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Broken After-Sales Support Hobbles High-Tech Supply Chain

As a matter of general practice, this space resists the tendency to generalize from anecdote. But then the office printer broke: A pulley operating a rubber wheel, the job of which is to separate a sheet of blank paper from a stack and suck it into the machine’s interior, had lost its oomph.

You already know how this story is going to end. The very talented and pleasant technician at the repair shop down the street kept the printer for a week, searching every supplier and warehouse for a thousand miles around, seeking what he said was a $12 pulley. He failed to find one. So three days ago, after briefly considering turning a perfectly functional piece of consumer electronics into a planter, I tore it apart and recycled what was left.

I cannot in fairness call the dead printer an Asian product. It’s a global product. Parts of it came from Asia, the technician said, referencing the codes on a box for a newer-generation model, which I will dutifully buy and throw out in 18 months when it breaks, too. The company with its name on the product is American and the parts supplier is in the United Kingdom. But somehow this international supply network could not produce a viable economy of scale to make repairs worthwhile.

The technician seemed more frustrated than I was, and understandably so: He studied quite a while at personal expense to learn how to service electronics but doesn't actually get to do it much. Often, he lamented, he has to tell people to just chuck stuff for want of a supply of affordable parts.

There was, as it happened, a laptop on his workbench when I came by. Someone had dropped it. With new netbooks now selling for $300 he was going to suggest the customer not bother to repair the slightly broken computer. It needs a small piece of plastic to re-attach the screen to its body, and that would work out to at least $100.

I’m mentioning all this — and complaining about it — because it illustrates an under-discussed aspect of the long chain needed to bridge the gulf between Asian producers and overseas consumers. A $12-spare part turns out to be worth, in terms of supply infrastructure, about $200 in real terms. Because that’s what I’ll pay for a new printer, a replacement for the toner I never used, and taxes, to get my home office back to where it was before the “$12 pulley” broke.

The environmental pressures increasingly facing shippers tend to get discussed, at least in Asia, in terms of carbon loads, re-tooling costs, and cents-per-mile. In this case, though, I wanted more supply chain, not less: I wanted someone to spend the fuel and space to bring me a piece of electronics that would really cost $12.00, so I could make the environmentally correct choice to fix something, rather than throw it out.

It hasn't and may never happen.

13 comments on “Broken After-Sales Support Hobbles High-Tech Supply Chain

  1. Barbara Jorgensen
    November 8, 2010

    I'd hazard a guess everyone has been there at least once. Several times within the past two years I've been advised the cost of repairing my printer; one of two laptops; a cell phone; and a portable game machine would be higher than the device is worth.  Every time, I give the manufacturer credit for built-in obsolescence; driving prices down; and making it simply easier to buy something new than get something repaired. (I had to buy a second laptop while the first was being repaired.)

    I even did the same exercise you did with your printer on the PCB inside my refrigerator that failed almost immediately. The repair guy wouldn't take the broken PCB for some ridiculous reason–I think he wasn't an employee of the manufacturer–he was outsourced–and couldn't handle the materials or something.

    I can't even give the used stuff away; it costs to have it picked up and recycled; or I wait for an annual electronics recycling day. In the meantime I have a graveyard of useless electronics equipment in my basement. It is maddening.

  2. Marc Herman
    November 8, 2010

    I suppose you've found the optimistic way to look at it: that this is evidence of larger efficiency, that things can be so cheap that they aren't worth repairing. I suspect that it's only cheap on the price tag, and when we factor in all the external costs, the environmental costs, and so forth, it's very expensive to make products sourced from Asian supply chains disposible, rather than to make them reparable. Those costs are just harder to see and account for in the purchase price of a printer.

  3. bolaji ojo
    November 8, 2010

    Marc, My own reaction when I encountered a similar situation was closer to Barbara's. It was a “maddening” feeling. I love to tool around with things and like fixing whatever I can even if it's life was clearly over. I had a brush with a printer too. It packed up after less than two years of gentle use but the problem was not hardware. It was software. For some reason, my printer believed it had a paper jam. I opened it up, checked everything, poked around everywhere and retrieved the paper. Yet, it kept telling me to clear the paper jam. After staring at it for three more months–even after buying a replacement–I finally reluctantly gave it up. It was a good printer/scanner/copier combo and as it went into the dumpster, I knew the problem could be easily resolved by someone but at what could turn out to be the cost of a new equipment. Quite a waste.

