Want to make a virtual visit to an Engineering Hall of Shame? You need go no further than the Consumer Product Safety Commission's website, where recall notices paint a bleak picture of engineering and manufacturing blunders.
The recalls that have garnered the most attention lately have affected children's toys. Mattel, to take the most prominent example, recalled more than 20 million toys in August and another 700,000 toys in early September. More than 1 million of the recalls involved excessive levels of lead paint on Chinese-made toys from Mattel and its Fisher-Price subsidiary. The rest of the recalls took place because the toys contained small, powerful magnets that can turn deadly if they come loose and a child swallows them.
Mattel isn't alone in either the loose magnet or lead paint issues. In August, six other companies recalled children's toys and jewelry over lead paint issues. And the CPSC, in August, stepped up its warnings about increasingly prevalent use of magnets in toys, a design practice that has resulted in at least 33 emergency surgeries and one death.
Toy recalls may attract the most notice, but there's no shortage of recalls for other types of products, too. August's recall list contains a litany of fire, burn, shock, strangulation, laceration and drowning hazards for products ranging from space heaters to scuba masks.
So, do these recalls point to any wide-spread engineering crisis? Not really. Remember, even 30 or so recalls per month don't begin to represent the universe of consumer products. Most of these products, even the design duds, don't have unexpected safety consequences.
What's more, some recalls arguably have less to do with design engineering than with poor supervision of offshore manufacturers. Mattel, for example, lays the blame for some of its lead woes on a Chinese sub-contractor that applied an unauthorized paint.
Yet, even if some recalls are beyond the control of design engineers whose cubicles are thousands of miles away from the nearest Chinese factory, there's still no shortage of failures that really can be attributed to design errors.
For this reason alone, the recalls make good reading for any engineer who wants a reminder of what can go wrong.
Read more on the Mattel recalls.