The misapplication of the concept of competition provides cover for all this waste.
A large percentage of the average engineering professor’s time is wasted. This unhappy circumstance arises because so much of the average engineer’s efforts are duplicated in a process of reinvention of the wheel that is socially sanctioned, obvious, and generally invisible.
One does not pass through an engineering curriculum without being admonished to consider the designs and problems one confronts as parts of a system. Applying this caveat to the commercial and industrial world, it is a system that pits engineers performing identical tasks — creating nearly interchangeable but trivially different goods — against one another.
In fact, engineers in a particular company commonly are whipped into what passes for a frenzy with the notion that they must outdo their former classmates in a competing company in differentiating their designs from the others’, and rushing them to market more quickly. If they are successful they may even be responsible for getting their old college chums laid off!
The world is presented with ‘goods’ that hardly seem worthy of the name.
By this method the world is presented with Fords and Chevrolets; Dells and HPs; Airbuses and Boeings; CVS’s and Walgreens. With “goods” that, in a certain light, hardly seem worthy of the name.
If it could be shown that a Ford and a Chevrolet differed in some fundamental way in their fulfillment of an important social role… well, it can’t. Instead they differ in the spacing of the lug-bolt holes in their wheels; in the configuration of their cup holders, their seat adjusters, their instrument placements, in the geometry of their valvetrains; in their available paint colors, the details of their huge sheet metal and plastic panels, and on and on.
Each valueless difference absorbs the professional efforts and insights — often the entire careers — of mechanical, electrical, chemical engineers trained by brilliant professors. Moreover, the design and fabrication of the tooling to produce many of these variations is an industry in its own right.
And consider the hallowed idea of interchangeable parts. It is flouted in the necessity to prevent the interchange of parts, such that no sheet metal or engine from any of dozens of Chevrolet models will fit any of dozens of Ford models. As a result, auto recycling yards occupy vast, needless acres littered with the conceptual great-grandchildren of engineering professors. The waste and pollution thus countenanced likely exceeds the impact of all the recycled water bottles in the history of humanity.
One must laugh at the old professor’s saw about reinventing the wheel.
When one regards the number of bright and highly trained engineers and support staff required to design the new Airbus A350, explicitly intended to “compete” with Boeing models in a so-called market niche, and reflects on the work that they are duplicating, one must laugh up one’s sleeve at the old professor’s saw about reinventing the wheel. If not for such squandering of talent and training, the engineering schools and faculties could be half their size… or the engineers could be put to actual useful and novel work, justifying the efforts of the professors. (A recent puff-piece on the Boeing 747, for one example, stated with awe that the airplane took 67,000 person-years to develop.)
Examples of this wastage of talent and training abound though the clarity to see and inclination to look are rare, so ingrained is the notion that benefits arise from competition, and so profoundly does the illusion of financial value trump the actual engineering values of energy, entropy, and creativity.
Civil engineering classmates duplicate each other’s work, scraping the ground bare and gouging up materials for indistinguishable drugstores across the street from one another; architectural engineering classmates do the same when they design the actual buildings. An alert citizen, seeing the vegetation shaved, the earth churned up, the quarried gravel and stone and the refined steel, glass and aluminum trucked in to create a Walgreens a slide-rule’s throw from a CVS, must surely faint in shock. The perceptive engineering professor driving by must suddenly blanch in recognition of the tragedy.
Electrical and software engineering classmates duplicate each other’s work.
Electrical engineering and software engineering classmates duplicate each other’s work designing laptop computers that sit across from each other in the big-box store, or interchangeably fill requisitions from government agencies and universities.
Mechanical engineering classmates apply the wisdom and insights of their professors designing and testing automobiles and engines that have the same performance characteristics, or designing not-quite-interchangeable hoods and liftgates, while their chemical engineering friends formulate the paints that barely distinguish the cars.
To create just one fender panel for an automobile is a huge undertaking, requiring at the minimum several person-weeks, including not only engineers to design the panel and ensure its integration into the rest of the car but engineers to design the enormous tools needed to manufacture it. All kinds of support personnel are needed too, to create the associated documentation, test the prototypes, keep track of the parts.
The effort expended by these trained engineers is impossible to quantify.
The effort expended by these trained engineers is impossible to quantify. Working true engineering problems takes careful thought; not only engineering training but professional experience must be brought to bear. To apply this ability to make-work is almost heartbreaking, considering what our society pours into its educational system.
Each engineering project that fails, whether from inadequate evaluation of social needs, poor marketing, rushed testing, or clever and secret engineering by a competitor, represents the vaporization of a portion of all the designers’ careers and a fraction of the professors’ efforts as well. Likewise the financially successful but functionally cloned project.
The huge variety of essentially identical things are laden with irrecoverable costs.
The huge variety of essentially identical things that seem to be presented free for us to choose among are laden with irrecoverable direct costs like this, plus unimaginable opportunity costs.
Mostly it is the misapplication of the concept of competition that provides cover for all this waste. A competitive approach that is stimulating, even invaluable when applied to nascent technical ideas creates only absurdity when applied to tooling, production, distribution and the product life cycle. A society serious about its resources, including its engineering talent, would see to it that one product would fill every real niche, designed in the open and reflecting careful review and testing.
In the need to puff up the alleged benefits of this destructive competition and its associated secrecy, the actual expenditure of imaginative, productive effort, and of limited physical resources involved in creating the items that compete with one another is glossed over. The purported value to the citizen — constantly referred to as a consumer — is kept in the forefront. The role of the citizen in helping to create engineers and their ilk, and in making physical objects, and the actual social value of the things created, is permanently in the background. Engineering professors play an important part in keeping this system in operation. It is easy to see that over a decade or so, in the aggregate, perhaps a hundred entire professors will have gone to waste! People with families!
To say in these circumstances that the industrial operations of a nominal democracy should be democratized and rationalized seems an understatement.
[Henry Mecredy is a mechanical engineer from Austin and a Son of the Republic of Texas. As a child, he was influenced by a television program called Industry On Parade.]
- Read more articles by Henry Mecredy on The Rag Blog.