Several experts argue that the solution to our latest quality crisis will emerge on its own from competition and innovation. Jack West, past president of the American Society for Quality, says that even Chinese companies are choosing to adopt Six Sigma techniques.

New technologies like radio frequency identification (RFID) chips also offer hope. If your DVD player needs a new loading tray, the RFID chip will detect the problem, notify the factory, and arrange delivery of the proper replacement part, ready to snap into place.

But it’s not self-evident that manufacturing companies will change as easily as they did in the 1980s. The advancing microchip, the falling price of products, and the global manufacturing environment may have permanently changed attitudes about product quality and the competitive environment in many industries.

Rather than retooling for continual upgradeability, manufacturers may simply assume unending consumer tolerance, and slide down the slope of cost reductions and quality erosion. Many former major brand producers will survive as commodity makers of retail house brands, with devices engineered for replacement every year or so. Consumers will live amid perpetually new things, tossing the discards into landfills.

And who will care? Maybe only the last few managers, of the last few quality brands, who, like monks in the Dark Ages, keep alive an ideal that others have forgotten — and derive premium profits that nobody else understands.

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