Poka yoke, or Why a solid design database matters

Poka yoke, or Why a solid design database matters

So we have had a very hot summer thus far here in southwest Virginia. Not that it was any cooler or less humid when I was in Shenzhen for six weeks in late spring, but given that I am renovating an old home without central air while living in it, I am allowed to comment on the weather.

The old A/C units that came with the house were not up to the task, so rather than broil while we rip up half the house to install central air, off we go to the appliance store to buy some new window units. We bought several of the same model, and while I have never thought about an A/C unit needing a remote control, this model had remotes.

After I got them installed, we noticed a tiny little design flaw in the remote. See if you can spot it.

Poka yoke, or Why a solid design database matters

Were I a dedicated blogger, I would take one of these apart to show you the interior, but now that I have the wonder of a remote control for my A/C, I am not going to risk breaking one of these just for you. I prefer to luxuriate in my new found comfort like a stereotypical lazy American, thank you very much.

Were I to take the remote apart, you would see that the buttons are molded as one piece. Molding the buttons as a solid piece is the standard way of doing it, but by creating a part that was symmetrical (likely just a plain rectangle), the designer created a failure mode – the assembler could put the parts together backwards. What the designer should have done was analyze what could go wrong with the design – could it be assembled backwards? – and keyed one end so the the part was not symmetrical. Perhaps there is an internal feature that one end of the button strip could have been molded to mate with. Many companies I’ve worked with use the formal Failure Modes Effects Analysis (FMEA) process, and it is a great tool if you have the discipline to use it. The Japanese refer to this practice as“poka yoke” (mistake proofing), but often still translated as “idiot proofing”. I’m not a fan of that translation, because who’s the idiot – the guy would made the momentary mistake of putting it in backwards or the designer who created a flawed product?

PassageMaker often gets classified as a China sourcing company. While we do source products in China, that is only the smallest part of what we do. We are primarily a contract assembly company (with that label encompassing vendor coordination, inspection, the actual assembly, packaging, logistics, VAT rebates, etc.). And I can tell you that we see MANY severely flawed design databases, drawings that appear to have been made by someone who gave no thought to how to put the thing together.

If you are going to spend the money to have something made in China, a dollar’s worth of poke yoke is worth hundred times that in money saved doing inspections, warranty claims and just the general embarrassment of sending a functional part out into the world that is nonetheless defective.

In our Endorsed Service Provider network, we recommend two design engineering firms. Contract Engineering Services is based in Virginia, USA, and VentureTech is Dutch-owned, based in Shenzhen. Both do a fine job for our clients and even if you do your own engineering, I strongly urge you to learn from the lesson above and try an mistake proof your design. It might feel good to blame the Chinese assembly line worker, but who really made the mistake?

Your thoughts?

This is just cool…

Here’s a fun article about how they printed the Iron Man suit. This was posted on the “Additive Manufacturing (AM) – Rapid Prototyping (RP), Tooling and Manufacturing” group on LinkedIn. Normally, I’m so tired by reading the group name I never get much farther than that, but thankfully today I persevered.

I’ve been fascinated by this technology since I first saw it maybe ten years ago. We’ve used it many times to prototype our own products, and our Endorsed Service Provider, QuickParts is a great resource for our clients.

Hope everyone has a great Memorial Day weekend!


Helped some friends move this weekend. I. Hurt. All. Over.

And by this weekend, I mean most all of it, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday morning. Friday and Saturday were hot and humid, but Sunday was the gauntlet. Day started early, hot and humid and ended in a cold rain at 1:00 AM Monday morning. I had some work to do and did not get to sleep until 2:30 AM, back up at 6:00 AM to help them finish before the deadline of 9:15 AM (which we made by 5 minutes).

Why am I telling you about this, a blog ostensibly about China Business and my impressions thereof? Two reasons:

  1. I am a slightly overweight and out of shape 39 years old. I like to drink more beer than I should and my Room 101 is a gym. I have never been a good athlete, I have a bad back, so bad I had to wear a brace 24/7 for several years as a teenager. And though today I am sore all over, my legs and my back feel far better than I’d expected. I credit my TrekDesk. I’ve mentioned TrekDesk before (here and here) and I walk several miles a day at an aggressive 8 degrees of incline at 2.2 mph, which will get your heart pumping. I had not realized how well it had conditioned my legs and forced me to improve my posture. Walking while you work really does rock. I mention this because as I have blogged before, the TrekDesk is one of the best examples of our complete system of services – engineering by our Endorsed Service Provider, Contract Engineering Services; then Sourcing Feasibility Study, next Vendor Coordination and now Assembly-Inspection-Packaging at our Assembly Center according to the customer approved Product Quality Manual.
  2. The USA’s trade deficit with China is almost universally viewed as a bad thing. But the low-cost goods China provides to the USA consumer is a reminder that any transaction has benefits for both sides. As I moved my friends’ copious amount of stuff, I was struck by how much of the contents of their home (and indeed, any American home) are now Made in China. When I was growing up, I do not remember having that many clothes. That is not to say I went about in rags; quite the opposite, my Father was successful and I had a wonderful childhood. I just don’t remember having anywhere near the sheer volume of clothing my friends’ children had. Today I have five (5) pairs of shoes. I actually make a game of trying to minimize the amount of stuff I drag around with me – Exhibit A being the extended trips to China with one (1) carry-on bag. Looking around my own house, each of my children has at least twice as many pairs of shoes as I do. All are Made in China. The prices paid for those are astoundingly low, even to me who has an idea of what they cost ExW. While I am rightly concerned about foreign competition as an American manufacturer, it would be dishonest and foolish to say that there was no benefit to the American consumer from our trade with China.

