Everything Inevitably Breaks. It's Just a Matter of When


Thu, Oct 25th, 2012 20:00 by capnasty NEWS

According to Wired's Robert Capps, there is no such thing as reliability: sooner or later, everything will eventually break. Because of this, companies have departments that test every component of a product they're selling to make sure that when it does fail, it won't kill anyone in the process. "The company knows it will break; its engineers are trying to understand when -- and how and why -- this will happen."

Product failure is deceptively difficult to understand. It depends not just on how customers use a product but on the intrinsic properties of each part -- what it's made of and how those materials respond to wildly varying conditions. Estimating a product's lifespan is an art that even the most sophisticated manufacturers still struggle with. And it's getting harder. In our Moore's law-driven age, we expect devices to continuously be getting smaller, lighter, more powerful, and more efficient. This thinking has seeped into our expectations about lots of product categories: Cars must get better gas mileage. Bicycles must get lighter. Washing machines need to get clothes cleaner with less water. Almost every industry is expected to make major advances every year. To do this they are constantly reaching for new materials and design techniques. All this is great for innovation, but it's terrible for reliability.

At Ford, learning exactly when and how things will fail -- over many years and across a spectrum of millions of vehicles around the world -- can save untold amounts of money and maybe even human lives. So in the stripped-down cab in Building 4, the piston continues to push on the gas pedal, then let up, then push again, over and over. This simple exercise is worth billions of dollars. Look closely enough and you can see all the complexity, perils, and opportunities of managing failure. And, as it happens, you might also catch a glimpse of the future of manufacturing.



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