outright hostile to the role of technicians. If engineers want respect, they must first respect and use the other members of the engineering team, namely, technicians.

Glen W. Spielbauer

Get my drift? In the auto review of the 2009 Pontiac Vibe (Nov. 20), you state that the surviving econo hatchbacks of 40 years ago are being reborn as cult drift cars, and you would not be surprised to see future generations put the Vibe in the same cult category. Only time will tell whether the Vibe will become a cult classic, however, I am fairly sure it will not become a cult drift car. FWD and AWD cars generally are unsuccessful in drift competition.

Jeff Brooks

Most 4WD cars I’ve seen have a 2WD mode. Several years ago, MACHINE DESIGN hosted an annual Best Ride event wherein we evaluated the ride qualities of several different classes of vehicle, including SUVs and pickups. In some of those competitions, we ran AWD and 4WD vehicles on a makeshift dirt track within the grounds of Dana Corp.’s Toledo, Ohio, test facilities. In some cases we could get AWD and 4WD vehicles to exhibit drift. Drifting qualities really depended on the drive scheme the vehicle used. The upcoming mandate of electronic stability control will probably make drifting more problematic but not impossible for determined drifters. — Leland Teschler

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