The throw-away society


Why you should never buy a Skil !

Some time ago I purchased a Skil belt sander, model 1205H. It was more expensive than some other brands and models, but the representative assured me that it was a good quality machine, designed to last, and that in my extremely light hobby use it should be reliable for my lifetime. So I shelled out the money and bought it.

Unfortunately the machine did not last. It had only about 50 hours of use, spread out over several years, when its internal fan broke. I immediately stopped the machine, to avoid further damage, and took it apart to see what could be done.

The fan was shattered in three pieces. Close inspection showed that in addition, the parts were crisscrossed by hairline cracks. Clearly a case of poor quality plastic!  So I went to a nearby store which carries spare parts for such machines. When I showed the clerk my shattered fan, he smiled and commented "It's from a Skil, right?"  I confirmed that, hoping that the next second he would pull out the exact spare part from some of his many drawers. Unfortunately, that was not so. Instead he asked me in to his workshop, and showed me a big cardboard full of disassembled Skil 1205H belt sanders. All had broken fans. He said that all the Skil machines broke down in this way, and that it was impossible to get spare parts. He advised to throw away the machine and buy some other brand.

But I'm not inclined to throw away a machine consisting of a powerful motor, electronic controller, belt drive, gear train, several ball bearings, housing, and lots of other stuff, just because a ridiculous plastic fan broke after 50 hours of use! Even the carbon brushes were still like new! So I went to the store where I had bought the machine, to ask for help.

At that place I was told that Skil of course had a spare parts service in Chile, with branches in every major city, including mine. I got the address, and went there, my broken fan in hand. Once I found the address, a friendly salesperson said that she needed the model number of the machine to locate the correct spare part. OK, no problem. I told her it was the model 1205H belt sander. She checked the computer, than told me that I had to be wrong because that model doesn't exist. I told her I was sure it was the 1205H, but she insisted that such a model did not exist!  

So I went home, and grabbed my disassembled machine, complete with its box, which I still had! I took all that stuff back to the store, to show her that indeed it was a Skil 1205H belt sander. She made big eyes, checked again in the computer, and insisted that the model did not show up in her list. Anyway, she told me she would try to order the fan for the 1205H and call me when she had it.

Of course, she never called. So I called, after two weeks. She said she did not remember me nor any order for a Skil 1205H belt sander fan. But she had a special offer on new Skil belt sanders...  I told her I would NOT buy an entire new machine just because the little plastic fan in mine broke, and asked her to kindly check again if she could find the spare part. She promised to do her best and call me back.

Do you think she called me back? Well, dear reader, I'm sorry to have to tell you that she didn't. Instead, a month later I went to the store again, to get final information on whether there was any hope, or not. To make the story short, it turns out that Skil does not support this machine at all. If you need a spare part, that's your problem, sorry.

If nobody helps you, you have to help yourself. Just out of disgust, I decided to bend the will of the manufacturers who want us to throw away and replace everything as soon as possible. So I spent two days machining a new fan for the belt sander. This is no simple task, because this is a double fan: One section pumps air with dust from the sanding belt into the dust collecting bag, while the other section sucks cooling air through the motor. The fan has a rather precise fit in its casing, to keep the two airflows apart. The original fan is molded, which allows making shapes that cannot be copied with a simple lathe and milling machine. So I had to design a "compatible" fan which would be possible to make with my tools (a small hobby lathe plus hand tools), and which would work well enough.

I used a high tensile strength, impact-resistant polyamide plastic. It is a pain to mill properly, because it tends to flex away from the tool, so I couldn't make the fins as thin as the original ones were. Also, the ducts through the fan (for motor cooling) ended up a bit smaller than the original ones. But it works. I saved the machine. Of course, instead of spending two days working, and wasting several hours walking to stores and making phone calls, I could as well have bought a new machine. But doing that goes straight against my principles! I think we should build things to last, and fix them if the break down anyway, instead of making the trash heaps grow, and keep wasting valuable raw materials for replacing stuff that could have been saved.

