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"An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes, which can be made, in a very narrow field." -Niels Bohr

These words frame the OH CR4P! blog, a place which encourages engineers to discuss, reminisce, and learn about mistakes, failures and mishaps made by those who have become "experts" the hard way.

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The Best Mistake You've Ever Made

Posted March 13, 2012 9:00 AM by cheme_wordsmithy

Picture this: a relatively inexperienced engineer working for a large manufacturing company makes an error in his process control duties, disrupting the product line in a big way that costs the company an estimated $500,000 in product damage.

The manager invites the young engineer into his office. He reviews the events leading up to and during the accident, and finds the engineer to be completely at fault. What does the manager do?

He considers just firing him and starting over. Pulling the plug on this guy would mean a fresh start and a chance to find somebody more capable. But instead, the manager asks the engineer what he learned. He then reviews the correct course of action and makes sure the engineer is clear on his roles and responsibilities going forward.

Image Credit: Thousandaire.com

The young professional, expecting to have been fired, can't help but ask why he hadn't been let go. The manager tells him that it would be unwise to fire him after the company just invested $500,000 in his training.

--

This account, fictitious and exaggerated as it is, emphasizes both the importance of proper on-the-job training/education (to prevent costly mistakes) and the value of mistakes in the learning process.

Sometimes, despite our best efforts, the best learning and training we get is through our mistakes. They not only show us what not to do, but give us visual perspective on the implications of our actions and on the chasm between things on paper and things in the real world.

What are some of the "best" mistakes you've ever made (or witnessed) as an engineer or technical professional that helped you learn the most?

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#1

Re: The Best Mistake You've Ever Made

03/14/2012 12:16 AM

I learnt not to trust my (then) manager after being given misleading information on my duty and ran with it. I worked on the project (not knowing the implications) and creating engineering documentation (yep the paper trail straight back to me - which was authorised by my then manager) and production went full steam ahead. A few months later we had product failure on the field...so a product recall was instated...all my fault. But as the article says...12 years later I am still in the same company (different roll though)...lesson learnt.

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#2

Re: The Best Mistake You've Ever Made

03/14/2012 12:16 AM

How I learned there is a thing as TOO MUCH Safety Factor… or, how to design things to break.

As I progressed as a Designer, I had finally reached the point where I was given my first project as a Design Lead and assigned a small team of Detailers. As a Lead, I was the final checker prior to manufacturing.

It was a pretty simple project… a carriage-type steel strip accumulator that was located under the processing line in about a 5' high crawl space. In accumulation mode, the carriage would be pulled via a wench down a long rail. The steel strip would be wound around a roller configuration in the carriage that would unwind the master coil faster than the process line was running. This bought time to load and end-join a new master coil without having to stop the processing line.

My excitement from becoming a Design Lead translated into wanting to make sure there was not even the slightest doubt regarding the durability of the design, so I oversized everything. The project had a pretty good margin so I had some room to play.

Long story short…. About 4 to 5 months after my beast of an accumulator was commissioned, something caused the carriage to derail. Rather than the wench tripping an overload, or a designed break point failing… my beast of a design drug the carriage at an angle along the crawl space and into a support column (that was designed for compression, not shear) ripping it from its foundation and allowing the floor that supported the processing line above to sag about 8 to 10 inches… breaking all sorts of things, to include a process coolant line the proceeded to pump the 3,000 gallon coolant tank into the crawl space.

It took a little over a 2 months, and quite a few zeros left of the decimal point, to get everything fixed. It was an expensive way to learn that there is a thing as TOO MUCH Safety Factor and that designed failure points are a critical part of the design process.

It took about a year for my employer to 'forget' about that one and to start to have faith in me again, but it took about two years for me to really get my mojo back. Luckily, it happened really early in my career.

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#4
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Re: The Best Mistake You've Ever Made

03/14/2012 6:23 AM

pulled via a wench

Are you sure?

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#5
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Re: The Best Mistake You've Ever Made

03/14/2012 8:22 AM

She's a hard worker. What (else) can I say?

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#8
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Re: The Best Mistake You've Ever Made

03/14/2012 10:52 AM

Yeah, chalk that one up as a sleep-deprivation-induced type-o.

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#13
In reply to #2

Re: The Best Mistake You've Ever Made

03/15/2012 4:32 AM

i was deputy chiefengineer in star hotel in 1982 and assigned to install a generator with tight deadlines and met the deadlines but the generator never performed to its designed level.as i had just put together the generator ancillaries based on assumptions they will work.till to day no one could fig out why generator did not perform including The The generator manafacturer.Now i have lernt a lesson before designing a an engineering system do application engineering re-confirm all parametors required for the systems are in Place wether its a electric generator,HVAC system even a water pumping system!

