Let us pause for a moment to consider the lowly shovel. Not worth your thoughts? Well, that's part of the problem I want to discuss. But first, grab a shovel from your garage or tool shed, or just close your eyes and picture the device.
No sweeping surfaces. No fancy special effects. No embedded intelligence. It's just a simple lever with a grip on top and a blade on the business end.
But, it has a worthy history and purpose.
The shovel helped build America. The nation's rails, the highway system, the mines—they all began with shovels. Today, we use them to dig our backyard gardens, or plant a tree, or set the footings for our new decks. They clear our steps of snow. And they have a venerable literary purpose as well, as the nationally accepted symbol for the act of trying to fool someone.
Indeed, shovels are essential implements in society. Even the builders of the Pyramids probably used some kind of shovel to clear the desert for their monuments. In snowy areas like here in New England, they even build character and community. Just think how many offspring have to go out and "shovel the driveway" so a parent can get in or out? In the legendary Blizzard of '78, whole New England communities and the Mass Transit System literally shoveled themselves free.
But the shovel is the Rodney Dangerfield of the tool world. It gets no respect.
Now, you may have your own examples of neglectful or shoddy engineering in everyday life: TV remotes with numbers you can't read, toothpaste tubes that split when you squeeze them. But for me, it's the shovel.
I thought about that while moving around the mountains of snow that surrounded my home like the remnants of some wayward avalanche after a recent winter storm. I was trapped inside. My shovel was my ticket to freedom. But in the midst of escaping, I broke the handle. The load was apparently too great, something the manufacturer must never have anticipated. I had only three reasonable choices: buy another shovel, borrow one from a neighbor, or wait for the spring thaw. I'm still waiting.
Snow shovels can save your bacon in a storm. Kentucky-based ergonomics firm Ergonauts reports that hospitals see a 60% increase in cardiac cases in the ER within 24 hours after a storm, some of those cases presumably due to shoveling. And then, of course, there's the back injuries. So why isn't there better engineering of these instruments? Don't manufacturers take this product seriously?
Well, some do. Biggs Corporation, Rugg Manufacturing, and G3 Genuine Guide Gear, Inc. are three companies that have put a lot of money and thought into designing shovels that do their job without breaking apart or breaking your back. Rugg and G3 even use CAD and FEA. Dave MacDonald of Proactive Design does the work for Rugg with Pro/Engineer. GE uses SolidWorks and Algor to design a hybrid metal and plastic shovel.
These companies know what others seem to have missed: No product is so mundane that it's not worth some serious engineering thought, even if it doesn't treat disease or take you to the moon. And if you disagree, if you think I need to get a grip, try clearing your snow-covered steps with a spoon. Or better yet, give me your address and I'll send you my busted shovel.