Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting

DISPLAY CONSULTING

 

The Green Paradox…

We live on a planet of finite size and predictably limited resources.  If we run out, there is realistically nowhere else we can go to get “more stuff”.  We have known this for many years.  Thus, in order to accommodate our growing population we have to be careful how we use our available resources and we also have to be careful that we don’t destroy or poison the very space that we will need for our survival. 

Of course, not everyone agrees on exactly how we should go about taking care of our environment and sometimes really bad things have to happen before we learn our lessons – major oil spills, thick layers of smog, ground water contamination, etc.  In spite of, or perhaps because of, these bitter lessons, overall, humanity is becoming more aware of the need to protect earth’s environment -- the only home that we know.  

For the worldwide display and electronics industries this has led to a number of initiatives and government mandated regulations to reduce power consumption and to eliminate materials that can potentially poison the environment.  Controlled disposal and recycling or reusing the constituent materials has been another useful approach.                

While all this sounds like progress, there are two countervailing forces that are perhaps even stronger than the push to protecting the environment.  The strongest of these is the desire for companies to grow and prosper by selling more and more products, and the complementary desires of consumers to have the very latest gadgets.  Product life cycles are now measured in months.  Where we used to have one computer for each household we now have several for each family member.  Another force that is working against making any progress in “being green” is the approach that manufacturers have taken in designing products that can only be repaired by making major module replacements or products that are not repairable at all.

In the days of vacuum tube electronics, when the television or radio failed it was typical to replace a faulty tube (or sometimes a capacitor) and the product was back in service.  The expectation was that a television set would be in use for at least ten years and most likely considerably longer.  The same was true for radios.  Today, the expectation is that most electronic products will have a life cycle of no more than one to three years.  For example, most users consider their cell phone obsolete after just one year.  A typical desktop or laptop computer has a life cycle of no more than three years – although this column is being written on one that is considerably older than that and the software is “Office ‘97”.

Recently, I encountered a problem with a 30” high-end monitor that had lost its capability to synchronize the vertical signal.  To me this seemed like a readily repairable problem – especially since this particular monitor sells for well over $500.   The obvious approach was to trace the vertical synch signal to locate where it was failing.  To facilitate the task, I found a service manual on-line and sure enough the path for the synch signals was identified.  It didn’t take more than a few minutes to verify that the video board was not the problem and that it was sending the proper synch signal to the display driver board.  OK, problem solved!  Replace the driver board and we’re back in business. 

At least, that’s what I naively assumed before I read a few more pages of the service manual.   As I soon learned, this board is permanently attached to the display panel itself and there is no replacement circuit board available.  What the service manual says is that if such a problem is encountered then the indicated “repair” is replacement of the entire “display module”.  How can they say this with a straight face?  Other than the “display module” (with the driver board permanently attached to it), this monitor consists of a $10 power supply board, a $10 video input board, and a black plastic box.   Thus, instead of being able to plug in a new $10 driver board, this $500+ monitor is now a piece of worthless junk. 

Perhaps that is good for the manufacturer, but it sure doesn’t do anything for protecting the environment or the pocket book of the consumer.  

This is, of course, not an unusual experience.  It’s no different than having a numerical LED display lose one segment of a digit on a kitchen appliance such as a microwave oven and be told that the only available replacement part is the entire electronics module – typically priced at around $200.  So instead of replacing a $0.99 LED, we are forced to junk the entire module and add more electronics waste to our landfills.   However, even that wasteful repair can be done for only a limited time.  After a few years, as new models replace older ones manufacturers quit stocking the model-specific replacement modules.  Repair thus becomes impossible.  

Repair at the component level is also no longer an option.  The key components are typically custom IC chips that are surface mounted with 50 or more pins that are too small to align and solder by hand even if a replacement part could be found.  So we have traded repairability for “features” and obsolescence.   Whatever the gadget, if it doesn’t work, we toss it in the junk pile and go buy a new one. 

Thus, in spite of all the wonderful words we hear about energy and resource conservation, the practical reality is that it’s mostly just that – wonderful words.  A paradox!  We may make some modest efforts to reduce power consumption or to eliminate the really dangerous materials, but mostly the desire for consumers to have new gadgets with the latest “features” and the desire for manufacturers to sell more products overcomes any real effort to conserve our available resources.   

Perhaps the meaningful conservation will happen when we actually begin to run out of some of the materials we need.  For displays, among the first could be a shortage of Indium.   That would require a shift to other materials for transparent conductors.  In this case, that is not all that difficult or costly.  But using less of everything is highly unlikely.  The world economy may not be able to function with such an approach. 

So “going green” may be a wonderful concept, but in the display and electronics industries there is relatively little that we can do to make it happen.  Making products more repairable would be the easiest to implement, but at this time I don’t see much happening that would encourage manufacturers to follow such an approach in their product designs.   

I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on this topic or others.  You may reach me directly from this site, by e-mail at silzars@attglobal.net, or by telephone at 425-898-9117.