Coupling & Crosstalk: Quality for the Long Haul?

Quality SealCoupling & Crosstalk is my column in the MEPTEC Report. This column appears in the Winter 2012 edition on page 12-13.

Electronic coupling is the transfer of energy from one circuit or medium to another. Sometimes it is intentional and sometimes not (crosstalk). I hope that this column by mixing technology and general observations is thought provoking and “couples” with your thinking. Most of the time I will stick to technology but occasional crosstalk diversions may deliver a message closer to home.

Quality for the Long Haul?

Does a manufacturer’s responsibility and interest in quality end when the warranty expires?

When is death premature? People have life expectations based upon family and societal statistics as well as their health. Mechanical devices, especially those with moving parts, have estimated lives and known wear out mechanisms. Cars currently have an average age of 11 to 13 years of useful life which allows consumers to set reasonable expectations of service life. What about electronics? What is a reasonable expectation of service life?

I had a few devices at home fail recently which makes me wonder about the reliability of consumer electronics. Have quality standards fallen and have we reached the point of truly disposable electronics?

The Weakest Link?

A four-year-old LCD computer monitor intermittently failed to turn on. A quick Internet search found several others with this same monitor who also had the exact issue. (Google is a fantastic diagnostic tool: query the make, model number, and a description of the symptom and you are likely to find others victims of the same issue plus often a solution.) People reported fixing the problem by replacing faulty surface mount chip capacitors on the motherboard. Since the monitor was no longer under warranty, the cost to have someone diagnose let alone repair this problem far exceeded the cost of replacing it.

My father in-law’s rarely used six-year-old DVD player died mid-movie, disappointing everyone. A Google search identified a capacitor (C318 in the power supply subsystem) as the most likely culprit. With new DVD players costing less than $50, I wasn’t too interested in confirming root cause failure. However, I did have to disassemble the player to retrieve the disc stuck inside. Clearly a system design failure since the unit did not fail in a safe or convenient mode. Upon opening the unit, it was clear that C318 was indeed blown.

My very small, and likely statistically insignificant, sample of failed devices appeared to indicate a trend. Do capacitors have a higher failure rate than other more complex electronic parts? Capacitors, if the circuit is designed and manufactured correctly, should have an extremely low failure rate. Some models predict the life of a capacitor increases by the square of the difference of the maximum rated temperature minus operating temperature. By selecting capacitors with a higher temperature rating, this can easily increase the expected life. Regardless of operating a capacitor well below its maximum specification to extend its life, many formulas limit the useful life of an electrolytic capacitor to 15 years due to material aging. If more of our electronics lasted 10 to 15 years, I doubt anyone would say they failed prematurely since their functionality would likely be obsolete by that time.

Why the premature failure of capacitors in these products? Did you know there is a global epidemic of capacitors failures that started in 1999 named the “Capacitor Plague”. (Go ahead, Google it – I’ll wait.) This has led to a rash of class action lawsuits with major electronics manufacturers going on the defensive. Some trace these failures to improperly manufactured capacitors from Taiwanese suppliers that undercut the price of previously dominant Japanese suppliers. As interesting as the claims of industrial espionage and theft of technology with the resulting lawsuits are, I doubt they will be the basis of the next John Grisham novel.

Quality Failure?

Though these particular failures may have a root cause of improper component design and manufacture, I believe the Capacitor Plague is indicative of fundamental failures in product quality as a result of the dis-integration of the global supply chain. Even worse are some brands whose sole involvement in the product is the receipt of a royalty check. I’ve had several cordless telephones branded “AT&T” and “RCA” that were designed and manufactured by third parties with little to no involvement from these formerly pioneering electronics companies. In fact, “RCA” is simply a trademark licensed by RCA Trademark Management to others who actually build and sell electronic products.

For some companies, the only quality concern appears to be whether they can get through the ever-shrinking warranty period without a rash of expensive returns. Formerly, most vertically integrated companies did an analysis between engineering, manufacturing, and quality organizations to determine the required quality and reliability levels. The objective in setting these levels was achieving a field failure rate below a given limit that supported the product’s financial (warranty) objectives. These levels translated into reliability goals, test and qualification plans, and vendor management plans for each component in the system. With the increased use of outsourced manufacturing, fragmented supply chains, and higher levels of sub-system integration, accurate quality level planning has become exceedingly difficult if not impossible to achieve.

Extended warranty plans have become profit centers for consumer products. Only a few plans are offered by manufacturers themselves, so there is little incentive to improve product quality. Most plans are sold by retailers at a substantial profit and underwritten by insurance companies. Therefore, there is little pressure for retailers to push manufacturers for longer warranties. Doesn’t it seem odd that most smartphones come with a hardware warranty (typically one year) less than the length of the wireless carrier contract obligation (typically two years) required for the promotional price? Most wireless carriers aggressively market an extended warranty plan instead of working to increase the hardware warranty.

Capital equipment companies, including commercial computing and networking companies, do track their field failures since much of their equipment is on a support contract after the initial warranty period. These failures directly impact the equipment company’s bottom line, so they keep careful track both to improve new designs and to set support pricing for older equipment. Rather direct feedback on quality is received when a prospective customer calculates total cost of ownership including quoted support costs.

Consumer brands, excluding perhaps products such as cars with long warranties and service plans paid for by the manufacturer, have much smaller direct incentives to manage their post warranty failure rates. Marketing should join the conversation with engineering, manufacturing, and quality to set appropriate quality goals. Yes, the product might survive the warranty period but if it dies prematurely, before the customer is ready to move on, the brand will become synonymous with junk.

Let us continue the discussion below. I welcome your comments!

One Response to Coupling & Crosstalk: Quality for the Long Haul?

  1. Ira Feldman says:

    Steve Leibson has also had his share of the Capacitor Plague. He had two DVD players – including one with similar problems to my father’s in law – to fix on Father’s Day. And his latest case was just in time for the new year.

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