Mysteries of Engineering

I (and many, many of us, presumably) have been reading more about all of the Toyota woes and the to-date unanswerable questions. Still, so much of the material written about the issues seems to be coming from the untrained. Certainly, human behavior suggests that some of these problems could be the result of operator error. But, I'm not an expert in human behavior, so I can't really say. And, certainly, problems do crop up in complex machinery, like cars. I don't know if that supposition falls within my area of expertise, but a few decades of operating motor vehicles gives me some personal empirical data on that one.

The area that does bother me the most is probably those that speculate that since the problem hasn't been found, it doesn't exist. This is an area where I can claim some level of expertise as well as plenty of personal empirical data.

It is possible to spend uncountable hours testing various possible conditions and still never uncover the one scenario that will cause a systems failure in the hands of the general public. Many years ago, I worked for a company that designed, built and sold projectors. In that day, these were big things with short-life, very hot, incandescent lamps. We thought that we had done a very through job of testing under various conditions and had been selling the product for a little while when reports started filing in of bulbs exploding. It wasn't just a simple break. The bulbs were exploding with such force that the bulb area was filled with a fine grained, razor sharp glass dust. Nasty.

ExplosionDuring a weekend burn in session with a couple dozen projectors, including some returned from the field, the engineer monitoring the process thought he heard a gunshot and dove to the floor. It wasn't a gunshot, but it was the first clue in a long investigative process that did end up finding the problem. It seemed that if a bulb was too deeply seated in the socket by a couple of millimeters, the reflection of the filament in the mirror would exactly line up with the actual filament, causing it to melt and arc. The arc would run in one direction, down the filament leg to the base and stop.

One filament leg had a few coils of small diameter tungsten wire wrapped around it. The other leg did not. Depending on the orientation of the supposedly non-polar bulb, the arc would either run down the leg with no coil or the leg with the coil.

If the arc ran down the leg without the coil, nothing happened other then the bulb needed to be replaced. If it ran down the leg with the coil, that small amount of additional vaporized tungsten increased the internal pressure sufficiently to explode the quartz bulb in a very catastrophic manner. Okay, now that's weird and obscure. Technically, you could call it operator error. If the customer had just inserted the replacement bulb the exact same way we inserted the bulbs during production, the problem would never have happened. But, realistically, it was a design flaw that set the customers up for a failure.

Duane Benson
Duck and cover

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