Bad winners and college flashbacks
It appears all that’s gold doesn’t necessarily glitter. A reader points out some flaws in a packaging redesign that earned a gold award. And some readers are still debating whether any engineering courses were truly worthless.

Award-winning losers
I was amazed to read that the changes made to a kitty-litter container earned a Gold Award. (“How to Devise Award-Winning Packaging,” Oct 7). I use that brand of kitty litter and my reaction to the redesigned packaging is that it’s terrible. My husband and I have used the product for the past 16 years and were always happy with the earlier package (a bucket). The product weighs 42 lb, which is more than one-third of my body weight, and it was much more manageable using the handle on the original bucket. The new “easy-carry handle” is far from easy to use. In addition, we found many uses for the plastic bucket once we emptied it. The new package will likely just end up in landfills.

Cheryl Quinn

Another “losing” award winner from the same packaging contest involved a compostable bag for chips. Seems consumers thought the new bag made too much noise when they were munching on its contents. Consumer complaints quickly led to the company pulling the bag off the market.

College crash courses
The debate about the most useless college course reminds me that what material is not taught in engineering schools is equally fascinating. Here’s a little illustrative anecdote.

Twenty years ago, as Chief Engineer for an equipment manufacturing company, I hired a new graduate from a nationally known private university and asked him to design a component and attach it with ¼-20 fasteners. His response was: “What does ¼-20 mean?”

I was astounded. Having a good relationship with him prompted me to ask: “You mean to tell me your daddy paid $100,000 to get you a degree in mechanical engineering and you don’t know what a ¼-20 thread is?”

The same thing happened a few months ago when quoting a job to a young engineer and I suggested using ¼-20 threads in the application. He was clueless as to my reference.

How can anyone hold a degree in mechanical engineering and not know these things? I learned a lot about hardware and components by learning how to properly draw them. As a machine designer for 30 years, knowing how to draw hardware and off-the-shelf components has proven to be half the job. Although we used lead and paper back then and I use CAD now, the principles are the same. Today I still use the same fastener and bearing “W Blocks” I drew decades ago. So my vote for the most essential material left out of engineering courses goes to drawing. Perhaps this is indicative of the chasm between academia and the real world.

I also agree with the letter writer about differential equations. I haven’t seen a differential equation since I left the classroom. The only practical benefit of these types of courses is to accustom us to rigorous thought processes.

Chris Heard

I was disappointed at the letters I read in the Dec. 9th issue of Machine Design listing supposedly useless engineering courses. I, for one, value every bit of my engineering education. Even though I may not practice it all, it was certainly not a waste of my time.

In response to those who found no use for differential equations: I live in the real world and, yes, I have been known to use differential equations. Although I don’t use these math skills daily, I do use them.

I would like to remind everyone that one’s education is what they make of it. While some engineers are content using cookbook equations, others prefer to understand the underlying theory and simplifying assumptions of turnkey equations and work through the derivations on their own. Unfortunately, not all of the problems I’m faced with can be looked up in a textbook.

I choose to understand the mathematics and theory behind the calculations I perform, and I know I’m not alone.

Joe Wright

I am a test engineer and I’m not sure I took any courses while pursuing my engineering degree that were without some merit. While I was still a student, I talked to a number of engineers who agreed that higher math was not necessary. However, there are times when knowing how to fully use those tools would have saved me time and given a more general solution to the problem at hand.

A problem I have with new engineers, however, is their lack of knowledge outside their chosen field. I frequently work with mechanical engineers and find many have a complete lack of understanding of the electrical or electronic disciplines. It makes it difficult to analyze problems in modern vehicles and to fully use the test equipment they have at their fingertips.

Another weak area is statistics. Without a decent background in it, is difficult at best to analyze test data and quantify results.

Ted Burke

A lawyerly mistake?
In reading the article on accelerating the patent process (“Tips for Speeding Up the Patent Process,” Nov. 4). I noticed a significant error. In your fourth point, you say the inventor can petition to add six months to the deadline for responding to USTPO actions. In fact, the inventor can only ask to extend the time to six months total, not six months past the initial deadline. So if the inventor is given a three-month period in which to respond, he can petition to extend this for only up to three additional months.

M. Justice

I agree and I disagree. I checked, and you are correct that the inventor can petition for a total of six months, not six months past the initial deadline. I would disagree, however, that this is a “significant error” because the point I make in the article is to take NO extensions and respond to Patent Office actions as soon as possible. — Alec Schibanoff

Higher or lower?
Which is better?

In the new article about the Chevy Volt (“Are You a One-Volt Family?” Nov. 18), the statement is made several times that one of Chevy’s goals was to lower the mpg. I suspect the author meant to say raise the mpg, which lowers gas consumption. Otherwise, it’s the most informative article I’ve seen on the Volt.

Ed Bishop

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