In this series, I am sharing some of the stories that have shaped who I am, how I run my business,
and the products I have designed. I hope you can benefit from them as well.
A very long time ago, while I was in a university mechanical engineering class, we were challenged with a construction project: build a structure out of balsa wood, string and glue that would support a weight hanging from a string. Structures would be scored by a formula: weight carried/weight of the structure.
The designs produced by the various teams were quite varied, but the team I was on decided to take a very simple and minimal approach. Like good students, we applied our theory and started with a simple design, then we built it and tested it.
If you have never worked with balsa wood, it is a surprisingly robust material, but it has its weaknesses. It twists, it cracks along the grain easily. and like all woods, failure happen with a catastrophic “CRACK” sound. So we built our structure and tested it — it broke. So we built another one — it broke. And another…and another…and…
This was an engineering class, so when it broke, we had to do a failure analysis, applying our theory to explain why our design was flawed. Then we had to propose a modification to the design that “fixed” the flaw, and build and test it. We beefed up the weak points in the design, added some lateral stability to prevent it from twisting, changing how we attached the string at critical points, but our team tried to stay true to the simple design.
When we started, we were full of bravado about the simple task and trusting in our simple tension and compression formulas. With each failure, we grew increasingly skeptical of our formulas, and we learned the difference between theoretical and practical. We gained an appreciation for the term “safety factor”. About how a simple oversight could result in massive failures like “galloping gertie“.