Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting


The Display Continuum

It’s Not Working – Toss It…

Do I hear $275?  I’m bid $250, do I hear $275?  Going once at $250 -- Anyone for $275?  Going twice at $250.   Do I hear $275?   Going once, going twice, sold to the gentleman holding number 351 for $250.  

And so it was that the gentleman holding #351 took home a cart-full of computers.  Not just one computer, mind you, but 20 of them.  Similarly a number of other “lots” of computers stacked onto large roll-around storage carts were disposed of at this auction.   These computers were perfectly functional and only a few years old.  Nevertheless, their owners deemed them obsolete and ready for disposal.  They weren’t even considered suitable for resale on the used equipment market.  And I suppose that was reasonable, since the necessary software was most likely not included. 

Next, came several carts of CRT monitors, and just like the computers they were stacked like cordwood -- shrink-wrapped only to hold them in place -- with no concern for any damage that might result.   The selling prices ended up about the same as the computers, a few hundred dollars for each fully loaded cart.  And so it went with other items -- small and large: small ones such as cell phones, and large ones like printers, copiers, television sets, audio equipment, and just about anything else with electronic contents. 

Are there any electronics’ repair shops left?   It seems that the best we can hope for is to effect a repair by doing a board swap.   Are there any products left designed with component level repair in mind?  This module or board swap approach has not only taken over computers and the more expensive consumer electronic products; it has spread to encompass all major (and minor) appliances as well as automobiles.  If a segment of an LED goes dim in a microwave oven, the only possible repair is to replace the entire electronics module -- for several hundred dollars.  It matters not that the 8-segment LED could in fact be purchased for less than a dollar.  Trying to find the specially designed one that is on this particular circuit board would be a futile search. 

For many years I drove a 1978 Mercedes diesel sedan.  It served me well and had relatively few problems.  One time the rocker switch for the driver side window quit working.  I went to the parts department at the local dealer and for $7.50 I had a new replacement switch that took me about 2 minutes to snap into place.  

Now, I have a newer vehicle that is the beneficiary of nearly 30 years of additional technology evolution and has a number of new “features”.   Among other problems I have had with this feature-laden new vehicle, the window switch also quit working.  Well, that shouldn’t be so bad -- just go buy another switch and plug it in.  Oh, but silly me – the world of “modern technology” no longer works that way.   Not only could I not determine how to remove the faulty switch, when I sought help from the dealer, I was told that in order to make the repair they would need to replace the “switch module”.  With a cheerful smile, I was told that this part costs only $179 and that the labor to install it is even less -- only $160.  Later, after paying this “minor” repair bill, I took a good look at the faulty “switch module”.  It was made from a low-grade black plastic with the switch parts riveted in place.  The contacts were exposed and not especially sturdy.  No wonder it failed after only a few years of very limited use – at best a $10 part with just a “tiny” dealer markup. 

For all the talk about conservation, recycling, and using “green” materials, we have become a society that only values the newest and latest.  And if a product no longer meets the latest performance expectations, or quits working -- we simply toss it and go buy a new one.  The expectation that we can or should repair or maintain products for more than one or two years has vanished. 

In our own field of displays, we have recently seen the massive changeover from CRT-based monitors and televisions to flat panel technologies.   We have all seen articles written expressing concern about the disposal of CRTs.   From a conservation standpoint, it’s unfortunate that so many of these products have come to a premature end-of-life because of the misperception that the new flat-panel technologies are guaranteed to provide superior image quality.  

Nevertheless, the changeover is taking place and we are entering the new era of flat panel displays -- a changeover that is being accelerated by the rapid price decreases for both LCDs and PDPs.  Over the last few years, display manufacturers have made incredible progress in increasing manufacturing efficiency and incorporating design changes that have led to dramatically lower production costs. 

However, what happens if these new products quit working?  Are they repairable?  Have we in the display community made a trade-off for lower manufacturing costs at the expense of repairability.   Unfortunately, I think for most of the newer products that is indeed the case.   Have you tried to disassemble one of the newer flat panel monitors?  I have, and it’s not a pretty picture.  One can end up with a large pile of metal support pieces and snap-fitted mounting brackets before the circuit boards are exposed.  And then the replacement boards can, of course, only be obtained from the monitor maker since they are made specifically for this particular model.  Are these boards even available and for how long will they be kept in stock?  It doesn’t bode well for those of us who are not avid shoppers yearning to replace all of our electronics gadgets every few years. 

Could we do better?  Of course we could.  Let’s take the example of the carts full of computers that are only a few years old.  Why couldn’t we make this equipment so that at least the power supplies and chassis are standardized and reusable.   After all, the typical “newness” resides in the motherboard.  The rest, such as the hard-drives and memory modules, as well as other peripherals should and could be handled separately.   The same could be done with the software.  Of course this is not the way some of our large companies like to do business, so from a pragmatic standpoint I am just doing wishful thinking. 

The other sad reality is that consumers don’t want to think about repairability when they are looking to buy an exciting new gadget.  Who wants to buy a product that the manufacturer suggests may someday need repair?   That implies that it may not be built all that well.  And how will this go over with the marketing department?  New products are sold for their glitzy features, not for the convenience of repair should they fail.  Admitting failure is simply not something that can be incorporated into the typical sales pitch. 

Therefore, perhaps the only realistic answer is that products must be made so that their failure rates are so low -- that in the rare circumstance when a product fails -- it is simply replaced with a new one.  Is that a realistic expectation for the larger flat-panel displays? 

If you have recently purchased a large flat-panel television what are your expectations for its longevity?  Do you have a contingency plan in place if it quits working?  These large screen televisions represent a considerable investment so the “throw-away” mindset will not work here – at least for a few years.  Maybe the neighborhood electronics repair shop will be making a comeback as more of us end up with these expensive large-screen displays.  But instead of stocking repair parts, they may become a place for receiving replacement boards by overnight delivery from some centralized depot.  The future is still evolving – we’re not there yet!