Saturday, December 08, 2012

Manufacturing Genius

I read an article about “inshoring of manufacturing jobs” by General Electric, in which the company discovered that their water heaters that were being manufactured overseas were horribly designed in terms of ease of manufacture. By redesigning it, and having the production staff participate in that design process, they could save enormously on the cost of building the water heater, build in this country and actually sell it for less.

Oh. My. God. That thudding noise is me pounding my head on the desk.

IBM made a similar discovery twenty years ago, and they also were regaled as being brilliant for making the discovery. A panel on one of their printers was held together with no less than eleven different sizes of fasteners, requiring five different tools to install. In assembling the panel, the worker had to lay down one tool and pick up a different one no fewer than eight times. By making all of the fasteners the same, they discovered, they eliminated all of that and reduced assembly time by half.

My reaction to IBM at the time was, as it is to GE now, not that they are so brilliant as to have discovered new economy in manufacturing, but to wonder how their design got so stupid and fubar in the first place, and why it took them so long to discover how badly botched their product was.

There’s nothing all that new about that sort of thing, though. I was working for Allis Chalmers when the transformers for the TVA were being built. Great big things the size of apartment buildings. I was a maintenance electrician, but the transformers were behind schedule and I got assigned to their construction for a few weeks. We cut some 3” copper cables to go inside them, discovered that none of them were the right length, and called the engineers. One of them came down to the floor, looked things over, studied his drawings for a while and then told us to just cut new ones based on measurements. “Let me know how long they turn out to be,” he told us, “and I’ll change the drawings.” Cart, horse, whatever.

As Paul Harvey would say, the rest of that story is that the first transformer, when finished, was filled with oil, moved to a test position, powered up and exploded like a massive bomb. Happily, no one was hurt. I was at the other end of the plant and almost fell out of the crane I was working on.

I’ve always wondered if it was one of my cables. Nah. Actually, the one I worked on was number three, which I assume is still in service.

1 comment:

bruce said...

Why did it blow up? And it seems very cavalier of the engineers about the "solution".

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