Flashback to one of Detroit's "Big Three" automakers in the 1970s, when almost half the new cars coming off its assembly lines have steering column electrical problems, says a pilot fish engineer who was there.

"Each steering column wiring harness was supposed to be tested manually in a sub-assembly area next to the line, and then sprayed with a white dot to show that it passed," fish says.

"After a bit of casual observation, it was discovered that some of the workers would actually test just one, spray five or ten, then go back to reading a magazine."

Management decides on a high-tech solution: an automated test system for each assembly plant to walk the workers through each test step for every steering column, and record the results on the plant's mainframe.

The company's aerospace division -- it's a Big Three automaker, so of course it has an aerospace division -- gets the contract to design and build the test systems.

And no expense is spared to make the test stands noise-, dust- and sabotage-proof, including housing the test stand monitor in a quarter-inch diamond-plate steel overhead cabinet with a half-inch-thick Lexan window covering the screen.

"I was a group staff project engineer," says fish. "I was assigned to work with the plant automation engineers to develop the interface protocol between the test stands and the plant mainframes."

After a few months of development, the first test stand arrives at one of the plants. It's installed and tested and the workers are trained -- though some of them clearly aren't happy that their workload has suddenly "increased."

A go-live date is set, and that morning fish and the other engineers arrive early, ready to fire up the system and see it in action.

That's when they discover that someone has sprayed white paint over the Lexan window covering the shiny new test stand's monitor.

"After the expletives -- and laughter -- subsided, I and another engineer spent the next hour scraping paint off the screen with a razor blade while the line workers stood around and watched," fish says.

"However, once everyone had a good laugh, grumbled a bit and got back to work using the new system, end-of-line steering column issues suddenly dropped to near zero."

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