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Petroski on Engineering: Armchair Design & Analysis

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Beth Stackpole
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What about design for practical use case?
Beth Stackpole   2/2/2012 6:59:51 AM
Entertaining musing on the give and take of good design. What's the greater takeaway for engineers, though? Don't factor use case into your efforts for fear of legal repercussions? That seems like a cop-out to me. After all, not every flight enjoys the benefit of having mechanically-inclined flight attendents on board.

Dave Palmer
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reasonably expected misuse
Dave Palmer   2/2/2012 7:19:56 AM
Professor Petroski's final point in this article alludes to the fact that product liability law requires a product to be safe not only in its reasonably expected use, but also any reasonably expected misuse. Engineers are often horrified to learn that the law requires us to take potential misuse of a product into account. Ironically, although we bristle at the idea of other people misusing our products, we also excel at coming up with creative new ways to "use" products others have designed. Some of the new uses which particularly creative engineers find for things may not fall into the "reasonably expected" category.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: What about design for practical use case?
Ann R. Thryft   2/2/2012 1:50:10 PM

It's been years, but I remember a flight with, I swear, that same tray table "design," which made it completely unusable when deployed. And that was so obviously the case that I could not understand how the design ever got accepted and the tray table installed, in thousands of planes. I was not so fortunate as Professor Petroski, however, in my flight attendants. This all makes me think less of the legal issues than of the designers/users and use case issues. 

Charles Murray
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Better than seatback tables
Charles Murray   2/2/2012 7:52:26 PM
The nice thing about the tray tables that Professor Petroski describes is that they are not attached to the seat back. Anything is better than that. If I put my laptop on one of those, the person in front of me glances back over his/her shoulder to let me know I'm bothering them. Worse, when the person in front leans back, the tray table is suddenly so close that there's no room to work.

Ozark Sage
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Re: That IS a Bad design?
Ozark Sage   2/2/2012 7:56:24 PM
Ann, Beth, Dave & Prof. P.,  I write this as you Professor wrote your article on arm chair design....with toung in cheek.  The story starts with me being the only person, other than crew, left on a plane durind a short layover.  A AL Mechanic arrived and went to work on one of the tables you all described.  He almost instantly recived a loud message over his 2way "you have 5 minutes".  He started to work very delicatly and expertly for the next 10 minutes when he received a VERY loud call "you need to pack it in we have to load." 

Being a company man (I determined by his appearence) he reached down to his tool belt, holstered his Phillips Head screw driver swept his hand dirrectly to the hammer loop, grabbed it , pounded the table into the midseat container, flipped the cover closed and annouced towards the Captain "All fixed sir she's ready to go have a good flight" while exiting the aircraft. 

THIS ALL HAPPENED FASTER THAN THE TIME IT TOOK ME TO WRITE THIS. It sticks in my mind to this day because I am also a Pilot.  

TJ McDermott
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Re: reasonably expected misuse
TJ McDermott   2/2/2012 9:55:28 PM
I've had another rude awakening this week: no matter how hard I try, how intelligent I may be; there is always one idiot "smarter" than me who will discover the way to damage the machine.  This week, the idiots won.

Arlo Guthrie has a thing or two to teach engineers about "reasonably expected misuse", from his song Alice's Restaurant:


"Kid, I'm going to put you in the cell, I want your
wallet and your belt."  And I said, "Obie, I can understand you wanting my
wallet so I don't have any money to spend in the cell, but what do you
want my belt for?"  And he said, "Kid, we don't want any hangings."  I
said, "Obie, did you think I was going to hang myself for littering?"
Obie said he was making sure, and friends Obie was, cause he took out the
toilet seat so I couldn't hit myself over the head and drown, and he took
out the toilet paper so I couldn't bend the bars roll out the - roll the
toilet paper out the window, slide down the roll and have an escape.


User Rank
Re: What about design for practical use case?
naperlou   2/2/2012 10:38:52 PM
One thing I don't think the airlines or designers really considered is the lifetime of the product in this case.  Is it reasonable to expect something that gets as much use as a tray table to last the lifetime of the plane.  Those are typically flown for many years.  They should have designed them to easily replaced (say during a layover) and refurbished in the shop. 

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No Room for Improvement
ChasChas   2/3/2012 9:47:46 AM
With everyone so crammed together, there is very little room for improvement - literally.

User Rank
Airplane tables are useful...
SE   2/3/2012 11:58:19 AM
Airplane tables are useful... as mouse pads.  I had access to a bunch of old trays being thrown out.  For black or featureless tables they make very nice mouse pads!  No bending or warping.  Conversation piece too.

As for use on aircraft, they do leave a lot to be desired.  However, there is little choice.  Make a great table and someone will lean on it and bend it.  Make it stronger?  Not only heavier but more tempting to lean on.  Live with it - and carry a pop can tab.

William K.
User Rank
Aircraft tray tables: Armchair analysis.
William K.   2/3/2012 2:35:35 PM
I have come across those tables that pop up from between the seats and have never had any problems with them. Probably being an experienced engineer helps a bit there. I have been on lots of flights where I had to hold my drink so that the bumps would not launch it into my lap, or somebody else's lap. I agree that the ones that fold out of the back of a seat are much nicer, although I have never been able to use a computer on a plane.

If you want a real challenge though, try to utilize the footrest on one of the Amtrack trains. There is a button on the armrest to release it, but in the trains that I have ridden there is nothing to make it move once it is released. The only way we figured out to use the footrest is to grab it with a hand and pull it into position. My guess is that the springs were removed to prevent terrorists from somehow utilizing the footrests for something, or possibly to prevent idiots from doing something really stupid with them.

I really would preferr that our legal system stop rewarding idiots and fools for injuring themselves, and instead, fine them for being so stupid. OF course, then we would have the lawyers seeking customers under some other premise, and that might be worse.

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