Letters 2/17/2011

Feb. 15, 2011
Several Machine Design readers sent in their own examples of hollow organizations, the subject of a recent editorial

Hollow organizations and ambiguous terminology
Several Machine Design readers sent in their own examples of hollow organizations, the subject of a recent editorial. Other readers pointed out some ambiguous words in common usage and how to avoid them. One reader was particularly confused with the acronym PLC. Should it stand for programmable logic controller or power-line communications? A quick look at an acronym Web site reveals over 310 phrases represented by PLC. Our favorite is Pathetic Losers Club.

The lack of solid companies
The editorial (“How to run a ‘nonhollowed out’ company,” Nov. 18) was not only excellent but timely as well. I would like to consider the next logical step. Most companies are managed by MBAs who are more or less glorified accountants. The vast majority of them do not have the foggiest idea of what design engineers do. To them, engineers are just another human commodity, just a bunch of unstylish introverts who do something technical in the back room.

Another problem is that too many engineering managers have sold their engineering souls in exchange for a seat at the management table. They learn quickly that their job is to make their numbers. The concept of constant improvement gets thrown out the nearest window. The concept of reacting quickly to customers who want or need a special version of the standard product is foreign to them. And the idea that they should get to know customers for firsthand feedback on designs terrifies them.

With this mindset, managers base innovation on the economy. The idea of designing the next generation during slow times is absent. Instead, they lay folks off. Then, any economic upturn brings in a new batch of human resources. But the new guys don’t know the product’s history or any of the procedures unique to the company. Their first year is wasted on learning the system. Management recalls some of the work the previous engineering team did and expects the new guys to do the same. Naturally, they tend to fall short. They are told they are inefficient. After all, the last team did a similar job with fewer errors in less time.

At one time it was important for a person who joined a firm to learn the business and to stay with it. Today, it is only important to be trained on the latest software. That’s one of the reason’s we used to be a great manufacturing country.

Morgan Kizer

A related example of a hollowed-out organization comes from when I was in Naval aviation. Our squadron flew ski-equipped C-130s in support of the National Science Foundation in Antarctica for about 40 years. Due to funding issues, the government decommissioned the squadron and gave the mission to the Schenectady, N. Y., Air National Guard in 1999. All the experience of operating in Antarctica handed down over so many years was thrown away. Granted, the ANG was used to operating in the Arctic and, although it’s cold up there, the flying is different. It didn’t take long before they were forced to leave one of their nice, new, fancy planes on the ice their first year. This might not be exactly like manufacturing and design engineering, but I think it’s quite similar. Those in charge have no idea what it takes to run things, so they make decisions that look good to accountants but sets back or cripples operations.

Name withheld

My company is run by the son of the owner. He graduated from a well-known university. He stays in his office and doesn’t go to trade shows, doesn’t fraternize with the workers, and thinks he knows everything. His style of management is “my way or the highway.” We, in engineering, are not encouraged to do anything on our own. If it is not his idea, it is not worth pursuing. Only problem is, he doesn’t have any ideas or won’t come up with any. Sales is not allowed to talk to anybody in engineering without him being present because he micromanages everything. The morale in the office is the worst I’ve seen and he doesn’t care.

This is the problem with a highly educated, nonpeople person being in charge and another way to hollow-out a company.

Name withheld by request

The proper terminology
I enjoyed your article titled “Bigger Role for Prototyping in Automotive Design” in the Nov. 18 issue. As you are aware, additive-manufacturing technology is being used more and more to make production parts. This is especially true in the aerospace, medical, dental, and consumer-products industries.

Terminology has been a problem in this industry, so the ASTM International Committee F42 on Additive Manufacturing Technologies is tackling the issue. The committee consists of representatives from organizations such as Boeing, DePuy Spine, EOS, GE, Goodrich, Honeywell, Lockheed Martin, Materialise, Objet, Raytheon, Stratasys, the U. S. Army, and Z Corp. The terminology subcommittee, which I chair, published the first official industry standard in November 2009, with involvement from these and many other organizations. The group chose “additive manufacturing” as the generic term for the technology and industry. Rapid prototyping might be an important application of the technology, but it’s only one of many.

Terry Wohlers

More terminology
An interesting, well-written article on digital communications over power lines (“Your Next Network Connection Could be a Power Line,” Aug. 26). I did want to mention one point regarding your use of the acronym PLC (power-line communication). For better or worse, in industry today the acronym PLC has been reserved for the “programmable logic controller.” Most engineering and maintenance personnel know these computing and control devices by that particular acronym. Similarly, they know the acronym DCS as a “distributed-control system” and instantly relate the term PLC to the programmable logic controller.

Consequently, your article was somewhat difficult to read simply because whenever you mentioned PLC, the thought of a programmable logic controller came to mind and I was constantly having to “retrain” my thought processes of the all-too-familiar PLC acronym to your new definition. Might I suggest a slight modification to your terminology: PLCM (Power-Line Communication). Using this or something different from PLC would certainly avoid any and all confusion over what a person is really talking about.

Thomas D. Moore

Among engineers designing with ICs, the term PLC is more closely associated with power-line communication than with programmable logic controllers. And the companies that manufacture power-line communication gear refer to these ICs as PLC chips, not PLCM chips.

Moreover, PLCM intrudes on another acronym. To many of our readers, it means Product Lifecycle Management.

I am old enough to remember that before the first personal computers arrived, the common acronym for a programmable logic controller was just ‘PC.’ That was also confusing until the new meaning took hold.

I am afraid the long and short of it is that even when selecting an acronym with the best of intentions, there is always going to be the possibility of confusion. — Lee Teschler

© 2011 Penton Media, Inc.

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