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First Hand Confessions of a Product Engineer

I'm writing this post in response to the article posted here at the DP titled 3 Secrets of Engineering Being Used to Keep You Poor

I am a product development engineer so I thought maybe I could offer some first-hand insights to the process of developing your products.

Throughout my career (actually, I left a couple years ago to start my own business), the products I've worked on included refrigerators, office furniture and filing cabinets, and most recently consumer outdoor power equipment like lawn mowers, weed trimmers, etc.

My duties have ranged from designing products, testing products, setting up manufacturing processes, and manufacturing quality control. Much of my work was done overseas (supplier development engineering, which is pretty much all the same engineering duties except you get to be treated like the customer).

OK, so now comes the brutal truth:

The whole goal of my job was very simple: to maximize company profits.

There, I said it. What a load off!

Now, wait until you hear about HOW engineers do this...

For an engineer to maximize profits, he must develop products with minimal cost and maximum sales price (we often use the buzz-word "value added"). Also, development time should be minimized so the company can start earning those profits asap..."time is money" you know.

So, how do we design products that minimize cost and maximize value? Get ready for a shock:

To minimize COST the product should be:
- safe (lawsuits can end a company)
- easy to manufacture
- minimal material cost
- use standard parts and common materials
- small container size (minimize shipping cost)
- reliable (returns and warranty claims are a HUGE cost. Also, poor quality will hurt future sales)

To maximize VALUE a product should be:
- easy to use
- reliable
- safe
- contain features the customer actually wants and is willing to pay for
- aesthetically pleasing

You'll notice that Safe and Reliable are especially important, because they both help REDUCE cost and INCREASE value added to the product.

That's it. There is no conspiracy. There is no trick. You're not being hoodwinked.

Just hundreds of thousands of hours going into making your stuff as good as it can be for the lowest possible cost.

Don't believe it? Well try this:

Just look at something. Anything. Maybe the monitor or device you're using now to read my post. Your relationship with the engineer that designed it for you went something like this:

You demanded to have it and demanded him to design it for you (which he did).
You didn't tell him what you wanted.
You didn't tell him when you wanted it.
You didn't give him any specifics on what you wanted it to do, or didn't want it to do.
You didn't tell him how much you wanted to spend on it.
You wanted it to be the best possible product.
You wanted it to be the lowest possible price.
If whatever the engineer provided didn't meet your needs you refused to do business with him.
If you DID buy it and weren't satisfied, you would fire him by not buying his brand in the future.

That's your relationship with your engineer. And it's a great thing!

This cutthroat competition is what leads to product improvement over time. If engineers try to skimp to save a buck, the market won't want their stuff. If engineers over design something so it costs more than the customer wants to spend, the market won't want their stuff.

Product Engineering is pretty much the science of finding the perfect sweet spot of quality and cost.

And it works too, the proof is in the puddin': Stuff gets BETTER and CHEAPER over time!

Take cars for example. In EVERY way, cars are better now than they were 30 years ago.
-more fuel efficient
-more dependable
-safer
-more comfortable to drive
-more features
-easier to maintain

oh yeah, they're CHEAPER too. When you measure either the amount of man hours needed to build a car, OR the amount of hours needed to work at an average wage to be able to afford a car of similar class, cars are cheaper.

Now I would never hold Cars as a pinnacle example of good industry policy. The auto industry has long been a center of cronyism and protectionism and over-regulation. But think about that! Isn't that then a real testament to the engineers? Even in those awful market conditions manipulated by government, that cars are STILL getting better.

Look at a more unregulated product (electronics for example) to really see the type of improved quality and reduced cost that engineers are truly capable of.

Lastly, here's some figures from "The Rational Optimist" by economist Matt Ridley. It's the amount of hours an average person needs to work at their job to be able to afford 1 hour of reading light:

1750 BC - 52 hours of work (sesame oil lamp)
1800 AD - 6 hours of work (tallow candle)
1880 AD - 15 minutes of work (kerosene lamp)
1950 AD - 8 seconds (conventional filament bulb)
2012 AD - 0.5 seconds (18W compact-fluorescent bulb)

What profession do you think made that happen? I can tell you one thing: it's not the accountants. Haha.



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But you gloss over the real problem

Though you do allude to it with cars vs electronics comparison.

