Pinewood Pressure

Why some vendors won’t succeed

As you might imagine, the Hice household is not a boring place. There’s plenty of riding bikes down staircases, popping wheelies in the driveway, bailing headfirst down the playhouse firefighter’s pole, and sailing off the back deck with an umbrella to see if it will break a fall. Of course, that’s just me; my kids are somewhat more reserved.

My nine-year-old spends a lot of time hopping his Razor over obstacles in the driveway, and solving the complexities of some rather sophisticated video games. My seven-year-old is a born capitalist. I guess it’s my fault, because I bought him Microsoft Zoo Tycoon, and

Figure 1: The 1963, 2006 and 2005 champion cars

soon he was building zoos with numerous animals and exotic landscaping, such as waterfalls, and patrons began pumping cash into his operation. So, I took it a step farther and bought him Locomotion for the PC, whereby he creates complex manufacturing operations, then builds the infrastructure for shipping by rail, air or boat, and then overlays staggering transportation networks of ferries, small aircraft, trains, buses and cars. Soon, he crafts distribution systems for his products and such, and sits back and watches his balance sheet mushroom.

Both kids upload intricate designs to the Lego Web site, generate assembly directions, and actually post their creations for sale. Colin the Capitalist has a 480-piece model of the Royal Gorge Bridge in there, along with a 169-step assembly sheet. So, if you’re stuck for holiday gifts, we have it. I’ve been eying Prison Tycoon for Little Bill Gates, as Colorado has a booming incarceration industry. I recently drove by the legendary Supermax prison and wondered if the Unabomber, the Beltway Sniper, Terry Nichols, the Shoe Bomber, Eric Rudolph, Ramzi Yusef and Zacarias Moussaoui could see me blasting by through their four-inch windows. I didn’t think so, and taking the kids in for a chat seemed not to be the best use of our time. Then again, I bet they’d not shoplift any candy from the Rite Aid after a quick spin through Supermax. “So, was that Snickers worth it? How about some hard time sleeping on a concrete slab?” With the new game, perhaps Colin will turn hard time into hard cash? Who knows?

Meanwhile, we’ve been in the throes of engineering madness here at Pinewood Derby Central. The legendary Cub Scout race has evolved since my day, and the 40-foot tracks now utilize electronic starting and timing, mathematically randomize the lane assignments, track cumulative times for the heats, and post it all to plasma TVs. Alas, the Hices will be walking around with huge bull’s-eyes on our backs.

Sometime in the 60s, I hand-sanded my old-style Indy racer and slopped Red Devil paint on it. At the end of a wicked night of competition, the Red Rocket had beaten back all challengers and, although my car wasn’t the best looking, it was the fastest in the Pack. Of course, I made the mistake two years ago of mentioning that to my oldest son, and he made it clear that nothing short of winning the Pinewood Derby would be acceptable.

So, there I sat, staring at a block of wood and wondering how to transform it into a screaming Pinewood Derby racer so that I wouldn’t be tagged as a huge loser by Sean. I ended up slicing off a thin wedge of wood from the block. Though I wanted Sean to participate in the design, turning a then-seven-year-old loose on a table saw seemed not to be the act of a rational parent. So, I hacked through the block with all digits intact. Then, to boost the weight to the five ounce limit, I bored a recess in the top of the wedge and melted lead sinkers on the stove, much to the dismay of my wife. I handled that as well, not trusting my son’s dexterity in pouring molten metal. I then turned the axles on a Dremel tool and polished them to a brilliant, smooth finish. I finally packed graphite powder around the wheels, and off we went to the races.

When the car was put on the main staging table, it was the thinnest by a huge margin. A clutch of people stared at the tiny sliver of wood and wondered if it would float off the track. Not just thin, it was also the fastest of 120 cars, and Sean walked off with the Pinewood Derby Champion’s Trophy.

The elation lasted as long as it took for me to walk to the parking lot, when my youngest, who would be in the Scouts the next year, asked the question I would hear every day for a year: “Can you make a car that will win for me next year?” Great. Despite good engineering, and attention to detail, beating back 120 competitors involves some amount of luck, especially now that I knew my design had been photographed by maybe 40 parents.

So, the heat was on. Back into the shop a year later, sawing, polishing, weighting…and the 2006 edition was born. I took it to a test track at a friend’s house. I ran it against

Figure 2: Two consecutive championships have marked the Hice boys as targets. 

Sean’s championship car from the year before, and was shocked when the new model beat it every time. I had moved the distribution of the lead over the back axel, and the car had a slow start but a blistering finish. Knowing that Sean’s car beat every car in the race the previous year, and Colin’s whipped it hands down, I liked our chances.

You know where this is going? Colin’s car slaughtered all comers, and had the fastest time on that track ever recorded. Dad evaded the downcast eyes and quivering lips of disappointment, and thus the Hices were despised on par with the Supermax residents.

So, here we are in the informatics industry, and we now measure product improvements incrementally. It’s unreasonable to expect groundbreaking innovation from the vendors every year. If we look at product engineering from year to year, the changes are, at best, esoteric, at worst, bug fixes. However, in the time frame of, say, five years, there is quite a differential between major versions.

The multivariate equations of informatics software success are not easily solved. First, there are the company bean counters to deal with. Remember, investment in design comes off the bottom line as overhead. The temptation of some companies is to squeeze every drop of blood out of aging products. Short-term profitability is crack cocaine to the lords of the balance sheet, but investment is the lifeblood of success.

Look at Apple and the iPod. I got my first one maybe four years ago…the big white one (the only color available at the time). The iPod shook the world, and now the bull’s-eye was on the back of Steve Jobs and friends. However, it appears that the cars at Apple don’t have rearview mirrors, and that is why they never worry about who’s in back of them, only what lies in the road ahead. The iPod mini came next, and again smoked the competition. Then came Video iPods and the iPod Nano which, though the same capacity of the Mini, looks like a stick of gum.

For years, companies have tried to make cheaper and faster units, but the will-o’-the-wisp of the iPod target is impossible to hit by the wannabes because the target they’re shooting at is old news, and it’s too late once they release a new iPod killer to see that Apple left the old model behind as a sacrificial lamb while the Red Bull-swilling tattooed engineers at Apple have been busy widening the gap.

That brings us to the second impediment to engineering: nimbleness. Vendors who can make quick product decisions on the spot, sans the internal selling waltz performed by hundreds of thousands of companies every day, can respond to market demand by the time behemoth sloth-like corporations have just cranked up version three of the management presentation PowerPoint to beg for funding for the next great idea.

Canon, long a purveyor of fine quality film cameras, took the digital photography revolution seriously. They crank out consumer-oriented models with metronomic regularity, and supply idiot-proof software to organize photos, and also provide a conduit to outlets to actually print the photos.

Finally, even if companies are nimble and are willing to spend money like drunken sailors, there remains the thick-as-a-brick impediment. What if you simply don’t have smart people? Or maybe the smart people lack creativity? If the vision isn’t there, it isn’t going to happen. And I don’t necessarily mean that someone has to be as creative as Dane Cook, but they need to know how to obtain the ideas on where to take products in the evolutionary cycle. That impediment may not be visual…it may be aural.

I have a lot of friends working at vendors who are feasting, and I also have friends who are saddled with vendors in a famine. Both know who they are; but the desperate, frustrated sector just stares at the plain block of wood while management harangues them for not selling it fast enough.

Randy Hice is the president of the Laboratory Expertise Center. He may be contacted at