20
Jan
11

Planned obsolescence, repair capture, and fixing shit yourself

I don’t know how much it’s come across on this here blog, but since the middle of December I’ve been colonized by the Make magazine memetic virus.  (I like to think of it as “smartworms”.)  Turns out I’m horrifyingly vulnerable to a vector like this one: build reports for garage-built CNC routers and 3D printers hit me right in the Calvin and Hobbes-like imagination.

This comes up because the maker-sphere* portion of the Big Truck is basically Martin Luther to Apple’s Pope.  Under this formulation, iFixit’s Manifesto corresponds to the Ninety-Five Theses; fortunately, it’s a good bit shorter.  A quick glance will give you to wonder whether iFixit is any less smug, image-obsessed, and self-righteous than their appointed antagonists.  (Also, Soviet iconography in the service of purported freedom is so fucking overdone, guys.  Can’t you find something more interesting?)

I’m all for building, fixing, and repurposing shit, but I’m not so insecure that I try to make it a moral virtue.  It’s fun, satisfying, and rewarding, yes; but it’s not exactly elevating society as a whole.  In fact, even a glancing familiarity with comparative advantage should suggest that I’d be much better off spending my build-fix-repurpose time writing code for money and paying a specialist to build-fix-whatever.  (This is not the case — the transaction costs involved are far too high — but it’s an illuminating counterargument.)

Anyway, this comes to mind because iFixit is getting its collective scrotum caught in a zipper over Apple’s fastening hardware:

Apple is making it more difficult for iPhone 4 owners to perform simple DIY repairs by replacing common Phillps head screws with a rare “pentalobe” screws. While newer iPhone 4s have included the screws from the factory, it is also Apple policy to replace any Phillips head screws with the new pentalobe screws whenever an iPhone 4 is taken in for service.

“This screw head clearly has one purpose,” iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens told Ars. “To keep you out.”

All together now…

Guys, really?  Half an hour with some brass rod and jewelers’ files ought to produce a tool sufficient to remove those screws and replace ’em with appropriate Torx or hex-head fasteners.  I thought you were all about building shit?

Or, y’know, building and selling shit:

iFixit is doing what it can to source screwdrivers to work with the new screws, though it notes that there doesn’t appear to be a single reputable supplier that carries the same tools Apple technicians use. The company offers a kit for iPhone 4 owners with a small driver than can remove the pentalobe screws along with replacement Phillips screws and #00 Phillips screwdriver. Wiens notes that the pentalobe driver isn’t perfect—”the tip is more star-shaped than “flowery”—but it can remove Apple’s pesky replacements and “liberate” your iPhone.

(Honestly, people, quit with the fucking Phillips-head screws already!)

Incidentally, nowhere in the Ars Tech article or its hysterical source on iFixit is the titular “simple DIY repair” for iPhone 4s mentioned.  But it might happen!  Yeah!  iFixit totally isn’t blowing this issue out of proportion to promote in-group cohesion and sell ten-dollar kits to gadget freaks with over-the-top rhetoric like this:

“This is terrible for consumers,” Wiens said. “Apple is taking planned obsolescence to the next level.”

Dunno if you’ve noticed, boys, but most “consumers” have their Apple hardware serviced at an Apple store.  “Consumers” aren’t likely to notice this at all.  (In any case, car companies took us down the proprietary-service road decades ago.)

On a similar note, we find this post on Ric’s Rulez:

It’s difficult to excerpt (go RTWT), but here are some relevant bits on the subject of “why you can’t find a drop-in replacement for your dead laptop battery or your coffee-maker’s switch”:

The heart and soul of engineering is to have exactly the minimum part, at minimum cost to get and install, that will work, and engineers everywhere work hard to get as close to that ideal as possible. At the same time, the Suits want something that’s different — ideally better, but “different” is close enough; the advertising people can make up the difference — so that customers will seek out their product instead of somebody else’s. That’s why the batteries are different. Management wanted something different to attract customers; the engineers worked to make the new product any or all of lighter, faster, smaller, less costly, more powerful. The old battery didn’t fit in the new design, so they designed a new one.

[…]

You can’t replace the switch in your coffeemaker, because the engineers who designed it designed a switch for that specific model; it’s the best and least-cost alternative for that design, but it’s also unique — and when a new design comes along, the factory will throw away the tooling for the old one and start building the new style with still a different switch.

[…]

Greenies criticize that for waste, but it isn’t, really. The engineers have been busily beavering away at optimization,  doing the job with less materials, energy, and labor while making the device last as long as possible or reasonable. Companies spend tens of thousands of dollars per “seat” for software that will enable the engineers to save a pound of plastic in every ten thousand widgets, and engineers will squeeze the program to the limits to do exactly that, resulting in every bit being unique. Stocking, warehousing, identifying, and shipping billions of unique parts would be ‘way more expensive (in CO2 production, among other things) than simply tossing the broken gadget in the trash and replacing it. Fix or fling? Fling, most assuredly.

This is something of a false dichotomy: if you know how to solder and how switches work, you can buy a new panel-mount switch, desolder the old one, and install it yourself.  This takes quite a bit more effort than most people are willing to apply, and the environmental benefits of sending a bunch of FedEx trucks bearing little envelopes from DigiKey all over creation are somewhat obscure.

