Archive for May, 2010

It’s Good To Be An Engineer – – Sort Of

Friday, May 14th, 2010 Mike Ficco

About 14 months ago I bought a name brand laptop from a well-known retailer.  I declined the extended warranty so I should not have been surprised when the power jack inside the laptop cracked 63 days after the warranty expired.  The damage was disabling as the external plug had to be propped at a severe angle to charge the computer.  Unfortunately it would have to be repaired.

A quick call to the retailer told me I was in trouble.  They said the repair would require replacing the motherboard and that could only be done by the factory service center on the other side of the country.  Undaunted, I called the service center – more bad news.  The process was to send them the laptop and a $99.95 evaluation fee plus $20 shipping.  In a little while they would get back to me and tell me the actual cost of the repair.

Forget them!  I’m an engineer!  I can fix this thing myself!

After a couple of call transfers, pressing 1, 3, 1, 1, #, 3 – getting disconnected – calling more numbers and pressing more keys I was able to order the power connector for only $37 + $8 shipping.  I declined the $24 overnight delivery option, but the connector arrived the next day anyway.

I excitedly opened the package but was horrified to see the connector had an attached Frankenstein of a cable.  It was about 12 inches long with two right angle bends.  I said to myself, “This can’t be good”.

More than 30 screws later my table was covered with a mostly disassembled laptop.  The connector was not mounted on the motherboard but was attached to the frame.  The motherboard was still partially attached but I was able to pry it up enough to remove the old Frankenstein cable and route the new one.  I congratulated myself for being an engineer and began reassembling the computer.  A little while later I plugged in the charger.  As the battery charging light came on I thought, “That wasn’t too bad”.

But wait!  The computer would not turn on when I pressed the power button.  I disassembled the computer again but saw nothing wrong.  The power button worked fine, the battery was being charged, but no power was reaching the motherboard.  I reassembled the laptop hoping against hope that there was some interlock that required full assembly before power-up was allowed.  No such luck.  I walked away from the laptop to watch some late-night TV, but the problem wouldn’t leave my head.  Did I crack the motherboard while lifting it to route the power cable?  Did I somehow damage an interlock?  Was something being shorted?

By the next morning I decided the most likely problem was that I inadvertently broke or disconnected a cable hidden under the motherboard.  The following weekend I again disassembled the laptop – this time completely.  There, underneath the motherboard, was a ribbon cable that had been pulled from its socket.  It was quire short and I had a bear of a time reconnecting it.  Eventually I got everything back together with some fresh thermal paste on the heat sink and fresh Loctite on the screws.  The laptop was finally back together and working.

So, what did I learn from this adventure?  One thing is that being an engineer makes you do stupid things.  No normal person would ever think about disassembling a laptop computer.  After this adventure I’ve become as smart as a normal person.  Working on this was such a pain in the butt that next time I’ll just throw the laptop away.

The other thing I learned was that cheap assembly labor makes for really, really bad designs.  You have got to be kidding me.  This was very much a name brand computer but the inside was a plumber’s nightmare.  Two more weeks with the CAD group would have reduced by half the 70 to 100+ screws that hold everything together.  Another week of CAD improvements and half of the 20 or 30 connectors would be gone.

I think one unexpected benefit of foreign assembly of products is that the design engineers don’t understand the language.  They don’t understand the cruel jokes the assemblers make about their convoluted mess of a product.

Look ashamed boys.  Look ashamed.  I’ve seen inside your product and you have every reason to be very ashamed.