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TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Tattoo ink retains its color longer than it used to, says Portland tattoo artist Mary Jane Haake.Our family bought a new dishwasher last week after the old one, which was all of 6 or 7 years old, stopped working.

We were told by the appliance store that a service call would run a minimum of $200 even if our dishwasher could not be repaired. It made more sense, they said, to just buy a new one, which is what most people do these days when their dishwashers, refrigerators and clothes washers and dryers give out.

The installer, when he came to put in our new dishwasher, said five to 10 years was the life expectancy for most models and confirmed that most appliances aren’t built to last as long as those from years ago. He said this while crouching next to our 1970s-era stove-top oven.

Our family car, on the other hand, a 1998 Toyota Camry, is now approaching 200,000 miles and going strong. Automobiles, experts say, are much better built than they used to be. They are built to last.

That makes sense. Technology should be able to lengthen the life of machines. Build a longer-lasting car and people will buy it, if the marketplace works as it should. Build cars that don’t last and consumers will look elsewhere.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - The secret to long-lasting products is producing items that consumers cant help but connect to emotionally, says Portland industrial designer Robb Hunter.

Built to fail

But that same principle doesn’t appear to apply to household appliances. There are plenty of competing dishwasher manufacturers. And appliances are only what biologists call an indicator species. In a society facing dwindling resources, we need to know what lasts and what doesn’t, and what we can do to get more of the former and less of the latter.

Consumer electronics products have notoriously short shelf lives because technology changes so fast, says industrial designer Robb Hunter.

First. we’re saving data on hard drives, then disks, then thumb drives, then clouds. We’re listening to music on radios, then vinyl, next we’re buying CDs and now most music is streamed. Knowing the next technological breakthrough is just over the horizon provides a reverse incentive for manufacturers who might consider building longevity into their devices, Hunter says.

He works at Industry, a design and marketing company based in downtown Portland where the goal, he says, is to design products that trigger feelings that will make their owner want to keep them forever. One is a titanium bicycle with integrated technology for navigation, lighting and security. Another is a compact hi-fi with an heirloom look.

“Fundamentally my job is to create products that people want to hold on to,” Hunter says.

For inspiration, Hunter has only to look to the 1980s Bang & Olufsen hi-fi he keeps at home. The quality of its components — heavy, substantial and attractive — make it more than a music player for him. “It holds emotional content,” he says.

That emotional content is a reason cars last and are held on to, Hunter surmises. “A car is like your avatar for your personality,” he says. “When you’re driving down the road it’s the first thing people see of you.”

A few bugs

Nicholas Humphrey, a theoretical psychologist at the London School of Economics, has a favorite anecdote about durability. The story, which he admits may be true or may be legend, is about Henry Ford, who was as responsible as anybody for modern manufacturing when he designed assembly line factories to produce his Model T cars 100 years ago.

Ford reportedly had a team of inspectors visit American scrap yards to look at junked Model Ts. The inspectors were not looking for parts that consistently failed, but for parts that consistently held up in junked cars. They found one — variously called a kingpin or kingbot, which connects the body of a car to the front axle. The kingpins, Ford concluded, were over-engineered — too good for cars that were going to wear out long before the kingpin was spent. So Ford told his engineers to design his kingpins to a lower specification to save money.

The moral of the story, according to Humphrey? “If you are going for optimal design you should make savings wherever you can.” That’s a lesson to be learned in nature, he adds. “We do not expect to find animals possessing abilities which far exceed the calls that natural living makes on them.”

University of Portland economist Mark Meckler has a sailboat from the 1960s that he treasures. He says he sees plenty of similar boats on the Columbia whenever he goes out on the water. They’re all made out of fiberglass, he says, which was a relatively new material in the '60s, which led to a superior product in a backwards sort of way.

“They didn’t know how thin they could make the fiberglass so they were overbuilt because of the uncertainty,” Meckler says. Now, according to Meckler, engineers know all the technical properties of their materials, which should make things better, but doesn’t necessarily.

“They can dial them back to just the exact amount, to last as long as they want,” Meckler says. “They’re not going to use extra fiberglass anymore because it would be too heavy and it would be expensive.”

