Where Are Service Parts in the Environmental Discussion?
Not sufficiently discussed is why service parts effectiveness is good for the environment. The same family that dutifully recycles, may also be the same family that trades in a car after 3 years for a newer model. Many electronics items are designed never to be serviced, or to be very difficult or expensive to service. One example of a popular consumer item that could be easily improved is iPods and iPhones, both of which lack a replaceable battery. This combined with a replacement program where the iPods must be shipped to Apple or independent service shop, encourages people to simply go and buy new devices.
Apple has some of the best consumer electronics engineers on the planet. So why can’t they standardize around easily replaceable batteries for the very popular iPhones and iPods? Currently these models must be sent in and it costs between $25 to $60 to have the battery replaced. The consumer will of course compare this with the cost of a new iPod, which has more features. iPods and iPhones are small compared to cars, so cars and houses are a better place to start in terms of improving serviceability, however, Apple is used here as an example of a lack of service priority by a company that could easily make a difference.
Things Are Changing
The US in many ways created and leads the world in the disposable culture concept, and we are responsible for both tremendous waste, in addition to exporting this wasteful concept to other countries through both our example and our international marketing programs that promote “the good life.” However, this concept has run into the limits of environmental constraints and throwing away will have to be replaced by both recycling and keeping things longer. There are two ways to keep things longer before they even leave the factory:
- Build items to last
- Build items to be serviced
Both of these concepts run head first into the influence of marketing, which is focused on selling more units and sees design for serviceability to be both a waste of resources as well as a possible deterrent to future sales (i.e. planned obsolescence)
Improved Service In Addition to Improved Serviceability
Many things could be done to make items last longer, as there are many things that could be done to decrease the cost of servicing (including improving the availability and ease of accessing service parts). Many of these opportunities are being completely wasted because business places service parts and sustainability very low on its priority totem pole. In the case of automotive parts, subservience to an anachronistic dealer system has thoroughly undermined a more logical approach to service parts networks. See this post on how wasteful and badly the US automotive part system is managed.
The movie Yank Tanks is a documentary on how, due to the US embargo of Cuba, the Cubans were required to keep their stock of 1950 and 1960 American cars operating with no service parts except those which they fabricated themselves.
Not originally intended to be a movie about service parts and service management, there are actually important lessons about these topics as well as insights on how to live in a more environmentally friendly way.
Let’s Be Cuban?
If the Cubans, who started with little domestic part manufacturing industry, and with no access to the original service parts, could keep circa 1950 and 1960 Chevrolets and Cadillacs working properly up to the present day, why can’t we extend the life of our Hondas and Toyotas a bit longer than 10-12 years? Clearly, it is not ability or opportunity, but comes down to priorities. If we understood and internalized how close we are to maxing out non-renewable resources we would re-arrange our priorities, focus less on style and status and more on sustainability.
Service parts and service maintenance are critical factors in reducing our environmental footprint. The longer items are manufactured to exist, the more they are designed to be serviced, and the better they are serviced, the less they have to be replaced and the less recycling (which also takes energy by the way) has to be done. The example of automobiles and iPods are only a few examples that have been used in this post but the same theme extends to everything from housing construction and servicing to a wide variety of consumer items. There is almost nothing that could not be designed to last longer and be better serviced.
Its understood that cars on Cuba do not get the type of miles that cars in the US do, and we are not necessarily proposing that people keep their cars for 40 years. However, the life of cars could be certainly extended from 10 to 12 years to 20 years with several adjustments that would not at all be onerous.
As a continuation of the concept serviceability and environmentalism running headfirst into marketing, it is clear that serviceability and environmentalism runs headfirst into stock price driven capitalism more generally. There has been a lot of talk about making capitalism more green. Its important not to pretend you can optimize two things that contradict each other. In the article above, increasing the serviceability of items means that fewer new units are sold per year. There is no way around that. No number of environmental commercials produced by Exxon showing spinning dolphins, and promising both growth and environmental health, will change this. It’s a question of priorities, continued growth in aggregate sales of manufactured items can only come at the cost of a greatly degraded environment, which is losing its ability to support humans at their present level of population, much less the population growth that is coming.