Design Deficiencies

Introduction

When using a piece of equipment, it’s natural to form an opinion of what you like, what you can tolerate, and what you can’t abide. Often times, the irksome aspects of a piece of equipment may be attributed to the design. Irritatingly, design modifications to ameliorate the fault are often quite simple. This post will describe what I feel are flaws in the design of: the rear control dial of the OM-D E-M5, the ND filter of the Metz 54 MZ-3, and the laptop compartment of the Godspeed SY-758 camera bag; and discuss what I think the manufacturers could have done to prevent these from becoming issues.

The OM-D E-M5 Rear Control Dial

This is a simple one: the cap fell off. Somewhere around the 10,500 frame mark, while adjusting the aperture of the tripod mounted camera in the middle of a gully, the cap became dislodged from the control wheel. Fortunately, I was able to catch the cap before it was washed into obscurity. Obviously, this is not an ideal situation. In fact, it’s a dire situation, as the control wheel can’t easily be manipulated, especially with the camera to the eye, without the cap being in place and fastened down.

The cap (upside down at left) and the bare control dial. The cap is only held in place with adhesive, which evidently, isn't up to the task.
The cap (upside down at left) and the bare control dial. The cap is only held in place with adhesive, which evidently, may not be up to the task in certain cases.

An online search revealed that I wasn’t alone in this issue, and that I may have even been lucky for it to take so long to happen. After spreading epoxy on the cap and control wheel, then clamping them together overnight, I had a think about what could have caused the problem. The answer I came up with was simple: leverage.

The wheel, as you can see in the photograph above, is completely exposed, and overhangs the rear of the camera. As a result, when moving the wheel with my thumb, an upward force is applied at the rear of the wheel. Since there is no structure above the wheel, there was no downward force to mitigate the force applied by my thumb. The cap acted like a lever, and was eventually prized off the control wheel, much like a metal cap is prized off a bottle. While the cap was fastened to the wheel, it was only fastened with adhesive, which may not have been of sufficient strength, or may have been weakened when the camera was taken through Cambodia (heat has a habit of doing that, I’ve found).

As far as I can tell, there are two straightforward design changes which would have prevented this: partially enclosing the cap and wheel; or fastening the cap and wheel together using at least one set screw in the side, as well as adhesive. If a small metal enclosure for the wheel and cap were integrated into the top plate, this would provide suitable force to counteract the upward force from my thumb. Moreover, if the enclosure were extended to the front of the top plate, it would have provided sufficient extra real estate for a couple of function buttons. Something similar has been done on the E-M5 II, however, it is not being used to enclose the rear control dial. That being said, the dial appears to be an improved design, and I’m yet to read any reports of issues with its integrity. Set screws, though, provide the best answer in my opinion. Theoretically cheaper than a modified top plate, they have been proven to work in scores of old film cameras, and with the appropriate use of gaskets, they wouldn’t compromise the weather sealing of the camera.

While it was gutting when the control wheel cap fell off, my repair is holding well (for now). However, it is unfortunate to think that a change in design could have prevented it in the first place. It may be argued that improved manufacturing, testing and quality assurance could also have prevented this issue. However, no matter how well made or tested something is, if it is designed to fail, it is destined to fail. In this case, I am willing to overlook it in this instance, as it is the only major failing I have had on the camera in three years and over 10,000 frames.

The Metz 54 MZ-3 ND Filter

To allow for changes in output power, the ND filter on the secondary reflector of the 54 MZ-3 has two sides: one is clear, the other is heavily smoked to cut flash output. This makes sense, until you find that the filter has fallen off the flashgun of its own accord. The filter is held in a groove on each side of the flashgun, and one side feels like it contains a spring to help with mounting the filter and holding it in place. However, no matter how carefully it’s mounted, I find I’m always looking at the ground when I use the flash, to make sure it hasn’t fallen off of its own accord, which it tends to do every time I use it.

The solution should have been blindingly obvious to the designers: since the secondary reflector is only half the width of the flash body, why not have an ND filter permanently mounted in capped rails, so that it may be slid into and out of position, without fear of it falling off? If you were to have a user detachable cap at one end, you could even offer different strengths of filter, to control fill ratios more precisely, or allow user replacement of the filter, should it become cracked. Ultimately, though, the best solution is the one Metz have used in all of their recent designs: a switch or menu function that alters the output of the secondary reflector without the need to use ND filters. It’s simple, reliable, more flexible, and impossible to lose. That’s all you could ask of a means of adjusting anything, really.