Government mandates and regulations limit your options about how best to please the customer. While I am certain you personally didn't actively want to make a less durable product, durability is one area which you can trade off, unlike energy efficiency requirements, which many customers would probably not prioritize.

But most importantly all the taxes, regulations, mandates, approvals, and other compliance costs limit possible competition which in turn diminishes the overall quality level of the product, however measured.

I'm sure you did the very best you could within your legislative and bureaucratic limitations. And it's not your fault you operate in a rigged monopsonistic system. (I should also point out the monopsonistic system keeps down corporate wages for things like product engineers. Fewer employers, lower wages.)

But the problem expressed in the post you are replying to is real, if not for the reasons they think.

Thanks for your post though, it was informative.

Cyril's picture

First Hand Confession of a Software Engineer :

First Hand Confession of a Software Engineer :

"Meh, it's no bug.

It's a feature."

;P

"Cyril" pronounced "see real". I code stuff.

http://Laissez-Faire.Me/Liberty

"To study and not think is a waste. To think and not study is dangerous." -- Confucius

Cyril's picture

.

(j/k)

"Cyril" pronounced "see real". I code stuff.

http://Laissez-Faire.Me/Liberty

"To study and not think is a waste. To think and not study is dangerous." -- Confucius

N.A.F.T.A./ QS9000/ Lean Manufacturing

and it went to hell from there!

NOSHEEPLE

deacon's picture

You are on hold

Please be advised you are currently the 15 caller,
someone will be along shortly to brow beat you,and repeat every question at least 4 times thank you for your patience
And now we return you to the elevator music playing..never mind the static
missing words,and shitty music,it is our hope you get so damned bored and pissed off
you simply just HANG UP...so...hang up
have a nice day..and f you very much
D

If we deny truth before your very eyes,then the rest of what we have to say,is of little consequence

i see the point

but why do we still have 5 refrigerators from the 50's, 60's in our family still working like a charm???

and we've had to replace every 4-8 years the ones from the 80's on

why did craftsman tools rock and now they suck and complaints everywhere

why have I had 5 pressure washers in 4 years???

why do so many tractors exist from 40-50 years ago???

why have I replaced weedwackers and leafblowers every 2 years regardless of pricing point???

why does the gear go in my garage door every 3 years and sears keep replacing it with a plastic one that wears out,,,,replacing it with a steel gear would solve it,,,, but yet I guess end the service calls and the repairman says as much

gm just admitted that the lawsuits would be cheaper than making the part right

and what about the point of mack truck engines vs cars,,, even though I realize diesel engines is a different ballgame

Yes

Haha I agree, And I suspect that possibly, this has been caused by the accountants/ banksters getting in the way.

I like those statistics

I like those statistics that you gave at the end, about earning an hour of reading light. The jump from 1880 to 1950 is crazy, and now, consider your first MINUTE of work for the week will pay for your light in the house for the month probably.

me too.

I guess they give me optimism in a way.

I mean, even when government mucks up their duties as much as they have, people still find ways to make life better.

It comforting to know that human ingenuity is one hearty plant!

Why didn't you mention that

Why didn't you mention that the first form of illuminating the night didn't cost nearly as much. Fire, using wood, didn't cost much of anything. I suppose that is why you didn't mention it.

Why didn't you mention that

Why didn't you mention that the first form of illuminating the night didn't cost nearly as much. Fire, using wood, didn't cost much of anything. I suppose that is why you didn't mention it.

Really? Have you ever cut firewood? Try it without chainsaws, gas wood splitters, etc. It costs time and a lot of it, time away from gathering and growing food and all the other important tasks you had to perform.

Seriously dude, you gotta get real.

Those figures measure TIME needed to work for an hour of reading light. They aren't my figures. I sited the source.

I guarantee you it doesn't take less than 0.5 seconds to maintain a campfire for 1 hour. Also not sure an open wood fire makes for good reading light.

Challenge to you: go out into the woods with no equipment and build a fire and maintain it for an hours worth of night reading. Just use wood...after all, it doesn't cost much. Definitely less work than 0.5 seconds of working at your job...right?

Damn early humans, they had it so great. Life was so easy then that if they were extremely lucky they might even make it to age 30. Then the engineers just had to go and make everything suck!

I do create campfires; and no

I do create campfires; and no it doesn't take very long at all. I cannot help it if you are incapable.

