A Small Thing About Small Things

This morning, my uncle and I were discussing household appliances. He told me about a problem he had with the a super-hot water tap in his sink. The sink was high end, with a special tap to produce 180F water immediately. Under the hood, the tap had a drainage system to avoid storing tepid water. All the parts of this product were nice metal, except the drainage hose, which was cheap plastic, and broke. When he called the company for a replacement, the man on the other end knew what the problem was without my uncle finishing his sentence.

My uncle then told me the story of a nice new fridge whose ice maker stopped working, I think also due to a cheap part [1]. He asked, “why do makers allow this for their high end products?”

My best guess at an answer was:

It’s an organizational problem. Engineering firms, even many of the good ones, are organized to parcel out work to different teams (or other firms). Even in good firms, an insignificant part may be of insignificant concern, so it gets farmed out to a weak team.

In my experience, there is one big exception: high end stuff from Germany. This stuff works, and it lasts.

My best guess at a reason for that comes from this old economist article. The reason is, in Germany, there are a large number of tiny firms (under 50 people) which heavily specialize in particular obscure parts or items. These Mittelstand are often the best makers of whatever parts they make, and there’s nothing too small for this specialty. There are companies that make only some types of gaskets, one that makes bottling machines, one that only makes rolling pull-out cabinets for storing very heavy equipment, as might be done in factories.

When a German company builds a high end product, it typically takes its parts from other Germany companies. Those companies put enormous effort into building high quality parts, even if the parts are insignificant in larger designs. So German products have few small failure points.


Look at these *parts*!


I think. What do you think?

[1] I may be mixing up two stories here, one about the fridge, the other about the super-hot water spout. They sort of blended together in my mind.

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