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Electronics Service in the 21st Century - A Ramble

Preface: What, us worry?

Ahh, the Y2K crisis. You remember that, right? Back in 1999, there was a humongous deal of concern that a failure to properly recognize the turn of the century date by worldwide computer systems would lead to sporadic service outages or possibly even a massive collapse of modern society itself.

The problem, in a nutshell, was poor software engineering. However, since in actuality the rollover from í99 to í00 caused pretty much a whole lot of nothing to occur, the bad engineering just turned out to be of little consequence in this particular, and the world successfully dodged a cyber-bullet and went on about its ways.

Meanwhile, another technological debacle was occurring, and had in fact been occurring in increasing frequency for the last ten years. The difference is that no one was paying any attention to it, and furthermore almost no one is paying attention to it right now.

The bad news is that itís too late to do anything about it. The good news is... well, the Y2K thing never happened. So maybe weíre even.

In the beginning... no, wait, we already did that. This is the early middle or thereabouts.

Have you noticed how inexpensive a lot of modern electronic products have become? VCRís are in a state of near-nonexistence from a usage standpoint, and manufacturing production has followed suit. But if you still care to use one of these machines, you can buy one with a DVD player thrown in for as little as $120 or so, about as much as a weekís groceries for a small family. At one time a good VCR was close to $1000.

DVD players have followed the same roller-coaster-drop in cost, and did so in only about 8 or 9 years, as opposed to over 20 for VCRís. Computers-- still far and away the most complex piece of electronics commonly sold to the average consumer-- can be purchased for as little as $300, and even state-of-the-art consumer PCís are only around $1500 or so. Twenty years ago, you could pay $1500 just for a hard drive, and a measly 60-to-100 megabyte drive at that.

So, whatís the big old deal alluded to previously? In what way is the world ending, and why should you care?

Because the era of repairing electronic devices that have broken down or worn out is ending, and itís ending soon. Odds are youíve already had some personal experience with this phenomena. Perhaps you brought your 15-year old VCR into a service shop a while back-- you know, the one you paid $700 for in late-1980ís dollars? The one that weighs 15 pounds and by virtue of said hefty construction suggests that it would be near-on criminal to just chuck in the trash?

Sorry, but in the trash it will likely go. Even assuming you can get parts to repair it, would any rational person spend $120 to repair a machine when a new one can be purchased for less than that? Didnít think so. And letís say you arenít ďrationalĒ, but caught up in the iron grip of sentimentality or just plain darn techno-stubbornness. You make it known that you are willing to pay more than the product is theoretically worth, and fix it come what may, and you go looking for a service shop to take on the quest.

You canít find any. Sundry service techs stare at you balefully (unless theyíre properly caffeinated) and refuse to even check your darling into the shop. You get upset. You beg and plead, but it does no good. You offer some choice thoughts, either silently or aloud, and then head for the door. Or maybe the sales floor.

OK, the essay portion of the test is over. Now for the multiple choice part. Be aware that every question is a trick question and that there are no correct answers among the possibilities offered:

Multiple choice department:

