I started writing this entry in near darkness. A severe thunderstorm had, after a few flickerings, knocked out the power. As luck would have it, although I invested in an uninterruptible power supply, it is unable to power all my equipment simultaneously so I have had to stop what I was doing. Sometimes I just need my computer and modem and monitor; today is not one of those days.
The UPS cost me 4000 baht and is a godsend. Overhead power lines, untrimmed trees, poor installation and frequent storms doesn't make for a reliable power source to our home. It is just one of those things you get used to, an excuse to break off work early or have coffee depending on the outage time. But if you are working and trying to finish something it can be very annoying and the surge protection that the UPS also offers is of great help in protecting my equipment.
After 30 minutes the UPS started beeping at me, not the occasional beeps to remind me the power had gone but a more insistent beep. A look at the display showed the battery was almost discharged. After just 30 minutes! And I had turned off all my equipment as it was a case of all or nothing.
Now as engineer I know what is wrong. The battery has lost its storage capacity because most of the time the power is present so it stays there, probably being trickle charged all the time. Batteries don't like that. It is why the battery in your laptop doesn't last long, most of the time I bet it is used plugged in so the battery doesn't get to go through its full charge/discharge cycle. It is a case of use it or lose it. Now, for a UPS, the battery is rather important, in fact without it it is little more than a rather large power distribution board. So you would think the designers would put some thought into preserving the battery's capacity. Obviously not.
Things got worse after that. As the battery got more discharged I didn't think to switch off the UPS, I thought I would keep on working until it is forced me to quit. Well it did force me to quit as one of my pieces of equipment let out a small explosive sound and some smoke emitted from the ventilation holes. The UPS did not switch off gracefully, it had obviously sent out a voltage spike of its own, too much for the power supply of my video test generator which, although switched off is still connected to power supply as it used to retain some memory settings; effectively it was on standby. The UPS was now pulsing and I hurriedly switched it off. But the damage was done.
The second-hand price on e-Bay for my video test generator is between $6000-$12000. Luckily, for now, I have another one, not so good, but which I can use to complete my work. The generator is obsolete now so finding someone to repair it will not be so simple, especially in Thailand, and it weighs 30kg if I have to send it somewhere.
About a year ago our 5 year old Philips TV broke down, (most of the time it was unused here in Thailand whilst we were in Canada), and was rendered irreparable. Instead we went back to Ploy's old Panasonic TV, 15 years old, much used, and still with a reasonably decent picture. On my work desk I have a Teac receiver; I use it to play CDs when I am working. Except it doesn't play about half of my CDs, not recognising the disk because the reflectivity is too low. The fault, of course, is not the CD, (they are not recordable CDs), but the player. It is six years old but again was little used whilst we were in Canada because it was here. I did have a similar Philips unit but that CD player packed in years ago so it got thrown out.
In Canada I treated myself to some reasonably expensive hi-fi equipment which I naturally brought back here when we emigrated. However the power amplifier cannot be changed to 240V operation so I have to run it via a transformer. The CD player could be changed, although only by modifying links on a PCB, something the average user would not be able to do, but the CD drawer has taken to emulating Arkwright's till and I have to throw my CDs into it before it slams shut. The amplifier and the CD player cost me well over $1500.
When I worked at Philips there was a constant drive to cut costs. We were reminded, not unreasonably, that each additional one cent resistor in the design costs $10,000 across a million units, the sort of quantities low cost consumer equipment sells in. But sometimes that resistor serves a necessary purpose. What was never taken into account was the failure rate of that equipment - oh yes, we had meetings about that but the cost of field call rate, as it was called (customers who report equipment failure), did not appear on the bottom line, (or more accurately our division's bottom line, obviously someone, somewhere, paid for it). We had one item that had a 45% field call rate; nearly half of the product developed some fault, (don't worry that product isn't made anymore, in fact slightly coincidentally Philips don't manufacture those products at all anymore).
Building for quality seems an increasingly neglected art. Expensive equipment no longer is indicative of more money being spent on the design or quality of components, just look at Apple's profits. They have a created a false aura for their products that consumers have completely bought into; I pay more so it must be 'better'. Prettier, maybe, but better - no. Look at the patent suites brought against each other by Apple and Samsung. Apple's claims are for design and look and feel, Samsung's claims are about the mechanics of wireless communication. In other words Apple have been able to patent their look whereas how the things actually work has been patented by Samsung (and others). Apple is an industrial design house, similar to those shops that sells funny looking tables and chairs in bright oranges and yellows; feel free to buy their stuff but don't expect to find any less cost cutting in the design because it costs more. When you paid more for a Sony TV it was because the product cost more to build, and that increased cost led to a better product and better reliability.
Everything today has been designed to the lowest possible costs and it is only the profit margin and the pretty box that differentiate the product. Manufacturers such as Sony are unable to compete with Samsung because quality doesn't sell anymore. I paid over the odds for my NAD hi-fi - as an engineer I know exactly how much these things really cost - but I hoped I got a good, well thought out design that was reliable. Well, so far it has proved reliable, CD drawer apart, and NAD should not be singled out as they are far from the worst perpetrators of the ridiculous high end audio nonsense, but how difficult is it to design something that runs on any voltage. I can tell you, not very. The overhead is small and although I guess not many ship their equipment around the world, why not add it and make something of it. You would have one less slightly disappointed customer in the Far East.
A lot of equipment today is sold too cheaply. That is why Sony and others are having so many problems making money. They cannot compete anymore by selling on quality alone. It seems to have become the norm to discard and buy new after just a year or so in some cases. Apple make their battery replacement impossible to do without returning to the seller and expensive enough to encourage you to buy the latest model. New product introduction and battery life skillfully intertwined. How much did I have to pay for a UPS that did what it said on the box - protect my equipment from power surges (instead of create them) and keep me running when the power fails. The UPS is less than a year old. How do I know if I buy another one it will not do the same. I would pay more for one that guaranteed those two things, but then if they don't do that, well it is not a UPS is it.
Probably the company that made a reliable, quality UPS has gone out of business because no-one would pay the little bit extra for the reliability and quality. Except for me that is.
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