Normally when electronic stuff breaks in our modern world, we simply throw it out and buy a new one. For most people, the idea of repairing electronics has gone the way of the dodo. Like the helpless consumers we are, we pony-up our money and buy new.
Electronics are cheap and plentiful (thanks to the China), and replacements are just a few clicks away. But I have one GIANT gripe with this situation — The quality of electronics goods has seriously declined over the past few decades, and most products are NOT repairable.
Back when I was a kid (in the late 80’s and early 90’s), that was the heyday of quality electronics. You could buy a TV, a walkman, or a Nintendo Entertainment System and know that sucker would last for decades. DECADES!
Japan was cranking out quality electronics at a prodigious rate. It’s no wonder so many Japanese electronics firms became household names: Sony, Toshiba, Hitachi, Panasonic, Sharp, NEC, and many more. These companies were taking massive marketshare from Western companies because of their great quality and good prices. Japan was absolutely crushing it.
Now, the story has changed completely — you can’t even find a Japanese branded TV in a electronics store, let alone one actually built in Japan. Instead we now have mountains of poorly made Chinese TV’s, computers, phones, and all manner of other electronics. Most of which won’t last more than a couple years (sometimes less than a year!).
And I hate it. I hate having to replace my computer or cell phone every couple years because the darn thing wears out in 36 months.
I prefer electrical goods to be indestructible like my popcorn popper.
While I’ve ranted about this before, I really do believe most consumer products are designed to fail…aka planned obsolescence. But only at a rate that’s acceptable to consumers. For most kinds of products, I think this magic “sweet spot” is about 3 years.
Recently, it’s gotten way worse — Many of the electronic products I buy only last 1 to 2 years before death.
Let me give you a recent example from my own life: Computer mice.
I happen to love a particular style of computer mouse called a “Trackman Marble“. It’s a kind of trackball-type mouse made by Logitech.
Over the years I’ve owned a number of these mice. (They’re awesome for stopping carpal tunnel issues FYI)
Two of the three I own still work:
About a year ago, my new wireless Trackman Marble started having problems — with barely one year of service. What’s crazy here is the older version (purchased 2001) has significantly outlasted the newer version (purchased in 2015). It has a decade of use and still works without problems.
A quick internet search reveals the culprit: Poor quality electronic components chosen by Logitech. It seems like thousands of people around the world are having the exact same problem — The moving parts (called microswitches) aren’t durable and wear out very quickly.
All in the quest for profit. Shame on you Logitech. At the volumes you manufacture these things, it would cost you mere pennies to buy better components!
Grrrrrr! [shakes fist menacingly]
Fighting The Consumer Machine: Replacing Microswitches
Being the anti-consumerist that I am, I decided to have a go at fixing it myself.
Normally, this is next to impossible without specialized equipment. Most electronics these days are surface mount electronics — way too small to work with using human hands. Usually they’re created with robots called Pick And Place machines.
However, microswitches are one of the few exceptions to this rule. We still need devices that can interact with us at “big dumb human scale”. That’s where microswitches come in.
For reference, these guys are still tiny:
To replace these switches, I first had to find some. Checking out Amazon and online component retailers, I quickly realized instead of costing pennies, this might cost me about $10 dollars…and a significant chunk of that would be for shipping.
Curses! [shakes fist menacingly]
Being the frugal millionaire that I am, I opted to not spend money on this project. Instead, I cannibalized the parts I needed from a broken mouse found for free on my Local Buy Nothing group.
Nothing my trusty (free) soldering iron can’t handle!
One hour later, I had a minor burn on my finger and the “donor” switches installed into my wireless mouse. It works perfectly again!
Yes, ultimately this project probably took longer than just purchasing a new mouse off Amazon, but I did save myself $25 dollars. That’s not really the point.
Any fool can spend money to solve a problem.
Me, I’m the kind of person who takes pride in fixing something … and giving Logitech the middle finger.
They could have used higher-rated microswitches and created a product that lasted decades. But they didn’t. Instead they chose inferior components that last about year… so that helpless consumers will need to buy a replacement.
F-U Logitech. I am not a helpless consumer.
I will gladly spend the time and effort necessary to replace components (ideally for free), instead of emptying my bank account and filling the landfill with more plastic.
Moral Of the Story
We’ve been trained. Trained like obedient pets to solve our problems by spending money. Trained to enjoy new things, and trained to shrug our shoulders when these things break.
This is just another chain around consumer’s necks — keeping them tied to that high-paying job in order to pay for poorly made consumer products.
It doesn’t have to be that way. We can CHOOSE to buy better quality products, or at least repair broken ones.
To be clear — I had absolutely no electronics training before attempting this project. I barely knew how to use a soldering iron. But I do know bullshit when I see it, and that’s a powerful motivator for me to learn something new.
The next time something of yours breaks, I hope you remember this little story.
Don’t just throw that electrical widget out because it breaks. Do some research. See if it can be repaired at a reasonable cost. Or, at the very least understand why the product broke — was it poor design, or poor quality?
It might just be an opportunity to learn new skills and make yourself a little richer.
Over time, it all adds up…