I attended a discussion group at the Unitarian Universalist Society of River Falls last weekend on the topic of “The Pace of Change”: “The culture around us is evolving technologically and this affects the way we live as familiar ways of doing things become outdated. As the pace quickens how do you feel and what do you think about that? Choose an example that affects you directly and share your thoughts and feelings.”
A lot of the group’s feelings were centered around disgust and/or paranoia about “planned obsolescence.” Some of that conversation was pretty much outside of my own experience with product design and manufacturing. Assuming that engineers are capable of good design is often a gross miscalculation. I saw unintentional fatal errors like placing temperature sensitive components next to parts that run hot by design, seriously underestimating the need for component selection safety margins, and completely idiotic part placement in vibration-prone products in at least five different industries and a dozen companies; four of which were highly reliability-sensitive industries. Another common and valid complaint was regarding unrepairable products. This isn’t planned obsolescence, this is terrible design. Design Magazine has a column titled “Designed by Monkeys” that highlights stupid stuff like this and it’s always refreshing to hear an engineer ridicule his fellow monkeys in this format.
In audio, lots of people resort to buying “old school” products to avoid the unrepairable issue: vintage microphones, analog tape recorders, etc. Another, more practical approach, is to hunt down and support those companies whose products are known for reliability and whose customer service is known for providing a quality response. In practically every area, we all know who the low quality vendors are, but figuring out who the good guys are is much harder.
One obvious clue for the good guys is available service information. In my own recent consumer experience, Volkswagen is the most customer-hostile car company I can imagine. They make service information difficult and expensive for independent service centers and even more impossible for customers who want to service their own vehicles. Volkswagen’s dealer service is nationally notorious for incompetence and high cost. Nissan, on the other hand, makes service manuals available (for free) in PDF format on the NissanUSA website. Nissan is extremely helpful to independent service centers. Parts and service information is as available to independents and customers as those commodities are to their own dealer network.
As for doing the work yourself, I recommend it. In fact, I really recommend either carefully researching the products you buy for available service information or when a particular product’s service information is absolutely not available from any vendor in the market, pay the least possible for the product. Paying a premium for Apple’s iCrap is idiotic, now that the company has embraced the “Retina” design philosophy. I don’t have a problem with “throw-away” products as long as they sell for throw-away prices. An iPad sells for $600 and, for the most part, can’t be repaired in any practical sense. There are a large number of Android-OS pads that are well under $70 and they do every useful thing the iPad can manage. The things the iPad does that can’t be done on an Android pad would quickly be available on the cheaper devices if Apple’s sales collapsed. For that matter, Apple’s prices would follow the market if it weren’t for their Kool-Aid drinking fanboys and girls.
In the last two years, I have installed SSD’s in four computers (including a 2009 Apple MacBook Pro), installed operating systems and programs on a half-dozen computers, repaired the cooling system of my MacBook Pro, upgraded the video on my 2008 Mac Pro tower, rebuilt one motorcycle fuel injection system, rebuilt one lawnmower carburetor, changed the oil on all of my vehicles and lawn care appliances, troubleshot and repaired the electronics package on a Winnebago Rialta/VW Eurovan, fixed the AC on two vehicles, learned how to pour a new floor and wall in my underground garage, repaired a small pile of pro audio electronics and music equipment, wired a good bit of two houses, disassembled and repaired the lens mechanism on my 8 year old digital camera, and repaired more things than I can remember for family, friends, and customers. I’m not convinced that all modern products are unrepairable or even designed so they can’t be repaired. I am convinced that most people are so helpless that they are walking Darwin Awards waiting for the moment that solar flare-generated EMP takes out the technology they cling to so precariously.
One of the things you learn from owning an old home is that engineers, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, masons, and everyone involved in product design 50-150 years ago had the same diverse collection of “talents” today’s technicians exhibit. Some were good and some were awful.