The Gift of Simplicity

It takes real work to achieve mechanical simplicity and a relentless focus to keep it. However, when achieved, a simple design can be a true gift for its owner.
Mechanical simplicity requires the elimination of unnecessary parts, especially proprietary components that leave the owner captive to the lead times of the original manufacturer. It seeks to reduce complicated repair schemes and is thoughtful in reducing routine maintenance. A simple design considers the position of wearable parts and attempts to remove them from the most corrosive or abrasive locations. Designers of these machines start with the operator in mind and fight for him throughout the design process. They never stop asking the question, "How will my design translate to the real world?" This attention results in simple equipment that is less costly to operate, easier to maintain, and often lasts longer.
There are challenges to simplicity for the manufacturer, which can result in companies opting out of this approach. Our industry tends to see simple as cheap or low quality. In reality, it may be quite the opposite when seen through the eyes of the owner. In the real world, complex machines are often unreliable, difficult to maintain, and expensive to own. While it may be true that a complicated piece of equipment is not cheap, one may not be able to accurately call it quality.
Innovation and continuous improvement are challenging to manufacturers because of the required investment in special resources. Engineers who excel at innovation and continuous improvement are not inherently good at production engineering. These are additional resources that must often begin from scratch, or perhaps with designs acquired from some inventor decades ago. This is daunting, expensive, and may actually run against the manufacturer's own interest.
Like any other business, manufacturers in our industry must generate profits. Assuming a decision is deemed ethically appropriate and legal, investment decisions are made to maximize the bottom line of the enterprise. When manufacturers consider an investment to simplify design and make equipment more operator-friendly, they must make a calculation. Is that investment – plus any lost profits from the sale of aftermarket parts and services – worth the cost? Planned obsolescence, while beneficial to the bottom line of a manufacturer, is awful for the owner and our shared environment. This throwaway mentality requires additional material to build these complicated machines and adds the impact of replacing many parts over and over during the life of the equipment. It is easy to see the environmental damage this causes.
The financial and environmental impacts of designed simplicity must be considered. While evaluated bids are helpful, they can be overly dependent on the manufacturer's own assessment of projected lifecycle costs. Bid processes that name very complex machines along with much simpler ones – and then only consider the lowest bidder on the bid day – ignore the reality that some bidders are considering larger profits from aftermarket products and services. Often, this is not properly accounted for in the owner's true cost. In effect, the lowest-bidder approach can result in a gift the owner will ultimately give the manufacturer. These hidden costs can haunt owners throughout the lifetime of an installation, resulting in unnecessary hardship to operators and run-on costs for rate payers.
To encourage designs that are easier to operate, cost less to own, and last longer, we have to move toward performance commitments that tie all manufacturers to the true cost of ownership. Then, perhaps, we will see more manufacturers willing to invest in the simplicity of design and innovation that will lead our industry to the treatment systems of the future.
As featured in WaterWorld magazine