Computers Ruin Things

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

Computers are useful, Scott Locklin notes, but computers also ruin a lot of things:

For example: cars. I used to work on cars. Cars are cool machines: they work via hydraulics, gears and fire, more or less. Modern cars unquestionably have many advantages over cars made when I was born; they’re safer, faster and cleaner. They’re also impossible to repair, have more stuff which breaks, and generally embody planned obsolescence. Does anyone believe a modern Benz will be able to drive for 1,000,000 miles the way old ones regularly would? I don’t.

Is this an improvement? Well, what I’d really like is a simple old style car with an air bag and slightly better fuel injectors. It’s not impossible to do. Will anyone do this? I doubt it. There is more money to be made using the razorblade model and so, people will continue paying for overpriced garbage with… “technology” in it. Meanwhile, people still drive W-123 cars with 3/4 of a million miles on ‘em: made in an era when people still believed in old fashioned engineering, and didn’t put so much faith in computer doodads.

More importantly, computers have ruined the design process:

Revolutionary jets like the SR-71 or the 747 took months to design. Regular evolutionary developments like the F-35 or 787 seem to take decades. Why do you suppose this is? I think it’s because people are screwing around in CAD and finite element analysis programs far too much, and not, you know, designing stuff. I’ve seen this at work in my days at LBNL.

The “correct way” to get parts made for experimental apparatus is to get a CAD engineer to design it in SolidDesigner over the course of several days. Then the CAD goes to a CAM machinist, who will eventually send it back to the CAD engineer pointing out the 11 ways in which making this object is impossible without resorting to EDM. If you’re lucky and bother everyone on a regular basis, you’ll get your part in a few months. Then it won’t fit because the designer didn’t bother to come look at the machinery it’s supposed to bolt to. Why should he? He has the “engineering drawings” for the rest of the thing! Of course, electrical “drawings” on a computer are not solid objects, so the damn thing often won’t fit.

The other way to do it is to grab some blue collar Navy dude with a greying moustache, tell him what you want; he comes and looks at everything with a tape measure and have him deliver it to you, freshly machined from aluminum and 304 steel in a couple of days time. Sure, it will be uglier, chunkier and bigger, but it will work, generally the first time. If it doesn’t, he’ll scratch his moustache, go away and make it work the second time ’round by filing something away or drilling a new hole in the thing.


  1. Doctor Pat says:

    I have a car like that. The only electronics are in the fuel-injection system; the rest of the car not only could have come out of the 1970s, but actually has a lot of interchangeable parts with the 1978 model.

    It was sold as a commercial vehicle, which is why there wasn’t such a push to do things like replace a perfectly good windup window with an electric system.

    Wait, the radio is also modern. I forgot it because it doesn’t work; it needs some secret code punched in it whenever you change the battery. I just use my iPod. I love it.

  2. Isegoria says:

    The Toyota Hilux — known to Americans as the Tacoma — has a reputation as an indestructible truck.

    Even more than a car or truck though, I want my appliances to last forever — dishwasher, laundry machine and dryer, refrigerator and freezer, etc.

Leave a Reply