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Right to Repair Electronics is Essential to Product Design

August 27, 2019 by Tyler Charboneau

The conversation around the right to repair has always been contemptuous, often pitting consumers against companies. Though international electronics brands are household names, they often lack meaningful brick-and-mortar presences in many countries.

As a result, consumers must seek third-party options or traverse great distances for repairs. On top of that, these repairs can be lengthy or cost-prohibitive. These grievances form the crux of consumer arguments supporting right to repair. 


The Engineering Component

Product design is the other half of the issue. Electrical engineering has become increasingly complex as our gadgets have evolved. Users expect more functionality from their devices, and multiple hardware components come together to deliver those experiences.

Engineers must determine how to best arrange these internals given chassis constraints. By the time a device finally comes together, things can become quite cramped. We’ve observed this exact conundrum with Apple’s MacBook Pro, which—while a beautifully-designed machine—can be a nightmare to service. High-density design makes inspection difficult, turning easy fixes into games of Operation! Additionally, some manufacturers have sold sealed devices in the past, making access all the more tricky.


laptop being repaired

A laptop being repaired. Image courtesy of Bigstock.


Not only that, soldering also prevents users (and manufacturers) from replacing failing components. They also stymie upgrade efforts. Maintenance and parts swap aid longevity.

When repairs aren’t possible, users ditch their problem devices for replacements. Ownership is cyclical, without question. However, some onus does fall on engineers to design user-friendly products. Repairability is central to that goal.


The Environmental Impact

We know that users replace irreparable devices out of necessity. Where do these devices end up? The answer depends on both companies and consumer mindsets. Many electronics manufacturers offer recycling programmes, allowing users to send in faulty devices and perhaps give them a second life. These products spilled into landfills in the past. Thankfully, we’ve become somewhat better at disposing of old electronics.

When users are unable to send in old products, the situation quickly becomes dicey at scale. Devices often contain hazardous materials that are detrimental to our ecosystem. Despite green efforts and legislative mandates, toxicity is still a fact of life when it comes to electronic components. Batteries are some of the worst offenders, though metals and plastics can be equally worrisome. According to the European Environmental Bureau, “only 35% of electronic waste is collected and treated properly”.

This dumping of forsaken devices is harmful in large doses. We have one planet and need to normalise greener practices.


Make the Parts Available, Already! 

The best way to promote right to repair is by distributing components and materials. Items such as repair kits, manuals, and replacement parts need to be in the hands of third-party shops, at a bare minimum. In the best case scenario, consumers with or without technical knowledge will have access to these same resources. That levels the playing field, dispelling the notion that repairability and company profit are inherently linked.


Ideally, replacement parts should be readily available. The electronics industry can take some cues from the automotive industry in this regard. Car manufacturers (though they’d prefer it)don’t require customers to visit dealerships for repairs. Parts are made available to third-party shops, even of the ‘mom-and-pop’ variety. Orders for replacement parts are fulfilled relatively quickly. Owners can choose mechanics based on comparisons and personal preferences. Heck, we even receive manuals with our vehicles that guide us beyond ‘how to use’—and show us ‘how to fix’.


For savvier individuals, parts shops sell OEM components to replace their ailing counterparts. The electronics industry can certainly adopt this mindset. It can be said that electronics are incredibly sensitive in places, which is true. However, users already violate their warranties when opening their gadgets. At some point, the hand-holding (or wrist-slapping) becomes excessive.


What Has the EU Done so Far?

While other countries balk at consumer protectionism, the EU introduced new legislation upholding the right to repair. However, these provisions only apply to certain items: lighting, displays, washing machines, dishwashers, and fridges. This law takes effect by 2021. It’s an important start, yet far from the ambitious that mandate owners have been seeking.

infographic of EU right to repair initiative

An infographic that reviews the EU’s right-to-repair initiative, via environmental non-profit organisations. Image courtesy of the European Environmental Bureau.


As you may have noticed in that said list of appliances, including lighting and dishwashers, personal devices are not included: the former are replaced much more frequently than appliances. Luckily, we now expect personal devices to last longer due to software and hardware advancements—an expectation that is met with exasperation when something goes awry in a repair-hostile climate.


Hope for the Near Future

It’s not out of bounds to expect similar legislation for personal electronic devices. The EU has received praise for consumer protection and environmental awareness in the past. Why don’t we take that one step further and break the repairability mould? Once the legislative domino falls, companies will set their sights on shoring up their engineering practices where applicable.


This is an excellent opportunity to innovate and think creatively. After all, our electronics are some of the most important items we own—and users deserve every chance to take matters into their own hands.

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