Friday, July 27, 2007

Our disposable economy

I was at the municipal airport some time ago and heard one of the employees--maybe the terminal manager, for all I know--talking with the local flight instructor. He just happened to be complimenting the instructor on the decent new chairs he got for his office. The last thing I heard him say on the subject was about how they were only $15 so if they broke, replacing them would be no great task.

Naturally a year or two later--not so long that I couldn't remember overhearing that conversation well enough to think it would be funny if my life were a movie--I broke one of them, and it made me think of all the other things I own, or even just see around, that aren't meant to be repaired but simply discarded or maybe recycled. I've been told in the past that it's tantamount to a conspiracy among manufacturers to produce things that are prone to breaking and designed to be unrepairable by the average (or even the average mechanically inclined) person, so that they may be sure of selling more of the same things in the years to come.

There's probably some subscription to that philosphy, but I don't think we have to worry about the Shoe Event Horizon anytime soon.

First of all, it's not entirely true. Some of the more durable goods do tend to be pricier and harder to find than the cheaper ones, and they all may even be harder to repair when something does go wrong, but there are still things that work more reliably than their predecessors. Some of the Total Quality Management initiatives even rise above their own bureaucracies and enable an improvement in product quality by demanding better documentation of manufacturing processes and by documentation and standardization of methodologies, which make systemic problems easier to recognize--and recognized problems are vastly easier to solve than invisible ones.

Automobiles may be the quintessential example. I was going to say personal computers, but I think that fully integrated, non-user-serviceable configurations will become more popular, especially since the available computing power in more conventional tower designs, which are more suited to low-level tinkering, is really starting to get beyond what most users will need. Automobiles have become much more sophisticated, in some ways being more difficult to work on, but as long as there are gasoline engines and gearboxes and other powered moving parts in a motor vehicle, some home maintenance may always be possible. Since so much of the car is electronically managed, there are many things that just aren't up to a professional or amateur mechanic, but diagnostic computers can make the job easier when there is something for a human to do. Further, cars are lasting much longer; it's now expected for a car to operate beyond a hundred thousand miles, to the point where some manufacturers even have six-figure milage warranties, and some have been recorded as running several hundred thousand. Fifty years ago, when people could easily find TV repairmen and cobblers in their home towns, they could also find mechanics, but few or none who could work the magic it would take for a typical car of that time to last until the odometer rolled over.

Cars aren't simply better built, they're more complex, with much more going on under the hood and behind the dash than there was even when I was a child. It's barely adequate for a modern mechanic to rely on the wrench in his hand and the knowledge in his head.  It's just more sophisticated work than it used to be, even with computer assistance. I think what's true with mechanics is also true, or at least thematically consistent, with my main point.

Most manufacturing today is automated to some degree. You'll need a few engineers and technicians to baby-sit a plant, and some trained but possibly unskilled people to operate the equipment, but compared with fifty years ago, you need more gearheads and fewer laborers. There's a net cost saving in manufacturing because the payroll got short enough to offset the education of the engineers, but what about repair and maintenance?

Well, that kind of work is still labor intensive, and whether or not a toaster or a radio is made to last, if you can get it open, it takes a lot more than a screwdriver and persistence to get it working again. Computer repair might be more of a cottage industry than traditional repair services, but even then, what usually happens is a component is replaced and then thrown out or recycled for materials. Circuit boards and such are so touchy that trying to manually replace diodes or capacitors, if the malfunctioning ones can even be identified by your average soldering gun wielding citizen, is most likely to multiply the problems.

The result is that labor, on average, is more expensive than it used to be, in fact is by and large too expensive to spend on small appliances, even if they were designed to be accessible to curious gearheads. Even if they still used the older and more durable designs, it'd really be less expensive to replace something than to hire someone (not just buy a replacement part, unless you are willing and able to do it all yourself from home) to take it apart, diagnosis it and install the parts.

I do occasionally see a durable good designed for recycling--choice of easily reused or compostable materials, ease of dismantling and sorting into material types--but that still seems to be the exception.  Or maybe the recycling outfits hired by cities haven't caught up yet with green cradle-to-grave product engineering yet.

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