The Problem of Certainty


In writing about unforeseen consequences there is a risk of inspiring such conservatism in design that the resulting product is no longer competitive. Henry Ford, for example hung on to cable-actuated brakes much longer than his competitors and only “converted” when it started to cost market share. As engineers we are comfortable with what we know — or think we know — and tend to avoid innovations until we have to.

In Henry’s case, “Solid steel, from pedal to wheel” was more than just an advertising slogan. His leadership in making better steel through the scientific study of alloying elements and their effect on material properties made steel a comfortable old friend. It worked well and he saw no advantage to changing. Until, of course, the force multiplication of hydraulics was demonstrated in the real world, and brake lining material improved to use that increased force. Not to mention self-adjusting brakes and vacuum power brake boosters. Improved highways made average speeds go up and Ford’s mechanical brakes couldn’t keep up.

It isn’t like hydraulic brakes were untested, either. Jimmy Murphy showed the world how good they were by beating all comers in the French Gran Prix of 1921, with a hydraulically braked Duesenberg race car. The Duesenberg Brothers had been using “juice brakes” since 1914 and were too busy to patent the concept. Imagine the riches that patent could have brought them! The innovation was rapidly adopted on production cars, but it took almost 20 years before Ford put them on its cars.

Our industry suffered through a similar story with the adoption of carburized and hardened gears. We fought a losing battle for almost 20 years by focusing on the potential problems and cost implication, while our international competitors worked diligently at understanding this “new” process and resolving the problems associated with it (e.g., heat treat distortion, low core hardness, case/core separation, scoring).

There are many applications where through-hardened gears continue to have their place. The objections raised by American manufacturers were real engineering problems at the start of the debate, but they sounded like sour grapes after 10 years or so. It is a moot point as to whether an earlier adoption of case-hardened technology might have saved American gear industry jobs as trade policy and machine tool technology were pointing towards lower head counts.

My point is simply this: Stay open to new materials, methods, and machinery. Study every bit of information you can find and don’t fall into the trap of overstating technical problems to make a commercial point.

About Charles D. Schultz 634 Articles
Charles D. Schultz is President of Beyta Gear Service and one of Gear Technology's technical editors.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply