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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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