The Sharp End: Chips with everything

Business is booming at Dixons' TV and computer repair centre, finds Dave Waller.

by Dave Waller
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

I'm off for a day playing Mr Fix It, getting intricate with printed circuits and LCD displays at Dixons' electronics repair centre. Fist primed, I'm ready to bang stuff.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it, goes the adage, although these days there's plenty of pressure to ditch the first half of that phrase and just roll with the last bit. In a world of built-in obsolescence, we're teased by the idea of consigning our broken kit to landfill, its failure a green light to replace it with a newer model packing extra inches and ever more ridiculously high levels of def.

As such, I half-expected the repair centre in Newark to be just an old guy in a shed using his watchmaker's screwdriver to torment spiders. Yet when I arrive, I'm in for a surprise: it's a bright, buzzing hall where rows of young, black-clad engineers sit plugged into their desks by anti-static wristbands, pulling punters' precious electronics out of heavy-duty plastic crates and attacking them with power screwdrivers. REM blares in the background. It seems the religion of thrift is not lost yet.

Manager David Kelly tells me how his team works around the clock repairing a circuit-scrambling 1,500 laptops, 200 desktop computers and 300 tellies a day. Modern flatscreen TVs are so complex compared with their fishbowl predecessors that the set-up process can cause as many problems as the hardware.

All the engineers have a monitor above their workstation, showing a photo of their face. It looks like that old graphic from Gladiators, where an image of contestants would slowly rotate next to statistics detailing their effectiveness with a pugil stick. Here, if your repair total and pass rate improves, you'll see your face smiling back. If it drops it's replaced by a sad face. It must feel good to be patronised by your own on-screen doppelganger.

I work with Rob, the head engineer, who reckons he can complete most jobs in 15 to 30 minutes. His big fingers have prised open a faulty laptop and are delicately plucking at tiny brittle wires connecting the speakers. He's shoving a memory board into different holes and seeing how that affects booting up. This job's all about logic - systematically ruling out possibilities as you home in on the problem. The rule: if it starts beeping a lot, try something else.

My own limited memories of DIY repair involve dismantling things, chucking the bits everywhere, and then driving round for a month hunting for the right part. Imagine the rummaging required here.

That's why everything is logged on a barcode system similar to that used for stock picking in the distribution centre next door. Runners roam the floor kitted out with wireless headsets that receive instructions from the system, including where to go to find the required part. Easy. As Rob inspects a broken headphone socket, a replacement chip arrives in a Jiffy bag. 'Here you are,' says his runner. This could be the future of surgery, with computers directing runners to grab genetically engineered eardrums from freezer drawers.

The job feels apt for austere times - making do and mending, not simply chucking it away - and the ethos runs very deep. David reckons the team saves £1.4m a year by reusing parts salvaged from defunct kit, rather than blithely ordering new spares. Rob takes the broken headphone socket over to component level repair (CLR) and gets his reward card stamped. Fill a card and you get a reward that neatly fits the acronym: a cake, latte or roll. 'Earning 10 stamps could save us £1,000,' says David, who introduced the system. 'And they do it for a cake or a coffee. Engineers. Amazing.'

David explains how he has designed the place around what he rather alarmingly calls 'Google-style self-starters' - creative types, who demand a fun place to work. 'You can't just march engineers to a desk and say "fix that",' he says. 'The engineering skills of 20 years ago may have gone out of fashion but they're coming back - you need to know why stuff works the way it does, so the make and model don't matter.' His engineers earn between £18,000 and £23,000 a year.

Rob tells me how in the nine years he's been here, the team has gone from handling 400 jobs a week to more like 10,000. Yes, everybody hurts, as REM sang. But your stuff will always break too.

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