Fixing Broken Stuff: Microswitches


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.

 

Quality

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.

 

Planned Obsolescence

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:

3 generations
Three generations of trackman marble mice.  Have I paid my dues to the corporate machine yet?

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.  

What gives?

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.

Broken Microswitches
Microswitches are the failure point in the newer models. The switch is substandard and not durable.

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:

Microswitches

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!

Microswitches in trackman marble
With the donor mouse opened up, I could see the microswitches were the same style as those found in the newer mouse.  Yay!  Free parts!
donor parts
A few minutes later, I had the microswitches removed from their sockets (Labeled SW1 and SW2).  Ready for transplanting.

One hour later, I had a minor burn on my finger and the “donor” switches installed into my wireless mouse.  It works perfectly again!

Back together
I’ve saved $25 doing this (the cost of a new mouse).  NO, I’m not going to show you my shitty soldering job. It works perfect, that’s all you need to know! 😉

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…


24 thoughts on “Fixing Broken Stuff: Microswitches

  • February 1, 2017 at 12:27 AM
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    Whoa, impressive! How’d you figure out it was the microswitch to start with?

    Very cool to still see someone using a trackball. 🙂

    Reply
    • February 1, 2017 at 9:40 PM
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      After removing the case, I activated the switches manually. It was pretty clear they were having issues. A little internet research confirmed my findings.

      Reply
  • February 1, 2017 at 4:41 AM
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    Great story and way to go figuring out how to fix this on your own! I recently finished “Let my people go surfing” by Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard. One of the big points he makes in the book is the need for people to buy only what they truly need, wear it out, then fix it, then finally give it away or re-purpose it. Pretty interesting perspective and mantra from a guy who makes money selling clothes…
    Freedom 40 Plan recently posted…Paying off Student Loans – 15 Years Later!

    Reply
    • February 2, 2017 at 5:36 PM
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      Freedom to 40,
      I read Yvon Chouinard’s book…such good stuff. I believe he builds Patagonia to last….I love that his corporate values align with his personal philosophy.

      Mr. Tako…I love learning how to fix stuff myself..the feeling of accomplishment…I also think it helps to solve problems. I am taking a class to learn how to tile a backslash from Home Depot(free btw). I don’t really want to pay a tile layer $900 just to do my kitchen, when I will be able to do it myself for just parts.

      Reply
      • February 2, 2017 at 5:46 PM
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        That’s great Marisa! Having more skills makes you a better, well rounded person. 🙂 At least in my mind.

        Reply
  • February 1, 2017 at 5:30 AM
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    I think it comes down to what your time is worth. Would I open my flat screen and replace a burned out capacitor (common failure cause for my model) yes because the TV would cost between 500-600 dollars to replace. If it takes less then ten hours I’d do it. I don’t think I’d bother with the mouse though. I’d put the time into a side hustles or other activity that’s more economically optimal. Then again I don’t think planned obsolescence bugs me that much as I buy quality or I buy something with easily fixed issues (TV again)
    Full Time Finance recently posted…Travel Hacking Methods: See the World on a Dime

    Reply
    • February 1, 2017 at 9:42 PM
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      Quality electronics are *really* hard to find, and in most cases significantly more expensive.

      Reply
  • February 1, 2017 at 6:08 AM
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    You forgot JVC in your list, best 36″ CRT I ever owned! Any way to tell if the donor microswitches are good before attempting the transplant? Did you know what had failed is the free mouse?

    Reply
  • February 1, 2017 at 6:28 AM
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    DIY work! Nice. Last night my wife and I were discussing how her mac book is now not working well after 4 years. I was ranting about the same issue, that nothing lasts anymore and I do not want to spend $1500 on an new computer. Even brands like Apple try to screw the consumer by making less reliable hardware.

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    • February 1, 2017 at 9:44 PM
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      It’s really frustrating isn’t it. You buy one of the more expensive brands and you *think* you’re getting something good. It’s all smoke and mirrors. Frequently, what lies beneath is quite poor quality.

