As a matter of general practice, this space resists the tendency to generalize from anecdote. But then the office printer broke: A pulley operating a rubber wheel, the job of which is to separate a sheet of blank paper from a stack and suck it into the machine’s interior, had lost its oomph.
You already know how this story is going to end. The very talented and pleasant technician at the repair shop down the street kept the printer for a week, searching every supplier and warehouse for a thousand miles around, seeking what he said was a $12 pulley. He failed to find one. So three days ago, after briefly considering turning a perfectly functional piece of consumer electronics into a planter, I tore it apart and recycled what was left.
I cannot in fairness call the dead printer an Asian product. It’s a global product. Parts of it came from Asia, the technician said, referencing the codes on a box for a newer-generation model, which I will dutifully buy and throw out in 18 months when it breaks, too. The company with its name on the product is American and the parts supplier is in the United Kingdom. But somehow this international supply network could not produce a viable economy of scale to make repairs worthwhile.
The technician seemed more frustrated than I was, and understandably so: He studied quite a while at personal expense to learn how to service electronics but doesn't actually get to do it much. Often, he lamented, he has to tell people to just chuck stuff for want of a supply of affordable parts.
There was, as it happened, a laptop on his workbench when I came by. Someone had dropped it. With new netbooks now selling for $300 he was going to suggest the customer not bother to repair the slightly broken computer. It needs a small piece of plastic to re-attach the screen to its body, and that would work out to at least $100.
I’m mentioning all this — and complaining about it — because it illustrates an under-discussed aspect of the long chain needed to bridge the gulf between Asian producers and overseas consumers. A $12-spare part turns out to be worth, in terms of supply infrastructure, about $200 in real terms. Because that’s what I’ll pay for a new printer, a replacement for the toner I never used, and taxes, to get my home office back to where it was before the “$12 pulley” broke.
The environmental pressures increasingly facing shippers tend to get discussed, at least in Asia, in terms of carbon loads, re-tooling costs, and cents-per-mile. In this case, though, I wanted more supply chain, not less: I wanted someone to spend the fuel and space to bring me a piece of electronics that would really cost $12.00, so I could make the environmentally correct choice to fix something, rather than throw it out.
It hasn't and may never happen.