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Zero Emissions

Zero Emissions

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Zero Emissions

217 pages
3 hours
Aug 26, 2012


Sandra Armstrong is on top of the world, having received the Green Technology Award for her work on reducing vehicle emissions as VP of Engineering at a small automotive supplier. Her glory is short lived when a rash of vehicle fires is blamed on her award winning design, and she unearths more self-incriminating evidence that frames her for much more than a faulty design.

Aug 26, 2012

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Zero Emissions - Laura Dillmann

Zero Emissions

By Laura Dillmann

Copyright 2012 Laura Dillmann

Smashwords Edition

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This edition is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you're reading this book and did not purchase it, please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Dedicated to Dan, Allison and Nicole


Sandra sat in her office leaning back in the comfortable black leather chair, reliving her adventures of dinner with Congressman Barstone the night before. Fred Peters, who was sitting across from her desk, was asking far too many questions for someone who was feigning disinterest.

What was he like in person?

He was really sweet and surprisingly easy to talk to. He came across as a real person, not some figure head, you know? Sandra was still beaming in the afterglow of the previous evening. It was such a rare occasion for her to spend an evening out with adults, and James Basrstone had made her feel like she was in a fairy tale. The Congressman had hosted a dinner in her honor, with thirty of the most prominent guests in the automotive industry, all of whom applauded her for her work on fuel controllers. She also couldn’t help but think that maybe she would be receiving another dinner invitation from Michigan’s most eligible bachelor: this one without the other thirty guests. The thought sent tingles down her spine. She felt herself flush, even though she knew that Fred couldn’t possibly be reading her mind.

What was his house like?

I don’t know…I suppose it was like any other mansion. Not that I’ve ever been in any other mansion. Big, ornate, lots of fancy art that I know nothing about.

So, he’s just like the other environmental hypocrites – clamoring on about how WE all need to save energy, but THEY can use tons of our natural resources to heat and cool their luxurious lifestyles. Fred typified the cynical engineer. No politician or businessman should be allowed to live in the lap of luxury while someone with his superior brain power was forced to pay rent for an undersized apartment.

Actually, I read somewhere that he uses his house as a proving grounds to try out alternative fuels in real world applications.

Hmmph, said Fred, still not buying it. If I didn’t know you better, Sandra, I’d say he’s managed to charm his way into your heart. Let me see that award, Fred leaned over and picked up the plaque that was sitting on the edge of Sandra’s desk, waiting to be hung on the wall. His large girth, a result of far too many drive-thru lunches and dinners, spilled over his belt, making the reach a bit more difficult for him.

‘The Green Technology Product of the Year Award is presented to Sandra D. Armstrong of AutoTech, Incorporated for the advancement of fuel controller technologies that reduce emissions and improve fuel economy. August 7, 2009.’ Most impressive. Fred did seem to be proud of his boss as he set the plaque back down on Sandra’s desk.

Fred turned and Sandra looked up as Mark Gowden, CEO of AutoTech, peered into her office. As far as Fred was concerned, Mark fell into the category of intellectually inferior beings that managed to thrive on good looks alone. Mark was not the typical CEO, capturing the title at the ripe old age of twenty-seven. At five foot nine, he wasn’t a towering figure to be reckoned with, but he possessed an intangible, approachable characteristic that won over employees and customers alike, Fred being the notable exception. But it took more than good looks for Mark to earn Sandra’s respect. Though she too had had her doubts, Mark had proven himself a worthy manager in the past few years, and Sandra thought his youth brought a unique perspective and vitality to the position - an asset for the entire company.

Hello, Mark. Come on in. What can I do for you?

I need you and Pierre in my office right away. I’ve got GM on the line, and they are not happy.

Fred gave Sandra a look that said ‘good luck’ and shuffled his bulk out past Mark without a word, heading back towards his cubicle, not wanting to be involved in anything that made General Motors unhappy. Sandra stood up, a look of apprehension replacing the smile on her face. Mark had a flare for the understatement when it came to the angry cries of customers, which were frequent in these difficult times for the auto industry. He had a talent for handling their emotional response towards problems and could quickly get to the heart of an issue, making him an extremely valuable asset to Sandra’s small team of engineers. If Mark said they were not happy, Sandra knew they must be downright furious. She followed Mark to his office, which was right next to hers. Pierre, the Chief Financial Officer, was already sitting at the small, round conference table in the corner. Mark and Sandra took their seats, and Mark pressed the speaker button on the telephone to connect them to GM.

OK John, I have Sandra Armstrong with me, our Vice President of Engineering, along with Pierre Camus, our CFO. Sandra and Pierre, you are speaking to John Carrera, GM Supplier Quality. John, can you please reiterate what you just told me, so that Pierre and Sandra can hear it first hand?

