My Father’s Tuxedo

What my father’s tuxedo and off-highway equipment have in common, and how the Smart Steel organization is fixing the asymmetry of marketplace information.

By Rafał Sornek

I don’t remember exactly what happened to my suit — whether I tore it or spilled something on it – but I was traveling on business and quickly needed a new one for a meeting. I dashed into an airport shop and came out with a black Hugo Boss. I don’t usually wear designer suits, but sometimes even engineers like to look good.

Three years later, my wife and I were invited to a black tie-optional party. About a week before the event she asked to see what I planned to wear. (Even wives of stylish engineers are like that.) When I tried on my Boss suit she just shook her head. While it was only three years old, it had become threadbare in places. She was going nowhere with me in that.

She sent me to the basement to retrieve the suit I’d worn to our wedding. It was my father’s tuxedo from the late 1960s. Not only was I married in it, but he was married in it. After 15 years in storage, it still looked good, though I’d lost a little weight since then and it needed to be taken in. The next day, the tailor was gobsmacked: “Where’d you find such fine fabric? This is designed to last generations!” He made a few alterations, I looked like James Bond, and my wife was proud to be seen with me at the party.

But this isn’t just a story about how good I looked in that suit. It’s about how off-highway equipment and tuxedoes sometimes aren’t much different.

Take the Hugo Boss and my father’s tux, list them both on eBay, and which one is going to command the better price? The Boss, of course, because it’s newer and most conventional pricing models, like straight-line depreciation, value that. (Yes, it’s also got a premium label.) But which is the better garment? Both my tailor and wife can answer that.

It’s the same with off-highway equipment. Take a look at the graph below representing three excavators that a dealer might have on hand to show you.

All three machine are eight years old, were serviced regularly, have nice paint jobs, and are in good working order. You can’t see any differences looking at them, and the dealer maybe doesn’t know or care about their histories. But they’re quite different machines when it comes to fatigue life: the white machine was used for hard rock excavation, the green one for levelling topsoil. If the dealer has that information, he’ll perhaps give you a slightly better price on the white one, but only slightly, because the conventional depreciation model still rules.

So which is the right machine for you? Since you don’t have the information in the graph, it’s impossible for you to know. But if you did have that information, and if you planned to work the machine hard, you’d buy the green one. If you needed the excavator for light farm work, you might negotiate a great price on the white one, and it would serve you very well. But the way things stand now, without information, someone may buy the white machine and be quickly disappointed.

All the information we need is currently collected by OEMs. Sensors on the machines send data, and the type of graph you see on this page can be produced. But it’s not necessarily in the interest of the OEM to share that information, since asymmetry is to their advantage. But individual machine owners could share the information, verify it using blockchain and IoT technologies, and eliminate the asymmetry. And that’s exactly what the Smart Steel organization is doing.

Smart Steel, working with forward-thinking OEMs, is making this information available, though not yet at a massive scale. To make the data really useful, we need you to join the cause. Whether buying a second-hand suit or excavator, knowing the fatigue life of materials is essential to making a good decision.

True, you probably don’t buy a lot of second-hand suits. Even if you are, choosing the wrong one may not have consequences beyond the disapproval of your spouse. But heavy equipment is another matter. Even the best intentions can go wrong when it comes to economics and safety.

Smart Steel is just now getting off the ground. It’s one big black tie-optional data party, and you’re invited. Won’t you join us?