• BY ROBERT CAPPS
  • 3:00 PM

In the corner of Building 4, a massive complex at Ford headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, the ghostly skeleton of a pickup truck endures a constant torment. The truck has no wheels, no bed, no seats, and no steering column—it’s just a vacant shell and a set of pedals. Inside, a pneumatic piston is positioned to press on the gas pedal over and over again, night and day. It’s a test of the whole accelerator assembly, but engineers are focused on one simple part—the hinge that connects the gas pedal to the frame.

Building 4 is Ford’s Tough Testing Center, where the company evaluates nearly all of its nonengine parts, from seat belts to axle assemblies. The facility is a monument to a dark truth of manufacturing: Even the best-engineered products fail. Some percentage of all mechanical devices will break before they’re expected to. “Companies come to me and say they want to be 100 percent failure-free after three years,” says Fred Schenkelberg, whose firm, FMS Reliability, estimates the lifespan of products. “But that’s impossible. You can’t do it.”
Consider a few recent examples. In 2009, Mohawk Industries—one of the largest makers of carpeting in the country—was forced to discontinue an entire line of carpet tiles when the tiles failed unexpectedly, costing the company millions. In 2010, Johnson & Johnson had to recall 93,000 artificial hips after their metal joints started failing—inside patients. In 2011, Southwest Airlines grounded 79 planes after one of its Boeing 737s tore open in midflight. And just this past summer, GE issued a recall of 1.3 million dishwashers due to a defective heating element that could cause fires. Unexpected failure happens to everything, and so every manufacturer lives with some amount of risk: the risk of recalls, the risk of outsize warranty claims, the risk that a misbehaving product could hurt or kill a customer.
This is why the sprawling hangar-size rooms of Ford’s Building 4 are full of machines. Machines that open and close doors, robots that rub padded appendages on seats, treadmills that spin tires until they erupt in a cloud of white smoke. There’s even a giant bay where an entire Ford pickup is held up in the air by pistons that violently shake the vehicle by its suspension. Officially, Building 4 is about reliability, but it’s actually more about inevitability. Ford isn’t trying to ensure the gas-pedal hinge will never break. The company knows it will break; its engineers are trying to understand when—and how and why—this will happen.
Product failure is deceptively difficult to understand. It depends not just on how customers use a product but on the intrinsic properties of each part—what it’s made of and how those materials respond to wildly varying conditions. Estimating a product’s lifespan is an art that even the most sophisticated manufacturers still struggle with. And it’s getting harder. In our Moore’s law-driven age, we expect devices to continuously be getting smaller, lighter, more powerful, and more efficient. This thinking has seeped into our expectations about lots of product categories: Cars must get better gas mileage. Bicycles must get lighter. Washing machines need to get clothes cleaner with less water. Almost every industry is expected to make major advances every year. To do this they are constantly reaching for new materials and design techniques. All this is great for innovation, but it’s terrible for reliability.

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