Thanks to the dozens of readers who responded to my editorial on bad product design (“Mike's Hard Lemonade, Rust and Bad Product Design,” DN 10.23.06). To be honest, corresponding with you is the best part about this job.
From all of your great feedback, I realize that there is an entire army of us out there on the front lines, engaged in brutal arm-to-arm combat every day with leaky dishwashers, dancing clothes dryers and a host of other faulty products. That's pretty scary.
Read some of the most amazing stories in our Mail column, starting on page 14. It's been expanded in this issue to accommodate more of your letters!
Of course some design defects have more serious consequences than others, which brings me to a rather notorious case here in the Boston area. Three years ago, a 250-lb gorilla named Little Joe escaped not once, but twice from the gorilla habitat at the Franklin Park Zoo's Tropical Forest exhibit.
The breakout was a true escape-from-Alcatraz story: To gain his freedom, our Frank Lee Morris of the primate world managed to navigate a moat 12 feet wide and 12 feet deep and somehow circumvent a series of electrified cables.
Local newspapers reported that in the second escape attempt, the marauding gorilla mauled a few people, eluded capture for nearly two hours and then was picked up at a city bus stop near the zoo. [Insert joke here about not having the right change.]
What makes the story newsworthy now is the zoo's recent unveiling of the design for a new $2.3 million escape-proof gorilla habitat, scheduled to open in early 2007. Even Little Joe, now tipping the scales at a portly 450 lb, supposedly won't be able to get out of the new enclosure which, according to zoo officials, consists of 1.5-inch-thick plate glass walls covered by a stainless-steel net.
Boy, I thought, would I like to see the engineering specs on that! Curious for more details, I called the zoo's PR contact Brooke Wardrop. When she declined to discuss design specifics with me, I turned to an expert of sorts — Rob Bowen, a mechanical engineer and director of global marketing for Southco, a major manufacturer of access hardware with experience in so-called zoological applications. How, I asked, would he make a gorilla cage escape-proof?
“The real challenge in designing an animal cage isn't how thick you make the walls of an enclosure — you can always add more material. Rather, it's all about controlled access,” Bowen explained to me. “But gorillas are intelligent. If designers used some kind of mechanical device that required turning, lifting, twisting or even inserting a key, eventually a gorilla is going to figure out how it works. Really, what else is there to think about?”
The best way to secure a gorilla cage door, Bowen advised me, would be by using some type of electronic access, whether via a card swipe, keypad or even a biometric sensing device. These kinds of solutions, he noted, are growing in popularity in more mainstream applications including vending machines and banks, due not only to the controlled access they deliver, but the monitoring function they provide.
“Not only do you thwart Little Joe's escape efforts, which is of course the primary design criterion, but also you have the added benefit of an automatic record of when he's been fed, taken his medicine or whatever else it is you want to monitor,” said Bowen.
We'll have to wait until the zoo opens next year, of course, to find out more details about Little Joe's new habitat. But let's hope this is one product that works like it's supposed to!