One of my cordless phones has died. I put it into the box where I keep my other dead cordless phones--seven of them, replaced over the past 10 years. Turning this into an engineering project, I decided to do my own informal "CSI" autopsy on these units, opening each one and getting to the pc board. Three had defective keypads, with some sort of sludge interfering with the keypad contacts (plastic migration and deterioration, perhaps) despite my vigorous cleaning with contact cleaner and alcohol; three had intermittent connections somewhere (it could have been the pc-board traces or IC connections) and two were "cause unknown."
A cordless phone is a fairly complex product that sells for a modest price, so maybe I shouldn't complain. I also rationalized that these handheld products get a lot of user abuse. But even with this rationalization, I am professionally irritated--and worried.
Certainly, all these discarded products contribute to the global waste pile, but that's not what really gnaws at me. It's that engineers have admitted that stuff is designed to be discarded after relatively little use or time. That doesn't reflect well on the profession. The average user likely does not know or understand why the products fail, and may associate the message of these throwaway items with the engineer's presumed role.
Before ICs ruled the industry, it was fairly difficult to design and build reliable electronic products. There were so many components and connections, and so many things that could go wrong, that doing a solid design was only a small part of the reliability challenge. Manufacturing was the real issue, because sooner or later a connection, electronic component or moving part would fail. But the "sooner or later" aspect is key. Once the product got past its infant mortality or burn-in period, it would be fairly reliable, for two reasons: It was usually treated with respect, and it also had enough size and mass for decent mechanical connections. When a component did wear out, it was generally replaceable, so all was not lost.
In contrast, today's products are reasonably reliable in their initial phase but have little stamina for the longer run, and often they can't be repaired. Not all consumer products have this problem, but too many do, and we accept it as the cost of churning them out quickly, cheaply and under pressure. Saying that this limited lifetime is OK because the unit is not likely to be used for more than a few years is somewhat circular and disingenuous.
The fact is that too often, the industry sets a low bar for design integrity. That's not a good thing for engineers to admit.
Think about that situation the next time you drive your car, loaded with electronics, over a bridge that was built a hundred years ago and is still doing its job.
Bill Schweber is editor of Planet Analog, a sister publication and Web site of EE Times (www.planet-analog.com).