I never said that a campfire was the "best" form of lighting ever, however, you mentioned several other forms of lighting which are also primitive. I find it quite telling that you list time consuming primitive methods for light, but you conveniently leave out the more energy efficient primitive method of light. You are just trying to justify people keeping you afloat, because your existence depends on other people continuously buying your crap.

I thought people who supported Dr. Paul were not dependents; since independence is the only truly Freeing technology we have. If you are dependent; you are a slave.

Damn early humans, they had it so great. Life was so easy then that if they were extremely lucky they might even make it to age 30. Then the engineers just had to go and make everything suck!

I cannot help it that you need to cherry-pick information to convey what you believe to be true; that is the problem inherent in the difference between belief and reality. The process which you utilized is related to lying.

"I do create campfires; and

"I do create campfires; and no it doesn't take very long at all. I cannot help it if you are incapable."

Camping for a few days and living in a particular place for a year or more of is completely different, it won't take long for all the easy wood to be gone and you will have to start cutting it, that's where your time will be used up. You're the one not being realistic.

For the 3rd time now...

I didn't assemble those figures. I sited the source.

This is now the THIRD time I've stated this!

If you feel those figures were cherrypicked to omit other primitive lighting options, you're free to contact Mr. Ridley and ask him about it.

Just hypothesizing: it's possible that he didn't consider a campfire to be comparable to those other light sources (lamp, candle, lamp). Unlike campfires, they are easy to turn on and off, didn't need to be tended, and created a smooth constant light suitable for reading. People DID use them, so they must offer something a campfire doesn't.

I'm fine admitting that I've never been able to build a campfire with NO EQUIPMENT (no match, no lighter, no firestarter, etc.). If you honestly do that regularly, then all the props to you. I'm a little suspect that's actually the case, but I'll take your word for it.

Also in my post, I clearly stated I am no longer an engineer and haven't been for several years. I have nothing to gain if you buy my previous companies' products. In fact, I never even said which companies I worked for or which brands to buy...curious, don't you think, if my intention was to get you to buy stuff from me? Actually, when did I ever even try to convince anyone to buy anything at all? Frankly, I don't care what you buy. Turn off your electricity and live by campfire light if you want. You're free to make your own choices as far as I'm concerned.

Lastly, don't ever fucking call me a liar. You can call me wrong until you're blue in the face, but you and I have a real problem when you call me a liar.

Cherry-picking data points to

Cherry-picking data points to illustrate what you want to illustrate, is equivalent to lying; whether you like it or not. I don't care who made the data which you used, you deliberately used it to reflect a point while leaving out omitted data which contradicts the point you were trying to make.

While I don't always use a Bow-drill or rocks to start the fire, I due typically use flint, as apposed to lighters and other items. I do, however, carry lighters and water-proof matches with me in my EDC bag, and my Vehicle Emergency bag, and especially when I go camping which is several times a year.

if my intention was to get you to buy stuff from me? Actually, when did I ever even try to convince anyone to buy anything at all?

You are not here selling a physical item -and that was not what I implied- you are selling a process, by trying to justify planned obsolescence and then blame it on the consumer who has no input whatsoever in the manufacture of the item. The consumers only have a choice of which piece of crap they buy, they don't have a choice over whether they buy a quality item or a piece of crap that is determined by the designing companies.

Who's cherrypicking?

"you deliberately used it to reflect a point while leaving out omitted data which contradicts the point you were trying to make."

This is actually really simple:

When economists try to compare the cost of a good over time (the purpose of these figures), the good from the past and the good from the present should be as COMPARABLE as possible in terms of quality.

For example, you can't look at the the price of an advanced surgery today and say "it's more expensive than having some witch doctor of ancient times perform a healing dance"...surgery today vs a healing dance are NOT equally comparable things.

You can't compare the cost of an Iphone 5s and compare it 1:1 with the cost of Alex B Bell's first model of telephone for the same reason: they are not equally comparable.

Likewise, you can't look at the price of a campfire in 1750 BC and compare it to the cost of light from a CFL bulb today. A campfire is NOT the source of light from 1750 BC that's the most comparable to a CFL bulb. The most comparable source would be a sesame oil lamp!

NOT using the most comparable source of light = cherrypicking.

Of course, it goes without saying, that even IF you cherrypick the comparison and use a campfire instead of an oil lamp, the CFL light of today is still literally THOUSANDS of times cheaper (and of course way better).

