Packing for a recent business trip brought to mind the troubles I’d had over the years with rolling luggage. It made me nostalgic for those American Tourister gorilla ads.
Though wheeled luggage has to be one of the greatest engineering innovations of all time, it’s a real pity that the telescoping handles are so frequently a dismal failure. On a trip to India, the cheaply cast zinc parts in the handle assembly on my husband’s High Sierra bag decided to give up the ghost quite literally thousands of miles away from home.
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 flight.
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 I once interviewed told me that broken handles account for 90 percent of warranty claims for wheeled luggage. He said claims went through the roof when the company outsourced some of the parts to China, now they source them here.
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, 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 sometimes, unfortunately, out of mind.
Designers apparently have traded-off a little extra effort (and cost) here in lieu of fancy hardware and ballistic-proof materials designed to survive for something like a million years. Which seems dumb, given that 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, in the photo above, showed no obvious 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. 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?
If you’ve had a similar run-in with a product that failed to live up to your expectations, we’d like to include it in our Made by Monkeys Blog at designnews.com/madebymonkeys. E-mail your examples, photos and accompanying theories on what went wrong to me at email@example.com.