The 54 is out of production now, along with its ND filter system. Metz were canny enough to realise that adding the adjustment by means of a switch or menu option was more reliable, more flexible, and ultimately, more sensible. For that, they should be commended.

The Godspeed SY-758 Laptop Compartment

Some intelligent person(s) decided that it would be a great idea to access the compartment from the side. That’s fine. The same intelligent person(s) then decided that it would be an even better idea if the zipper didn’t run the full length of the side of the bag. That’s not fine. The compartment is designed to fit a 15″ laptop comfortably, but the task of getting it in there is uncomfortable. Rather than taking mere seconds to slide the laptop into place, it takes a couple of minutes of grunting, jiggling the machine around, and swearing profusely every time the zipper catches the corner of the screen or your finger gets pinched between the zipper and the laptop. It’s a decent compartment for protecting the machine, but by the time its in there, you have to start wondering if the compartment is there to protect that laptop from the rigours of photography on the go, or from the zipper of the compartment itself.

Extending the zipper is a simple, obvious solution, and it’s hard to fathom why a longer zipper wasn’t used when the bag was made. This would make the compartment more user friendly, allowing the laptop to be slid in without a fuss, retrieved without a fuss, all while reducing the likelihood of damage to the laptop. It shouldn’t affect the integrity of the bag, as my dedicated laptop backpack has a full length zipper, and hasn’t spontaneously disintegrated, even when heavily laden. Besides, Godspeed fitted two aluminium ribs to the bag, so it shouldn’t deform under any circumstances. Another option would be the use of a top-mounted zipper, much like that of a number of other camera bag designs. This would allow for a shorter zipper, and in my experience, would allow for faster loading, as it is much less likely that the bag would have to be laid on its side.

It’s a good bag, but could have been made better by allowing the laptop compartment to be used to its full potential without incurring any damage to what is likely to be a fairly expensive piece of equipment.

Conclusion

Sometimes, even good or great equipment is let down by things which could so easily have been rectified at the design stage. In many cases, manufacturers improve future designs, or better still, issue updates and repairs to rectify the defective design. However, much like designing an experiment, failing to get it right first time often leads to frustration, wasted time and resources, and diminished confidence. In both cases, the remedy is often so simple, you’re forced to wonder: why wasn’t it right first time?

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2 thoughts on “Design Deficiencies”

    1. This was intended mostly to share my experience, and make the point that certain faults in products should be identified (and rectified) at the design stage. So, no, I didn’t write to the companies involved. I never found the time to gather all their contact details and write to them, and I have also had very poor experiences in the past when trying to deal directly with companies, or even get an answer out of sales reps. Besides:
      – Olympus received a lot of feedback regarding the control wheel through direct correspondence (reported on many forums) and on user forum threads, at a time when mine was yet to come apart. I think this is reflected in the design changes made the the wheel on the E-M5 II and E-M1, as well as reports that only the earlier production runs of E-M5’s were affected. I’m also well outside of the warranty period now, so I would likely be held accountable for the cost of repair. However, I did discuss the fault with the store I bought the camera from, who are good at passing my feedback onto the relevant persons.
      – Metz rectified the problem in subsequent designs, so they either received feedback from others, or came to realise on their own that there were better ways of controlling secondary reflector output. As with the Olympus control wheel, this occurred outside of warranty, and after the basic design was out of production. Again, this is something which came up in conversation, and passed on.
      – I am yet to identify the correct address for correspondence with Godspeed. However, based on the more official looking web pages I was able to find, I suspect that I would encounter a language barrier, which would potentially be counter-productive.
      I accept that, ideally, I would have communicated these complaints directly to the companies involved. That being said, I don’t see that they can do very much if the product is outside of warranty, the design has been discontinued from production, or I can’t even find their address in the first place. However, the fact that I can discuss these things with a retailer person-to-person, and have them passed along or dealt with on the spot, stresses the importance of supporting small specialty stores, who get to know their customers and provide a high level of service throughout.

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