A few years ago my dad got really upset when his umbrella stopped opening and closing easily. He wasn’t annoyed because it stopped working. He was annoyed because he couldn’t fix it. He’s the type to work things out, but no matter how hard he (and his family) tried, he couldn’t figure it out. He had to throw away the whole umbrella even though the umbrella was otherwise in very good condition. Plus, it was a nuisance to throw away because it didn’t exactly fit in a trash can. Why couldn’t it be designed to be more repairable?
A week ago I ordered a bunch of smoke detectors to replace some faulty ones. The electrician informed me that the batteries of this new design cannot be replaced and that after ten years I will have to replace all the detectors. (1) Is this progress? Nowadays, even when a battery in a device can be replaced, you may have to ship the device to an authorized dealer and wait a week or two.
There’s been a lot of pushback about this lack of fixability over the past few years. The Federal Trade Commission held a repair restrictions workshop in 2019, then the pandemic hit, with supply chain and labor issues making access to repairs even more difficult. President Biden signed an executive order last July which highlighted the importance of people’s ability to repair their own equipment. Various “right to repair” bills have been proposed, focusing on Farmers Where cars. Last Friday, California State Senator Susan Eggman of Stockton introduced a bill (link TBD) strengthening the “right to repair” of electronic devices in California.
This type of bill enjoys broad bipartisan support according to a survey conducted by the bill’s sponsor CALPIRG.
Senator Eggman said, “The ability to repair things we own, with our own hands or those of a trusted independent repair shop, should not be a controversial or partisan issue. CALPIRG attorney Sander Kushen is passionate about it: “California is creating 1.1 million tonnes of electronic waste every year. Our investigation of Californians showed that people feel pressured to dispose of their devices as e-waste: 95% of Californians agree that manufacturers pressure us to buy new products instead of fixing old ones. »
It’s not just us commuters who are frustrated by our inability to fix things. Authorized repair shops are rare in rural areas. When farm equipment breaks down, especially during planting season or harvest season, the downtime has a direct impact on farmers’ income. If military vehicles cannot be repaired quickly, it can undermine the resilience of a fighting force. Phones and laptops can be essential for small businesses. Vermont State Senator Christopher Pearson, speaking at the 2019 workshop on repair restrictions, said that when his iPhone camera failed, “according to Apple, no one in Vermont could fix it. They wanted me to send it to them. But mailing it in for repair would be like shutting down your business for a week.
Repair advocates argue that manufacturers are stifling competition and raising prices by forcing customers to visit authorized repair centers and restricting access to genuine parts or service manuals. Electronic access or diagnostic codes may be proprietary, effectively preventing repair, or a product may require special tools to repair if constructed with glue instead of screws, or with built-in lithium batteries instead of cylindrical formats which are easier to replace. A repair can be so expensive that buying new is cheaper. I was told it would cost over $200 to replace the light bulb in my microwave, so I heat things up in the dark now. The executive director of The Repair Association, Gay Gordon-Byrne, testified that he bought a new $189 microwave to avoid paying $600 for a new circuit board. “I have now contributed to both the solid waste problem and the e-waste problem. Every consumer does this with every broken gadget. (2)
Image sources: Alan Levin
Products can be designed to facilitate common repairs. Apple recently took a step in this direction. Soon, their store will offer parts and tools to handle common repairs with the iPhone 12 and 13, such as the screen, battery, and camera. Additionally, customers who return their used part for recycling will receive a credit towards their purchase. This is great news.
But the industry is also retreating. In testimony to Congress on this topic in 2019, Microsoft explained that there are design trade-offs between repairability and other properties that consumers value, including weight, aesthetics, ruggedness, and battery life. For example, they say they use a “pocket type” lithium-ion battery that is more difficult to replace because it maximizes battery life: “We estimate that using a rigid battery design would result in a reduction in battery life of up to 1.4 hours for the average user – a reduction that would be unacceptable to most Microsoft customers who value long runtime. why they use adhesives instead of screws, even though it makes repairs more difficult.” Using adhesives to attach batteries or display panels increases the structural integrity of devices, improves resistance to damage, and improves the durability of the product…. The adhesives also meet consumer demand for a high quality, tactile and “solid” product feel by preventing internal components from rattling in the case. Microsoft is concerned about the privacy and security implications of making their systems more accessible, saying for example that hackers will be better able to hack gaming platforms. “Experience has proven that unfettered access to diagnostic tools and proprietary hardware increases the potential for malicious actors to circumvent anti-piracy controls.” Networked devices can also spread security issues to other products.
A proposed bill in California to guarantee the right to repair medical devices such as ventilators strong opposition due to concerns about the reliability of repaired equipment, the liability the hospital may incur, and the weakening of intellectual property rights. Massachusetts bill giving auto repair shops more access to data is in dispute, and in the meantime, Subaru and Kia have disabled certain features for vehicles sold there, saying it’s too risky to comply. “Right to repair” legislation is very attractive but not easy to draft when the technology and the risks are difficult to grasp.
Electronic devices are becoming more and more complex, and more and more products are becoming electronic devices. Cars, smoke detectors, laptops, and ovens can all be interconnected electronic devices. Who can perform what repairs on them, what training do they need, and who is responsible if something goes wrong? We want to make repairs more accessible without damaging device integrity or prohibitively increasing costs. Apple’s approach of starting with the most common repairs makes sense to me. Even if it costs Apple more, it can translate to more sales. Although customers rarely know how repairable a product is when they buy it, I expect word to spread pretty quickly when it’s easy to replace a broken screen or battery. Consumer-focused organizations like iFixit and Consumer Reports also attempt to share this information with consumers. (3) But in my mind, there are limits to the repairability of these products, especially by untrained third parties, and there are real risks. I don’t want hacked Teslas driving around the neighborhood.
CALPIRG attorney Kushen said, “We know Californians want to fix their business: 6.8 million unique users from California have gone to www.iFixit.com look up how to fix something in 2020. He adds that “when things are repairable and reconditionable, they retain value over time. It’s not crazy to think that we could see a secondary market for electronics where selling your used laptop is as common as selling your used car. Ultimately, repair is as good for our wallets as it is for the planet. »
One thing we can all do now is to consider buying refurbished products. In our house, we usually buy used phones. A few were lemons but they were easily swapped. The phones work great, look great, and are cheaper than buying new. The main downside I find is that it can be a pain to do the series of necessary software updates on factory reset phones. You can buy refurbished phones from vendors like Apple or Samsung, or through Amazon, or eBay, or various smaller third parties. I’d love to hear your experience with this if you have any.
Since many of you work in technology, I would also like to know your views on the need to balance the repairability of a device with safety, product integrity, liability or the risks of intellectual property.
Notes and References
1. Fortunately, it turns out that on the even newer model you can replace the batteries.
2. I once repaired an oven using a third-party circuit board. It worked for a while, but it didn’t work anymore, and I was out of serious labor cost.
My gardener called this winter heat wave a “delight”.
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