Thursday, June 17, 2010

We All Scream for Ice Cream

Since I wrote my last post on competence, something has happened to remind me that competence is the precursor of high quality, and incompetence leads to low quality.

My wife and daughter and son-in-law went together to buy me a gift for Father's Day: a White Mountain hand-crank ice cream maker. We like home-made ice cream, and we make a fair amount of it. Historically, the White Mountain ice cream makers have been regarded as the best. Expensive, but reputed the best.

So, yesterday evening we went over to my daughter's, and the box was put in front of me. I opened it, we put it together, ingredients were mixed and I started cranking. That's when the trouble started.

It's a simple machine; you turn the crank, the gear on the end of the shaft turns two other gears which rotate the canister in one direction and the dasher in the opposite direction, while the ice and salt in the outer wooden bucket lowers the temperature of the mix.

But on this one, as I cranked, the gears kept jamming. Crank a couple of turns, jam. Back it up, crank half a turn, jam again. Eventually I figured out that if I pushed in on the crank, hard, while turning the handle it would go a little longer before jamming again. Forget any ideas about the kids helping crank the thing.

Then, after about fifteen minutes of disjointed cranking, the ice cream began to thicken a little bit (not done, just beginning to stiffen) and the gears started to slip, between jams.

We finally got out my daughter's old machine, transferred the ice cream mix and ice to it(minus some metal particles that had gotten into the ice cream) and finished it while my son-in-law and I tried to figure out what was wrong with the White Mountain.

The first thing we noticed was that the gears were rough castings, coated with a finish, but no lubrication (and no, the instruction book did not say to grease the gears during our assembly). They were also fitted together very loosely, and did not mesh tightly together. There was a lot of slop in the gear box. There was also a lot of slop where the dasher shaft came through the canister top, about a 3/4" hole in the top for a shaft about 9/16" in diameter, which is how the metal particles from the gears got into the ice cream. Even the wooden bucket was not that well made; my grandfather was a cooper (barrel maker) for Seagram's, and over the years I have learned at least enough about his trade to spot whether such work is done well or not.

We finished the ice cream in the old machine, ate it all, and came home. I got online and started looking up "White Mountain Hand Crank Ice Cream Machine Problems", and found our experience was not unique. There were a number of glowing recommendations, but there were also a number of complaints. One of the glowing reviews that seemed to come up on every site was from a person who had had a White Mountain for twenty-three years. But most of the negative reviews seemed to be from people who had bought one in the last four or five years. The problems seemed to be of three major types: leaky wooden buckets, metal shavings in the ice cream, and the gears jamming and slipping.

White Mountain is an old company, dating back to the 1850s in New England. But like many other companies I have seen, the ownership has changed repeatedly in the last fifty years or so. The booklet in the box was marked "Holmes Group, Inc." Holmes is a maker of portable electric heaters, fans, and air cleaners. But the invoice from the online retailer called it a "Rival White Mountain" model. It turns out that both of these companies are owned by an organization called Jarden, which owns both Rival and Sunbeam, Holmes, Coleman and a batch of other producers of sporting goods, small appliances, smoke alarms, playing cards, and all sorts of unrelated things.

The old White Mountain ice cream makers were made in New England. Mine had no markings anywhere on it to say where any part was made, but there was a small item on the carton, "Assembled in the U.S.A. from Foreign and Domestic Components."

So we have yet another instance of a product from this country with a good reputation for quality that has gone down the drain. Forget about craftsmanship; just order parts from various countries (whoever is cheapest), slap them together and ship them out. And don't bother with testing the product; as long as it goes together, ship it out to the retailers.

This is not just individual incompetence; it is corporate incompetence, at all levels. The product reviewers who had tried to get the company to honor the "Five year warranty" had problems getting the parts to fix their machines, too. This is not a complicated machine, and they are charging a premium price for it. They are living on their past reputation, and it is beginning to fade.

I am not going to frustrate myself dealing with the warranty. We have a return authorization from the retailer, and I am going to send it back. It will cost us for shipping, and a restocking fee, but will probably avoid a lot of frustration. And in the future I will do what I can to avoid buying any products from Jarden and its subsidiaries.

1 comment:

ded said...

What flavor was your ice cream?

You've described an all too common reality. Planned obsolescence has become mass produced junk.