RL Magazine
Edition 41
Technical Trends
by L. Bryant Underwood

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In the business of reverse logistics it is easy to become overwhelmed with the constant focus on trying to make your margin targets and forget the amazing capabilities that RL specialists like yourselves bring to bear on adding value to defective inventories. It is in many ways a magical art that is not appreciated as much as it should be. A recent story in the LA Times caused me to take a moment and wonder-are we really on the right path with our obsession of minimum quality, high volumes and buy new?

In 1967 the US had Lunar Orbiter for mapping the moon in preparation for our manned moon landings. The Lunar Orbiter was and amazing device, even for today. It took very high resolution photos of the moon on 70mm film (yes photographic film). The film was developed and scanned by a photomultiplier tube, onboard the spacecraft and the images transmitted to earth with 10 watts of microwave power. Once received the images were recorded on an FR-900 Ampex tape drive. From this process came the famous ‘earth rising’ photo that made every major newspaper and TV news show of the day. Fast forward to today. All that technology and the miles of tapes and data were almost destroyed. Then even after the tapes were found and archived, there was not a machine that could read the tapes and retrieve the images. The reason this is important in terms of history is because of the amazing level of detail these images contained. With 1967 technology we had captured images that rival those we can capture today.

After finding three scrapped tape drives from an old military base it took months of work and donations to get a single tape drive working. The solution that achieved this amazing success used electronic salvage yards, an old McDonald’s restaurant, and some elderly engineers that had not seen the equipment for 41 years. When they first were able to get the tape drives working one of the engineers was quoted in the LA Times after seeing the fresh and clear image of Earth rising above the lunar landscape- “When that picture came up, I had tears in my eyes,” It “was breathtaking,” “It felt like looking into the past.”.

This story resonated with me because I have always loved to fix things; my guess is that you also have this love. If that is the case, you know at least part of the feeling the retired NASA engineers are describing. The joy of being able to solve the riddle of making a defective product work is unlike any other. Whether you have a large repair operation or a small service shop, an ability to execute repair is regarded universally by the general public with some level of amazement. For the satisfied Customer you might as well have control of the philosopher’s stone, when you return to them their phone with all their photos and videos still intact. The details are an amazing story I would encourage you to read at (www.moonviews.com).

That skill of troubleshooting and repairing is becoming tougher to maintain. The rate of obsolesce of products and components is accelerating. Any documentation of the repair process or the soft tools to enable the repair are getting tougher to find. I know you all have a sense of this, but let me take a moment and remind you of something that was once common practice. Did you know there was once a time when the owner’s manual of almost any electronic product contained at least a schematic?

I recently was given a Concept 12.0d receiver that was not working. This is an amazing piece of technology that is about 35 years old. The Concept name was the house brand of Pacific Stereo. The receiver is massive, with large toroidal transformers, massive heat sinks and all linear output section. After just a couple of days I was able to get this antique working. This would not have been possible if the schematic had not been part of the owner’s manual. Below is a scan of one page of the schematic from the owners manual with the defective protection IC highlighted.

Once I diagnosed the defective part, ebay produced the replacement. Today the receiver is working great and a solid performer.

This manual even had a troubleshooting guide and the schematic had full part numbers, notes and values included. Can you imagine today a company providing schematics, service manuals or even flash tools for electronic products? This is odd to me because the costs of archiving and preserving these data are much cheaper today with cloud storage compared to printing manuals. But there is such a focus on selling new products and limiting liability that trusting the consumer with such information is almost unthinkable. It is a sad state that for me far outweighs the possible benefits. Where will we turn in 41 years to recover data from an old cell phone in a police evidence locker from a cold case? I am not sure, but it sounds like a business opportunity to me.

Bryant Underwood manages Public Safety Sourcing for Cassidian Communications, an EADS North America Company in Frisco Texas.

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