Let the Chips Fall Where They May

Introduction

A Buffalo Computing Co.(ABC2) located in Fargo, ND, has designed a chip for a new scientific calculator that features high-precision floating-point accuracy to 17 significant digits for all 250 mathematical functions provided with the unit. After one-and-a-half years in development, and after shipping over 500 (or 5,000) beta units to key customers, the company discovers that there is a problem with certain calculations, as described below.

In order to expedite floating-point(ft.-pt.) operations (used in handling scientific notation in mathematical operations) in a computer or calculator, often certain tables of values are used to assist in the speed of execution of these ft.-pt. operations. (For example, a calculator requiring as long as 3 minutes to perform a tangent calculation would have no market appeal.) These tables can contain up to 100 integer entries. During beta testing, ABC2 discovers that several of these values were incorrectly entered before burning them into the firmware. Further testing concludes that because of the location and use of these table errors, the only mathematical results affected will occur in the 13th to the 17th significant digits for the double-precision fl.-pt. operations.

Numerical and Design Problems

As the senior engineer on this project for ABC2, you are asked to propose a resolution for this situation. How serious is the problem? What should be done?

Call together a committee of your peers and have the group propose as many different alternative solutions as you can think of within 10-15 minutes. (Do not assign any value or determine the implications of this proposed solution for now–instead, use the blue-sky or “popcorn” approach.)

Now, try to project each option’s impact on the company.

Assign a weighted value (0-100 with 100 as best) to each of the suggestions and resulting actions proposed above, based on your personal assessment or your peer group’s assessment of the quality of the action.

Determine the best possible course of action and explain the reasons for your choice, based on the weightings given above or other criteria you create and document.

Write this up in a detailed memo with explanations (2-3 pages), or imagine yourself the senior engineer on the project and write a detailed dialogue with the senior manager(s) deciding what action(s) to take.

Questions on Ethics and Professionalism

Are your answers to the above questions the same regardless of whom you represent? In other words, does one’s response change depending on one’s stake in the solution? (e.g. company managers, stockholders, engineers in the firm, engineers hoping to use the chip, purchasers of the product, etc.)

Suppose the chip has been installed, 100,000 units have been sold, and an additional 50,000 are on dealers’ shelves. Create a new list of possible actions and reactions.

Do you see any relationship to the Challenger decision(s)?

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