True Story No18


You can book 2 man weeks to the Rack

Mechanical engineers are a special breed.

Some of the one's I've known have been very good but some have been awful.

Usually the awful ones get promoted to keep them out of trouble. They usually rise to a point in the organisation were their questionable mechanical engineering doesn't get a chance to get tried out. This goes for Electrical engineers and programmers as well.

Our bit of the Company was responsible for the design of a rack assembly to hold a computer equipment inside an Army Lorry.

I think the whole job was a fiasco from beginning to end and the rack part was no different.

Because the business was quite busy doing really interesting projects, the design of the rack was given to a small team of young mechanical design engineers under a manager who also had a background in mechanical engineering.

The latter chap could neither design things mechanical nor could he understand finances. He was what's now termed a "politician", and to help him with this he wore built-up shoes.

The customer didn't know much about mere mechanical engineering either and was probably pre-occupied with other bits of the project.

From the start, things had gone pear-shaped.

We had won the total project in the face of stiff competition, but afterwards, due to string pulling in high places, another company had managed to substitute, for our data processing system, a "white elephant" in the shape of a computer, into which development, vast millions had been poured to no avail because nobody wanted it.

It was the start of the time when as soon as something new appeared, after being on the drawing board for five years, it was already obsolete.

It was also getting near to the end of the time when certain Customers issued cost-plus contracts. A cost-plus contract enabled a company to spend virtually any amount of money and get paid in full with a handsome bonus or fixed percentage profit.

Why book two man weeks when you can book 4 man weeks and get paid twice as much?

It's not easy to visualise the value of money, looking back 20-25 years, because inflation has completely distorted the pound.

Labour rates in the Computer Industry were only 3 or 4 pounds an hour and a really good salary was £3,000.

I only vaguely recall the Department Head of the rack project at monthly meetings offering to do things to help out other projects and book costs to the "…..Rack".

The day for the Acceptance of the Rack duly arrived.

Strangely, this was the first time the end user had been involved and he was probably looking forward to the days events and getting his new toy.

Well it wasn't accepted.

It was too big, too heavy and the computers wouldn't fit in it.

It had cost, it transpired, £1,000,000 but I don't remember anyone getting into trouble.

The boss of the Department looking after the Rack got promoted.

The engineers were moved to another project, and a bit later the senior one also got promoted.

A new team was appointed and, after a lot of promises by management, they started on a new venture "The New…..Rack".

This was a totally new design and used aluminium to keep the weight down and they promised to use the same rulers and things as the mechanical engineers designing the computers.

For some reason, which I never fathomed, I was asked to be "Chairman of the Acceptance Committee", a device intended either to inspire customer confidence or maybe to hoodwink him, I don't know but another member of the committee was the previous boss of the Rack Project. I remember being told what to do and what to say and the meeting minutes were to be vetted before I could issue them. Something to do with "politics" I guess, but maybe nearer to fibbing.

The new rack was accepted but it was a miracle it was!

The weight was OK and all the dimensions were correct but for some reason they had chosen a single gigantic cooling fan for keeping the computers from getting too hot.

It was a sort of huge snail shaped thing and, when switched on, made a horrendous noise like a Harrier taking off.

It was so bad that no-one thought to mention it and I understand it was so loud that the design engineers hadn't previously been allowed to turn it on in the lab for more than a few moments.

I don't think the specification even mentioned noise as it was just a metal rack.

Later I heard the Customers' people discussing it but it was too late, they'd already signed everything.

If you ever meet a deaf soldier write him a little note and ask if he ever worked on ….. with the noisy cooling fan.


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