Sunday, August 21, 2005

No User Serviceable Parts Inside

Everybody's asking, what with the pinball machine, Make welding article and giant ipod, where are the heavy metal, dirty fingernail, gritty car projects for which Hooptyrides became famous? Progress is the natural enemy of having 1000 active projects.

Consider the pictured combination fuel pump/fuel sender unit from a 2000 Chevrolet pickup truck. The gas gauge started acting perquacky and, considering I am a lazy person by nature, I asked the Chevrolet dealership what it would cost to replace. $800. And because I am cheaper than I am lazy, I decided to replace it myself. The part was $500-600 from Chevrolet and $259 from my local auto parts store. For the same exact Delco component. For those that have never had to remove a gas tank from a car, the fuel pump sits inside the tank to pump fuel to the engine while the fuel sender 'sends' a resistance value to the fuel gauge to record tank level.

Now, only the fuel sender unit was faulty. The fuel pump still worked like a champion. But you can't buy a fuel sender separate from the fuel pump. It is an integrated component. Looking at the fuel sender, it is clearly designed to be removed and replaced. And to prove my point, I did remove it. It took longer to get the pliers from the toolbox than it did to disassemble.

Sometimes components fail and you have no idea way, but in this case, the cause of failure was obvious. There were two little metal tangs that glided over the PCB resistor contacts and one of them had broken off. This is clearly a component designed for a short life. The metal tangs were very fragile looking and considering they were a) under pressure and b) moved whenever gas sloshed in the tank, it was only a matter of time. Seeing how fine the tangs were, I was surprised to it had not failed earlier. A quick Google search proved I was just lucky that it lasted as long as it had -- it is a very common problem.

So, what happened? I bet Chevrolet specified that the fuel sender unit would be removable. Perhaps they were planning to offer it as a separate SKU. And why would they want to sell it separately? And make less money?

Dale Dougherty wrote a great piece in the current Make considering what makes a product Maker friendly. This is something that I have been thinking about since building the World's Largest Ipod, as I was frustrated that the MacMini is sealed box. The Apple techs open it with some sort of special putty knife. Getting inside an Ipod is even worse. For all the props that Apple gets for their elegant industrial design, would it kill them to put four screws on the bottom? Would that harm the aesthetics so greatly?

With the rise of DIY, hardware hacking and the rise of basement tinkerers, perhaps this is the time to demand our rights to truly 0wn our equipment. It's like DRM. When I pay for things, I want to own them. I won't buy Itunes tracks, because I find it offensive that I need to learn and play by a set of arbitrary rules foisted upon me. Just as I am able to play 8 tracks and 78 RPM records, I know that I will always be able to play a CD, but I don't have that feeling when buying an Itunes track.

Similarly, I hate not being able to get inside my MacMini or Ipod. To not be able to get inside, to not have schematics and to not have the required special tools, is to give up a critical piece of ownership. To be Maker friendly or hacker friendly, also means that you have a servicable platform for repairs.

Mr Giant Ipod used a 1970s Sansui vintage amplifer. It was not by accident. I had originally purchased a garage sale Sony bookshelf system as it was compact, appeared to be in good condition and had all the original manuals. As garage sale risks go, it looked good but it turned out to not work. Naturally, there was no schematic in the manual, so I threw it away. By contrast, every Sansui amplifier I have bought has a manila envelope on the underside marked 'Schematic' and everytime it has had the schematic inside.

So, what does all this have to do with Chevrolet and the fuel sender unit? Obviously, I believe components should be available at a granular enough level to be able to make repairs at reasonable prices. Ideally, you would be able to buy those little metal tangs, but I would be satisfied to just be able to buy the sender unit. But, what really got me riled up? To remove the gas tank required SAE standard AND metric tools! This is not uncommon. I don't think any modern American car is held together with solely SAE standard fastners anymore but it is hard to see a reason for it other than laziness on the part of manufacturer. Don't think GM could specify only SAE or metric?

What would a 0wner's bill of rights look like?

- Metric or Standard, not both
- Fuses accessible from outside the case
- Schematics included
- Housings/cases should be user openable without special tools
- Meaningful parts lists with an order form - instead of just specifying bolt, note the size, thread, etc.
- Special tools should be available - I am not anti-progress or anti-engineering and I recognize smart engineering of new solutions may need new, proprietary tools. The Model T required special tools, but they were included with the car.
- Torx fasteners are ok but unless there is a good reason, tamperproof is not ok
- Replaceable batteries
- Replacement components available that are fix what fails, not more. I.e. fuel sender failure does not necessitate fuel pump replacement
- Helpful information on the circuit board - like commenting code
- Output voltages marked on power transformers
- Never a 'No User Servicable Parts' sticker

Have other ideas? Send em to me. I will blog a new list.

The days of the Color TV tube tester at the drugstore are gone, but why give up control of what we buy?