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Time's up for the days of make it, shake it and break it
Make it, shake it and break it is the traditional way of predicting when the blades in a jet engine will fail. Aviation authorities like the FAA demand that manufacturers vibrate the blades on a 'shaker table' to mimic millions of pairs of take-offs and landings. The tests take months and are costly in terms of time and manpower.
Now a US company has produced software that allows manufacturers accurately to predict how and when products from jet engines to artificial hip joints and from bridges to razor blades will fail - even before they are made.
The technique makes use of the genetic code that, just like living creatures, all materials possess. Cracking this 'microstructural DNA' is the key to understanding how different materials behave in a product, and more importantly, predicting how the product is going to behave.
Material-science experts at Vextec, Tennessee, focused on developing a virtual material-simulation tool, while the firm's computational experts concentrated on correlating the simulation from material behaviour to predicting fleet performance and business impacts. Through this marriage of metallurgy and mathematics, Vextec can simulate the life expectancy of any single part in a complex product. And when it puts enough of those parts together, the firm can simulate the life of an engine, a vehicle or an entire product fleet.
In this way, firms can construct maintenance schedules and warranty programmes without having to guess how much they will cost - and so build more reliable products, more cost-effectively. Little wonder Vextec topped the Forbes 2009 list of America's most promising companies.
In Forbes' 2009 issue, Farrell provides biographical details of Vextec's founders and describes how its software is deployed in the manufacturing, aerospace and electronics sectors.
Vextec technology could almost certainly have averted the disaster that hit Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Musuem. Half the building's massive roof collapsed under the weight of heavy snow in 2003, causing tons of snow, slate, wood and cast iron to fall on to locomotives, rolling stock and smaller exhibits.
Tests identified a number of architectural and engineering design flaws which, combined with deterioration over time and the extreme weight of drifted snow, had caused the roof to fail.
In Volume 20, Issue 5 of Organization Science, Christanson et al. describe how the catastrophe helped to bring about large-scale change. Before the event, curators and administrations had often been at loggerheads and the museum had been losing money. But a 22-month rebuilding effort and heroic fund-raising campaign helped to instil greater teamwork at the museum, which now welcomes record numbers of visitors to its restored and expanded site.
Vextec technology could also revolutionize the used-car industry. If every component of every vehicle could be manufactured to operate reliably for the entire lifetime of the car - say, 10 years - buying a second-hand vehicle would become much less risky.
As it is, too many buyers of used vehicles end up with a substandard product that offers poor value for money. In Volume 41, Issue 22 of Applied Economics, Emons and Sheldon explain the information deficit at the heart of the problem. Owners of bad cars try to sell them to ill-informed buyers, while owners of good cars tend to hold on to theirs. Consequently, the quality of traded automobiles tends to be below the average.
But if Vextec technology could reduce the number of 'lemons' on the market, buying a used car could become a peach of a process.