Meckler says he recently asked an engineer if this were true, and the engineer told him when money and time are short on a project, design and prototyping get attention, but testing gets shortchanged. There’s another industry that operates that way, according to Meckler — software. Microsoft thinks nothing of releasing imperfect versions of its latest operating systems and letting consumers find the bugs.

Today, software is involved in almost every mechanical product, from kitchen appliances to cars. It’s possible, Meckler says, that the type of thinking involved in software releases has started to infect the products that depend on computers and software to run them.

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - The replacement fiber reinforced polymer decking on the Morrison Bridge did not last nearly as long as the original steel grating.

Hyperbolic discounting

Meckler in a previous life worked as a professional cook in Switzerland. On Sundays, the kitchen in which he worked was given over to assiduously cleaning every bit of equipment. A minimal menu was served in the restaurant while all the cooks and other staff took apart, oiled and reassembled stove top hoods and 100-year-old dumbwaiter chains. Everything in that kitchen, according to Meckler, was ancient and kept in perfect working order.

“It was insane but that was the culture,” Meckler says.

Not here, says Christopher Higgins, a professor of structural engineering at Oregon State University. When it comes to durability, Higgins says, we have met the enemy and he is us.

“We aren’t good decision makers when it comes to long-term costs and risks,” Higgins says. “We buy on first costs.”

Behavioral economists call that hyperbolic discounting, and it means we have trouble factoring in maintenance and replacement costs. We buy cheap up front, and the sellers are catering to our preferences.

Higgins is an expert on bridges. Most, he says, are designed to last 75 years, but engineers know how to build bridges that will last 150 years. Getting public agencies to pay the difference and persuade taxpayers it’s worth it is the problem, Higgins says.

“When do you want to pay for it?” he asks. “Do you want to pay for it, or do you want the people 75 years from now to pay for it?”

Higgins and his OSU colleagues have studied why Oregon has so many bridges in need of replacement. They’ve found that, following World War II, local bridge builders used a particular girder design because it was easy to build and kept the use of expensive reinforcing steel to a minimum. Which was fine for saving money up front, but produced bridges all over the Willamette Valley that have not stood up to the stress from modern, heavier vehicles and higher traffic volumes.

Washington and California engineers, by the way, were quicker to opt for more durable designs. Which is why, Higgins says, Oregon has 10 times the number of these failing (Higgins prefers “structurally deficient”) steel bridges as Washington, and 100 times as many as California.

The Morrison Bridge in downtown Portland provides a recent example of short-sighted thinking, Higgins says. Mike Pullen, a spokesman for Multnomah County, which owns the bridge, finds it hard to disagree.

Five years ago the county had to replace the bridge’s deck. It chose a new type of fiber reinforced polymer decking that would, in theory, improve upon the bridge’s old steel grating. The grating became slippery on rainy days as it absorbed oil from leaking cars. The new plastic decking would also save money because it was lighter.

Five years later, the county is having to replace that decking at a cost of about $6 million, most — but not all of it — to be paid for by the firms that sold and installed the plastic product five years ago. The new decking has cracks in it and pieces of plastic that have to be taped down to keep them from flapping in the wind.

Pullen says there are a couple of lessons to be learned from the county’s experience. First, there was only one company making the decking when officials put out bids. The lack of competition might have been a warning that the manufacturer didn’t have to compete on quality.

Second, Pullen says, the company chosen to install the decking was the low bidder — by far.

“We told the company, ‘Are you sure you want to do this? Your bid is much lower than the other companies,’” Pullen recalls. “And they said yes. And it turned out they couldn’t do it as cheaply as they thought they could.”

There are spots on the bridge, Pullen says, where screws have cracked the plastic decking, and other spots where screw holes don’t line up and the deck isn’t properly attached at all.

“What’s out there now is broken,” Pullen says. “We’re practically attaching Band-Aids to keep the bridge open.”

The replacement replacement bridge decking the county is planning will utilize the old steel grating with a few added inches of concrete.

Lesson three, according to Pullen, is don’t be the first on your block to try out a new technology.

“Do you want to get stuck with the Betamax or the VHS?” Pullen says. “Sometimes you want to wait awhile.”

NEXT: Can we have streets without potholes, please?

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