Build a Supportable Product

My espresso setup

A few years ago a friend of mine experienced some issues with his espresso machine, a Rancilio Silvia model. It’s a reliable machine for the home, makes a good espresso, and it is relatively inexpensive. It also has an interesting history. And as he went to package it up for the servicing he accidentally blew up the boiler.

He was faced with a choice of getting the repairs, costing him about $300 in parts plus labor, or buying a new machine. He decided to upgrade to a better machine and gifted the broken machine to me. I am pretty sure the Rancilio Silvia that I was gifted was purchased from Seattle Coffee Gear, and they also added the aftermarket PID seen above.

The Rancilio Silvia is a wonderful machine to work on. The parts are readily available and they are generally backwards compatible. Rancilio has released over six versions of the Sylvia, which means that the parts have improved over time. Lastly, there are dozens of videos and tutorials available from a vast army of enthusiasts.

In addition to replacing the boiler with a new and improved model, I replaced the over-pressure valve gasket, which was the original source of concern. The replacement gasket is an improved design. I have made a number of other repairs over the years, including replacing the group head cover, replacing the on/off switch, and replacing the pump. I’ve also made some of my own enhancements to the machine, like lining the interior with heat-resistant sound insulation foam.

I use a coffee bean grinder (Breville BCG600SIL Dose Control Pro) that I purchased in 2016. In many ways the Breville Dose Control Pro poses a stark contrast to the Rancilio Sylvia. It’s made of plastic, whereas the Sylvia has a lot of sheet metal and brass. It’s difficult to work on. For example the Sylvia has exposed screws while the Breville’s screws are located under plastic tabs and impossible to access unless you know what you are looking for. And lastly, repair parts are not available.

To my dismay, the Breville unit stopped working entirely after 3.5 years of use. I was able to repair it, but it required me to buy a 3d printed part online, bought from an entrepreneur looking to take advantage of the lack of available parts. Furthermore, I had to change the grind settings internally which was a stressful ordeal that required me to assemble/disassemble the unit several times to be correct.

I have several takeaways on products from my experiences repairing these machines.

Think about repairability during the purchasing process and have a strong preference to purchase items that can be repaired. I made this mistake with a set of desktop speakers I purchased too. When they stopped working I realized the unit was sealed at the factory and consequently there is no way to troubleshoot.

Repairability scores should be more commonplace. These should go well beyond automobiles and cellphones, in the future. And they should absolutely be affixed to coffee machines, coffee grinders, vacuum cleaners, and everything else. Extending the lifespan of the machines that we use helps reduce our carbon footprint.

Repairability and supportability should also be considered as part of the product for software. Customer support, self-support tools, and customer triage issues are often overlooked features. They can add a tremendous amount of value in the form of improved customer experience. For buyers of software, it is an important and overlooked consideration.

The gifted espresso machine has given me years of satisfactory Italian-style espresso shots. It has given me several hours of enjoyment since I enjoy the restoration process. Most importantly, it has forced me to think about repairability and the importance of building in these features, from the beginning, in my own work.

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