A Time for Mediocrity

This page written circa 17 November, 1999.

I spent much of a recent evening replacing a high-pressure hose in the Benz. The failure (which could easily have happened on the way back from dinner in SF with Andrew, but which, in defiance of Murphy, did not) released the transmission fluid in sprinkler fashion all over the engine bay. The hose runs from the transmission to the heat exchanger in the radiator, and the flexible link from block to radiator runs too close to the alternator pulley. The pulley eventually ground its way through both the wire sheath and the hose, and this in spite of a cable-tie added to restrain it further, added at some point in time by a mechanic working in this infrequently-viewed spot. Could this be a design flaw? In a Mercedes?

I asked the Benz man if he sold a lot of these $40 hoses. Oh, yes, came the answer, lots, "there's a design problem". I suppose I should have been suspicious of the marque when hearing the radio commercials that boasted that Mercedes Benz now had no less than seven models below US$40k. It's a lovely, solid, very predictable car, with the full swag of hi-tech functionality, concealed as far as possible from the user. (The manual describes a myriad of warning lights, few of which have ever come on except at test, and the meaning of which even I can never remember.) Sadly, it is only a little better built than my Saabs, and I know which was more economical and which was faster.

I guess I am lucky at work. The extent to which I am constrained by budget and target pressures is not great, considering that we are a (successful) commercial concern. I and a colleague have recently uncovered something new, something that I am sure no other place, company or university, has observed. Can we spend a month investigating it? Yes. It was gratifying to see a number of the other engineers seriously telling management that the whole thing should be investigated, so that we know what is going on, so that we really understand, without absolutely knowing that it would pay off. This is still, to some extent, part of Agilent philosophy, although I do not think it is the way of the world.

If you think I am going to say that Benz's sun is setting, and Agilent's rising, you are wrong. The truth of the matter is that Benz recognise that absolute, excessive quality is less where the buck lies these days, and Agilent is caught up in the wake of quality for which Hewlett-Packard stood for so many years... years unlike these, years when quality was more important, when the power and success of physics was fresher in the minds of the men in the street. Those were years when the space race and the cold war sucked up massive resources, and the epitomy of a nerd was a serious ham radio operator with a crew cut. Now it is all about cutting costs, maximising returns, targeting your demographic, and nerds jocky boards in computers in preparation for a lucrative high-tech career. Nostalgia may give you a warm feeling but it does not keep you warm in Winter.

| Home | Back |