A new study released last week by two Canadian researchers reveals that design flaws are responsible for 75% of all toy recalls, and that this percentage has remained consistent since 1988. The authors of the study say these design problems potentially can be avoided in the future by improving organizational communication and learning. They plan to investigate how organizations can more effectively learn from their own and other’s mistakes and capture and exploit that knowledge. But the study also raises troubling questions about the diligence of the engineering and design effort, and whether the beleaguered engineering community is being called upon to do too much with too few resources. In a study last year by Design News, 70% of the design engineers surveyed reported that they are being called upon to take on an ever-increasing amount of tasks and responsibilities. Over 50% said they were involved in more engineering disciplines than two years ago and expect to be involved in even more in the next two years.
Struck by the record number of toy recalls and publicity around defective products manufactured in China this year, the authors of the study Toy Recalls – Is China Really the Problem? were curious to find out more about the underlying factors. “We wanted to see if all the hype about China would actually hold up or if something else was actually going on” says Hari Bapuji, Assistant Professor at the I.H. Asper School of Business at the University of Manitoba. So Bapuji and co-author Professor Paul Beamish of the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Manitoba culled through 20 years of data. In all, they studied 550 recall notices from the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Council (CPSC) that involved toys. Predictably, China factored big in the most recent cases – 95% of all toys recalled so far in 2007 were made in China, compared to 50% in 2002. Recent recalls include Thomas the Train products for high lead levels and 18 million Mattel toys for both lead content and embedded magnets. Curiously enough, though, China-related problems did not begin to surface until ten years after toy companies started moving production overseas in the early 1990s. The survey revealed some other unexpected information, says Bapuji. “What surprised me was the extent to which faulty designs were implicated in the data,” he says. “If shifting manufacturing to China were the sole source of all the recent problems, we’d expect the percentage of design-related recalls to drop. But in fact, the number has remained constant.” Some of the common design-related problems cited in the reports involved small, detachable parts or design features that presented a choking hazard and geometries that could entrap fingers or tongues. The Learn-Around Playground Activity Center, for example, was recalled in September 2006 after the manufacturer received reports of children’s arms becoming trapped in the toy’s plastic tube. That some of these design problems continued to crop up in the recall reports time and time again is puzzling to Bapuji. “The issue of magnets in toys did not just happen overnight, it had been brewing for some time,” he says, pointing to a 2006 recall of Mattel’s Poly Pocket Magnetic Play Set. “Companies clearly were not paying attention to the early warnings and responding to the hazards by improving their own designs.” Designing toys is a fiendishly challenging task – engineers need to make toys that are appealing to children and safe to use, and children can put toys to use in ways that are simply unimaginable to most adults. But based on their analysis, Bapuji and Beamish believe that a vast majority of the toy hazards and injuries could have been avoided through better design, manufacturing, and testing processes. To that end they now plan to look at recalls in other sectors and dig deeper into how organizations learn from recalls of their own and their competitors’ products and institute best practices to avoid future mistakes. Bapuji said he could not comment directly on what factors may have contributed to the high incidence of faulty designs, and Mattel did not respond to phone calls requesting an interview. However, some engineers today are privately expressing concern over growing pressure to reduce costs and get products out the door more quickly. “From what I see, most companies are severely understaffing their engineering departments,” said one design engineer who wished to remain anonymous. “This creates a lot of stress and tension on the remaining engineers, especially since our decisions can affect the health and safety of people and processes. I also worry about the lack of engineers who have deep knowledge and expertise in certain areas – these are the people who keep us from making costly mistakes. As more of the experienced engineers retire, this will only become worse.” Engineers are not unique, of course, in the challenges that they face. In the never-ending quest for lower costs, many companies have shrunk the size of their staffs, putting more on the backs of the remaining employees. And the expanding scope of the design engineer’s job is in many ways simply a natural response to the growing technological complexity of end products and increasingly global manufacturing landscape. But nonetheless, some engineers appear to be reaching a kind of tipping point in their ability to keep up with it all. “My staff includes four highly motivated engineers,” writes one frazzled Director of Engineering in the manufacturing sector. “We have taken on the responsibilities of Drafting, Purchasing, Quality, Document Control, Regulatory Agency, Standards renewals, Product Testing, Engineering Manufacturing, Electronic Component Design, RoHS managers, Chemical analysis, Efficiency studies ….. I could well go on but I just don’t have the time…The most frustrating part of my job is at the end of the day I feel I’ve accomplish so little. As this trend continues I am beginning to question my worth.”