Durability vs. survivability

Originally published at Notes from the bunker…. You can comment here or there.

Whenever I buy, well, pretty much anything, one of the qualities I look for is durability. If I have to pay $25 for something that is available in a lesser quality at half the price, I expect that difference in price to reflect a pretty hefty increase in useful life of that product. Or, to rephrase it, if I’m going to pay $200 for a flashlight it better last me a good twenty years.

This quality is referred to as ‘durability’….how durable something is. What is durability? It’s how long something will last in it’s expected work capacity. I expect a flashlight to work for ‘x’ amount of time as long as it is used as a flashlight. Used as a hammer, it’s durable work life may be somewhat shortened.

I also like gear that can take the occasional flying drop kick to the jaw and come out smiling. Previously, I associated this quality with durability but as I read more I discover that the term for this is, actually, survivability. What is the difference between the two? And are they exclusive to each other? Can gear have high durability and low survivability? Vice versa?

Survivability is the ability of a system (the term was originally used to describe systems, not items) to survive damage, attacks or failures and still retain a required degree of performance ability. In other words, it has to take a licking and keep on ticking. The best example of survivability is sitting in front of you right this second – the internet. As you know, back when they started flinging electrons around on this thing, the internet (which went under the name of ARPANET, among others) was designed to provide a communications network that would still function even if chunks of it became radioactive debris. It was designed for survivability.

Much of your critical military weapon systems are designed around survivability. Look at some of the armored vehicles and aircraft that come limping home to their bases overseas…helicopters with no oil left in them, humvees running with holes in the block, etc, etc. These are systems that are built with the notion that ‘worst case scenarios’ can’t be allowed to stop you, only slow you down.

So survivability, as it pertains to things like gear and equipment, is the ability of that item to take an amount of abuse, damage, neglect, or wear that is ‘out of the box’ from what the gear was designed to do and still function acceptably. Is survivability directly related to durability? I don’t think so. Durability is about the anticipated wear and tear of a product used the way it was intended. Survivability is about that some product going ‘above and beyond’ and coming out okay. Let’s use tires as an example. You get, what?, 30k miles? 40k? But if you swerve off the pavement and start driving down a dirt road covered in gravel, debris and who knows what else you get significantly shorter life.  And, as Leo Getz reminds us in Lethal Weapon 3, “Bullets aren’t covered under normal road hazards”.  A bullet-resistant tire has great survivability, but you’re probably not going to get the 40k miles out of it. Survivability good, durability …not so much.

So, yes, there’s a difference between survivability and durability. A Venn diagram with one circle showing durability and the other showing survivability would show us that we want that yummy subset where the two overlap…survivability and durability…two great tastes that taste great together. Are such things achievable? Sure…just not always in the things we want at prices we can afford. Simple systems, things like packs and clothing, can be modified to increase survivability and durability (although these are excellent examples of products that embody both) whereas more complex systems…things like electronics, vehicles, etc,…are pretty difficult to make major gains to without being darn near a certified technician in that field.

My point is, when I shop for gear I was confusing survivability with durability and conflating the two…a way of thinking that diminishes the value of each of those qualities. Now that I’m aware of it I need to look at the acquisition of gear and other items from the two standpoints, rather than the previously-conflated one. It’s the difference between buying a radio and asking “How well will this stand up over time” versus “How well will this stand up to being bounced around in a vehicle, hauled over distances, fed fluctuating voltages, knocked off of its stand, and exposed to the elements”.

Interesting way to re-think the value of things.