1. You confounded service people are pirates. You charge big bucks to pop a 10 cent transistor in a circuit somewhere and in five minutes the thing is fixed and you pretend like itís a big deal.
A. Warp drive now, Mr Scott! (Aye-aye, Capín!)
B. Ever wonder why theyíve forgotten how to make fuses in the 24th century, and so the damn bridge of the Enterprise is always shorting out and blowing up?
C. Avast ye, mateys! Another sucker is off to port!
2. Service people are all anti-social geeks who prefer the company of machines to people.
A. All I can see is it raining on me / And my plastic fantastic lover.
B. If you had to repair machines for a living, youíd be anti-social too.
C. Brain-damage is as brain-damage does.
3. What do you mean, they donít make parts any more? Itís only 35 years old!!
A. Dude, chill! That thingís older than I am.
B. Well, we can try to scavenge parts for it from other similar models and do a restoration. Are you willing to invest three or four hundred dollars for our time to do that? No? Nothing over $25.00? OK, I see.
C. Only?
4. What do you mean, they donít make parts any more? Itís only 5 years old!!
A. Dude, chill! The new modelís got more features and itís half the price.
B. The company got bought out and the new owners donít make any parts for anything, ever. They are totally part-challenged.
C. Only?
5. I donít understand how it can only be worth $50 on a trade-in. It works great and itís in mint condition!
A. Spearmint or peppermint?
B. Other than the missing knob, the watermarks on the speaker cabinets, and the cozy lining of cat hair on the ventilation grill, yeah, itís a peach. But Blue Book is Blue Book, you know?
C. Iím sorry, it is beautiful. But itís still very, very old, and it just isnít a collectors item right now.
6. Do service technicians make house calls?
A. Does your doctor?
B. If we do, is it OK if we charge actual money for that?
C. Actually, some do. But most of the time the repair has to be done in the shop anyway, so that means another trip back to return the repaired piece. But yes, theyíre proud to be geeky anti-social anarchists.
7. Anarchists? I donít like the sound of that!
A. Who else would stick their hand into something with 35,000 volts lurking only inches away from it?
B. Not all of us. Just some.
C. Bet your doctor isnít an anarchist. On the other hand, many doctors really love music and buy really nice, very expensive audio gear and so audio shops get to stay in business. Thatís cool.
8. So an A/V service department is just a marketing tool to get customers to buy new equipment?
A. Du-uuh.
B. How do the Car Talk © guys put it? The ďDepartment of Shameless CommerceĒ? They need to eat, too.
C. Nothing lives forever, not even your McIntoshģ amplifier. God knows it tries.
9. You guys have a bad attitude.
A. It was worse. Itís gotten better lately. The drugs help a lot, and the counseling.
B. Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.
C. We donít want to, but if you had to do service work for a manufacturer who treats everything defective or wonky or badly designed that makes it out of their door as something that is now your problem, or our problem, youíd need therapy too.
10. Is this a 20-Questions thing?
A. No, just ten. Itís almost all over now, so just go with the flow.
B. Itís really all about having a sense of humor. You really, really need one to repair anything these days.
C. You can go back and answer the questions a second time, but thereís no extra credit if you do, sorry. We do admire your dedication.

OK, folks-- humor breakís over, so back on your heads.

Here is exactly, and truthfully, what electronic service (and sales) personnel have to deal with in the here and now:

On average, modern electronic products do far more for far less money than ever before in history. This is generally a wonderful thing, but it can also lead to certain largely intractable problems.

First of these is that mass production techniques can build a product, but they canít repair one. To do so still requires a human brain, human hands, and often lots of test equipment and a generous stock of common parts. This means that a repair shop has lots of overhead costs that many other professional services do not have. Those costs must be reflected in the prices that are charged for the repair work. You canít yet get a robot to fix your robot-- or your stereo or TV.

Following through on the logic from the last paragraph, realize that a factory can build, say, a VCR in a matter of minutes, but a human technician canít even disassemble it in that time, let alone diagnose the problem and repair it.

Next, part of the drive by engineers to make products available at lower retail prices involves finding ways for the factory to cut production costs. One way to do so is to reduce the assembly time required, such as by using snap fittings instead of screws, or fitting all circuitry and mechanisms on a single PC board. Doing these things nearly always reduces serviceability, and can even make it impossible.

Manufacturers also work to lower their overhead by reducing secondary expenses. To achieve this, a company may decide to farm out all of its warranty service to third parties, or do the same with replacement parts. They may refuse to have defective merchandise returned to the factory-- that is, it must be repaired by a service agency and not replaced, even if defective on arrival.

You might think that a company that persists in doing things ďthe old wayĒ would gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace, but sadly the opposite is usually true. The cost differential between making servicable products and non-servicable ones has gotten so high that people still vote with their dollars and buy the less expensive offering.

