Unintended consequences of cost-savings: cables that damages electronics

By | November 6, 2015

It's no secret that manufacturers want to cut costs. But cost cutting sometimes has more consequences than those manufacturers may test for – and this results in electronic devices reaching end-of-life earlier than expected.

The problem is very hard to verify. In this particular case, cables are marketed as being compatible with a particular specification, but upon inspecting the hardware, the Google engineering department has discovered that by using a cheaper, smaller capacitor, the specifications are not being met. That, in turn, means that the cable does work – but damages your equipment at the same time.

While this is a shining example of how cost-cutting around technical specifications and lying about them afterwards is particularly damaging to any electronic system relying on standards, especially because the explanations are public, precise, and difficult to bullshit against, it's certainly not an isolated case.

I know everyone hates bureaucracy… but if companies can't self-police to get fundamental things like international electronics standards right, with grave consequences for consumers, then perhaps it is time to introduce some bureaucracy back into the process to ensure a basic quality standard for standard interfaces.

/via +Urs Hölzle

Google engineer challenges USB-C cables for sale at Amazon | ExtremeTech
One of Google’s engineers has taken to Amazon to debunk bad cables and offer advice on which options consumers ought to pay for.

14 thoughts on “Unintended consequences of cost-savings: cables that damages electronics

  1. Earl Matthews

    +Sophie Wrobel The problem is that picking the best of the worst isn't an open process even if we would like it to be. Lobbyists and politicians around the world don't always play nice and have very short term goals. This can make the process very muddy unless the problem is obvious to everyone. Someone selling food with microbeads of plastic is obviously cheating the system and endangering lives. Can the same reasoning be applied to soap and shampoo where microbeads end up in water and endanger animals? Right now that's very muddy.

    As it stands, I'm not even sure a process exists for picking the best of the worst. Things just happen.

  2. Sophie Wrobel

    +Earl Matthews There's a fundamental flaw with having the basis reside in the legal system, though. Yellow multimeters that aren't Fluke are commonplace here – it could be one example of the (many) cases of how trademark, copyright and patent regulations differ across nations, or perhaps how European infringements are more difficult to fight. For example, why doesn't a pharmaceutical company that has a drug patent in both Europe and the US follow through by suing infringers in the US, but not in Europe, leading to that drug costing hundreds of dollars in the US, but only a few Euros in Europe? European law requires them to sue every individual hospital / pharmacy / point of distribution, and US law requires them to sue just once to effect their rights over the entire system, and so maintaining their protection rights becomes a commercially unviable privilege. This sort of slight regional differences between countries is a confounding factor in systems defined by law – such as intellectual property protection, and why I think moving the regulatory mechanisms out of the legal foundation may have a better chance: you can have non-certified wood and paper, but no one (at least here) will buy it because everyone wants to see that sustainable forestry seal. Even though no average consumer would be able to verify it.

    That said, I believe you do have a good point: without a legal basis, there's no foundation for creating a certification requirement or regulatory body. And as anyone who follows the media around public-sector regulatory bodies will know, they are not the most fool-proof bodies. So, as to a solution? I guess it's a question of picking the best of the worst, unless someone has a brilliant idea.

  3. Earl Matthews

    +Sophie Wrobel The cost of faking things versus using the genuine article has to be taken into consideration. Fake wood and food stuff is very hard to pass off as the real thing and when people find out that they have been cheated, the punishment is severe. Making fake defective electronics is easy. People don't care about Amperes and Ohms as long as the thing they want works… at least in the short run. If something breaks or catches fire or shocks you, a crafty manufacturer can dodge regulation and certification bodies long enough to take the profits and disappear. Sell tainted food or steal wood from areas that you shouldn't and governments will find you.

    Sadly, the only thing I've seen work are copyright laws. You can sell broken, defective and unsafe multimeters all day. Try buying a yellow multimeter that isn't Fluke. Fluke literally has meters crushed, in Customs, for being yellow.

    To be honest, I'm not sure what the final solution could be. It could be that even things like wood and organic food certifications will fall to the same fate as organic molecules become as easy to manufacture as Atmel and Intel chips. Who knows? The technology is sci-fi, Star Trek replicator, level stuff, but what happens when the difference requires a degree in organic chemistry, biology or quantum physics to notice but the cost difference is large? That's where we stand with fake electronics.

  4. Sophie Wrobel

    +Earl Matthews‚Äč put in a mandatory certification body, and you get iso standards that nobody uses. Put in a central government regulation authority, and you get evasive technology gaming the process. Two of the few systems I can think of that somewhat works is fair trade system and organic food system, both of which leave cheap versions to take the majority of the market and certified versions to take customers who care. And if they are successful, they could end up with something like the FSC certification which almost every forestry company registers for these days. Based on that these examples do survive, it could be a viable alternative. Perhaps I've missed something, though?

  5. Earl Matthews

    +Sophie Wrobel How do you hold manufacturers to standards and licensing systems when it cheaper and easier to ignore them and sell cheap cables on Ebay?

    Almost every company the actually makes cables is in China and China has proven they don't care at all about Standards and Licensing. I think I've seen more fake CE labels than real ones.

  6. Sophie Wrobel

    Well, who ensures that devices are compliant to the standards they claim they meet? There's no easy answer, but I think we need something like a two-tier solution: For things which should follow a particular protocol, the body that created that protocol would be a good candidate to organize some sort of licensing system: 'Certified 3C-C Cable', for instance, to help distinguish the good ones from the cheap ones. Any forced regulation would cause the system to fail, though, because that is exactly contrary to the open hardware ideology.

  7. Earl Matthews

    I don't think that the problem is fraud, but dangerous devices that will overheat and catch fire during charging. Not to get overly geeky, but the thinner the wire the less current it can safely handle. USB already has some pretty thin wires for power (20-28 AWG) some companies already cheap out further by using cheap Aluminium instead of Copper (Higher resistance) so what happens when you tell a computer that its ok to pull 3A over very thin Aluminium wire?

    Fire is what happens.

  8. Phil H

    And this is why having to licence something to be able to manufacture a cable is a good idea. See: lightning cable. Yes you'll still get unlicenced gear but there will be less, they'll be easier to identify and easier to block from sale.

  9. Michael-Forest M.

    But what's going to be the mechanism to prevent this? Are you suggesting that "bureaucracy" only apply its oversight to USB cables, and nothing else? Are you suggesting that every product allowed to be sold be tested by the "bureaucracy"? How often?

  10. Sophie Wrobel

    The problem with lying is that until you get caught, you can make a big buck out of it. Remember the VW scandal not too long ago?…

    The big question is, who has the time and money to verify every piece of hardware, and take them to court (or make them pay fines) to make lying a non-profitable strategy?


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