I’ve always considered engineers to be the rock stars of the machinery world. They’re the ones who take the concepts discovered by Newton, Tesla and others and actually turn them into useable technology. Some, or maybe most, of that technology today is beyond impressive.
Over the years I’ve had the privilege of meeting and talking with many engineers. I’ve even had the chance to talk to some who were behind the milestone advancements in agricultural machinery design, like the first belted ag tractor. Hearing about how the pieces came together on major projects and the problems they overcame was something I could spend all day listening to.
Many of the engineers I spoke to about their past projects still seemed to consider the technology and design that went into those machines as their babies. They continued to be passionate about, and protective of, the designs they helped create.
I’ve also heard from retired engineers how rival companies engaged in a kind of spy-versus-spy game, as all brands tried to keep up to date with what the others were testing and working on. Field testing agricultural machines really isn’t something you can do behind closed doors, so keeping prototype machines hidden from unauthorized eyes isn’t easy. And given some of the stories of scouting adventures I’ve heard, how some people managed to get up close to prototypes for a detailed look was pretty creative.
And I’ve heard many people (engineers and others) say the final production design of many machines would have been different if they had had a say in the final approval process. And what that person would have changed likely depends on what position he or she held in the company. Executives often see production costs and profit ratios. Marketers see ability to win or lose market share. Engineers see technology.
One executive told me if you left it to engineers, the tractor they build would do everything including make coffee for you. But the job of marketers is to limit that enthusiasm for technology by deciding what, exactly, they think farmers are willing to pay for. Executives then figure out if they can make a profit building it.
Of course growing up on a farm, I didn’t always hear a lot of praise for engineers from farmers or the mechanics in the shops I worked at. The reason for that is sometimes repairing those terrific machines built by engineers can be a real challenge, and everyone who spends at lot of time at the business end of a wrench seems to have mixed feelings about engineers.
This past week I had to change the starter in an old grain truck. That’s one of those straightforward jobs that should only take a few minutes, especially in a vehicle that has so much room in the engine bay you could almost sit on an office swivel chair and roll under it. In this case every bolt—except one—was within easy reach. After discovering where that last one was, I found I had a choice. I could either get a partial look at it or reach it, but not both at the same time.
So there was no choice but to use a kind of Braille repair method, the kind that causes mechanics to dislike engineers. I had to climb up on the truck and get into a nearly upside down position, then reach into the darkness and hope the bolt I was turning was the right one.
Despite my admiration for engineers, sometimes—when working on a repair like this one—I can almost envision a bunch of them sitting in the office lunch room and laughing so hard they snort coffee out their noses when they imagine what some poor mechanic is going to have to do to take that particular component off a machine when it fails—and it almost certainly will, eventually.