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If They Had It To Do Over …

By Steve Wetterling

There was once a very successful American company that made clothes washers. Their machines did a good job of washing clothes and delivered decades of reliable service. When we were newly married college grads, we purchased one as soon as we could afford to. It washed our clothes for 24 years.

Eventually this famous company stumbled badly. It branched out into other home appliances, products that did not deliver the service and reliability their washing machines did. Sales declined, manufacturing costs were too high, and problems got away from them. Eventually a large competitor bought and liquidated the company.

It is, unfortunately, a typical life cycle for a business that starts out well and goes through three generations of family leadership before coming under “professional management” who ruin it—slowly at first, and then quickly and painfully at the end.

The story doesn’t end there. The new owners put this well-recognized brand name on the front of their existing line of dishwashers. Customers bought them, expecting many years of problem-free service as they had from the clothes washers, but they were sadly disappointed. I was one of those customers. I didn’t understand why the dishwasher intermittently refused to start and, when it did run, why it would sometimes shut down mid-cycle. So, as the detailed-oriented engineer that I am, I took my struggling dishwasher apart.

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The space inside the front panel, where the electronic controls live, tends to be both damp and warm (not surprisingly), a condition that gets worse as the unit ages and the various seals start to leak a bit. Electrical things don’t like damp, warm environments where there’s plenty of potential for corrosion.

The engineering team that designed the dishwasher knew about this design flaw and tried to address it by applying a tough waterproof coating over the assembled circuit board that controlled the dishwasher, and using moisture-tolerant connectors.

One essential connector, terminating the ribbon cable which carries control signals from the front panel to the microprocessor on the control board, was not moisture-tolerant. It used a simple plastic wedge to press the tin-plated touch points of the ribbon cable against tin-plated metal pins. In the typical design of electric connectors, the “scrubbing” action of two metal surfaces pushing past each other rubs through the accumulated dirt and oxidation, thereby ensuring a good electric contact. If the connector design doesn’t do this, it’ll need an oxidation protection coating on the points of electric contact—typically a bit of gold plating, which costs anywhere from a few pennies up to 40 cents, max. The intermittent connection caused a sporadic delivery of control signals from the front panel through this connector that confounded the microprocessor software, frustrating many thousands owners of these things, including me.

The design decision not to spend the 40 cents on a little gold plating ultimately damaged the brand reputation and sales of this appliance manufacturer so badly that it has disappeared from the top-ranked dishwashers list on ConsumerReports.org. Currently, the top 13 recommended dishwashers are German brands—Bosch and Miele. More than 120 dishwashers are listed ahead of the dishwasher carrying this previously famous brand name.

When it’s your turn to make design decisions about your product or service, spend the extra 40 cents on the connector or the extra testing or whatever will make the product problem free in the hands of your customers.

Not doing so may seriously impact your company’s future income stream. And then it can get quite personal concerning your income stream. Case in point: think about the many engineers who are currently working on the next versions of the Apple iPhone versus how many fewer engineers now work for competitors like Nokia and RIM.

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