$2,000,000 Design Failure and $2 Fix
Color Blind Caper - Resolving Product Design Failures In-Service
Following a several year long research and development program, an european company in the field of natural gas measurement realized their $350,000 instrument's design was flawed. After delivering heir newly introduced computer-based system, designed to read and interpolate gas flow volumes, pressures, and temperatures recorded on circular paper graphical charts at the gas wellheads, they learned from customers that the instruents' readings were consistently inconsistent. The results, totally unreliable.
Prior to this time, such charts, bearing three color ink tracing lines which frequently crossed and overlapped, were read by operators using manual stylus' to retrace the jagged lines. This process was both time consuming and costly. Moreover, it suffered from the possibility of wide variations in results, depending upon the level of operator training, dexterity, and fatigue.
The company's new equipment was intended to offer significant cost savings in reading and interpolating each chart, while significantly increasing speed and accuracy. Thus, the new equipment was designed to produce a high level of repeatability in results. The system utilized a video camera system and three primary color optical filters that, in sequence, would mask all but one of the colored lines, allowing that line to be distinguished by the camera and software.
When the system was introduced to the United States gas industry, demonstration and validation testing were successfully conducted in order to verify that the $350,000 devices did indeed meet expectations within the limits of the controlled tests. Once units entered regular service, however, the wide variation of types, styles and chart colors resulted in a high percentage of inaccurate results, and even complete failure in properly acquiring colored lines on the charts.
As units were already fielded with major U.S. oil and gas companies, a solution to the problem and an immediately workable field “fix” was essential. John, who had previously been retained to assist the company on a wide variety of consulting matters, quickly determined that the optical color filters were the cause of these failures.
Beginning at a local photography shop that catered to professionals, John researched various materials that could be used as filters and, within a single day, located suitable primary colored cellophane “gels” that are used to filter spotlights in dramatic productions. Purchasing a range of gels for each of the three colors, he tested them until the optimal combination was found.
Pieces were then cut to fit the filter trays of all units in service, and additional samples were sent overnight to the company's R&D facility in Europe. The total materials cost for retrofitting all units was under twenty-five dollars, and the gel media satisfactorily corrected the problems, eventually serving as a permanent replacement for the custom manufactured optical glass filters with which the units were originally equipped.
Through this experience, John also determined that charts with magenta graph lines, rather than the common blue and green colored lines, provided superior results, as they included both blue and red color spectrums. He then assisted one of the major chart suppliers to the industry, in developing charts that were grid color optimized.
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