The Boys from Beijing

When outsourcing, it’s important not to rely on an outside supplier if it is developing a safety critical part of your system. Dave Wilson tells the tale of a company that made that mistake.

<b>’It requires a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious.’ –Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947).</b>

Faced with the unsettling task of designing and developing a small electronic control system for its range of fitness treadmills, The Rolling Treadmill Company decided to ask a certain Chinese manufacturer to help out. It was a simple and considerably more inexpensive solution than bringing in a team of dedicated in house electronic engineers who would then need to learn the ins and outs of pulse width modulation technology and the like.

The problem with outsourcing, however, is that you do have to be so careful what you throw over the wall to a third party. Especially if the component or board that you have contract manufactured is the most safety critical part of your system. And, unfortunately, as they came to realise to their regret, that’s just what the folks at the Rolling Treadmill Company let The Boys from Beijing design and develop for them.

Things went well at first, of course. When the treadmills hit the stores, they sold like hotcakes. It seemed as if all the overweight people in the world wanted to buy one (with one exception! -Ed.).

But it wasn’t long before disaster struck.

You see, in some instances, the rather less than well made electronic control system that the Chinese had built caused the motor and walking belt to rapidly and unexpectedly accelerate. Fat people from all over the country were falling head over heels as they desperately tried to keep up with their runaway treadmills. Worse yet, some of them wouldn’t even stop when the safety key was turned, with the result that some oversized folk got a lot thinner than they had initially planned.

Back at the HQ of The Rolling Treadmill Company, the complaints were coming in thick and fast. And while functional treadmill replacements were being shipped out to the fatties, the designers in the plant were howling down the phone to the Chinese demanding a redesigned controller.

But I’m sorry to say that despite their best efforts, the folks at the Rolling Treadmill Company had no more luck with the new controller than with the one they had been shipped earlier. In fact, the Chinese tried to redesign the system no less than three times to no avail. And of course, while all this was going on, no one at the company was reporting any of the bad news to The Large Government Safety Body, as they were required to by the Consumer Safety Act.

So runaway fatties were rampant – from Des Moines to Bakersfield, there were bruises, strains and sprains as the chubby chaps and lardy ladies fell foul of their exercise equipment.

Eventually, of course, things caught up with The Rolling Treadmill Company when the Large Government Safety Body finally decided that its actions presented some potential risk of injury to the public. Naturally enough though, even when it was eventually fined thousands and thousands of dollars, The Rolling Treadmill Company still denied that its treadmills were defective and that it violated any reporting requirements.