Sometimes you’re better off knowing too little than too much, or at least better off using what you already know rather than struggling to come up with something revolutionary. I’ve realized this through my job and through social situations when I’m around people who, it seems, are more interested in hearing themselves talk than in actually conversing.

I can think of one acquaintance in particular, a friend of a friend. He’s a nice guy, but he offers input on any topic that comes up, whether he knows anything about it or not. He talks so much that sometimes in the next sentence he contradicts what he just said previously. And if he spews out a few sentences in a row, I often can’t figure out his point, while I get the feeling he’s patting himself on the back for saying something brilliant. Sometimes I’d like to suggest that if he doesn’t know anything about a particular topic, he should either say so, or just say nothing. That way, although the conversation might be simpler, I believe its quality would be higher.

This type of thinking can also go a long way in engineering. Many industries are filled with cutthroat competitors fighting to “one-up” the other guy with high-tech products. But sometimes these companies could stay ahead of the game merely by keeping products simple and aiming for clever designs.

Fitting this simple-but-clever doctrine is one company that has recently introduced a new low-precision, low-cost linear guide. An engineer at the company explained that while competitors are coming out with guides of higher precision, many applications don’t call for high precision. Some customers can save money and get the performance they need with linear guides that aren’t necessarily cutting edge.

Engineers can also beat out the competition with clever designs. For instance, Timothy L. Howard, the president of a company that manufactures counterbalance door-opening devices, recently wrote an article for our Vantage Point column. In the article he points out the frustration customers experience when sophisticated devices are used on expensive machines to hold hatches and doors open, yet the hold-open devices don’t do the job. These attempts at elegant design often become the weak link in million-dollar machinery or $40,000 cars. His company’s products are simple mechanical devices based on the laws of fundamental physics and which, he claims, operate better than more expensive mechanisms.

The popular press is crying for innovation in automotive design, but sometimes “innovative” means are not as reliable as age-old mechanical concepts. Take, for example, sophisticated lift mechanisms in automobiles. I empathize with the frustration Mr. Howard speaks of because I’ve been bumped on the head several times by the hatchback of an ’89 Mustang with worn-out lift components. When it happens I wonder why anyone would design something that doesn’t work the way it should.

The reality is that the components work the way they should when they’re new. Unfortunately, either Mustang designers undersized the parts (while designing one of the heaviest hatchbacks I’ve ever lifted) or the mechanisms weren’t designed for consumers who keep their cars until even junkyards don’t want them.

To make lift mechanisms last long enough for
drive-’em-into-the-ground car owners, the approach must either be heftier components or a more clever door design. I’m glad to see that on some new-vehicle trunks, automotive designers appear to be taking the latter approach. It appears that the hinge linkages use mechanical advantage to make the trunks easier to lift.

Mechanical counterbalance devices also take a clever approach to opening doors and machine covers. The mechanisms are simple torsion systems that control the release of spring energy to counteract gravitational force. This makes the doors easy to lift and balances them in every intermediate position.

I think the inventor of rolling diaphragm seals similarly aimed at a clever design rather than a revolutionary one. The devices operate by a simple principle that not only seals fluid, but also minimizes friction.

In dynamic sealing applications, such as fluid cylinders, friction is an important design limitation. Rolling diaphragm seals attack the problem of friction using the basic principle that rolling friction coefficients are lower than those of sliding friction, a concept proven sometime around the stone age with the invention of the wheel.

Sure there are plenty of high-tech seals with complex shapes or space-age elastomers that probably also keep fluids where they belong. But rolling diaphragm seals do their job in a simple manner. They work well because of a clever design principle. Instead of fighting against the fluid to keep it out, they use fluid pressure to maintain a tight seal while minimizing friction.

I know there are ways to improve current designs, but sometimes maybe we try too hard to make revolutionary improvements. Maybe instead we should take another look at proven designs that we’re passing over and either enhance their good qualities or just use them the way they are.