It’s been an absolute nightmare! John Carrera screamed so loudly that the small group at AutoTech collectively flinched and unconsciously leaned further back in their chairs. In the last month we have had five vehicle fires reported by our customers, and every one of them points to your fuel controllers!

Sandra had let out an involuntary gasp at the dreaded word ‘fire’, but her shock quickly changed to anger as Carrera spewed on, intent on fanning the flames further, and obviously looking to pass the buck. Sandra tried her best to emulate her young boss, forcing her voice to be calm and even, despite feeling her blood boil. She hated dealing with emotional people, so she focused on what she was good at – analyzing and solving technical problems.

Certainly, Mr. Carrera, we will get to the bottom of this. Please forward me everything you have, from the initial customer reports, on through to how you were able to pinpoint the problem to the fuel controller. In the meantime, we will send someone to your plant to collect samples from the line and begin to conduct our root cause analysis.

I’ll call the shots here, Sandie. Sandra’s face flushed as the man continued, his voice still booming over the speaker phone. You will immediately halt all production of the part. You will send an engineer to each of our affected plants to quarantine ALL of your products, and you will pay for every second of plant downtime until this issue is resolved.

Mark came to Sandra’s rescue. With all due respect, Mr. Carrera, AutoTech would go out of business in a day if we had to pay for GM plant shut downs, and you would be no closer to a solution. Without a complete analysis of the issue, we can’t even say for certain that the fuel controllers are the cause of the problem. We’ll get our team on this immediately. We will have a representative at each of your plants this afternoon to work on product quarantine, and we’ll keep our team of engineers here to look at the parts and review your data, Mark maintained his air of professionalism, despite the fact that John Carrera was still muttering curses at the other end of the line.

I certainly hope that I don’t need to tell you the urgency of this matter. We’re lucky that no one has died from this yet, but I can assure you that if someone does, you will hang for it.

We, too, are extremely thankful that no one has been injured in any of these fires. Safety is our number one priority, Mark said, knowing full well that Carrera’s only priority was in saving his own skin. We will get to the bottom of this issue. Goodbye, Mr. Carrera. Mark hung up before the customer had a chance to issue any more threats. A silence penetrated the air in the room for several moments while the three executives exchanged looks of understanding. This was serious.

Sandra was the first to speak. I’ll call Jeffrey Blanche at the warehouse and have someone bring over twenty samples from various shipments. Then I’ll pull the team together to dive into this. Hopefully Carrera sends me those files right away, so we can track the trends of the fires. Sandra didn’t feel very optimistic about John Carrera following up on his own list of tasks, and it came across in her statements.

Right. And I’ll get our suppliers on the horn, get them digging into this as well, Mark volunteered.

I’ll call that company that specializes in quality control to get their folks to the plants and start the quarantine process, said Pierre. This is going to be a huge financial hit.

Sandra left Mark’s office, dialing Blanche on her cell phone as she walked. She reached Fred’s desk and asked him to gather the troops in the conference room before the warehouse receptionist had managed to locate Blanche. She finished her call while the engineers were still filing in to the only conference room at AutoTech. Once the entire team had taken a seat around the large table, Sandra recapped the conversation with John Carrera, and started to hand out assignments. She had eight engineers that reported to her, all of them male bachelors, and all of them several years younger than Sandra.

Someone from the warehouse is bringing several parts over here. Fred, you’re the lead. I want you studying every circuit board, troubleshooting the parts. Ken, I’d like you to start the methodical review – go over that controller component by component and compare each part to the spec sheets that we have for them. Aaron, I need you and Bob to take some samples to the engine dynamometer. Run through our standard set of tests, and record all of the functional specs. You’ll have to bump the Ford project that we’re running on the dyno now. Chris, start your own investigation on those five reported incidents. Ignore the GM stuff – start at the beginning and find out what was similar and what was different in each instance. Don’t assume it was the fuel controller. The rest of you, consider yourselves on call. If one of these guys needs something, you drop what you’re doing and help out. Cancel all of your other meetings for the rest of the week. If anyone has a clue, a theory, or an idea of something else that we need to be looking into, no matter how crazy it might sound, I want to know about it. We’re under a lot of pressure here, but let’s be thorough and methodical. Label the parts you test. Record every step you take: we want to be certain that our analysis holds up under fire, no pun intended, no matter what our conclusion is. I want comparison charts for everything, showing sample numbers, actual results, and range of allowable results right next to it. I’ll send you all an email with a link to a new directory. I want every file saved there, so that it’s all contained in one place – please don’t store anything on your hard drives. We want the whole team to be able to see everything related to this case. Remember, it will only take longer if we run around like chickens with our heads cut off. I can almost guarantee that someone from GM will pop in unannounced to look over our shoulders – let’s not give them anything to critique. The sober expression on the engineers faces as they filed past Sandra and back to their cubes confirmed that each man had understood the gravity of the situation.

