Innovation in Mature Products

Many people look back fondly on the days of the annual model change in the automobile market. Car dealerships would cover their display windows and cars would be transported in enclosed vans to preserve the surprise. Almost military discipline was maintained, so the occasional leaks or spy photos just added to the fun.

Gone are the days when car-obsessed kids could identify a car’s make, model, and year of production from the taillights on a dark night. Under those ever-changing cosmetic features, the basic design of cars did not change very much; “all new” seldom applied to the engine, transmission, or suspension.

And when it did, the results were often not good for “early adopters.” In some ways it was way too early for fuel injectors, turbochargers, independent rear suspensions, sleeveless aluminum blocks, and automotive diesels — and consumers paid the price.

I was knee-deep in the oil field “pump jack” market in the very early 1980s when the advantages of carburized, hardened, and ground gearing were first applied to that mature market. On paper it made perfect sense; the power density of the new technology had the potential to cut the weight of the pump jack gearbox dramatically. Modern hobbers and grinders could reduce the cycle time dramatically over the ancient herringbone clunkers we were using. A revolution seemed imminent — right up until the teeth started popping off.

A misunderstanding of the impact load from horse head pumps always falling on the same teeth resulted in massive warranty claims and a distrust of carburized gearboxes in the oil patch that is only now going away.

The lesson I took away was to spend more time studying what is already working before starting a new design. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” remains good advice in most cases, but new materials, new processes, and new machinery are constantly changing the economics of mature products. A good engineer will find a way to improve the end product without sacrificing reliability.

About Charles D. Schultz 678 Articles
Charles D. Schultz is President of Beyta Gear Service and one of Gear Technology's technical editors.