Michael Pecht feels like Sherlock Holmes sometimes, and not just because he plays violin on the side.
He's a reliability engineer by trade. He runs a 120-person team at the University of Maryland, where the workload includes digging into the mystery of why complex electronics don't work properly.
"We get some new problem all the time," he said. "It's just really fascinating."
Pecht, who founded the Center for Advanced Life Cycle Engineering in 1986 and has run it since, was a consultant to Congress during the investigation of reports of sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles, and more recently for the General Motors ignition-switch recall. He's worked with technology firms, aerospace companies and the military.
He chatted with The Baltimore Sun recently about reliability, his globe-trotting life, and how the two intersect.
Why did you start the center?
A lot of military companies were having … reliability problems — the life of the products was extremely short. And when I say extremely short: Some of the systems couldn't operate for two or three missions, in fact.
I brought [together] a number of these companies that were having similar problems and said, "Why don't we all cooperate? … We should just try to solve things as a group." And at the same time, the National Science Foundation awarded us a grant.
[Today] we're getting funded at about $6 million a year from companies doing everything from very specific problem-solving on a particular problem to very generic kinds of things: How do we design for reliability at the next generation, whatever it is? And also: How do we test quickly?
We work with companies like Dell that might have only two-year or three-year lives [for products], but we also work with companies … that want 10 years or more of reliability.
We have a lot of visitors from all over the world in the electronics area. Just for an example, the French government has a person who spends the year — it's a different person each year — … with us.
You've lived all over the world. What are some examples?
I lived in almost all of the Axis of Evil, except in North Korea. My mom was an economist for the United Nations and my dad was a civil engineer, so we spent a lot of time in Asia. … I went to high school in Rome … and my senior year in high school was in Lahore, [then] West Pakistan.
When I was in high school, I played on the basketball team. We had a small team, and although I am not quite 6 feet tall, I was the center. We often played the American school in Kabul, Afghanistan, and took the bus from Lahore to Kabul through the Khyber Pass.
What impact did those international experiences have on your work?
It's really valuable, because you really need to know culture. Let me put it this way: If you look at electronics today, making electronics, you have an unbelievably complicated supply chain. No one company makes everything.
You have to deal with those companies if you want to make a good product, and if there's a problem, you also have to attempt to solve the problem, and you need to understand how they think culturally and how you interact with them.
I think you're aware that sometimes there's counterfeit parts. So my group studies counterfeiting and counterfeit parts as part of how we control supply chains.
Downstream, you kind of lose visibility. What we've learned is you can't lose that visibility. You have to really be monitoring that.
What does a reliability engineer do?
There's a need to make a product that's going to perform as intended for the life of the product under the environmental and operating conditions that it's going to be used [in], and the reliability engineer looks into how to do that. And, of course, to do it in a cost-effective and timely manner.
And that's where things like accelerated testing come in. We can't test for the life of the product, we can't test an Apple smartphone for two years and then put it out — they want to test it in a couple weeks or a month, something like that. But based on that testing, they want to ensure it's going to last the life of the product.
So the reliability engineer looks into: How do we understand what the risks are, and what are the ways that we can manage the risks?
Being a reliability engineer, nobody loves you. … You have to be tough. And then if things are going well, a lot of times management says, "We don't need reliability anymore; our system's perfect." And that's actually unfortunate. It means the reliability engineers are doing their job, and you need to keep them.
What was your role in the aftermath of revelations about Toyota's sudden-acceleration problems, and what did you conclude was the issue?
I helped Congress in asking the right questions.
I was actually mostly disappointed with the … National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. [The agency said,] "There's no electronics problems." It's just totally wrong.
There's something called tin whiskers, and these whiskers can grow out of certain types of materials that were used by Toyota, and they can cause short circuits. And both NASA found that there was a prevalence of tin whiskers and my group also found that.
We didn't say that was the cause of the sudden acceleration, but we said that was one of the candidates. And that candidate wasn't sufficiently looked into. There was nobody with that type of expertise at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Title: Founder and director of the Center for Advanced Life Cycle Engineering at the University of Maryland
Previous jobs: They include working as an electrical technician to put himself through college and as a reliability contractor for NASA on the ASTRO-1 telescope project
Education: Bachelor's degree in physics, master's degree in electrical engineering and a master's and doctorate in engineering mechanics, all from the University of Wisconsin-Madison
Hobbies: He plays about 20 instruments, including violin, saxophone and clarinet, and has music studio rooms at home