This has got me steaming. I’ve talked about it for a few years and I’m very passionate about it. A recent example made me do this post. I’m sorry about it being rather long.
How is it possible that something as technologically advanced as a laptop PC or MP3-player fails completely after a year or two through something as technologically “dumb” as a barrel power connector or audio jackplug?
This doesn’t just happen to the cheap Chinese crap that you find everywhere. This happens to brand-name products from the likes of Sony and Apple as well.
I open up a lot of products, both to fix them and for educational purposes. Because I have a special interest in electronics, most of them are consumer electronics like mobile phones, MP3-players or laptops. Most of them come to me because they have been declared “broken” by their owner. Most of them still work fine. Only the connector that charges the gizmo (or some other important connector) is broken.
Either, 80-90% of all consumer electronics on the market today are designed by Electrical Engineers and Industrial Designers who are “mechanically challenged” or this is done on purpose. I’m not big on conspiracy theories, and the truth is probably somewhere in between. Indeed, planned obsolescence has been around for quite some time; but I’m not completely sure that’s what’s causing this. What I’m saying is: I can’t tell for sure if this is done on purpose or not. If it is, this is a major deliberate cause of e-waste. Either way, this needs to be fixed – both on micro and macro levels.
Here’s what happens, from a consumer standpoint: You buy a brand new, brand-name laptop and use it carefully for about 3 years. Some bits and pieces fall off. A keyboard-key disappears in the vacuum. The warranty expires. After a while, it won’t always charge when you plug in the power. Sometimes you have to “wiggle” the plug a little. After a few months more, it completely stops charging. With no other source of power, you discard it as broken. “It’s probably too expensive to have it repaired anyway. And I wanted a new one as well.”, you tell yourself as you walk to the store.
A few years back, the same happened to your MP3-player, but that time, the sound got all glitchy. For most people, this is fine. The product got old, had its defects and then died a simple and painful death in some shoebox.
Let me take a laptop that I fixed recently (in about half an hour) as an example. Here’s what happens on the inside:
The above is a close-up of the motherboard (PCB) of the computer near the power connector (“barrel”). Note that the whole picture is about 4cm across. There are 4 connections from the barrel power receptacle to the PCB, all of which are solder connections. Three of them are on the edge of the PCB. One is further from the edge. This is the connection that actually transfers the power that the machine runs on and charges itself with.
The plug that went into the barrel is about 7cm long. The three solder connections on the edge of the PCB, in this example, function as a sort of hinge when force or momentum is applied to the barrel connector. Nothing in the construction of the enclosure helped relieve this force. With the distance of the “far” solder joint to the “hinge” being quite small, the arm of the momentum applied by the plug (7cm) means the force is amplified about 10x. Solder (a mixture of Tin and Lead and/or Copper) is quite brittle. You can probably guess what happens next.
The above is an extreme close-up of the solder joint in question. You can clearly see a gap between the solder (silvery) and the copper of the PCB (light green).The gap is tiny, but big enough to make the whole machine essentially worthless.
Let me share the easy, “micro-scale”, after-the-fact fix. I’ll post another article with design considerations for these kind of issues. The DIY-fix is easy: There is enough copper left beside the solder joint, ready to be scraped off and soldered again:
I hope this blog post can function as a guide for people with the same or similar problems. I also hope it can serve as a helpful critique of the industrial design of contemporary consumer electronics. These problems are easily avoided by properly designing these critical components of the gadgets that we use every day. A lot of environmental problems can be solved if the longevity of our electronics can be extended with these simple fixes. Again: Why should something as technologically complex as a laptop PC fail on something as simple as a power plug?
Like this? You might be interested in my latest project. It's a desk light made completely from a single sheet of printed circuit board. Check it out: