Circular economy

Nowadays, fixing a broken thing is the expensive option. Throwing it away and buying a new thing is often easier or cheaper.

I was reminded of this when my fridge broke down recently. I found being deprived of a splash of milk in my morning cup of tea was completely unsatisfactory.

I promptly arranged for a technician to inspect my faulty appliance. It was a $95 flat fee to just have the person turn up and inspect the fridge. After 15 minutes I would be charged additional labour.

At the 10 minute mark, I enquired what could possibly be the cause of the fault. “It could be anything” he muttered. Which clearly meant the bill was going to increase.

The economics around the repair or replacement of the fridge was my concern. Was it even worth fixing? A quick google search revealed a brand new replacement fridge would cost $1,000 to buy. How much would my old fridge cost to fix? 

It took a further 2 visits for the technician to announce “the controller is probably faulty”. A new controller would cost $230 plus labour. 

I asked, “is the controller faulty, or is it “probably” faulty?” The risk is I spend $230 + $95 + whatever the labour charge is and we are fast approaching the replacement cost of a new fridge. 

In the end, my 15-year old fridge got a new controller and its working again. All for the grand total of $515.

I thought about this situation when I visited my local refuse centre at the weekend. I spotted an area, especially for whiteware. There was a pile of old fridges, a mixture of expanded foam and metal. 

I wondered how many of these fridges were deemed to be not worth fixing and what actually happens to them now?

Modern manufacturing is so efficient that new items are really very cheap. 

I wrote earlier in the year about how Steinway Pianos used expertly trained craftspeople to hand-make their grand pianos over a 2 year period. Then Yamaha perfected machinery and techniques that allowed them to make the same quality piano in 2 months and at a fraction of the price with ordinary workers.

Henry Ford created the production line manufacturing process and combined it with standardised parts to allow ordinary workers to produce a car in a fraction of the time and cost of their competitors.

Mac and Dick McDonald took the same idea and applied it to food production. The American diners of the 1950s relied on a cook with some experience or skill to cook burgers in a semi-organised fashion. The McDonalds system allowed teenagers who may struggle to boil an egg, to create the exact same burger every time and at a reduced price.

These manufacturing examples I just mentioned were able to create a system that no longer required skilled people. Instead, inexperienced people were able to produce a better product at a dramatically reduced price by using these specially designed systems.

But when it comes to the repair of things. We are still reliant on a skilled person to travel to my house in an expensive van and spend a great deal of time figuring out what needs to be done. As a result, fixing things is expensive and the throwaway behaviour of our modern world continues.

When I looked at what the technician actually did to fix my fridge. It was quite a simple process to replace the control board. My 9 year old could have done it. 

If it wasn’t the control board that was broken, there are only 2 other things it could break on a fridge. 

We often hear about the “Internet of Things”. A world where every appliance is connected to the internet. I often read about how an internet-connected fridge could order you more milk or cheese. But no-one really wants that.

I see the potential of my fridge knowing when a component is not working properly. Westinghouse could send me the component and each component could be designed so it can be replaced by the average person.

It’s currently not in a manufacturer’s best interest to encourage us to fix our appliances. They would prefer us to buy new ones.

But if manufacturers could gain ongoing revenue from the repair of their appliances then I’m sure they could design a system, like their manufacturing system. That is more efficient than getting a skilled technician to drive to my house.

From a customer experience perspective, it would be great if Westinghouse could have told me immediately what was wrong with my fridge and sent me the part overnight. I would have certainty and a working fridge. Westinghouse would have made more money from me and we would likely have fewer fridges in our landfills.

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