Rolling luggage has to be one of the greatest engineering innovations of all time, so it’s a real pity that their telescoping handles are so frequently a dismal failure. On a recent trip (to India, natch) the cheaply-cast zinc parts in the handle assembly on my husband’s High Sierra brand bag decided to give up the ghost.
First he had difficulty getting the handle to extend, which seemed like the worst luck in the world. That is until he couldn’t get the handle to retract again. In a frenzy of frustration, he wound up hacking off the 18-inch pieces so he could check the bag on the return leg.
(Click for detail)
Why do so many handles perform so poorly? Given the high torsional and bending loads that are placed on the telescoping pieces during use, I’m confident that it’s not a trivial design problem. In fact, an engineer at a brand-name luggage company who I once interviewed told me that broken handles account for 90% of warranty claims for wheeled luggage.
But I think there is a quality issue, too.
I myself have had particularly bad luck with the locking mechanism used to secure the handle in its extended position. These little puppies are typically spring-loaded hinges or bearings that are mechanically coupled to an actuator on the handle, or a combination of the two. In any case, they are designed to securely engage, thus keeping the telescoping pieces from wobbling about when extended or simply extending too far. At least in theory that’s what they are supposed to do.
The thing is that unless the handle assembly fails and the parts inspected most people don’t normally see all the handle’s inner workings–which leads me to conclude that what is out of sight on a bag is out of mind. Designers apparently have traded-off a little extra effort (and cost) in this area in lieu of fancy hardware and ballistic-proof materials designed to survive for something like a million years. Which seems dumb when the cheapest part of the bag fails inside of a year or two.
To wit, the cheap cast zinc parts that fractured and failed on the Sierra bag above showed no signs of fatigue. Conclusion: bad castings.
The cost of the bag doesn’t seem to make a difference. I’ve had both cheap bags and expensive bags fail on me — check out my original blog post on Electronics Weekly for a rogue’s gallery of the most egregious offenders. Send me your photos and I’ll add them here to my Luggage Hall of Shame.
At this point I’d simply like to find a bag that holds up for more than a couple dozen trips. Design engineers out there, do you have any suggestions?