All for today, much catch-up to do having lost the weekend. It continues to rain soup, new opportunities daily. Will try to squeeze in more blogging tomorrow.

Stand Up While You Read This! More validation that the TrekDesk is the right product at the right time.

Here’s a great article from the NYT by Olivia Judson about the health benefits of staying active while working. I am a huge believer in this concept, and I built my own treadmill desk some years ago with the help of my brother-in-law. I was thinking about taking the idea to market when PassageMaker was approached for a Sourcing Feasibility Study by the inventor who beat me to the patent office, Steve Bordley of TrekDesk. Over the course of the coming months, he worked with our Endorsed Service Provider, Dwight Smith of Contract Engineering Services, on the design and then with our team for Vendor Coordination / Product Development, led by Dave Learn. The VC/PD team handle the research that goes into the Sourcing Feasibility Study and should our client decide to proceed with the project, Dave’s team is then introduced, fully up to speed and ready to roll.

This project has now transitioned to Pramod KC‘s team for production. Pramod’s team manages the vendors (we call it Vendor Coordination / Export & Logistics) and coordinates to make sure our Assembly Center gets all components and performs Assembly-Inspection-Packaging to the customer approved Product Quality Manual. When all is complete, our Logistics Department arranges the shipment, often shipping directly to the client’s distributors and retailers, often in customer-specific packaging, including point of sale displays and barcoding. In short, this is not only a great product, but it is a great example of how the PassageMaker system works start to finish.

But enough about us, back to the article. Key paragraphs:

You may think you have no choice about how much you sit. But this isn’t true. Suppose you sleep for eight hours each day, and exercise for one. That still leaves 15 hours of activities. Even if you exercise, most of the energy you burn will be burnt during these 15 hours, so weight gain is often the cumulative effect of a series of small decisions: Do you take the stairs or the elevator? Do you e-mail your colleague down the hall, or get up and go and see her? When you get home, do you potter about in the garden or sit in front of the television? Do you walk to the corner store, or drive?

Just to underscore the point that you do have a choice: a study of junior doctors doing the same job, the same week, on identical wards found that some individuals walked four times farther than others at work each day. (No one in the study was overweight; but the “long-distance” doctors were thinner than the “short-distance” doctors.)

But it looks as though there’s a more sinister aspect to sitting, too. Several strands of evidence suggest that there’s a “physiology of inactivity”: that when you spend long periods sitting, your body actually does things that are bad for you.

As an example, consider lipoprotein lipase. This is a molecule that plays a central role in how the body processes fats; it’s produced by many tissues, including muscles. Low levels of lipoprotein lipase are associated with a variety of health problems, including heart disease. Studies in rats show that leg muscles only produce this molecule when they are actively being flexed (for example, when the animal is standing up and ambling about). The implication is that when you sit, a crucial part of your metabolism slows down.

Nor is lipoprotein lipase the only molecule affected by muscular inactivity. Actively contracting muscles produce a whole suite of substances that have a beneficial effect on how the body uses and stores sugars and fats.

Which might explain the following result. Men who normally walk a lot (about 10,000 steps per day, as measured by a pedometer) were asked to cut back (to about 1,350 steps per day) for two weeks, by using elevators instead of stairs, driving to work instead of walking and so on. By the end of the two weeks, all of them had became worse at metabolizing sugars and fats. Their distribution of body fat had also altered — they had become fatter around the middle. Such changes are among the first steps on the road to diabetes.

Some people have advanced radical solutions to the sitting syndrome: replace your sit-down desk with a stand-up desk, and equip this with a slow treadmill so that you walk while you work. (Talk about pacing the office.)

Why yes, yes we have. It feels to good to be a radical sometimes!

I have found that walking at 2.2 mph at 6 degrees of incline is just right to really get your heart rate going and still be able to type, write and talk on the phone. So go order a TrekDesk, and if you need help bringing your product to market, give PassageMaker a call!

Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up

This is a brilliant piece from Jonah Lehrer in Wired about how scientists get bottled up by their own preconceptions and groupthink and miss the discoveries their research is accidentally uncovering. Key paragraphs:

While the scientific process is typically seen as a lonely pursuit — researchers solve problems by themselves — Dunbar found that most new scientific ideas emerged from lab meetings, those weekly sessions in which people publicly present their data. Interestingly, the most important element of the lab meeting wasn’t the presentation — it was the debate that followed. Dunbar observed that the skeptical (and sometimes heated) questions asked during a group session frequently triggered breakthroughs, as the scientists were forced to reconsider data they’d previously ignored. The new theory was a product of spontaneous conversation, not solitude; a single bracing query was enough to turn scientists into temporary outsiders, able to look anew at their own work.

But not every lab meeting was equally effective. Dunbar tells the story of two labs that both ran into the same experimental problem: The proteins they were trying to measure were sticking to a filter, making it impossible to analyze the data. “One of the labs was full of people from different backgrounds,” Dunbar says. “They had biochemists and molecular biologists and geneticists and students in medical school.” The other lab, in contrast, was made up of E. coli experts. “They knew more about E. coli than anyone else, but that was what they knew,” he says. Dunbar watched how each of these labs dealt with their protein problem. The E. coli group took a brute-force approach, spending several weeks methodically testing various fixes. “It was extremely inefficient,” Dunbar says. “They eventually solved it, but they wasted a lot of valuable time.”

The diverse lab, in contrast, mulled the problem at a group meeting. None of the scientists were protein experts, so they began a wide-ranging discussion of possible solutions. At first, the conversation seemed rather useless. But then, as the chemists traded ideas with the biologists and the biologists bounced ideas off the med students, potential answers began to emerge. “After another 10 minutes of talking, the protein problem was solved,” Dunbar says. “They made it look easy.”

When Dunbar reviewed the transcripts of the meeting, he found that the intellectual mix generated a distinct type of interaction in which the scientists were forced to rely on metaphors and analogies to express themselves. (That’s because, unlike the E. coli group, the second lab lacked a specialized language that everyone could understand.) These abstractions proved essential for problem-solving, as they encouraged the scientists to reconsider their assumptions. Having to explain the problem to someone else forced them to think, if only for a moment, like an intellectual on the margins, filled with self-skepticism.

This is why other people are so helpful: They shock us out of our cognitive box. “I saw this happen all the time,” Dunbar says. “A scientist would be trying to describe their approach, and they’d be getting a little defensive, and then they’d get this quizzical look on their face. It was like they’d finally understood what was important.”

What turned out to be so important, of course, was the unexpected result, the experimental error that felt like a failure. The answer had been there all along — it was just obscured by the imperfect theory, rendered invisible by our small-minded brain. It’s not until we talk to a colleague or translate our idea into an analogy that we glimpse the meaning in our mistake. Bob Dylan, in other words, was right: There’s no success quite like failure.

I’ve seen this dynamic at work many times during my career. It is an example of why I believe Climategate explodes the consensus on AGW. Groupthink does happen and it can be tremendously expensive when designing a product. One major advantage to hiring a contract engineer (like one of our Endorsed Service Providers) is the dispassionate point of view they bring to the process.

PassageMaker also brings a detached, professional perspective to a project. As I’ve written before, inventors really need a partner who is not in love with their idea. Just as alcohol is responsible for no end of bad marriages, pursuing a flawed design concept because you are drunk with the beauty of your own concept is a really, really bad idea.

You must freeze the design

I never played Duke Nukem, but this article is a must read for anyone thinking about launching a new product of any kind.

In order for any project to be successful, you have to freeze the design at some point. You have to get to “good enough” and go to market. I have seen inventors spend years tweaking a design, making changes after tooling is begun, even buying and then scrapping 1st, 2nd and even 3rd generation tooling when they have the next ‘great’ idea. They forget that they need to actually sell something. When they finally run out of money, often they are genuinely surprised.

PassageMaker is well versed in Vendor Coordination, especially during the critical product development phase, and our Endorsed Service Providers for design engineering know how take a sketch on a cocktail napkin and turn it into a finished design database, ready for manufacturing. We can and do counsel our clients, but ultimately, they are the ones who have to decide when to move forward. And creative people can sometimes be too darned creative for their own good.

The principle function of a design engineer…

My Father, who holds dozens of patents, is famous for this saying:

The principle function of a design engineer is to recognize a dead horse and bury it promptly.

We work with inventors and innovative small businesses from around the world, and nearly all of these folks have interesting product ideas. I love my job, as everyday is filled with creative people and their concepts. For all intents and purposes, it’s like being head of sales for a conglomerate that makes everything from medical devices to toys.

But a good idea is not the same as a design database. In order to proceed to tooling or manufacturing, you have to have a finished design, which is why PassageMaker has Endorsed Service Providers (ESP) for engineering. Many of our clients need assistance to bring their great ideas to life, and while we could say “come back when you’re ready”, we’d much rather direct them to a trusted ESP to keep the project alive.

Sadly, not all ideas are good ones, and that is another area where we can help, though the client may not want it. We’ve seen some real dogs and while I am happy to go forward if the client insists on paying, we don’t pull any punches either. Often seeing the costs involved to bring an idea to market, even with the savings inherent in China, is the best wake up call they ever get.