Is it okay to fail? Engineering failure can be and has been a good thing; it is after all how we learn and how engineering designs improve. But it can be catastrophic; the tragic failure of a bridge, for example. There is another sort of failure in engineering: companies which have released products to the masses without adequate take-up have experienced market failure.
Failure for these companies usually means sending product engineers back to the drawing board; it is often very difficult to gauge whether or not there is a demand for a product. Nurturing skills in business and entrepreneurship, however, will hold engineers in good stead by giving them the edge when it comes to assessing the market and its demand for engineering merchandise.
To show that companies are prone to designing, engineering, and manufacturing products that fail a Swedish town has opened a new museum. It is completely devoted to displaying the failed products that the world has seen throughout the ages. A clinical psychologist named Samuel West was behind the idea and his motivation for opening the Museum of Failure Innovation? He reckons that failure is a good thing.
“Even the biggest, most competent companies fail. The trick is to create an organizational culture that accepts failure so that you can fail small...rather than fail big,” West says. West displays some of the most recognizable failures that were seen on a global scale.
The Nokia N-Gage was poised to be the mobile phone of the future. Half-phone, half-handheld-gaming system, this was the must-have device of the naughties.
Initially the demand for it was quite high, but it had some design quirks: one of these entailed holding the phone vertically on its thick edge, whilst putting the thinnest edge to your ear to hear your caller. The buttons were also oddly laid out. It just wasn’t practical.
On top of this the device lacked good gaming titles. Ultimately the phone lost its value to customers.
Long before the iPod, iPad, and Siri, was Apple’s failed digital assistant Newton. It was a very basic Palm Pilot, built three years before the Personal Digital Assistant was a thing.
Steve Jobs, upon his return to Apple in 1997, allocated engineers positions in the designing and manufacturing of what would go on to be the iPod. Jobs, in Walter Isaacson's official biography, lamented:
“My gut was that there was some really good technology but it was [screwed up] by mismanagement. By shutting it down, I freed up some good engineers who could work on new mobile devices. And eventually we got it right when we moved on to iPhones and the iPad.”
But it’s not all doom and gloom with Apple’s Newton. It is a perfect example of how a device, with no real customer interest, set the stage for the rise of an engineering design that changed the world. That design being the eventual iPhone.
West has even put the two-wheeled engineering marvel, the Segway, into his museum of failure. Segway Inc spent $100 million developing their product. They went on to sell each one at an unrealistically high price of $3,000 for the entry-level version and $7,000 for the premium vehicle.
According to TIME, the company only sold 30,000 units between 2001 and 2007. The world wasn’t convinced that it was the ‘next big thing’ for getting from A to B.
“The Segway was supposed to revolutionize the way we transport people. And we all know that Segway today is used by tourists before they go get drunk,” West said sardonically.
Google also thought it could revolutionize our worlds and put our smartphone and smartwatches directly on our faces. They released a product named Google Glass - a head-mounted augmented reality wearable computer. The engineering of wearables is now commonplace within engineering disciplines and this will inevitably drive the cost down. But Google, in 2013, seemed to have put the cart before the horse.
Google Glass was released at an expensive price point of $1,500. The market felt it wasn’t adequately function-filled to justify that, in other words, $1,500 seemed a bit steep for a pair of cool shades. The product never really left beta testing;
Nonetheless, the future of head-mounted augmented reality wearables is bright, as shown with the Microsoft Hololens. It is clear therefore, that engineering failures bring about more innovation in the long run. However, for those products that miscarried, they now have a new home, in the Museum of Failures.
The world is now left wondering what fascinating engineering design will rise and fall next. Perhaps the latest craze, the fidget spinner will suffer the same fate, and find itself in West’s historical failures museum?
St., 24/7 Wall. "The 10 Biggest Tech Failures of the Last Decade." Time. Time Inc., 14 May 2009. Web. 26 June 2017.
Weller, Chris. "13 of the Biggest Product Flops Featured in Sweden's New 'Museum of Failure'" Business Insider. Business Insider, 14 June 2017. Web. 26 June 2017.