Sunday, August 11, 2013

Engineering is about tradeoffs.

Despite the derogatory implications that some might associate with this statement, I present this idea merely as a statement of fact: Most Americans don't fix as many things themselves any more.

I was presented with this idea quite some time ago, as one of the customers where I worked was complaining that replacing the starter on his standby generator seemed incredibly wasetful, since in his day starters were usually rebuilt. He used to work in the auto parts business. The inherent problem with what he was saying didn't even register with him. His maintenance was being done by an electrical contractor that happened to also do generator work. Should the electrical contractor have rebuilt a starter, having little experience doing so, nor having any of the equipment to do it? That's probably not cost effective. Should the contractor have subcontracted a rebuild out to someone who did specialize in rebuilding starters, at a substantial markup? That's probably not time effective or cost effective. On a thing like a backup generator, you just want it to work when you need it, and it doesn't really run that often. Was the guy going to notice if it didn't start on its exercise cycle? How mad would he have been at the contractor if it didn't start when it was supposed to? At a certain level, it comes down to the company that has to warranty the generator, and that's the generator manufacturer. Their recommendations end up outweighing all other concerns, since they're worried about both the reputation of their product and their responsibility to the product warranty. Their recommendation? Replace the starter with a new one that they've sent from the factory, and then the responsibility is back on them where it belongs.

This is somewhat typical to most troubleshooting these days - find the faulty module and replace it. This means that the technicians need to be most familiar with how the equipment is supposed to work normally, and following the path of operation through the system until the first failure is discovered. Once the failure is discovered and addressed, then the system can be re-assessed for proper operation.

Are we in any position, as laypeople, to accumulate this knowledge for every piece of equipment in our daily lives? Phones, computers, printers, cameras, cars, coffee makers, media players of all sorts, air conditioners, electrical equipment, radios, televisions, and the like?

I picked on radios and televisions last there because it wasn't that long ago that people took vacuum tubes (thermionic valves) to the drug store or the hardware store to check them and replace tubes themselves. You plugged the suspicious tube into one of 70 or 80 different sockets in the tester, and the machine told you if it failed on anything obvious, like if it had a short in it or something. Those testers probably could check several thousand different vacuum tubes. With vacuum tubes having been replaced by transistors, I can't imagine how large the tester at the drugstore would have to be to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of different devices, nor can I figure out how most people could unsolder a single transistor to check it. So, to use our oversimplified examples - two of the big reasons that we don't fix as many things ourselves is 1) we can't easily amass enough knowledge to fix all of the things that we might need to fix and 2) the things themselves are more complex than they used to be, so individual components are harder to extract. There was a small resurgence of fixing things ourselves when PC's hit the market, mostly due to the modular nature of the PC itself. Individual cards, having failed, are relatively simple to remove and replace. Certainly, nobody is going to be rebuilding modems these days.

I had a problem with one of my bass guitars that I put up with for a long time. A couple of the bridge saddles would collapse down to the face of the instrument periodically, allowing the string to whack against the pickup covers where it's not supposed to be. I was daunted by the idea of replacing the bridge, especially when I couldn't find an identical replacement. I put up with its failure for a long time, and eventually stopped taking the instrument in question to gigs. Just recently, I had the horrible "The disc cannot be read" failure on my Wii game console for what I think is the third time. So, I decided to take matters into my own hands on both accounts. I figured that if my Wii didn't work after I tried to fix it, I would be no worse off than I was. I felt the same way about the bass I wasn't using. After a few minutes looking around on the internet, I discovered that the laser module in the Wii's optical drive was the usual thing that failed, and if I recall correctly it was one of the things that Nintendo had previously fixed for me under warranty. The only thing that I would need besides a replacement laser module was something called a tri-wing screwdriver. On the bass side, I was able to find a different bass bridge than the stock one for my bass that had the same string spacing. The height might have changed, but at least it wouldn't be too low. If I didn't manage to get it to work, I could just put the old bridge back on.

The new bridge arrived first, and it took me a while to round up the right tools and courage to get it installed. My biggest concern was putting it on crooked and not being able to ensure good intonation, but I got it lined up correctly on the second try and everything went just fine. It would have gone fine the first time, but one of the holes I drilled was a little problematic because of how the bit walked around on the finish. I actually think that the intonation is better now that it was, even though the strings are a teeny bit higher.

The advantage I had on replacing the laser on the Wii over working on my bass is that there are plenty of tutorial videos on youtube for getting the Wii apart and changing the laser. The one thing I couldn't really understand was what the point was in making me purchase a tri-wing screwdriver. It was pretty easy to find replacement laser modules and tri-wing screwdrivers on Amazon, and the screwdriver was less than $3. It did take a really long time to get here, but that wasn't much of a deterrent either. Is it illegal for me to own a tri-wing screwdriver? Is it some sort of obscure DMCA violation?

I guess the question I really want to ask has to do with our title - "Engineering is about tradeoffs". With the bass bridge, it's a job that not everyone is willing to do, and many times will get contracted out to luthiers because they have the correct skill set for the job. All the hardware on the bass bridge is either Philips head or some size of hex key (and the new bridge even came with the two required hex keys). With the Wii, you needed two different sizes of Philips in addition to the tri-wing screwdriver to get the case open and replace components. In my mind, using a non-standard fastener comes with a significant extra cost, but maybe it's only a few cents per console. But even at a few cents per console, the Wii has sold over 100 million units. What, if anything, was gained by using a non-standard screw to secure the case of the console? Even if piracy was the concern, the most famous modification for the Wii allowing non-approved software to run doesn't require you to take your system apart, as hackers were able to discover a method via software. If the Wii had all standard screws - how many more people would have taken them apart? I'm guessing not many - especially in light of what we were talking about above - since not that many people are fixing their own stuff these days. Imagine what Nintendo could have done if those resources were spent on making a more secure and stable OS (not that the Wii OS is bad, just pointing out that it was hacked) or developing a few more games.

If any of you really do want to take your Wii apart and the screwdriver was stopping you, here's the link for buying one on Amazon.

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