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To Err is Human

In the wake of the unfortunate tragedy surrounding the Titan submersible questions arise on the responsibility and duty of individuals who created and conceived the mission. And while to err is indeed human, and without adding to the speculations surrounding this specific case, questions do arise on what preventive steps could be taken to avoid errors, particularly when the stakes are so high.


History shows us that technological failures can and do happen. Miscalculations of resonance led to undampened oscillations and twisting that led to the eventual collapse of the Tacoma Narrows bridge on the 7th of November, 1940.


The Tacoma Narrows Bridge Collapse


Between the 1990s and early 2000s, the giant car manufacturer Ford and the tyre manufacturer Firestone set about a series of events that led to the controversial recall of the Ford Explorer, not before claiming the lives of some 200 people and injuring others.

The story of how negligence, greed, and corporate deception killed over 200 people and one of the automotive industry's longest-lasting partnerships [1]

An unfortunate series of events, this time at the Alton Towers theme park in the summer of 2016, led to a fully occupied rollercoaster car crashing head on, and at high speed into an empty car leading to life-changing injuries to two young women.


The Alton Towers rollercoaster incident


In 2017, Samsung was involved in controversy around the Note 7 whose battery was overheating, leading to fires. All Note 7 products were recalled, costing the Samsung $5.3bn losses and a huge dent in its reputation [2].


Given these incidents, are we, as consumers placing blind-faith in the technology we are using?


Before alarm bells start ringing, it is worth noting that engineering works are not operating through a wild-west scenario but are governed by standards and regulations.

What are these standards and regulations?

In the engineering world, standards are documents that define the characteristics of a product, process or service. They are guidelines that provide a common framework and reference that engineers from around the world can use to ensure that the product, process or service they are offering can be provided in a way that is safe, consistent and reliable. There are different standards, depending on the product or service being offered. For example:

  • Design standards provide guidelines for the physical aspects of a product, such as the strength, durability and functionality of the components. For example, in the design of a bridge, there is a minimum requirement on the strength of the materials used, the stresses and strains that the different components can withstand to ensure that the bridge can handle the expected traffic passing through it.

  • Manufacturing standards outline the specifications of the manufacturing processes and quality control. They ensure that products will always be manufactured in a consistent manner. For example, the thread and thickness of screws are not arbitrarily set by the manufacturer but follow standard measurements. Besides ensuring consistency in quality, this also ensures that products purchased from different vendors can be brought together without loss of quality.

  • Safety standards aim to protect the individual, property and the environment from any potential hazards. They therefore establish the guidelines for the safe operation, maintenance of equipment and systems.

  • Performance standards define measurable criteria for the performance and efficiency of products and systems. For example, the energy efficiency of appliances such as air-conditioning systems or refrigerators are governed by such standards, making it easier for the consumer to compare and evaluate the performance expectations of these appliances.

  • Interoperability standards govern the exchange of data, information and services between different systems, platforms or devices. Internet protocols (e.g. TCP/IP) is a classical example of such a standard, ensuring that data can be interchanged easily through the internet. Other examples include standard file formats such as JPEG and PDF that ensure that files can be opened on different devices, or communication standards such as Bluetooth and USB that ensure that data from different devices can be interchanged (e.g. music from your laptop/mobile can be passed on to your earphones).

  • Environmental standards focus on the impact that engineering products or services have on the environment. These standards, then address issues such as waste management, missions control, provide guidelines for sustainability of building design and construction among others.

From the engineer's perspective, the standards provide the guidelines needed to ensure that the products or services are created using the best practices, ensuring safety and quality of the product or service. From the consumer perspective, products and services that are created following the relevant standards give a degree of confidence on the quality of the product or service. Standards also provide a legal and enforceable means of regulating and evaluating the quality of products or services.

Who creates these standards?

How can I check that a product is compliant with the relevant standards?

If engineers need to adhere to standards, why do accidents still occur?


Engineers generally act responsibly, ethically and in good faith to ensure that their work is of benefit to society. Although there are historical evidence of technological failures, there are much more examples of instances when technology functioned the way it was intended to, but which remain undocumented for becoming mundane.


For the general consumer, when making purchasing decisions of high-stake products or services, it is worth noting the reputation and track record of the product or service provider. Researching reliable reviews and ratings to help the decision making. Personal research and due diligence, looking for the relevant standards, product manuals and compliance certifications, will help mitigate potential risks. In this manner, we may all engage in the benefits of technology with minds at ease.


 

References


[1] Kyle Ashdown, 2017, "Under Pressure: The Story of the Infamous Ford-Firestone Controversy", CarThrottle, https://www.carthrottle.com/post/under-pressure-the-story-of-the-infamous-ford-firestone-controversy/


[2] BBC, 2017, "Samsung Confirms Battery Faults as Cause of Note 7 Fires", https://www.bbc.com/news/business-38714461


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