  4. Anna Young
    November 8, 2010

    I quite agree with comments made by Barbara, Bolaji and you. I believe everybody has a thing or two to say about the cost to repair a broken laptop or printer or what have you. Yet we are supposed to be responsible and kind to the environment. Who is going to bear the cost to safely dispose all our broken laptops and PCs? I would rather repair than dispose. Access to parts ought to be readily available and cheap.
     

     

     

  5. Hardcore
    November 9, 2010

    Ahhhhhh… the joys of living in China.

    I can pay someone to fix it for about $2 including parts, or I can rummage around at the local electronics market and find exactly the part i need.. they EVEN service dot matrix printers.

    I don't think there is any major manufacturers product you cannot get spares for even if it may be 10 years old.

    I was out over the weekend looking for  phone card connectors, those little doo lalies the little  sim card slots into.

    Price from the USA $1-2 EACH + $30 us shipping,  at my local electronics store i got a bag of  20 for a dollar and an evil look from the guy because i  woke him up for such a small order,

    I think this highlights the  inadequacies of the supply chain, no matter how efficient it is, as soon as someone touches a part, the cost is multiplied way beyond the material value.

  6. Marc Herman
    November 9, 2010

    Exactly! You've articulated much more concisely what I was also experiencing. When I lived in Jakarta, Indonesia, it was easy to get electronic goods repaired. In Europe or the US, it's not. The usual narrative holds that technology moves quickly, so repair is hard to sell, because you probably need to replace the broken piece of electronics with a new generation anyway. So you'd only sell spare parts in places where people don't have the means to constantly upgrade. I'm very suspicious that this may be true but still not the primary incentive at work here. Rather, I'm inclined to believe that this is a supply chain issue: the economics of moving spare parts around the world don't pencil out for the producers, so they don't do it, passing the replacement, environmental and other costs of this inefficiency onto shoppers and governments. And this works because the electronics supply chain is, while not quite monopolistic, pretty focused on a few brands. I can't buy a printer from a company in India or Kenya that works on a different set of presumptions. But someday I will be able to. And will. Immediately.

  7. tioluwa
    November 9, 2010

    Well we could say that Bolaji's printer had an “e-neurological” breakdown when the software got confused

    Well down here the repair problem is felt by less than half of the population.

    When most of the gadgets, electronics and systems were manufactures some 5-10yrs ago, you are sure to find all the part available.

    Some people out rightly avoid buying latest electronics knowing the local repair guys wouldn't have the slightest clue how to fix it, not to mention finding the parts to replace.

     

    There is a question we need to answer here: What factors control the electronics supply chain in this area?

    In places like Europe and America, you can get every gadget to buy but you can't get any repaired. In China and the likes, where everything is outsourced to, you can get everything to buy (including things you can't get in the west) and also repair everything.

     

    Parts have to be available in China because they are needed in very high quantity by the manufactures there but who will import electronics components just for spare parts? If they do, it will not cost $12. So what do we do?

    One last thing, it is my opinion that the focus of the resent products being manufactures is reduced cost, nothing more. repair wasn't a part of it. Old Nokia phones had almost every component plugged in, making part replacement solder free. Now, they are all SMDs, and all cramped into one small board.

  8. Barbara Jorgensen
    November 9, 2010

    All of this would be less maddening to me if companies stopped touting their “MRO” and “post sales support” talents, then. Flextronics just opened two facilities largely dedicated to after market support; catalog distributors tout their MRO business, and manufacturers tell us all about their warrantys. I have never knowingly sent a laptop to an EMS for repair, although it's possible, I guess. I haven't tried to find replacement parts on Newark's website. Next time I'll give that a shot.

