“Do you like my elephant repellent?”

An elephant in the room

“But there are no elephants around here…!”

“Good, isn’t it?”


Except there are…

When the Challenger blew up in 1986 (30 years ago) I was a 13 yr old, fascinated about everything to do with space exploration (and New Romantic music...and Ferris Bueller, but that’s a different blog).

History now knows that an apparently insignificant O-ring system failed, allowing a plume of superheated gas to escape the SRB, carve a hole in the external fuel tank and ignite the liquid hydrogen inside. Something as mighty and advanced as a space shuttle, destroyed by a single, tiny component.

The investigation following the tragedy put the spotlight on NASA management and their lack of understanding of risk. It is always easy to have 20:20 hindsight…which is an observation on both how the management dealt with risk and OUR ability to sound wise in review.

As developers of commercial, industrial and medical products, we deal with risk every day. Often, but certainly not always, our clients have only a limited understanding of risk. The balance of risk and reward is different in every situation.

I spent 10 years developing medical products. In many ways, we have it easy in medical product design. There are government enforced minimum standards for risks in medical products. With good reason…the medical treatment (device included) should be based on “Do no harm”. Therefore, developers are used to pointing out the elephant in the room – that being the risk that people get hurt by a failure to receive necessary therapy, the wrong therapy or injury as an unintended side-affect. The potential legal ramifications for ignoring it are far too high.

In commercial and industrial products, it is less clear cut. Carrying out risk assessments (and subsequent mitigating activities) to such rigorous standards can seem an over-reaction. What is needed is a tailored approach to risk management to allow a proportional response to risk and to ensure that it is still commercially viable to manage the risk.

That might seem an illogical thing to say, in the light of my headline example, but many products we design will never have the potential to cause severe harm or death. At Cambridge Consultants we employ top-down risk management as well as bottom-up. Top down risk management allows you to look at the potential for harm for the product (or system) as a whole, before looking for likely causes.

As an example, in our recent development of the Gameband, the worst-case-scenario would be loss of data. Precious data, no doubt, but someway short of significant physical harm. In such developments, it can be suitable to have a light-touch on risk management activities, allowing market launch in timescales that medical devices can never dream of.

However, we also work in areas that can have the potential to cause great harm. For instance industrial systems handling large amounts of energy, like our Hurricane load test system, where there is a risk of fatal electrocution and high pressure injury. In such systems, we have the experience to know rigorous risk assessments should always be undertaken…and (as mentioned in the article) a pessimistic outlook is key to their rigor…for managers and engineers alike. Keep an eye out for elephants, even if you haven’t seen an elephant in years.

Max Middleton

Max leads Cambridge Consultants' Product Design Engineering group and has over 15 years experience in consumer, industrial and medical product development.