Declaring War on Failure in Electronics


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Everything fails. Think of anything in the universe and the specter of failure is inevitably there at the end. On the positive side, every failure is arguably preceded by success. That success can be marked in the form of a beginning. The stars formed from the matter created in the Big Bang, and were each and every one a success story in their own right by having accreted hydrogen gas in sufficient quantity to explode into light. Evolution is another amazing success in terms of diversity of life on this planet over time. However, both stars and evolution have failed as well—both have done so uncountable times.

The simple truth about the end of everything is captured in the opening two-word sentence of this piece: “Everything fails.” Clearly, it must be a fool’s errand to declare war on a foe that cannot be beaten. Or is it? Failure is a foe that needs to be taken on even though we know it will win in the end. Consider it more of a war within which many battles will be fought and any of those that are won against the foe named “failure” will advance and serve the needs of a global population.

Some elaboration on that last thought is owed the reader. Think of this for a moment: In 2014, the world welcomed its seven billionth inhabitant. In 2020, just five years from now, that number will be 8 billion. Now comes the nexus: The electronics industry is producing somewhere between $1.5 and $2 trillion worth of products per year. The vast majority of those products are targeted to serve the 3 billion people at the top of the world’s economic pyramid while largely ignoring the needs of the 4 billion, soon to be 5 billion customers with similar needs. Withholding for a moment judgment as to the right-headedness of this, let me just say that it seems that a bet is being missed.

Most companies focus on the near term and the needs of those with extra cash in their pockets looking for the next new thing. Products have ever faster cycles of development along with their push to market, often with much fanfare. Avid consumers line up for the next tech fashion items, even before their old products have reached end of life. It has been said that economics runs on the premise that wants exceed needs. Product marketers do their best to convince the consumer that the things they want are truly needs. Does everyone who stands in line need that new device? No, they do not, but it serves the purpose of the marketers who really do not care much about failure because it is an opportunity to make and sell a replacement.

In 1932, Bernard London, author of “Ending the Depression through Planned Obsolescence,” prescribed destroying outdated products and castigated those who tried to get longer life from still serviceable items. In his time, it arguably made some sense. The times were definitely more egalitarian then. A contemporary of London was Aldous Huxley, who also wrote, interestingly enough, in 1932, "Brave New World", but it was about a dystopian future, anything but egalitarian, where hypnopaedic messaging such as "Ending is better than mending" and "Less stitches means more riches" were broadcast to the populace to get them to toss out the old and buy the new. Ironically, Huxley offered up the same message as London did but having a grimmer, more disparaging viewpoint. We are arguably in that time now to some degree as we are more accepting of failure. Who has not heard a friend or colleague say, "I wish my old phone would die so I can get a new one?" This attitude does not serve well the future needs of the planet, if everyone on the planet is to be served.

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Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of SMT Magazine.

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