  9. Ariella
    November 9, 2010

    While it is maddening, it does make sense that something that has to be imported specially from overseas would cost the US consumer a lot more than it costs the customer who can find it in a local store.  There is a cost, after all, to shipping and handling.  But aside from that, many places don't want to bother with repairs.  I recall when I dropped a Canon digital camera and shipped it to the factor for repairs that the response was a suggestion I purchase a refurbished camera at a discount instead.  The company didn't even bother to pitch me a quote for repairs.  Consequently, even objects that are not normally categorized as disposable become so when they cannot be repaired.  It is not that they are really beyond repair but that no one in the country seems to want to bother to do it, and given the  costs, it does seem to make sense to upgrade to a new one instead.  So much for waste not, want not.

  10. Marc Herman
    November 9, 2010

    I think Tioluwa is onto something. In his case, changes in the design and manufacturing of cell phones sold in Nigeria, and the need to constantly train technicians to keep up with those changes, militate against repair. The priority for the designer is improved or broader function, and the assumption is disposability. Electronics seems unusual, if not entirely unique in this respect. They just don't factor repair into the equation, and I disagree that shipping parts is prohibitively expensive. Electronics, particularly consumer items, are small, cheap and light, compared to industrial-age equivalents. Shipping auto parts, for example, is enormously costly. Still, half a block from the computer shop that couldn't repair my 2007 printer, there's an auto parts shop that will sell me virtually any part for even the most drastically obsolete car. (When I lived in the States I used to drive old Fords, and part of the appeal was that I could fix the inevitable breakdowns cheaply, myself, with inexpensive parts; like Bolaji, I also enjoy doing that). My gut tells me this is a question of electronics industry priorities. I do wonder if the presumption of disposability is necessary to allow for certain useful, marketable designs. Like Tioluwa's mobile phones, for example. Could they be made equally useful with designs more amenable to repair? Could we train technicians in Lagos to service them profitably? I suspect so, if only because every other industry seems to do so.

  11. Hardcore
    November 9, 2010

    Hi,

    The issue in china appears to be that may of the tools to make the parts are here, that coupled with the fact that molding  always produces a % of 'rejects' or over production, ensures that the  parts kit is adequately available.

    Then there is the issue of 'scrapped' tooling, normally a 'tool' is good for a set number of shots (parts off tool) then the tooling starts to age/wear and the tool is sold out for the scrap metal value without the tool being decommissioned correctly (we used to decommission a tool with a sledgehammer ), I know of instances where people are re-commissioning the old tools with product going back to the 'supply chain'.

     One other issue is that in China they have a very active recycling program, all electronics and materials are stripped down and recycled because they are worth money, so much so that individual IC's can be stripped off PCB's and end up back in the  supply chain for new parts.

    In some cases it is possible to go to a stall and get all the parts to build a mobile phone from scratch purely because they have such an encompassing breakdown of hte parts, I suppose if a bunch of accountants sat down and did a real costing of this whole process, it would be terribly inefficient and massively over cost, but some how it all seems to just keep working, despite having no formal system in place.

    In the outside world is there a deliberate policy on spares  OR is spares so far down the procurement ladder that this is the 'real' cost?

    Take for example my Braun shaver, a full shaver costs $9us (including a spare blade) ,but for some reason replacement blades cost 50% of that!! so in reality if I buy 2 spare blades i can buy a new shaver, are they trying to drive the production process to keep the quantities of shavers produced high to get the overall cost down? or does it really cost 50% of the price for a spare because the part has to traverse the same supply chain as the finished shaver?

    Has anyone ever produced an analysis and cost model of a full supply chain?

  12. Anna Young
    November 9, 2010

    Ariella, Perhaps in all this we are not factoring in the fact that it is not in the (profit) interest of these companies to encourage re-use and repair. Marc had to buy a new printer so the manufacturer gets extra money from the sale which it would not have received if the $12-pulley had been available.

  13. Ariella
    November 9, 2010

    Anna, I'm sure you're right. That's the idea of built-in obsolescence, though in this case it is design for breakage that is not worth repairing. 

    Hardcore, I've also noticed that about replacement parts on small appliances.  The cost of the parts seems to far exceed the proportion they make up for the whole.  However, items that do regularly break or have to be replaced, like the belts for the vacuum cleaners, are generally reasonably priced at about $2 a piece.  Replacement filters are also readily available.  But if one were to try to get a part for a vacuum that is not stocked in stores, there would be no choice but to order it and pay the premium price for any item that is not commonly stocked. 

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