Funny isn't it? Even after you slant the comparison to show what YOU want, the end conclusion still proves my point: goods get better and cheaper over time.

Corporations like us !!!

They really really like us !!!

Gives me that warm fuzzy feeling deep down inside. sigh

I'm feeling a little verklempt! - talk amongst yourselves.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PDXEgBh0TF0

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.
Friedrich Nietzsche

When people say "this thing should last forever"

what they really mean is "this thing should last as long as I want it to last". Forever, is nonsense. There are few things I want to last forever. Why would I pay for forever when I have a limited lifespan? What do I care if it is still useful when I'm done with it? And when I'm done with it doesn't mean I'm dead either. If I see a better thing to replace it when I value paying for it, then the old thing is no longer useful to me. It just became obsolete. It just needs to have enough lifespan to as long as I value it. Anything more is just a waste. That is what companies and engineers do. They study the lifespan, cost, etc. of what "most" customers expect from a product and make that. Anything more is wasteful.

Who has said it should last

Who has said it should last forever? Please show a direct quote. You are being absurd.

What do I care if it is still useful when I'm done with it?... If I see a better thing to replace it when I value paying for it

However, if the item you have breaks, then you are forced -in a manner of speaking- to purchase a new version; are you not? So then it is the quality and durability built into the item which actually determines if or when you buy a new one, and not some free will decision of your own.

It just needs to have enough lifespan to as long as I value it

How do you determine the proper lifespan before it is manufactured and placed on the market?

Anything more is wasteful.

How do you know what is wasteful before you even sell the first item to determine the length of time which the consumers find the item useful?

Yes; you have stated that you do incorporate planned obsolescence. However, you haven't mentioned how you determine the 'proper' length of time something should last.

I did tell you the proper length something should last

It should last as long as I value it. That is it.

Everyone values things to differing lengths of time. And companies study these values to determine what to produce. The first of a particular product type will not have this background information so it is a guess. But over time the data, surveys, etc. will show what customers value. There will be outliers that make little economic sense to accomodate. The product will conform to the vast majority of value people place on the product.

That is the proper length of time something should last. And is what most things do last.

I can't help it that while

I can't help it that while I'm frugal, you like wasting money, by constantly buying new items every couple years.

There will be outliers that make little economic sense to accomodate.

I don't know; I don't think people want to buy a new washing machines, dishwasher, etc every 5 to 10 years. People don't buy $2000 to $3000 washing machines, not necessarily because of the price, but because for that price one doesn't receive an item which will last a minimum of 15 to 20 years. They only get new features which most people don't use, like a steamer.

It should last as long as I value it.

That is such a valuable measure. Are you really serious? So basically what you are saying is that if people can be manipulated to want to buy a new item every year, then any item which lasts a year is a quality item?

Shouldn't an items life-cycle depend on how long it maintains it's ability to be useful? Sure some people could buy a new one the very next year, but the item which they would no longer be using would have a secondary resale value, because it would have value to those who couldn't afford to buy the latest and greatest.

what planet do you live on?

I have a 15 year old washer and dryer that work just fine that I paid a combined $800 for. Many years to go. Who said I wasn't frugal? You seem to be the non-frugal one buying $2000-$3000 washer and dryer. What a waste. I would never do that. I rarely buy new stuff because I can keep things running with little cost and effort. A lost skill on most these days. Duh, I don't value spending money foolishly.

Don't blame me if others are able to be manipulated. See, you thought a $3000 washer was a good deal. LOL, so manipulated. But that is reality. Always has been. Look at the world of college. Most people have absolutely no business going to college. Just a waste of money. But here we are with the idea everyone "must" go. High tuition, massive loan problems, no relief from bankruptcy, useless education, what a scam.

You have stated prior that

You have stated prior that the cost of an item is directly representative of the quality of the item. Therefore a $2000 to $3000 dollar washer/dryer should be of higher quality than the $800 counterpart, by your logic.

I never said that I paid $2000 to $3000 on a washer/dryer, your misinterpretation is either indicative of your lack of understanding or of willful ignorance.

You talk about others being manipulated; how many cellphone have you gone through, and how many of those actually needed to be replaced when you replaced them? How often do you buy a car? What about a TV, or Computer? You talk about others being manipulated; I'm sorry to tell you, but you are one of the manipulated.

People bought an item and used it until it no longer worked or they no longer needed it where at which point they would sell it. The length of time which the item lasts has been decreasing, this is not created by consumers.

