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Guest Column

The marvels of maintenance

  • from Shaastra :: vol 01 edition 03 :: Sep - Oct 2021
Guru Madhavan is the Norman R. Augustine Senior Scholar and senior director of programs at the National Academy of Engineering.

Moonshots are flashy and may inspire us to attempt the impossible. But boring as it may be, maintenance is the unsung partner that enables innovation.

The 1853 World's Fair, at the shimmering New York Crystal Palace, showcased many technological wonders of the age. One that still resonates today can be traced to a demonstration by engineer Elisha Graves Otis, who made bedframes. In his trim Victorian suit, lush beard, and silk stovepipe hat, Otis mounted a wooden platform secured by notched guide rails. His assistant hoisted the platform some fifty feet above the ground, grabbing the crowd's attention. 

Otis was there to correct a fault of his own making. Although he had developed an elegant solution to the problem of cable failure in platform elevators that made use of a hoist with a passive automatic braking system, none had sold. It wasn't because people didn't need them: Elevators often catastrophically broke down in granaries and warehouses, killing and maiming their passengers. Otis realised that his design, though superior and straightforward, needed showmanship. The World's Fair was his moment to flaunt his vertical flight of fancy and function.

When the assistant dramatically used an axe to cut the suspension cable holding the platform, the crowd gasped in shock. It appeared to be an act of lunacy-and suicide for Otis, who stood on the platform. However, the platform stopped with a jerk as the braking system arrested the freefall. "All safe," Otis reassured the viewers, "all safe." 

And thus, the crucial safety innovation that led to the launch of the modern vertical city was enabled by a now-legendary stunt. It's impossible to imagine life without it. 

SHOWMANSHIP SELLS...

Otis's demonstration exemplifies a time-honoured formula that mixes technology and design with entertainment. In some fields, "demo or die" has come to supplant "publish or perish"-highlighting the fact that products or people, no matter how deserving, will not advance unless they are first noticed. From Thomas Edison's electric theatrics to Steve Jobs's turtle-necked stage flair, the demo culture has thrived on symbolism, spotlight, and special effects in which pomp is the essence of persuasion. Still, magicians will tell you that a trick will fail if it lacks meaning, no matter how incredible. There must be a link between the magic and its purpose. 

While showmanship is frowned upon when it is pursued too overtly, it is sometimes unavoidable. Consider the rousing words of President Kennedy in 1962. "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard." The showmanship in his words is apparent, and it got us to the moon. But what of "the other things?" If we are to take up Kennedy's bold challenge, it's time to elevate showmanship to "do the other things" that he gestured at, perhaps the necessary things that are less sexy and more vexy. 

When the dazzling prominence of innovation overshadows the attentive acts that characterise maintenance, it leads to the collapse of everyday expectations.

Showmanship for prosocial needs could move people to action if the emphasis is on mindful mending rather than blank boosterism. Just imagine a prime-time commercial for public works and sanitation that inspires infrastructure improvements rather than promoting the latest new feature or flavour. Or a modern-day Elisha Otis demo that captures the public's attention about the powers of safety standards, quality management, and preventive maintenance in elevators?  

...BUT MAINTENANCE MATTERS

But when the dazzling prominence of innovation overshadows the subtler, kinder, and attentive acts that characterise maintenance, it leads to the collapse of everyday expectations. And these minor maintenance misfortunes may ultimately put a stop to the legitimate big-picture innovations. Why, after all, build a system if there is no ethic to maintain it well? Maintenance is not a static process; it builds on change, and just like innovation, it fuels change. Innovators often claim to make history, but maintainers start from and sustain the necessary continuities of history. There can be no helpful innovation without a vast, invisible infrastructure of maintenance activity that keeps civilisation running.

Nestled between the duties of innovation and maintenance is a responsibility for cultural engineering that does not end when a commission or contract comes to completion. It is a perpetual effort to be attentive to future neglect and decay in our shared dependencies. Very few subjects are as relevant, and neglected, as care and maintenance - acts integral to our survival and progress and as crucial as the creation itself. Maintenance over a system's life cycle may consume more than it took to make a new system. But the result is often a catastrophe avoided. Engineers are full of such half-jokes: today's innovations are tomorrow's vulnerabilities. Without maintenance, failures flourish. 

Moonshots may inspire us to attempt the impossible. Still, far more practical value has come from suitcase wheels than Ferris wheels, no matter how flashy the latter are. Maintenance is the unsung partner that enables innovation. It is both life and-in its connection to history, present, and the future-larger than any single life. And, it needs showmanship to attract the attention it requires to assume its proper place in our civic priorities.

Otis never thought he would become a showman at the Crystal Palace, but the brisk ballyhooer P.T. Barnum did. Otis received a hundred dollars for his stunt. There was no need for an elevator pitch.

@BioengineerGM 

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