Sunday, May 16, 2010

Bad design

One thing that ticks me off is bad product design, especially when it comes to being able to repair it. Just downloaded a full page of instructions on how to change a directional bulb in my daughter's car. Changing a bulb shouldn't require anything more complicated than a screwdriver. This job will require a screwdriver, a pair of pliers, and large torx bits. All to change a simple bulb. The whole headlight assembly has to be removed from the car. Silly thing is, the bulb itself just plugs in.

It's not like I haven't seen bad design before. There are cars out there that require engine mounts to be loosened or removed to changed spark plugs. There are cars with inner fenders that need to be removed to access the car's battery. Special tools required to remove oil plugs. The list could go on and on. What were they thinking?

Cars can be just awful for that sort of thing, but it's everything else. Nothing insults me more than one of those stickers: No user serviceable parts inside. In my experience, that sticker may or may not be telling the truth. Things should be repairable. Good thing there are plenty of people feel the way I do. Better yet, they post hardware hacks on the Internet. Thanks to them I've been able to do things like repair "factory sealed" electric motors rather than replace them.

One of my friends has taught himself how to repair Palm Pilots. Still a fair bit of demand for the old school PDA. Not everyone wants to do everything on their phone. Through trial and error, he systematically learned how to repair and upgrade PDA hardware and software. He's doing a brisk business selling refurbished units.

Now my buddy developed ways of fixing things that were not designed to be fixed. Imagine how much better it would be if everything was designed to be repairable? Instead of throwing out stuff, we could just repair the bad part. At one time most people could learn the basics needed to keep their personal technology running. They knew the ins and outs of their houses, transportation, and food. That worked pretty good though time. From tepee, canoe, and corn, all the way to wood frame house, 52 Chevy, and kitchen garden.

Doesn't work so well anymore. Many houses are built with specialized high tech materials that require special skills and tools to repair. Cars can be near impossible for the shady tree mechanic to work on. Food comes from the supermarket.

Consumer goods are made to be just that: consumed. The idea is that they are built so cheaply that it's more economical to replace than repair. That worked, but only when cheap energy and abundant raw material allowed it to work. Ever wonder why everything is made out of plastic? Plastic, like the oil it came from, was incredibly abundant and cheap. Those days are over. Oil isn't so cheap. Plastic isn't as cheap as it used to be. Transportation won't have cheap fuel. The cost of shipping something from a cheap labor economy to a high priced economy will become prohibitive.

We are going to have to learn to repair things again. Before I buy something, I consider how well it's made and if I can repair it. A well built item, one that can be user serviced and repaired, is a better bargain than a "consumable" item for much less money. Imagine if that cheap replacement will no longer be available. Wouldn't make sense to get something good that will last, knowing that cheap stuff won't be around anymore?

If you are sitting on an inflatable life raft in the middle of the ocean, wouldn't it be nice to know that it was a quality life raft? Would you prefer that it was a super cheap one, but that the store
had plenty more cheap rafts . . . a thousand miles of water away?

When you live way out in the woods, it's sometimes like being on that life raft. Quality tools and repairable equipment sometimes make all the difference. If the trucks that keep everything in stock ever stop, everyone will know the feeling. It doesn't have to be a big disaster -a trucker's strike could do it. Then you'll wish your stuff was well built and repairable. Quality is cheap in the long run. Keep that in mind next time you have to buy something. If we all did, the market would respond and more quality goods would get manufactured.


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