What is Perfect Design?

By Charles (Ed) Becze, Ph.D., co-founder of Pegmatis Inc., a design and development firm near Toronto, Canada.

In the past, I have been challenged by clients, bosses, and customers to deliver a “perfect” design. Now, my colleagues and I always try to deliver our work with fidelity to the best that we can, and we may sit back, feet on our desks, with a glass of Scotch to celebrate our delivery of another perfect design. Still, the reality is, a client may not always agree with our ideas. And so, an esoteric question arises: What is a perfect design?

The reality is that there will always be someone who can find an improvement or who has an opinion about how to improve a design – basically the proverbial armchair engineer or designer. I can relent all I want, try to defend said design, basically argue, but what I can’t do is change an opinion. To answer the question of “what is a perfect design,” we must look at the challenge, then the process we follow to execute the task, and finally assess how to gauge perfection.

The best way to illustrate this is by example. Our quest can run back to the invention of the wheel, but I would rather focus on something more interesting and a little more recent: a particular, historic rifle mechanism. Let’s start with a small history lesson…

Let’s travel back to 1898 to the Spanish-American war and the battle of San Juan Hill. Without discussing this conflict’s political motivation, I would instead like to focus on some fascinating outcomes resulting from some very real problems. Heroics during this conflict are completely irrelevant; the fact is that on July 1, some 1,270 well-entrenched Spaniards held off a daunting American force of around 15,000 soldiers. The Spanish, armed with their Mauser-derived designs, with the modern ammunition utilizing smokeless powders, held off this formidable American force armed with their .30-40 Krag rifles. As a result of that skirmish, the US Army revisited their choice of weapons.

In 1892, the ordnance office reviewed 52 different rifle action designs. They short-listed 3 foreign designs – the Krag, Lee, and Mauser. The powers that be selected the Krag for reasons cited as ease of loading. The Krag magazine could be loaded without raising the bolt and placing the rifle temporarily out of service. This was a logical choice and made complete sense. Of course, at the time, other factors such as robustness, ability to handle chamber pressure, reliability… were never considered to any great extent. Requirements drove the decision. I doubt very much that the military selected an inferior weapon purposely. The Krag design met the requirements presented to the committee, hence the selection.

Let’s revisit those unlucky troops attacking the Spanish on San Juan Hill – sort of a test of the ordnance choice. It was very apparent that the US forces were severely under-gunned. Regardless of eventual victory, the conflict caused some serious revisiting of the ordnance office’s choice of weapon. I truly believe that this was driven by an understanding of the “test results” of the conflict and new requirements with different evaluation criteria.

I recall reading an article some three decades ago written by Col. Craig Boddington (USMC Ret.) describing the path leading to the development of the Springfield model 1903. Col. Boddington wrote that the top engineers at Springfield Armory were tasked with reviewing the Mauser design in light of the US Army’s “new requirements” and lessons learned from the test at San Juan Hill in 1901, and then they were to improve the design. After several years of intense study, the engineers concluded that the Mauser design was superior and could not be improved. I recall the description used was “perfect” and cannot be improved upon. As a young engineering student, I was intrigued by this description to the point that it has stayed with me this long. Needless to say, that the obvious similarity between the 1903 Springfield and the Mauser produced a royalty payment of $250,000.

Perhaps we should review the influential design created by Peter Paul Mauser. I leave it up to the reader to review the exact mechanism if so interested, but I want to point out some key features that are most noteworthy. The design is simple. So simple that it is almost sickeningly obvious and spawns lament that anyone could’ve designed that. The design is strong, robust, and functionally flawless. It can handle heavy loads and is the basis of more modern actions designed to handle more powerful cartridges – truly a remarkable characteristic in that it scales with new developments in requirements quite easily. In my opinion, absolutely a perfect design – with one and only one exception: Cost. They are very expensive to manufacture. Remove cost from the equation, and voila – PERFECTION!

Don’t believe it? Let’s review some more history. I deliberately will avoid World Wars 1&2 and focus more intently on the consumer industry. Winchester, an American icon in repeating arms manufacturing, adopted the Mauser fundamental design and arguably improved on the safety mechanism. Both safety mechanisms function with the same fidelity, with the exception that one is designed for combat and the other for hunting. Again, requirements drive what is perfect – but the basis of the action remains unchanged. This rifle was named the rifleman’s rifle – the iconic Model 70 was born using the Mauser-type action renamed to “Controlled Round Feed.” What’s in a name, that which we call a rose would smell as sweet? Call it what you will; it is fundamentally the same action begat by Mr. Mauser so many years before.

Recall that the only real drawback was the cost to manufacture the action. The Model 70 carried the iconic action for decades – up to 1964. In 1964, the American business mantra took over, and there was a huge push to reduce costs. From this, the Push Feed Model 70 was born. This functional action was produced for decades; however, aficionados and collectors refused to buy them. The action’s simple perfection drove the collector market crazy, and it required a small fortune to acquire a pre-64 rifle.

In 1992, Winchester announced the re-introduction of the iconic action at a serious premium. As a starving student, a premium that I was willing to drop an entire month’s wages and essentially leave myself short for the following school year was willing to pay. But I digress. Why does this particular design stand the test of time? Why would people be willing to pay a premium to obtain one of these iconic weapons? I seriously doubt that most consumers review the design in terms of mechanical perfection, as I do. I believe that it is simply instinct. We, as users, instinctively know what is good. I certainly wasn’t present at San Juan Hill, and I certainly did not participate in the formidable task of improving the Mauser design. I look at the design; I ask myself what is needed – what do I require from a design, and then I thoughtfully assess it if it meets my needs – and more. But those who know me can attest that I look further than what is obviously needed and pass judgment based on foresight, instinct, and experience.

So – what is a perfect design? This obscure question is somewhat difficult to answer, depending on who asks and the context around the question. However, in my opinion, a perfect design starts with capturing all requirements, current, and future; it can stand evolutionary and possibly revolutionary changes. A perfect design evades significant improvement. Perfect designs are simple. They answer the design challenge in the absence of “Rube Goldberg” types of approaches. A design is simple if one can look at it and hit themselves in the head in frustration for “not thinking of that.”  A perfect design functions flawlessly, test after test. Ultimately, it is something someone wants to pay for and is willing to pay what it takes to obtain that perfection. A perfect design will delight users and will generate value that withstands crises and pressures to replace cheaper options. A perfect design is simply perfect.

Charles (Ed) Becze, Ph.D., is a co-founder of Pegmatis, Inc. Over his career, he has worked with Pratt & Whitney, Ford, and an electronics Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM). Pegmatis Inc is home to a team of highly experienced software, hardware, and manufacturing professionals who are proud to have produced some award-winning products, many of which you may have in your own homes. Connect with Ed on LinkedIn or contact him for more information at Pegmatis.com