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Cost or Quality - It's Not That Simple Anymore by Ernest Lilley
SFRevu Editorial  ISBN/ITEM#: 0705ELCVQ
Date: 19 April 2007

Links: The First Transistor Radio Page / W. Edwards Deming Page /

A useful rule of thumb used to be that more expensive versions of the stuff we want, whether they're cars or transistor radios...er...iPods, were of better quality than the cheaper ones. Now the state of the art in manufacturing is so high that cheapest probably means most reliable, and certainly the easiest to use. What you get for more money is more features, more advanced technology and more ways to fail. It's a hard switch for folks who grew up in the old world to make, but it's part of living in the future, and we might as well get good at it.
(Image: The Sony TR-63 was the first 9 volt transistor radio, and the first to use components designed specifically for it. It came out in March 1957, and the changed the cost/quality paradigm for the world. image source: Transistor radio mini-history

My grandfather, a true Yankee, always told me to buy the best because it would outlast cheaper versions and I'd save money in the long run. He was dead right, in his time, when the amount of care and the quality of materials that went into a product were a function of its cost, but that was before mass production came into being and before W. Edwards Deming went to Japan to teach the fledgling industrial nation about statistical quality control, which let them move from "cheap" knockoff goods to transistor radios, which were like iPods to the cool kids of the 1950s and 60s, and compact cars...which we've never been able to get right in the US.

Quality, as Ford used to say in their ads, became "job one," and it's been built into every mass produced product since the 60s...though Total Quality Management took longer to catch on in the US than overseas...if indeed it ever did. For the most part, we improved our quality control by doing exactly what early naysayers claimed couldn't be done, by outsourcing to less trained workers in other countries.

True, they had to be trained to do precision work, but they didn't have to be untrained to resent being held responsible for the quality of their output. And management in turn didn't have to be sold on worker training, since they knew they were starting with populations that were new to the game. Kurt Vonnegut pointed out in his 1952 novel Player Piano that there wasn't any reason why complex mechanical processes couldn't be automated, which helped a lot as well. Of course, Kurt showed it as the start of a dystopia where the engineers ran the world and the workers had nothing to do to establish self worth. And they say SF is bad at prognostication. Well, Kurt lived to see himself get it half right.

We might argue those points at length, but I think that's a fair place to start.

Today, when things break down, they do so not because of poor workmanship, but because of increased complexity and advanced technology. When you're pushing the edge of the envelope, you're bound to get paper cuts.

Here's an example from way back in the mid 70s, when I was working as a dealership mechanic for VW. It was pretty much my first job, and I knew it wasn't a life work, but it was fun, and kept me in cars and on the right side of favors for friends. The first thing I did when I got hired by a "real" dealership (I'd been rebuilding engines in the basement) was to buy myself a full set of professional mechanics tools from Snap-On, the tool maker for pros.

One of the things I was proudest of was my engine analyzer, which had a long list of special features for testing and tuning engines. A decade later engine control went to computers and it became largely useless, but that's another story. In this story, I nearly cried when my expensive piece of gear fell off my tool box and stopped working. Its steel case bent, the glass display cracked and the factory rep offered to sell me a new one. I declined.

Instead, I went to what was then the equivalent of Wal-Mart and bought the cheapest plastic one I could find. It didn't have all those functions, just the ones I really needed, but it cost a fraction of the amount that my cool techno-tour-de-force had. It too fell off my tool box, but with its lower mass, and plastic case it never suffered more than some scratches and the occasional nick. I've still got it, I think, and I bet it still works...or would if I could find a car with a distributor in it to test.

My mother, who is one generation closer to my grandfather, can't quite let go of this notion that the "best" one is the one she wants. As a result, she winds up buying either professional grade gear that costs her an arm and a leg and weighs a ton, or high end consumer stuff that she can't figure out how to use. I only mention this because I've been pushing commercial grade mowers over her lawn most of my life...or at least until I got old enough to buy my own mower...a very basic Sears model that's started on the first pull for the last five years and never needed any service at all. My wife thinks I should get the blade sharpened, but living in the mid-south as I am, we don't have the kind of rocks growing out of the ground I grew up with, and it doesn't need it.

Still, sometimes you have to spend more money for the "good" stuff. Back to my Snap-On tool set. Before the snap on tools I'd been a faithful buyer of Sears Craftsman sockets and wrenches. Craftsman tools come with a lifetime guarantee, and if you break one, they'll give you another. Or they would then, and I'm pretty sure they still will. But the problem I ran into was that the steel they used wasn't as tough as the professional grade tools that Snap-On sold, and in some cases they just weren't good enough to do the job before they broke. True, putting a 6ft pipe on the end of a wrench exceeds the design limits of the wrench by several orders of magnitude...but there are times when it's the only way to get a bolt off. My pro wrenches took the abuse in stride, but my Craftsman collection resulted in more skinned knuckles and trips to return broken tools. That was then, though, and I just checked out the Sears page to find that they offer the same kind of slim polished tools that were once only available to pros from trucks...so maybe that just goes to make my point.

It also makes me want to go work on a car, but my 2004 VW Passat wagon is so complex that I know better than to touch it...which is too bad, because I know that its power gizmos and many sensors will fail at some point, making me miss my last VW wagon, which cost less than $10k new...and had no power options at all.

What's the take home message supposed to be here? Simply this. Figure out what features you really need in a device, then buy the simplest and most popular one you can. That gives you the highest economies of scale, and gives the manufacturer the most units to perfect the design on. Of course, they understand that savvy consumers are going to do this and put your favorite options on only the high end models...but you've got to ask yourself if you really need heated six way power seats with individual user memory and climate control.

Just don't ask me to give mine up.

Ernest Lilley
Sr. Editor / Publisher

You might also be interested in a review I did in TechRevu (our sister pub) on; Why Most Things Fail : Evolution, Extinction and Economics by Paul Ormerod

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