In any case, I rather doubt that the folks at Braun, say, design a bespoke power switch for each of their coffee makers.  Front-panel button clusters, on the other hand… those are likely to be in-house one-offs.  Could you fabricate your own, or even augment one?  Damn right.  But again, we’re talking about something you do because you want to, not something you do because it’s the easiest, cheapest, or most efficient solution.

Ric continues:

You may not have noticed, but things don’t break as often as they used to. I certainly notice — I’m old enough to remember when the value of a used car went down precipitously at around 30,000 miles. Nowadays 100K is about what you expect to see on the lot, and the car will still be sound. That’s because of optimization. If every part of the car, or the coffeemaker, has exactly the right amount of the right material in exactly the right places to perform its function, there’s no reason for it to break unless you hit it with a hammer — and that means it lasts for a long, long time.

Parts fail under one application of limit stress (“you hit it with a hammer”) or an enormous (one hopes) number of applications of smaller stresses (up to the fatigue life of the part).  As Ric points out, better-engineered parts have longer fatigue lives with less material.  Eventually they will break, if subjected to enough stress cycles.

This raises an interesting question: how long a fatigue life is long enough?  If most people buy a new laptop after four years, why spend the extra resources to make a (heavier, costlier, harder- and dirtier-to-manufacture) battery that’ll last eight?  Two per cent of your users might complain when their batteries die after six years; the remaining ninety-eight per cent won’t notice.  Are you wrecking the environment by “forcing” those holdouts to buy new batteries, or preserving it by using fewer resources to build shorter-lived batteries which’ll see the same service life in the overwhelming majority of cases? I haven’t seen that tradeoff addressed in any “OMG techno-junk iz teh poizon!” scare stories.

——

* I needed a neologistic collective noun for Make, iFixit, Instructables, and so on; couldn’t readily find one; and made one up.

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8 Responses to “Planned obsolescence, repair capture, and fixing shit yourself”


  1. 1 MadRocketScientist
    January 20, 2011 at 14:51

    “I’ve been colonized by the Make magazine memetic virus.”

    It got me about 3 years ago, and I’ve never been happier. Even my wife enjoys reading Make. I only wish I had more money & time to make things with.

    I also enjoy the Instructables.com website.

    I think it’s something in the water up here in the Northwest.

  2. 2 Tam
    January 20, 2011 at 15:12

    This raises an interesting question: how long a fatigue life is long enough?

    This is how the $300 pistol has a “lifetime warranty”.

    Because, really, how many people who balk at paying more than $300 for a gun are going to put $3000 worth of ammo through it?

  3. January 20, 2011 at 15:38

    The rule of thumb my mentor gave me was, if it costs more than 40 percent of new to fix, buy a new one. Which I follow in most cases. Had a power supply go out on an interface board this week. My son is coming down, and we’ll go over the circuit board where this power supply lives. If he needs to, he can return to campus and build a new circuit board. It doesn’t matter to me if the board has the same shape or size, since the application is static. If we need to build a little box to house the new power supply, that’s okay. I’ve got plenty of wire. And, yes, this is an obsolete device. The company, DigiDesign, doesn’t support it anymore. But, it’s a great product and I have boxes of parts from scavanged systems I’ve picked up over the years. Run it on an old 386 breathing Windows 95. Recently put a new, flat-screen monitor on the box. It sure looks new!
    .

  4. January 21, 2011 at 08:31

    You may not have noticed, but things don’t break as often as they used to.

    Hmm – he might be right. We’ve gone through 3-4 kitchen coffee makers in the dozen-plus years we’ve been married. I don’t recall any being _broken_ when they were replaced: every so often my wife will come home from Wal-Mart with a new coffee maker: “they were on sale and I was tired of the old one.”

    The old ones – I hate throwing out stuff that actually works – get cleaned and stored in the basement. If this trend continues pack rats are going to be in a world of hurt: disposing of broken stuff is one thing but a fully functional but old appliance .. that’s hard to part with.

    • 5 madrocketscientist
      January 21, 2011 at 09:54

      Brian:

      If you have old stuff that is still good, just not useful to you, try posting it on Freecycle.org. You aren’t allowed to sell it, but at least you can easily get rid of it without having it take up landfill space prematurely.

      It’s also a great place to get spare parts. I’m building a large RC aircraft and I needed an engine. The motor on a gas leaf blower is a pretty good bit of power in a small package, and I found someone giving one away (just needed a bit of carburetor work). I used to have some old foam cusions I had no use for, and found a lady who wanted to upholster some outdoor wicker furniture who took them all off my hands.

    • January 21, 2011 at 12:51

      I do that with computers. (This should surprise no-one.) “Hey, if I throw a RAID card and a few hard drives into this old desktop, I can set it up as a networked fileserver. It doesn’t need to be all that fast for the load I’m gonna put on it… someday… when I get around to it.” And of course when “someday” comes around, “throwing together a simple fileserver” becomes an epic retrocomputing quest. Maybe I’ll just scrap the things and use ’em to source capacitors and fans and heat-sinks and such, should I ever get into electronics.

  5. February 16, 2011 at 10:51

    This is offensive! really, like whatever I HATE YOU~!

    NAh just joking :)

  6. February 16, 2011 at 10:52

    Actually, this is really good. Im reasearching thisfor a project and this is good. :)


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