      Reply
  • February 1, 2017 at 7:01 AM
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    And for the enterprising sort, you now have a potential side hustle. :O)

    Great job. I had a nightmare experience with a soldering gun back in high school. But, despite that Electronics was one of my favorite classes.

    Reply
  • February 1, 2017 at 7:18 AM
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    I really hate that we’ve gone to a “trash it” model for most of our consumer goods. Companies figured out it was waaaay more profitable to build crap and reap the benefits of us buying the latest and greatest things. Grrr.

    It’s such a challenge to find quality ANYTHING nowadays, but there are some good things if you know where to look. I’ve started shopping for clothes exclusively at thrift stores. They’re usually higher quality becuase they’ve already gone through one owner.

    Bravo for fixing instead of replacing! I know a lot of people will say “It’s $25, what’s the big deal?” That $25 is indicative of a larger problem we have on our hands than a broken mouse.

    Reply
  • February 1, 2017 at 7:48 AM
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    Maybe you should run your numbers through the cost calculator? at
    http://www.frugalfringe.com/calculators/whats-my-frugality-salary-2-0-calculator-tests-worthiness-of-any-frugal-project/#comments

    I agree wholeheartedly that quality on the whole has declined as we proceed into the future ( I still use my HP45 calculator in service now for 3+ decades) and that doing the Don Quixote thing (tilting at windmills) is the right thing to do – and it feels so good when you win 🙂 – hang the time spent.

    Reply
    • February 1, 2017 at 8:33 AM
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      When you don’t work, ANY project you ENJOY and save a little money is worth doing. Don’t need a calculator for that…but if I worked an hourly job, maybe.

      Reply
  • February 1, 2017 at 10:50 AM
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    Pretty awesome, Mr. Tako!

    I remember the time when my laptop’s AC Charger didn’t work and I bought a Soldering Kit and a New AC Port to replace the old one. $20 later and a few hours of research and my time, my laptop started charging again.

    It was much better than going to an electronics store and paying $100, and at the same time, I learned a new skill!

    Reply
  • February 1, 2017 at 10:58 AM
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    Nice score with the used parts! Finding the parts for a good price is tough sometimes. I’ve fixed numerous appliances including stoves, TVs, and refrigerators when they broke down. At least they all usually have the same problem and you can find solutions/parts on google. The last micro switch I replaced was in our heating zone valve.

    Good job at keeping another item out of the dump!

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    • February 1, 2017 at 11:06 AM
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      Thanks Mr. CK! I’m used to fixing washing machines and dishwashers and that sort of thing, but this was my first project with micro electronics!

      Reply
  • February 1, 2017 at 3:57 PM
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    Awesome job, Mr.Tako! I’m super impressed that you did this and not only does it save you money, it’s always great for the environment!

    I agree with you that society tends to “throw money at the problem” way too often these days. We need to learn how to fix things and be more useful. I think one of the reasons why we had such low rent before we became nomadic because we learned how to fix the landlord’s sink ourselves so he wouldn’t have to call a plumber. All it takes is a few YouTube videos and parts from Home Hardware. It’s not hard. And now we gained a useful skill!

    Ever thought of fixing things for a side income? Maybe you can fix and resell for a profit. Or learn how to fix iphones and other gadges.

    Reply
    • February 1, 2017 at 9:47 PM
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      I never thought of it as a side hustle… I’ll have to think about some of the possibilities.

      Reply
  • February 1, 2017 at 8:28 PM
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    You know you are an engineer when…

    Love this, fixing electronics is something I do all the time. You are right, they don’t make things that last forever anymore…

    Reply
  • February 3, 2017 at 5:06 AM
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    Very cool. This is one of those things that you don’t have time to deal with when you’re working full time. I’m guilty of throwing those cheap electronics out. I use the cheap sub $10 mouse so it’s not a huge budget hit. Next time, I’ll do a bit more diagnostic.

    Reply

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