The above was the lengthy introduction to the short idea I would like to express on this page: I'm sick and tired of the throw-away society! I like quality. It's so nice to own and use something which is so well made that one can use it for one's lifetime, and then pass it on to following generations. It's such a clean concept! So much better than throwing away and replacing. It largely avoids loosing time because some badly made thing broke down. Over time each such object acquires a rich history. It's obviously more ecological. And it should be more economical too, but here we have a problem! How is it possible that in some cases it's cheaper to buy a new machine, than to have the old one repaired?

A good part of the reason lies in the deplorable state of knowledge of the average person, measured against the complexity of the things he uses in daily life. Centuries ago, each town had a wheelwright. He made the wheels, and if a wheel broke, he repaired it. Obviously, repairing an existing, damaged wheel was much simpler and thus faster and cheaper than crafting a new wheel. But later, production separated from repair. And it separated in many ways:

- Things started to be made in factories, but repaired in small workshops, by different people. There was no longer any guarantee that the repairman was properly qualified.

- Production was handed over to robots, while repair was still hand labor. This unbalanced the cost scale between manufacture and repair.

- Things are now made in countries with cheap labor and resources, while repair work usually has to be paid at local manpower costs. This leads to a sort of slavery in "cheap" countries, and to lack of jobs in "expensive" ones.

One could argue that some of the above are actually good developments. But I see a very big and very bad factor in this: People are getting horribly dumb! While the old wheelwright was one and the same for making and for fixing wheels, the radio service technician of 1935 could probably still make a radio but mostly left that to factories and only repaired them. The typical car mechanic of 1960 definitely could not build a car, and today's electronics repairmen often don't even know enough to find the bad part, so the only way they can repair something is by replacing an entire circuit board! I have seen cases where an engine control unit in a car fails, and the car mechanic installs a new one, at a charge of more than a thousand dollars! Later, just for fun, I open the bad unit, replace the protection diode in it, which costs 20 cents and ten minutes of labor, and the unit is again as good as new... This shows the main problem: Most people have become generally too stupid, too ignorant, too uneducated to repair anything! That's a very sad situation.

Of course, not all people are like that! I get frequent e-mail from people who repair things when needed, learn about them, and derive great pleasure from that marvelous feeling of "I did it". But so many others have never felt this pride! They go so far as to admit that they have no idea of anything. If the battery dies, they throw away the flashlight because they don't know how to replace the battery. The flashlight makers rub their hands, and the trash piles grow.

You think the flashlight example was too harsh? Well, just see what a big commercial success the throw-away cameras were! Just in case if you, dear reader, are too young to have done photography in the film age: These cameras came with a film sealed in them, and actually were thrown away after developing the film, and the main reason behind their commercial success was that millions of people were too dumb or too lazy to load a film into a normal camera! Instead, they preferred pre-loaded throw-away cameras, despite their absolutely horrible quality and their much higher cost per photo.

How about fast food restaurants? I won't comment now about the quality of the food they serve - but I have been shocked by noticing that many of these places serve the food on absolutely horrible, flimsy, ridiculous and disgusting plastic dishes, with plastic forks and plastic knifes that don't cut but do break at the first attempt of using them,  and that they throw away that stuff instead of washing and re-using it!!! This is laziness taken to an environmentally criminal extreme. The same is valid for beer and other drinks sold in one-way containers, and the summit of the drink stupidity is bottled water!!! I mean, you can get water almost everywhere, straight from the tap in cities, and from streams and springs elsewhere. You might want to filter that water to remove chlorine and other stuff. OK, so use a little filter. But do you really think it makes sense filtering the water in a big factory, then putting it in millions of plastic bottles, hauling it far away over streets and railways, and then drink the water and throw away the bottles?

Enough said. It would be nice if this crazy world could return to a situation in which quality, beauty and longevity of things were prioritized over speed and cheapness. A world where belt sanders don't break down after 50 hours of use, and if it happens exceptionally due to some mistake in the plastic mix, the manufacturers would be duly embarrassed and stand behind their products.

Back to homo ludens philosophicus.