BurdetteWhen Steve Burdette graduated from the University of Illinois in 1963, he hardly could have anticipated the lasting effect his career would have on product safety across the equipment manufacturing industry.

After spending decades as a design engineer with companies like Caterpillar and Massey-Ferguson, Burdette by his own admission somewhat stumbled into product safety work for CNH Industrial in the early 1990s.

His work at CNH — and AEM’s predecessor Ag association, EMI — would eventually spur a sea change in how manufacturers of all sizes and product types integrate product safety with product development.

“You’re not finished with a product when you design it, or manufacture it,” Burdette says. “It’s yours until it ends up in a scrap pile somewhere.”

By Burdette’s telling, a series of changes across the equipment manufacturing industry as well as growing scrutiny by regulators and trial attorneys set the stage for a uniform methodology grounded in decades of practical experience by manufacturers. In 1990 the first effort to share industry best practices occurred with the EMI product Safety Seminar. The strong message from the first seminar was the need to consolidate the industry product safety methodology best practices into a simple, uniform methodology that could easily scale to any organization. The methodology would incorporate guidelines for utilizing standards, regulations and hazard assessment to reduce product hazards by design. Further, the methodology provides guidance to sustain hazard awareness throughout the life cycle of a product.

Burdette responded by creating a revolutionary tool that would have a lasting impact on how manufacturers approach product safety.

The tool was a simple matrix that allowed design engineers to proactively integrate product safety with product design and development. On one axis of the matrix was a timeline of product development from initial concept through completion; the other axis represented increasing levels of product safety and compliance. The idea was to weave product safety considerations throughout manufacturers’ development process that continued throughout the complete product life cycle— a revolutionary concept at the time.

“What stuck with me was that it wasn’t thrown at you all at once. There was a progression, if you will,” says Karl Klotzbach, Product Safety & Compliance Engineer at CNH Industrial. “Certain things had to happen up front and as those were established, you moved onto a deeper dive into what product safety aspects you try to integrate into design and validate it.”

Klotzbach served with Burdette on EMI’s product safety planning committee in the early 1990s — the formative years for modern product safety work.

"Steve Burdette is one of the pioneers of Product Safety and has had a huge influence on the 'Safety and Compliance Seminar,'" said Mike Pankonin, AEM Senior Director for Tech and Safety Services. "Serving as a planning committee member, committee chair, and seminar faculty member for many years, we have greatly benefited from his knowledge and experience in this unique field, where he freely offers his insights to those beginning a program as well as those with existing programs. We appreciate Steve's contributions for the lasting impact they have had across the equipment manufacturing industry."

One of the lasting contributions of the matrix which Burdette helped to develop was that it could scale to manufacturers of all different types and sizes. Burdette said his background as a design engineer and technical development director uniquely positioned him to develop this lasting tool.

“We realized that you’re wasting engineering talent if you make engineers and designers product safety gurus. The challenge was to create a simple uniform methodology to evaluate product hazards and reduce the hazard to the extent practical by design. “How do you keep a good engineer a good engineer and provide the tools that can provide effective product safety incorporation in the design.”

Manufacturers still rely on the matrix — or at the very least, the principles underlying the matrix — in their work today. Klotzbach calls the matrix “very influential” for CNH’s global product development standards at present. He also says the reach of Burdette’s work is a testament to his style of leadership.

“The bottom line is respect. You respected him because he respected you,” recalls Klotzbach. “And I think he respected that a lot of companies didn’t always buy into or know how to organize their thinking on this. It just came across that he had a real passion for this and thought it through and was always trying to improve on this.”

Burdette is now semi-retired in North Carolina, where he does occasional consulting work for small and overseas manufacturers on product compliance and safety, especially as they enter the U.S. market. He calls his work on product safety the most satisfying part of his long and distinguished career.

“The product safety area gave me more satisfaction than probably everything else I did,” he says. “The idea that product safety is an inherently design-driven activity — that was where I found my satisfaction, being able to use my career experience to develop those concepts and the educational program, and execute them throughout my company and EMI and AEM.”

Product Safety & Compliance Seminar | Product Liability Seminar

Looking to sharpen your product safety skills? AEM's Product Safety & Compliance Semniar and Product Liability Seminar offers proven industry practices for risk assessment, process documentation, and compliance. The 2018 seminars will be held at the Chicago Marriott Lincolnshire Resort in Lincolnshire, IL from April 23-26, 2018. Register now.

For more information, contact Nathan Burton, AEM technical and safety services manager (nburton@aem.org, tel: 414-298-4126).