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THE EXPERT’S VIEW | COLUMN Out with the Old?


We live in a digital world. All around us we can see the evidence of the changes which modern technology has brought about and the way in which we interact with our world has completely

changed in less than a generation. The language of modern life is littered with the tell-tale signs of innovation, from tweets to megabytes to HD,

terms which would mostly have been meaningless only a few years ago. Our parents regarded a menu as something to be read in a restaurant whereas for our children it is a way to access a host of options on computers, TVs and phones.

The digital revolution certainly seems to have occurred far more rapidly — and more completely — than the electronic revolution did in the last century or the industrial revolution in the century before that; at least that is how it seems from our current viewpoint. Despite the pace of change having been truly astounding in most areas, a few traditional things obstinately cling on to life in the modern world and maybe they deserve to do so; light bulbs holding their own against LEDs, vinyl records fighting with CDs, and even printed books surviving despite the best efforts of e-readers.

It appears that, almost unstoppably, new generations of products are invariably incorporating more ‘high- tech’ options and becoming more densely-packaged bits of digital hardware — just have a look at a modern car dashboard which is now stuffed with readouts, digital menus and electronic functions. However, in this progressive drive to digitise, we should sometimes remember the functions that the products need to perform rather than just the gadgetry that they contain. I was reminded of this recently when reading about the prospective demise of the trusty stethoscope.

nuanced sounds from the chest, heart or lungs that can diagnose subtle ailments, something which a purely digital sound fails to do. So this would appear to be a classic case of going digital (high-tech) for its own sake rather than looking at the bigger picture — is a sterile digital stethoscope better just because it is modern or would it be an idea to expend some effort to make the traditional design more sterile?

There are few items which are so intimately linked with a profession as a stethoscope is with doctors and it is amazing to think that the basic design of the stethoscope has hardly changed since it was invented in the 19th century.

There are few items which are so intimately linked with a profession as a stethoscope is with doctors and it is amazing to think that the basic design of the stethoscope has hardly changed since it was invented in the 19th century. However, there is now an idea to replace traditional stethoscopes with digital versions. It turns out that the driver for this change is not how well stethoscopes work but the fact that traditional stethoscopes carry large amounts of bacteria on their pads and these are deemed to be transferring infections between patients. The new digital stethoscopes should, it is claimed, avoid this cross- infection problem. Many doctors, however, are not in favour of abandoning analogue stethoscopes because they work so well — according to doctors, an experienced practitioner can hear finely

A similar thing happened in the 1990s when digital instrumentation was being introduced into aircraft cockpits. Although it is unarguable that digital readouts give more precise readings, it was discovered that with digital altimeters pilots were not getting the information they needed quickly or easily enough. This was because a digital readout gives an accurate, instantaneous reading but when something is changing rapidly, i.e. one wants to know the rate of descent/ascent, then an analogue altimeter (with a needle going around) is far easier for the human mind to assess. Pilots could not gauge a digital readout’s rate of change (numbers flicking around) as instinctively as they could interpret an analogue meter (a needle rotating). This led to digital altimeters either being replaced or supplemented with pseudo- analogue displays. The simple needle really did have a value which could not be replaced.

We faced a similar issue recently in our business, albeit on a trivial scale but one which nonetheless highlighted the ‘old vs. new’ problem. The laser machines which run in our facility have extract units for removing particles/fumes and some of these have manual on/off switches while others have an electronic button in the laser machine’s control software. Both approaches work well except that whenever a PC crashes, the software-controlled extract unit cannot be turned off without powering everything down; the manually- controlled units, of course, don’t have this problem. So although the manual buttons are not as elegant a solution as a central integrated control, they are far better when something goes wrong. When we bought new extract units

recently, the engineers who use the machines every day decided that they would prefer a simple manual on/off switch for the extracts rather than an electronic control — amongst machinery that costs six-figure sums, a simple 50-cent manual switch was preferable to a digitally-controlled button.

Even in the modern environments we work in there is still a place for ‘old tech’. We should embrace new things and keep pushing the technology boundaries but maybe not everything should be thrown out. The fact that the stethoscope has survived nearly 200 years should be a lesson to us all.

24 | commercial micro manufacturing international Vol 7 No.3

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