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A Call for PLM and Commonsense Design

By Steve Robbins

Steve Robbins
Steve Robbins

Design engineers in the automotive industry are major users of technology. Analysis, 3D CAD, visualization, prototyping, and product lifecycle management have helped build cars faster and sometimes better. New sensors, materials, electronics, entertainment, and navigation systems are resulting in advances in safety, reliability, and comfort. Automobiles are more fuel efficient, and more and more of them run on alternative fuels. This should be applauded.

But there comes a time when design can exceed utility.

My automobile, a Volvo XC70, is a great tool. I know—it’s been a Yuppie symbol for years, is a premium-priced car, and is now built by Ford Motor Company. But I bought my first Volvo because—at the time—it was the only four-wheel-drive vehicle that drove like a car and still had enough clearance to make it up our dirt road during what we in New Hampshire affectionately call “mud season.” Just to be clear, our particular road habitually snags the town’s grader.

Problem is, when I took ownership of my ’99 Volvo, the wipers drove me nuts.

In 1967 Robert Kearns patented intermittent wipers that finally made it into cars in 1978. It was a solid design, was eventually upgraded with a rheostat to provide infinite settings, and it worked just fine until Volvo developed its rain sensor wipers. This new design senses the moisture on the windshield and wipes it off depending on how hard it’s raining.

Here’s what actually happens: It starts raining lightly so I turn on the high-tech intermittent wipers. I drive for a minute or two and the wipers either lie still or take off at monsoon speed. Then they stop and rain builds up until I can’t see. I adjust the wipers, they start up again, then stop, then take off at full speed. I finally shut them off and flip the switch manually every few seconds to keep the windshield clear.

What were the engineers thinking? Did they develop this design as a selling feature that would justify the high cost of the car? Naturally, when I brought this defect to the dealership’s service department they dismissed it as trivial. So five years and 130,000 miles went by with me working the wiper trigger on and off every time it sprinkled. Still, the car’s benefits outweighed the moronic wiper motor so I traded it for another XC70, and the saleswoman pointed out the luxury features of the car: the same wipers and a new addition, HID Xenon automatic headlamps. These lamps cost $240 to replace and are not as bright as a regular halogen headlamp. Where is the value proposition?

Product lifecycle management (PLM) software—which Ford uses—is supposed to answer that question; it’s supposed to make products better. But the manufacturer has to do its part and pay attention to its software systems and customers, and the Web is full of the same complaint I have about Volvo’s rain sensor wipers. I checked.

Clearly, the QA department didn’t do real-world testing. When the old actually works better than the new, there is something wrong with the design process.

Don’t get me wrong. I applaud the Volvo design engineers who helped pioneer air bags, anti-lock brakes, traction control (works great in New Hampshire winters), stability control, blind spot alert, and even collision avoidance. When evaluating a complex machine like today’s automobiles, you have to look at it in totality. I would probably even purchase another XC70, but I curse the team that approved the new wiper system every time I drive in the rain, and I’m sending them the bill for my right-hand carpal tunnel syndrome.

Steve Robbins is the CEO of Level 5 Communications and executive editor of DE. Send comments about this subject to DE-Editors@deskeng.com

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