Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Why It's So Difficult to Repair Stuff: It's Made That Way

Everything made with cheap, unreliable parts/components will break down long before the entire assembly has lost its utility.

In Here's What's Wrong with Corporate America--and the U.S. Economy (December 17, 2014), I concluded that once Corporate America books the sale, they're done with customers. Customer service after the sale (when the upfront profits are booked) is a Kafkaesque tragicomedy of Orwellian narratives: Corporate America publicly worships customer service but delivers none of the real thing. Instead, customers are abandoned in a frustrating Circle of Intermediary Hell, where phone calls are shunted elsewhere and third-party repair crews show up weeks later with the wrong information and leave broken appliances disassembled.

But this is only half the story: the other half of the story is products are now manufactured to be virtually impossible to repair at a cost lower than the price of a new replacement. U.K. technician Doly Garcia explains this half of the story in detail.

As someone who has spent my adult life building, repairing and maintaining everything from major buildings to computers, I find her account matches my own experience.

Here is Doly's commentary:

"Your post about the problems with getting an appliance repaired was something I know a little about, since my main job is repairing electronic equipment. I live in the UK, not in the USA, but the situation is pretty much the same over here. And by the way, I'm female. Not that it makes any difference to what I have to say next, but just to mention I was pleased that you used the word 'repairperson'.

I think you have clearly realised there is a problem, but you haven't seen yet how big the problem is. As I see it, the crux of the issue is that the appliance was assembled in "Robotic factory #2" in China.

When something is assembled by robots, the appliance was designed to optimize assembly by robots. It was not designed to be easy to take apart by humans. Robots are cheaper than human labour, even in China (or they wouldn't have robotic factories in China). This means that the cost of assembly of a new item is peanuts compared with the cost of having a human take apart and put together again an old item, especially if that human is expecting to earn a decent American or European wage and also expects not to be overworked (a common enough situation in China). This automatically makes even rather simple repairs uneconomic.

Then, there is the issue of getting the parts. Some of the parts may be impossible to identify by a human because they don't have a part number on them, you can only figure out what they are by contacting the manufacturer, and the manufacturer usually won't be happy to give that information. And of course, if the appliance was made in China, most or all of the parts will be from China as well. So it may not be easy to source them.

Just about everything nowadays is made with the intention that only the manufacturer, or somebody who has a formal business relationship with the manufacturer, will be able to repair it. From the point of view of the manufacturer, every time that somebody repairs something without their help, that's money they are losing. Ideally, they want customers to buy a new gizmo, and if they can't be persuaded to that, they want at least to get a cut on the repair. So you have to become an official certified repair technician for some Big Manufacturer in order to get the business. But they'd much prefer that nothing be repaired, it's too much hassle and they make more money selling new stuff.

People that know how to do repairs are, quite literally, a dying breed. There's less and less of us all the time.

The status quo works beautifully for manufacturers right now, but it's based on a number of assumptions that may or may not hold in the future:

1. China won't have any major problems that affect its manufacturing capacity.

2. Relationships with China will continue to be smooth.

3. Transport to and from China and electricity in China (to run robots) will continue to be dirt-cheap.

4. People in Western countries will continue to be able to afford the next new thing.

If any of those stops being true, the whole current system would crumble. And I'm not quite sure of what plan B would look like.

It may look superficially straightforward: Hey, let's bring the factories back to the West. But that would require quite a lot of capital, and the sort of scenarios I mentioned above aren't the sort of scenarios where most companies would be flush with capital. And in many cases it would bring up the prices of stuff - after all, there was a reason why the factory was moved to China.

Alternatively, companies could start designing stuff so that it's reasonably easy to repair, which was the standard way of designing things not so long ago. But manufacturers are unlikely to go down that route unless they have to because people just aren't buying many new things. And I can tell you, after a few years of sluggish economy, manufacturers still haven't changed their ways. It's going to take quite a lot more.

In the meantime, people are already suffering the consequences, though most of them don't know it yet. To give you an example, here in the UK, cuts to the National Health Service means that most hospitals are having serious trouble to get their accounts to add up. One of the jobs I'm doing right now is repairing the handsets used to call nurses and switch on lights that go on hospital beds. It's an essential piece of equipment, because without it the bed can't be used. I've been doing it for a couple of years now, and unsurprisingly, it's getting to the point that some of the handsets really should be thrown away.

But the hospital maintenance people always beg not to throw any away, because they can't afford to buy new ones. Unfortunately, some of the problems can't be repaired satisfactorily. Plastic bits get broken and, though I can glue them again, the fix isn't too good and it doesn't last as long as I would like. It's of course impossible to get the plastic case I need from the manufacturer, and these things are made with industrial moulds. There is no small-scale way of making a plastic piece of the required quality.

(I only know of one story of an individual working at small scale that dared to pay for an industrial-scale plastic mould, that ended happily for the individual concerned: it was Alan Sugar, asking for a particularly popular TV casing. That's how he started his fortune, but it nearly bankrupted him in the process.)

You may have heard about 3D printers and think it's the solution, but often it isn't. The surface of a 3D printed object is not smooth, which is often a problem. And anyway, in this case the part has an additional laminated cover attached to it that, again, is the sort of thing that can only be done industrially at a large scale."

Thank you, Doly, for this comprehensive overview. There are a number of critical issues raised in Doly's commentary: the wasteful processes of manufacturing products that cannot be repaired and must be dumped in the landfill (or recycled, a non-trivial and costly process itself), and the decline of generalists--people with the skills and experience to do more than one narrow slice of work.

Ironically, modern manufacturing processes lower the value of generalists; since it's almost impossible to repair products for a low cost, there's no demand for people who can fix a wide variety of things. These skills have atrophied to the point that many young people have no idea how anything is made or how it works.

Few people can even change the oil in their car or adjust the brakes on a bicycle, much less replace a sensor on a modern auto engine, repair an appliance or swap components in a PC.

But this loss of repair skills may be changing, thanks to YouTube University: a phenomenal range of repairs can now be learned online via YouTube videos.

As for unrepairable products: one choice is to buy used products from a earlier age that are repairable.

No matter what the brand, the product is only as reliable and durable as its lowest-quality part/component. That's the core problem with products that are difficult/costly to repair: everything made with cheap, unreliable parts/components will break down long before the entire assembly has lost its utility. 

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