Time vs. Materials: $1,000 printer power button

Or why I teach my kids to solder

I just spent four hours doing tech support over a $0.01 part on an $80 inkjet printer.  According to my wife, those hours were a drop in the budget in a long line of comrades-in-geekdom who had been trying to get her office printer printing.  All told, at least $1,000 worth of expert’s time was invested.

It really troubles me when the ratio of purchase cost to support cost exceeds 10x for a brand new device.

In this case, a stuck power button cover forced the printer into a cryptic QA test mode.  It was obvious that the button was stuck, but not so obvious that that effectively crippled the printer.   Ultimately, my 14 year old striped the printer down, removed the $0.01 button cover, accidentally stripped a cable, soldered it back together, and finally repaired the printer.

From a cost perspective, my wife’s office would have been exponentially smarter to dump the whole thing in to the trash and get a new one.   Even the effort of returning it to the store was hardly worth the time lost dealing with the return.

This thinking really, really troubles me.

I have to wonder what it would cost our industry to create products that were field maintainable, easier to troubleshoot, and less likely to fail.  The automotive industry seems to be ahead of us in some respects.  They create products that a reliable, field maintainable, and conform to standards (given Toyota’s recent woes, do I need to reconsider this statement?).  Unfortunately, they are slow to innovate and have become highly constrained by legislative oversight.  Remember the old “If Microsoft made cars” joke?

For the high tech industry, I see systemic challenges driven by a number of market pressures:

  1. Pace of innovation: our use of silicon is just graduating from crawling to baby steps.  Products from the 90s look like stone tablets compared to 10’s offerings.   This is not just lipstick, these innovations disrupt design processes making it expensive to maintain legacy systems.
  2. Time to market: global competitive pressures to penetrate new markets give new customer acquisition design precedence.
  3. Lack of standards: standards can’t keep up with innovation and market pressures.  We’re growing to accept the consensus model for ad hoc standardization.  Personally, I like this approach, but we’re still learning how to keep it fair.
  4. System complexity: To make systems feature rich and cost effective, we make them tightly coupled.  This is great at design time, but eliminates maintainability because it’s impossible to isolate and replace individual components.
  5. Unequal wealth and labor rates:  Our good fortune and high standard of living make it impractical for us to spend time repairing or upgrading.  We save this labor by buying new products made in places where labor is cheap.  These cheap goods often lack quality and the cycle repeats.
  6. Inventory costs: Carrying low-demand, non-standard goods in inventory is expensive.   I can a printer with thousands of resistors soldered onto a board for $89 while buying the same resistors alone would cost more than the whole printer.  Can anyone afford to keep the parts needed for maintenance in stock?
  7. Disposable resources: We deplete limited resources as if they were unlimited.  Not even going to start on this rant…

Looking at these pressures makes the challenge appear overwhelming, but we need to find a way out of this trap.

That sounds like the subject for a future post!

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