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#3

Re: The Best Mistake You've Ever Made

03/14/2012 6:21 AM
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#6

Re: The Best Mistake You've Ever Made

03/14/2012 9:16 AM

The best mistake I ever made was marrying a woman 18 years younger than myself. If I didn't do that, I wouldn't have two wonderful children and a wife that loves me, a nice job, a nice house, and the day to day chores that make life worth living.

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#7
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Re: The Best Mistake You've Ever Made

03/14/2012 10:17 AM

The worst mistake I made was reading about some guys perfect life....

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#10
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Re: The Best Mistake You've Ever Made

03/14/2012 3:29 PM

Behind every successful man, is a woman who made it necessary...

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#9

Re: The Best Mistake You've Ever Made

03/14/2012 11:31 AM

The best mistakes I have made and continue to make are not listening to people who think I should listen to their advice!

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#11

Re: The Best Mistake You've Ever Made

03/14/2012 4:56 PM

I encourage the way this was handled and support learning from the incident.

However, the company process (checks and balances) also has a hole in it. The company process has something to learn as well.

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#12

Re: The Best Mistake You've Ever Made

03/14/2012 9:03 PM

I made a mistake once.

I thought I was wrong.

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#14

Re: The Best Mistake You've Ever Made

03/15/2012 7:51 AM

I had designed a conveyorised oven in stainless steel for one project. It was realised that he cost would over run as per Bill of Materials. I was requested to redesign to fit into the budgeted cost.Hence the total revision was done with very low factor of safety. The System could run but was too fragile to withstand the transportation to destination. We had to spend lots of money on rectification of the system at site and it dammaged the image of the organisation to certain extent.

We learnt a lesson to not to be penney wise and Pound fulish.

Packing designe should be improved.

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#15

Re: The Best Mistake You've Ever Made

03/15/2012 7:56 AM

1994.......project: design and build dual balloon type magnetometre chassis battery driven with rc control. 6' diametre balloons X 2.

Had so much fun with the thing that forgot to recharge the batteries. Floated away it did. Army base 50 miles away not amused. Vividly recall cadre of aviator sunglass types asking many questions. Never did get balloon back.

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Re: The Best Mistake You've Ever Made

03/17/2012 5:11 AM


Del

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#17

Re: The Best Mistake You've Ever Made

03/17/2012 11:27 AM

Compartmentalizing our power structure when we should have been updating our business model.

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#18
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Re: The Best Mistake You've Ever Made

03/17/2012 12:23 PM

In english please!

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#19

Re: The Best Mistake You've Ever Made

03/17/2012 2:55 PM

at highschool time (we had lot of moskitoes in my then hometown) i was flaming them to the Oblivion with the nitric hair lac - it left a weird stink after i completed the BATTLE so i thought a air freshener would give a release ... instead i bearly made it to a flat door - it namely mixed into - teargas like compound that was impossible to breath (muhahaa) (the speciffic use(ability) of air freshener)

at summer camp i made a test "four stone bomb" alternate with delay fuse - so it stop at the half a way - i thought there's enough left . . . some decade earlyer apx. 5yo i went along with my unkle repairing the freesers . . . shore i had to pull that to my arm (when noone was around) . . . well in both instances the crude oil save my skin . . . the 4-stoner blasted at my hand - didn't felt my lower arm about some 40 minutes (the crude oil is not so bad as the environmentalists tell)

at the summer place other 6-8yo we had a descent (at the time the only freshly built hard cover roadlet at nearby) i took the L turn at it's foot ... so i made an acceleration test with my bike and as i speed up at full throttle i forgot there's the L turn to make . . . well it had some tractor rails for alternate route selection like --> ¯¯\___/ <-- 40m i had some 15m airflight and "learnd to hold my breath" over 5 minutes ((there was no mountain biking introduced to this planet at that time -- i had to improvise the landing while in the air there was some seconds to give it a thought)) (. . . so it's about what's important at the moment and what's important after that important)

most all of the PC-s i ha- -ve/-d 're running in "speciffic configurations" the manufacturer hasn't pre-seen - such as 2 x 170 MB WD-HDD-s on 80286 without any DM-s 20ya and so on ... ... ... i woudn't call this mistakes

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