Peter Mui was elated about his new Panasonic infrared toaster oven. The toaster was futuristic; its infrared technology allowed it to bake food 40-times faster than normal. As an avid repairer and founder of Fixit Clinic, a network of free community repair workshops, Peter was initially pleased with the oven’s high-quality construction. But it didn’t last: the on-and-off switch stopped working after only three years.
The rise of unfixable products
Before the pandemic, a typical Fixit Clinic set up shop in public places, like libraries, and welcomed people to bring in their broken products: appliances, cell phones, laptops, jewelry, clothing and everything in between. Together, guests tried to repair their products with an expert coach. Since the pandemic started, the events have been moved online.
As the founder of the Fixit Clinics network, Peter has spent hundreds of hours helping people fix their stuff. While Fixit Clinic can fix 70 percent of items people bring in, coaches find that companies don’t make stuff like they used to. Instead, stuff is made to be cheap and non-durable, and it's definitely not made to be repaired.
This brings us back to Peter’s faulty toaster. An experienced troubleshooter, Peter took it apart to get to the bottom of its issues. The problem he found was one low-quality part: the power switch. According to Peter, the one switch that probably cost the manufacturer pennies made his entire $130 toaster oven useless.
While Panasonic listed a replacement part for the switch, it was inconveniently soldered to the circuit board, a circuit board worth nearly half the toaster oven itself. Unwilling to purchase a whole new circuit board -- which would include the same low-quality switch on it -- Peter was able to solder on a non-Panasonic replacement switch after many hours of “fussing and cussing with surgical tweezers.”
Most consumers wouldn’t invest that kind of time, even if they had the same fixing experience that Peter does. If Peter’s estimations were correct, hundreds of Panasonic users likely tossed their seemingly top-notch toasters once they stopped working -- all because of a teeny-tiny, 7-millimeter plastic part.
The toaster oven’s circuit board with the switch, or SW15, soldered on. Image from Peter Mui
The toaster oven’s circuit board after Peter soldered on the new switch. Image from Peter Mui
Stuff’s built to be cheap, not to last
Since the late 1990s, “durable goods” have been getting cheaper. While the prices of durable goods have been going down, they’re not made to be so durable anymore.
Peter cites changes in manufacturing, namely contract manufacturing, as contributors to the early death of his infrared toaster oven. Many brands contract with factories to make their products, then slap their logo on the outside when it’s finished. However, Peter doesn’t think it’s the factory's fault that products are poorly made. He thinks it’s the brands’ fault for focusing too much on lower costs over quality or durability when awarding a contract.
Peter posits that a toaster brand can tell a factory, “make me a fancy infrared toaster, but make it so that I can retail it at no more than $140.” At the same time, another brand can tell a manufacturer to make a toaster they could retail for the ridiculous price of 7 bucks (which does, in fact, exist). In the end, expensive or not, both will break sooner than expected if durability isn’t a top concern. When stuff is mass manufactured with little scrutiny to design or customization, it’s easy for poor-quality and poorly fitted parts to fall through the cracks, especially if they’re small and simple components, such as on-and-off switches or thermal fuses.
Devices that heat up – hair dryers, kettles, and even blenders – use thermal fuses. Small but vital parts, they automatically shut off the device when it overheats. The problem is they’re often single-use; if a device overheats once, its thermal fuse breaks. In that case, one tiny part will break an entire tea kettle. Unless you bring it to a Fixit Clinic, a tea kettle with a broken fuse will become a useless hunk of plastic and metal.
It doesn’t have to be this way. As Peter explains, there’s a simple fix: manufacture devices with resettable thermal fuses, or switches, that do the same job but can be used multiple times. With a resettable fuse, your kettle won’t be defunct after it overheats once. Using resettable fuses makes almost too much sense -- until you realize they cost a tiny bit more to manufacture.
You may be thinking, if durable goods are cheap, and I can get a toaster for $7, what’s the problem if they break sooner than they could? The problem is senseless waste: electronics carry plastic, metal and heavy metals like lead, mercury and cadmium into landfills, potentially polluting water and soil. Realistically, most of our old toasters go to landfills or incinerators and we pay the price for it in pollution.
There’s an inherent problem in how stuff is made -- but we can Fixit
If 54% of Americans say they want to buy environmentally-friendly products, why don’t our products, expensive or cheap, seem to last? Why aren’t manufacturers listening?
We can have long-lasting and repairable products that protect our planet, but only if we make some changes. We, the public, need to wise up to the reality that cheap products can be environmentally costly, and we must push brands to do better. The more people who fix toasters, the more who will know that skimping a few pennies on a switch can ruin an entire product. That's the goal of our work: promote repair, and sniff out stuff that’s junked by design.