Short detour:

Despite all this, there are some companies that put reliability and serviceability ahead of other things. If you can afford these products, please buy them. It does send a clear and welcome message that you appreciate the extra effort. At the same time, donít blindly presume that more expensive automatically means better. One reason to buy from an independent specialist audio/video dealer is that your odds of purchasing a quality product improve immensely over buying from a chain store or discounter.

Main road once again:

Getting back to the difficulties servicers have to face, the single largest one is that electronics repair is nothing like appliance or automotive repair, products which are largely mechanical in nature.

For example, if your washer starts leaking oil, the only place that oil can come from is the transmission. If your car wonít start, the problem is likely in the battery or starter motor. If your air conditioner loses its cool, there are only so many parts that can cause the problem. While we are simplifying here, the fact is that by comparison, even something as common as a surround sound receiver can contain literally thousands of parts, and when one of them fails, tracking down the faulty one can be a nightmare.

Largely, this is because unlike most mechanical products-- as with the washer leaking oil-- there is absolutely no external sign that the part has failed. Locating the fault must be determined experimentally, using test equipment and deductive logic. Making matters more difficult in current components is the widespread use of integrated circuits and microprocessors where the operation of one Ďchipí is dependent upon one or more others. A failure of one circuit effectively shuts down many other circuits, and the only way to diagnose the fault is by replacing parts (in the most likely order) until proper function is restored.

This is the real killer for the servicer. There is extremely little standardization in the world of solid-state parts, and no servicer could possibly stock all those tens of thousands of them-- theyíd be broke before they even started. The technician must often make an intelligent guess as to the faulty item, order it in, and hope that it fixes the problem. If the guess is wrong, the part cannot be returned-- the shop is stuck with it. If itís a $2.50 item, no biggee. But if itís a $45.00 microprocessor or other costly part, that really hurts the bottom line. The part might only be used in this one model of component, and the shop may not see another one of them for the next 10 years, or ever. Adding insult to injury, time was lost because of the order, and now itís back to the next logical choice and yaíall start over.

Or, the faulty item could turn out to be very cheap, like a bad capacitor or resistor, but tracking it down can take literally hours. How does one provide an estimate on the repair until for all practical purposes the product is actually fixed? Remember, confirmation of the repair is usually done by replacing the bad part. If the tech spends three hours to track down a $1.50 part on a 15 year old amplifer, and tells the owner that the repair estimate will be $195.00, and the owner declines the repair-- now what? And yes, this happens all the time. And yes, the shop loses money, sometimes lots of it.

This is why, contrary to popular belief, that electronic service businesses seldom make very much money, at least not if theyíre honest shops. The shop can only charge what the local traffic will bear, and that amount is typically much less than many other professions. Companies that do warranty work for a manufacturer must accept whatever the manufacturer is willing to pay them, typically a low flat rate. If the company pays $50 flat for an amplifier repair, and you fix it in 30 minutes, you did good. If it takes you two hours, you lost money. This is the major reason it is so hard to find dealer-based warranty service on many products-- dealers hate to do it, especially if they didnít sell the product and make a profit on it initially. The chance for losses is ridiculously high.

There are yet more service-y calamities we could discuss, but it gets like all whiny after a bit, so weíll stop right here before that happens.

Epilogue: ďExperience is a wonderful thing, because it allows you to recognize a mistake when you make it again.Ē

............ wisdom gleaned from the back of a packet of sugar in a coffee shop, © 1978

So why does any audio/video dealer still operate a service department? They do it for the same reason they have always done it-- to make life a little simpler for their customers, and give them a reason to buy equipment from them. It isnít easy, and frankly if they didnít sell new and used audio and video components and systems, the service department would disappear. Sometimes they do. While itís generally attempted to operate the shop on a profit making basis, many months may pass when the sales department must subsidize it. This is not going to change anytime soon, because the marketplace will not change anytime soon, perhaps never.

The places that are left still doing the repair thing are dinosaurs waiting for the asteroid to hit. If you can make them hang around a little longer, they will be happier dinosaurs, and who doesnít need some good karma?

Thank you for reading my ramble, and may all your electrons be happy ones.

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