For want of a nail

Alix Paultre, Editorial Director, PSD



Continuing the old story-telling tone which began the issue, I would like to point your attention to the centuries-old proverb “For want of a nail” which describes a chain of events and their consequences from a small error snowballing into catastrophe. There are many lessons to draw from this, from the importance of preventative maintenance to the significance of paying attention to the details.

The saddest take-away from this story is the element of regret involved, as it is obvious from the story that nobody saw an unshod horse and predicted the end of an empire. One of the roughest problems with seeing a problem with real understanding is that it often comes through the expense of experience. The person who is the most upset at the small things usually has experience with the consequences that happen when details are not paid attention to.

The negligence that leads to error is not always from a malicious source. One can sometimes overlook things, or a busy person can forget things, or something can simply fall off. We all have had life-changing experiences that stem from the most seemingly innocuous situations. The whole hook of Back to the Future stems from one bad decision and its unforeseen consequences.

To bring this analogy to modern times, let’s just look at the spate of devices with exploding batteries. I won’t even mention the current front-runner because many manufacturers have had similar issues. The race to save money and shave time off of product development has existed since the beginning of time, and is part of the discipline of engineering. Capital has always looked to engineers to save money by optimizing design.

However, once the consequences of error become human-critical, the disciplines of engineering must dominate the desires of finance. In systems recognized to be human-critical, like automotive, medical, and industrial worker safety, there are significant regulatory requirements in place specifically because human lives were impacted by the lack of standards, and our regulatory environment is a result of those bitter lessons.

Consumer devices have few controls compared to the professional spaces, except in the area of child protection. Again, the regulatory infrastructure there is in place as a result of response to tragedy. Children dying led to better regulations on what kind of toys we allow our children to play with. Most adult consumer safety issues fall under litigation prevention, not device improvement.

Consumer electronic devices have had a rapidly-changing role in our society, and their importance and ubiquity are a keystone of modern life. Device safety will continue to be an issue as the devices will always be in contact with humanity in ways designers cannot predict without broad expansions of what is considered safe operating parameters. Trying to save money at the result of reduced product safety will eventually result in unwanted regulatory control if the industry does not address the issue of greed over safety first.