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3 Secrets of Engineering Being Used to Keep You Poor

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Tired of replacing crappy new stuff constantly? Does it seem like they just can't build anything right anymore? It turns out that it isn't ignorance or incompetence making your stuff break, but a deliberate effort by intelligent people who know exactly what they're doing. It really doesn't have to be this way, and manufacturers can make equipment that lasts ten or a hundred times as long without breaking a sweat. Here are three well-known secrets that manufacturers would prefer you didn't know.


1. Most Stuff Can Actually Last Forever

Your ladle broke. It's time to get a new one. The steel handle just snapped right in half after a few years of use. Surely if they made the ladle twice as thick, it would last twice as long, right?

Wrong. It might actually last forever. All mechanical engineers are taught in school about how you can bend something back and forth only so many times, and then it will break. If you apply enough stress, the spoon (or beam, or coffee maker) will break right away, but over time metal fatigue sets in, cracks develop, and after a million cycles of being used, an item will break. Here's that chart:


Sure enough, the less you stress something out, the more "cycles" you can get out of it. With less and less stress on the material, you can get more scoops, or cups of coffee, or whatever. However, with steel, you've got something called an "endurance limit", where it doesn't matter anymore. The number of cycles goes to infinity. You can scoop, and scoop and scoop with that ladle if it is made thick enough, and it will literally never break. It may wear completely down to a nub before that handle snaps.

And, looking at the difference between a two year spoon (10,000 cycles) and a forever spoon, you're only talking about a tiny bit more strength, and tiny bit more material. So, for what might be an almost unnoticeable amount of weight and expense, you can get pots and pans, spoons, coffee makers and truck springs that last forever. But, the engineers that determine the exact thickness and strength of components are acting under specific instructions to make things last a certain length of time, rather than producing the best product. The failure is planned and scheduled into the DNA of the product. This is called planned obsolescence, and its a scam that's been running since about 1950.

2. Car Engines Could Easily Last a Million Miles

There are car engines today that have lasted millions of miles. Most big-rig engines last millions of miles. Once again, there is no puzzle out of reach to modern science preventing cars from driving millions of miles routinely. Average industrial equipment is expected to last for at least ten years of continuous operation, which is equivalent to around 80,000 hours. If a car engine lasted 80,000 hours at 30 miles an hour, it would go 2.4 million miles.

The fact of the matter is that engines don't actually have to wear out ever. It is not only possible, but actually quite easy to design moving parts that experience essentially zero wear and will last tens of thousands of hours. With clean oil of good quality, parts will float on a film of oil and never touch.


Once oil is contaminated, billions of particles of grit work to wear down engine parts. Oil changes do very little to remove this grit once it is in there, and oil filters fail to remove it effectively enough to prevent wear. Furthermore, cars are designed with insufficient oil capacity. Thus, we have engines that fail after 5000 hours instead of 80,000 or more. Engineers have been making equipment last ten times as long as cars for over 100 years, and there is no reason your car needs to die after 200,000 miles. Once again, engineers have been given specific instructions to defy their instincts and training, and create a device designed to fail.

3. Lead-Free Solder is Killing You and Your Products

It may seem like removing lead from solder (and thusly electronic devices) might be a good thing, and if you are eating solder or cell phones, it definitely is. However, lead-free solder used to assemble everything from car electronics to cell phones has a strong tendency to grow what are called "tin whiskers". These tiny, conductive filaments of tin literally grow right out of the solder joints holding wires and electronic components together, and once they get long enough, the device shorts out. That doesn't sound so bad, unless you're driving a Toyota and suddenly you start accelerating out of control.


Aside from making everyone buy new stuff every few years, planned obsolescence can be downright dangerous. A couple-year lifespan is perfect for maximizing sales, and lead-free solder has been embraced with open arms by most manufacturers. It should be telling that the US military won't use it. Electrical engineers are well aware of this phenomenon and how it can lead to catastrophic failure. Once again, an intentionally poor manufacturing technique has been foisted on the public, and as electronics laden with every other heavy metal (besides lead) stack up in landfills everywhere, the environmental benefit is basically nil.

Richard is an engineer by day, and a political activist by night, fighting would-be totalitarians and government busybodies everywhere.