By making items as cheep and of such low quality, the manufacturers have made a new market for a subsidiary which is to create a slightly better product for a much higher price than is actually justified by the quality. Sure one coul buy a wrench from SEARS -which use to be of high quality- which costs maybe $20 which will now only last about 3 years, or one could buy a similar wrench form MACK, SNAP-ON, CROMWELL, etc for $100 which will still only last about 6 years and has a limited guarantee -unlike the CRAFTSMAN tools of the past which only required an individual bringing the tool back to SEARS to get a replacement.

You certainly were wasting public funds going to college, since you cannot even keep a singular logical position.

I've made no such statements

your inability to have a truthful response ends this discussion. Enjoy trolling somewhere else.

Here are a few direct quotes

Here are a few direct quotes from you:

A jet engine that will last forever will never fly. It would cost too much...

Why would I pay for forever when I have a limited lifespan?

They study the lifespan, cost, etc. of what "most" customers expect from a product and make that.

If you didn't know that with these three statements you were suggesting that quality is dependent on the price, then you really need to pay attention to the words which you use; because that is exactly what you are suggesting.

I too am a product design engineer

25 years designing injection molding machines, automatic transmissions, and now jet engines.

The product development dscription above is pretty much how all these industries operate. You make garbage, sales drop. You make it too expensive, sales drop. You make it unsafe, lawsuits pile up, sales drop.

To get the design right a design engineer has a lot of work to do defining what the product will be. Survey the competition, collaborate with key customers, evaluate cost points, get input or direction from marketing, etc.

I don't know a single engineer that wants to make cheap, unsafe garbage. Now I can see in an environment like China where they don't care about safety and reliability so much that people can get that impression. But state run businesses don't have the same goals as for profit companies. So the comparison is misleading.

Has life expectancy of the

Has life expectancy of the object ever factored into your engineering decision in corroboration with the cost effectiveness. If so, which I'm sure it has -like it has for every other product, then you are also partaking in planned obsolescence.

If a Jet engine is known to only last 5000 hours, are you going to spend extra money for components which may increase the life to 7000 hours if it raises the price perspective too high? Since the answer will be no, then you have partaken in planned obsolescence; because, you do not look to see if it would even be possible to acquire or make the components to extend the life of an engine when the market has already accepted the life to be about 5000 hours.

OK, I will entertain this nonsense

There are many factors involved in deciding on the design of jet engine component. First you have to meet government imposed requirements for noise, pollution, etc. To meet the pollution requirement for example the combustion needs to be hot to reduce particulates. Well, to run that hot you have to make parts capable to survive those temperatures. Now you have to balance that requirement with performance (fuel economy, thrust, weight, etc) requirements from the air framer. So you mix that all together and you arrive at a design space where you pick the least expensive design that will make it last until the required engine overhall where all these parts are required to be replaced by regulation. SO there you have it. Yes, they are not infinite life, but in jet engines there are some parts that can never be infinite life due to the environment they operate and the requirements imposed by the customer, government, and physical limits.

A jet engine that will last forever will never fly. It would cost too much, weigh too much, perform worse, etc.

This fantasy notion that stuff should last forever and if it doesn't it is some sort of conspiracy to screw you is just plain old BS.

Technology changes, people want the new stuff, that in itself drives obsolence of a product regardless if it will last forever. Designing things to last forever is a waste. Few people want to keep the same old technology forever. After 15 years the airframer wants a more fuel efficient engine with other new technology. Kiss that forever nonsense down the drain. A lot of resources would be wasted. Few want it, it makes no economic sense to make it.

I have a new laptop with the latest technology. Do I still want the old DOS computer just because it could have still turned on? Hell no. It's useful life ended a long, long time ago. Why make it last forever when it is obsolete after a few years.

This is a stupid conversation. I am done.

You said it yourself perfectly...

"are you going to spend extra money for components which may increase the life to 7000 hours if it raises the price perspective too high?"

The key word in that sentence is "price".

Price is the AGREED amount of exchange between the consumer and the producer.

So in other words, you're saying designers/producers are not willing to make products that the customers won't agree to buy...

Well, Duh!

If customers won't want it ("price" is too high), then why exactly should producers make it?

The whole point of "markets" and "prices" is to align our productive effort with our needs and wants. Spending productive effort on something we don't want (apparently what your calling for) is wasteful.