On the use and abuse of Technology and its Management from the perspective of an academic at UCL specialising in Project Management, Systems Engineering and Space Science/Technology.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Long Tail and mending things

– or, how I saved myself £250 with 10 minutes soldering.

Everybody knows, I suppose, that modern products have built-in obsolescence, and are nigh-on impossible to repair, a least by users or street-level workshops. Not like in the Good Old Days, when grandad would take his lawn mower in for an annual fiddle, e.g. sharpening the blades or tensioning the chain, while he was busy filing the points on his old motor.

These days of course, everything's made of plastic (No sharpening. No chain) or is controlled by computer chips. Repair is not an economic option most of the time. It's cheaper to buy a new lawn mower than to pay someone to fix any of it, and most car owners never touch the internals. Even a proficient dealer will swap out an entire management system box rather than address an individual fault. A lot of these regressive decisions are not always cynical attempts to generate more sales, but instead often to do with the economics of service provision, based on the cost of human wages, not being able to keep up with machine-driven cost improvements in large-scale hardware production, which continues to deflate the real value of physical goods, even complex ones.

So, a pleasant experience of actually repairing something provides a counter-example, and perhaps shows that the road of progress isn't always headed in the wrong direction.

I've known for a while that if there enough potential repairers out there, there will be a viable niche for supporting tools and information. For example, because Apple sell a lot of nearly identical bits of kit, there's a very sophisticated website and supplies network for owners of slightly broken laptops, music players and the like (and not just the shiny things designed in California: iFixit have now started with other popular brands).  So the high-volume, high-class end of the self-repair market is pretty well organised, as you might expect.  I love the fact that this site can exist, thanks to the web, and that words like "Spudger" can be used for real things (it's a firm, plastic, blade-like tool used for cracking open "non-serviceable" seals in clipped-together cases).

At the low-frequency end of the popularity spectrum, a reasonably elderly family member's Panasonic DMR-EX75EB Freeview decoder with integrated HDD/DVD recorder stopped working after ~7 years' service. No digital channels (and no analogue channels either, after the grand UK switch-off : an example of IMPOSED obsolescence), although the rest of the box seemed fine. So he could no longer record things off the telly, nor use the DVD to distribute videos of outings to other people.

"Throw it away", I said, "get something new, it'll be cheap.".  But, looking at what's available now, it seemed that the market has moved along from recording DVDs anyway - on the assumption that one may as well use YouTube, Facebook, a memory card or some other means of sharing a video.  Only three similar boxes came up in Richer Sounds' lineup, and not that cheap. Coincidentally, all of these were from Panasonic, most other manufacturers seemingly now migrated to smart-TV type boxes, with internet connections for both input and output ("upload to YouTube in one click!").  All this talk of internet sharing was giving us both a headache (him trying to understand it, me explaining it), and I didn't fancy teaching him how to use the replacement box, especially with the sunk costs of supporting him through the Byzantine menus of the existing kit.

A bit of research found a couple of ideas, c/w with instructional videos, related to the observation that cheap power supply capacitors were prone to early failure, these being on a second-level sub-board housing the digital decoder section, and could therefore provide a repair solution. A search on eBay found a packet of caps for less than a price of a pint in London, and 10 minutes soldering was all it took to affect the repair.

So it looks like the Long Tail is filling up nicely even for services.

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