An hour later, Sandra went to the lab to see how things were going. She hated to micromanage, but she was trying to avoid her office - John Carrera had already called her twice for updates, and Sandra was certain she would say something she regretted if forced to speak to him again. In his anger, Carrera had forgotten to ask for her cell phone number, and Sandra was not about to offer it up, so she just needed to avoid her desk. It was so ingrained in her to answer a ringing telephone that it had never occurred to her to simply ignore it.

Fred had just finished disassembling the black plastic box that housed the first engine control module delivered by the warehouse. He removed AutoTech’s fuel control board from the rest of the module. He immediately looked perplexed. Sandra was looking over his shoulder.

What is it, she asked, not as familiar with the layout of the hundreds of tiny electronic components that went into the system. Fred had been the lead engineer on this part when AutoTech launched the first generation over four years ago, and he had been making incremental improvements to the design ever since.

Well, Fred began slowly, for starters, I know these two parts were not in the design that I released.

What do you mean, not in the design? Do you mean to tell me that Shen Chang is not making the parts according to our drawings? Sandra was referring to their Chinese based supplier that manufactured the printed circuit board assemblies. Shen Chang received the design and specifications from Sandra’s group of engineers, sourced the components locally in China, built them and delivered the fully assembled circuit boards to AutoTech’s warehouse for inspection and distribution.

That’s what it appears to be to me. Let’s see, Fred was leaning over a hard copy of the drawing, which had been blown up to three times actual size so that he could see some of the smaller components more easily. See this here? That’s an extra processor. And right here…

Why on earth did they put a receiver in there? Sandra asked incredulously.

A good question. I’ll have to look into the firmware.

How long have the parts been like this? Sandra was hoping they could put a quick end to this issue, simply by bracketing a design change with a set of dates. It would make the recall task much simpler and far less costly.

That’s just it. Once a month, Shen Chang sends a sample part directly to the office here, so we can run a set of tests on them. It’s part of our quality control. Occasionally I’ll dismantle one to take a closer look. I’ve never seen one with these added parts, even though I dismantled one just over a week ago. Fred looked at Sandra, dumbfounded.

They returned their gazes back to the parts lying before them, silently lost in their own thoughts of confusion. Sandra’s mind was reeling. The only plausible explanation that she could come up with was that Shen Cheng was intentionally shipping different parts to Fred than they were to the warehouse. And that possibility frightened her in more ways than one. She glanced up at the clock on the wall. It was only three o’clock. It would be five more hours before anyone from Shen Chang was in the Shanghai office to answer their questions.

Mark up an electronic copy of the print with all of the layout differences between this design and the design we released to them. Send it over in an email, so they have it first thing when they get in. I want some answers.

Will do. Fred made a few quick notations on the drawing and left the lab.

In the meantime, Sandra wanted to be doing something, so she disassembled another unit that was shipped from the warehouse that morning to check the layout. It matched the other board from the warehouse that Fred had just shown her. She went to a storage room in the back corner of the lab, where they kept older prototypes and test parts. She found the box with the correct part number and pulled out a disassembled unit. It was different. As Fred had pointed out, there were two additional components on the parts from the warehouse. Some of the other components were slightly different as well. While she was intrigued, she couldn’t imagine how these additional components could cause a fire.

Sandra knew she was supposed to be focusing on identifying the root cause of the fires, but she couldn’t keep her mind from wandering to the extra parts.

Why? Why was Shen Chang sending Fred different parts from the ones they sent to the warehouse? And why do we let them send separate shipments for their Quality Inspection? With parts made by other suppliers, the warehouse randomly selects samples and sends them to the engineering group for quality checks. I thought the same rules applied to Shen Chang. How could this have escaped me? Dear God, there’s going to be a lot of repercussions from this.

Sandra jumped, the ring of her cell phone sounding unusually loud in the empty lab.

Hello, Sandra here.

Mrs. Armstrong, this is Katie calling from St. Bart’s Daycare. I don’t want to alarm you – the girls are fine. It’s just that Danielle had an accident during naptime and she’s pretty upset by it. She was hoping she could talk to you.

Of course, Katie. Thanks. Can you put her on?

Hi Mommy, Danielle’s voice sounded small, and a distinct sniffle cut straight through to Sandra’s heart.

Hi sweetie. How are you?

I had an accident, Mommy. Danielle was on the verge of tears again.

I know honey. That’s OK. It happens.

Can you come get me now? I want to go home.

Sure, sweetie. I’ll come get you. The words tumbled out of Sandra’s mouth without a thought, and once she made a promise to her daughter, she could not - would not - break it. She glanced at her watch.

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