By Jason Allen
Published August 02, 2010
So the other day I wrote about the process of offshoring and the tendency to have incompatible parts in the 'same' product. This has prompted a number of questions, such as "That's not right, all the products that are called a Model X 9000 are the same, both inside and out, aren't they?"
This is simply not true.
To understand why, we need to take a bit of a dive into the murky world of electronics offhshore production. For one, when companies offshore (or as we'll call it, outsource) the manufacture of an electronic good, they have a few key considerations:
And of course, the big one:
From the contract manufacturer's point of view, there are only three considerations.
The thing to know about major offshore electronics productions facilities, is that they are not exactly a lone gleaming warehouse surrounded by rice paddies. To the contrary, they are located in areas densely populated with electronics part suppliers. All of whom are trying to get a piece of the action going on down the road.
So the parts suppliers have salespeople who knock on the big warehouse door daily, saying that their part will do what the other guy's part will do, for $0.005 cheaper. Yes, it's that little of a difference.
In fact it turns out the manufacturers have a contractual obligation for the most part to listen to these salespeople, and find ways of doing things more cheaply. (See Section 7.4)
A few years ago, I worked at a company that outsourced our production to China, and the main ingredient in product X was brass. As the price of copper jumped by 300% in four years, we started looking around for ways to save on copper. One day, a batch of samples arrived in the office just before I taught a class on our quality.
In the middle of the class, I disassembled the product to demonstrate its all brass construction, and found a big plastic insert holding it together. From the exterior, it was indistinguishable from the previous iterations (even the difference in weight was only 2-3 grams - too little for the average person to notice). On the inside, it was completely different.
When I inquired at Head Office as to why the change was made, the difference was $0.015 per unit. The thing was, we moved over 1,500,000 of this item a year, so the savings were..carry the one... close to $23,000. Doesn't seem that much, but if you reproduce those savings over the entire 100 item catalog, the money starts to add up.
That is why, in the post industrial future, the idea that we can all trot our beloved consumer electronics down to 'Ye Olde iPhone Repair Shoppe' is little more than a pipe dream. Not only can the specifications of the parts change from factory to factory, but they can even change from production run to production run within the same factory. All in the interest of saving money.
So now, for 'Ye Olde iPhone Repairpersonne' to fix your iPhone, she doesn't only need to find a discarded 2nd Gen 16 GB iPhone with the part you need still intact, she needs a discarded 2nd Gen 16 GB iPhone where the first 12 digits of the Serial Number match, or with some similar indication that they came from the same production lot.
Good luck with that.
Admittedly there are repair places now that can fix these items, but they are doing so with parts shipped from the same factories that supply the original manufacturers. Factories that are 1000's of miles away. The distance isn't a big deal now, but in a world where even bunker fuel commands a premium price, shipping the parts isn't going to make any more sense than shipping the original item.
Back to my original point: Maybe if we stop relying on our electronic devices to entertain us all the time - or if we had that option slowly taken away from us - maybe we would start to do other things with our time. Things like growing our own vegetables, or going to the park to play with the kids or have a picnic with friends, or even volunteering to fill some need in our community. Maybe even just bringing cookies to a neighbor who is home ill for a couple days.
These are the things that enhance our quality of life - not how many GBs or hours of battery life we can cram onto a device.
Don't get me wrong: this whole discussion never would have even come up if I hadn't been trying to fix my iPod, so I could continue to get my 'fix' of daily tunes on the 1 1/2 hour train/bus trip to downtown Toronto every day. Like I said, I'm down to my 500mb shuffle (which, for the record bought used off of Kijiji), and when that's dead...I'm going to have to think long and hard about if I replace it, or with what.
Trying to wean myself off the electronic bottle is one the more difficult tasks for me in preparing for a future with a whole lot less cheap energy. But the tasks I am replacing it with sure beat sitting in a shopping mall overnight waiting for a future that's only going to flourish ever so briefly.
This was first published on Jason Allen's personal website.