Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting


It Can’t be Fixed…

Christmas has come and gone – all too quickly as usual. Was Santa Claus good to you? Did you receive a few new electronic gadgets and gizmos? Have you been able to uncover all of the multi-level menus and unravel all of the “features” built into these electronic wonders? If you have, you are in a very small and exclusive minority.

It seems that even the simplest of gadgets must now come with a digital processor and a multiplicity of capabilities that can only be accessed by a thorough study of a mostly confusing instruction manual. For example, last year for Christmas, I received a new electric shaver. Now, one would think that it would be sufficient for an electric shaver to have an on-off switch and a simple mechanical assembly to activate the hair trimmer. But apparently, such elegant simplicity no longer results in a product that can be sold as a Christmas present.

Thus, my new shaver came with an indicator to show me when the rechargeable battery was low, and also an indicator to tell me when the shaving head needed replacing. Up to now, I had always thought that this was a rather obvious situation indicated by when the shaver was taking way too long to do it’s intended function and/or felt like my face was getting a rubdown with a sheet of sandpaper. In addition to these electronic indicators, there was an electronically activated cleaning bath assembly that needed a special solution that “automatically” performed the function of transferring the accumulated beard particles from the shaver into the solution that then had to be periodically replaced. This “feature” was the greatest puzzle to me. How did it become more convenient for a user to have to clean the cleaning solution instead of just cleaning the shaver? Needless to say, I did not put this part of my Christmas present into use.

Thus, after a few weeks of experimenting, I finally made peace with this electronic marvel and for a number of months we lived in mostly user-friendly harmony. But then suddenly one day in October, the shaver quit working. No matter how many times I flipped the switch, there was no response whatsoever. Dead as can be.

Well, being the typical engineer, I decided that a quick repair was in order. What could it be? Perhaps a faulty switch or a rechargeable battery gone bad? That shouldn’t be so hard to fix.

My first hint of the challenge that lay ahead should have been the apparent lack of any obvious way to disassemble the outer case. However, having considerable experience with other products such as the display modules on laptop computers, I started searching for the typical hidden snap fittings. Given this knowledge, it didn’t take all that long to figure out how the various outer casing pieces came apart. Next came the examination of the switch and the batteries -- nothing wrong with either one. The batteries were fully charged and the on/off switch was working just fine. And since the batteries were charged and functioning, the charging circuit also had to be working.

It was then that I encountered the insurmountable obstacle. The shaver contained a small circuit board with about two dozen surface mount components including one custom logic chip in the middle of it all. Why would a shaver need a logic chip and all this circuitry? Well, of course. It was there to keep track of and operate all the “features” that I wasn’t using. So after an hour or so of attempted repairs, I had to give up and toss this feature-laden but non-functioning shaver into the trash. So much for “green technology” and saving the environment.

Unfortunately, this same experience will be repeated over and over again with our current electronic gadgets -- be they cameras, cell phones, music players, computers, or even large screen televisions. Circuit boards using tiny surface mount components – many specially made for that product – are simply not repairable at the component level. The user has to depend on the manufacturers’ willingness to stock the various boards so that a repair can be made at the board level. Given the number of products that are introduced each year, it is highly unlikely that replacement boards will be available for more than a few years at best -- and then only for complex products such as large screen televisions.

In spite of all the efforts to develop “green technology”, and the stated desires to conserve the environment, over the last few decades we have taken a major step backward from the time when electronic devices contained circuit boards with standard discrete components. The other sad result is that we are no longer able to buy products such as cameras expecting to use them for many years to come. A traditional mechanical 35mm camera could be expected to function for at least 20 or 30 years and even 50 year-old cameras are still useable. That will not be the case with the current models. Once an electronic component fails there will be no replacement available – and there will be no stock of custom flexible circuit boards for every model that has been introduced with each passing year.

Recently, I was asked about a repair that had been made to an almost-new flat panel television. The service technician had explained that both the power supply and signal processing boards needed replacement. My first question was; how did the service technician know that the signal processing board was bad if the power supply wasn’t working? My suspicion is that the typical approach is to replace everything that could possibly be causing a problem so that a second visit is not required. (I have encountered this same approach in getting anything electronics-related repaired on my car).

Almost imperceptibly, our electronic world has changed and most of us hardly noticed. We can no longer go to the local electronics supplier and buy a replacement part. There are no useful circuit diagrams that allow us to trace functionality and locate problems. There are too many logic functions and the accessibility to useful test points is mostly not there. And even with improved reliability of each component, we are creating an ever-growing junkyard of non-functioning devices. It is unfortunate, but our feature-laden world has become non-repairable. We buy it, we use it, and if it fails, we are forced to toss it away and go buy a new one. It’s not exactly the “green” approach to products that we should be – or perhaps thought we were -- pursuing.

A secondary sad result is that we will not be leaving much of a legacy for future generations. Fifty years from now, old tube radios will still be around, but the current flat panel televisions will have all been sent to landfills. Perhaps we will be able to find a few non-functioning models on display at a museum somewhere.

For comments about this column’s topic or others, please contact me directly from this site or by telephone at 425-898-9117.