University Lowbrow Astronomers

Secrets of the Manufacturers.

by Tom Ryan
Printed in Reflections: December, 2001;
Title Changed: November, 2003.

As a person who has a near zero tolerance for being controlled, and more self confidence than is probably good for me, I have managed to parlay a minor talent for mechanics and a love of light into a career as an engineering consultant for the past fourteen years.  And I’ve noticed that most of the companies for which I’ve worked, large and small, rich and poor, public and private, believed they had Secrets.  And that those Secrets were the reason they were still in business.

Naturally, as someone who is invited into someone else’s company to help them with a problem that they couldn’t solve themselves, I respect their privacy and scrupulously partition the work I do for them from the work I do for others.  Professionalism demands it, and good manners enforces it.  But every so often, a company employee (usually with a very limited resume) will stress how important it is that no one ever learns what they are doing.  It’s hard for me to explain that I just don’t talk about proprietary information.  It’s like saying I’m not an ax murderer.  If I claim I’m not, does that suddenly make me believable?  At moments like these, I feel a certain awkwardness, but I’ve learned to handle it without embarrassing either of us.  Nevertheless, I often walk away feeling a little angry, not just because I was insulted, but because I was insulted for no good reason.  Because 99% of the time, there are no Secrets.

I think that the reason most people believe that their company has Secrets is because they walk around the building, look at their management and their coworkers, and say to themselves, the competition could not possibly be this screwed up.  They’re tough, they’re smart, they’ve got better backing.  All we’ve got is... uh, what?  I know!  Secrets!  Man, if they ever find out what our secrets are, we’re dead meat.

But this is just not true.  Successful companies do have something, but it’s not secrets.  In the early ’70’s, Celestron invented a method of making fourth order curves on window glass, thus making Schmidt Cassegrains possible at a low price.  Meade also does this now, and so can you, since the method is widely known.  But the dissemination of this knowledge has not put Celestron out of business.  At least not by judging the ad volume in S&T.

When I needed to know the detailed prescription of a certain Nikon lens, I called Nikon and asked for it.  They just laughed at the idea of giving that to a customer, so I disassembled the lens and measured the curves, spacings, and the glass types.  Do they think that Canon doesn’t do that?  Yet Nikon is still in business.

When Ford wants to know how a particular car is made, they just buy one and take a chop saw to it.  Yet Toyota is still in business.

Just having a Secret, or losing it, doesn’t make much actual difference to most companies.

On the other hand, I’ve worked with a successful mid range ($60K - $150K) telescope builder that not only did not have secrets, it was struggling to incorporate common knowledge.  The fact that they were successful led me to an inescapable conclusion.  A company (or a person, for that matter) doesn’t owe it’s success to proprietary secrets.  It owes it’s success to it’s people, who get up every day and do their jobs.

Now, if you’re a worker, this statement might make you feel pretty good.  (“The place couldn’t run without me”, and to a certain extent, that’s true, because talent matters.)  And if you’re a business owner, this statement might make you a little worried.  After all, what’s to stop a bunch of people from getting together and starting a competitive firm?  The answer is, nothing.  Nevertheless, most people won’t do that.  They’re too busy doing their own jobs.  The few who do start companies soon find that starting a company is a lot harder than it looks.  A lot harder.  For one thing, it’s not easy to convince a lot of talented, compatible people to leave their jobs and do something new.

So the next time you’re holding that multi-element eyepiece in your hand, don’t think that you bought it because it has some fancy secret prescription.  You bought it because someone went to work and made it.


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