How the Right to Repair May Affect Consumers and Designers AlikeDecember 15, 2020 by Tyler Charboneau
In light of the recent right-to-repair legislation passed in France and Austria, how might this movement affect electronic designers?
Recently, we discussed the global right-to-repair movement in light of European legislation on repairability transparency and planned obsolescence. It would seem that many existing products don’t ideally meet the standards set forth by European legislative bodies. Accordingly, today’s electronic devices have grown ever-more complicated. Squeezing every ounce of performance out of a design is king—sometimes at the expense of repairability.
As part of our discussion on the movement, it's important to address how the right to repair may affect electronic designers and electrical engineers. Can legislation affect how a circuit looks—namely, to make it easier for consumers to repair certain parts? If planned obsolescence is on its way out the door, how might designers (especially in the consumer space) refocus on device longevity?
Reexamining "Replaceable" Parts
It’s true that legislators want to educate customers, yet the real goal is ushering in a new generation of reparable products. That doesn’t happen overnight. It requires developers to rethink the lifespan and performance of certain components. Anything that might be replaced is fair game, from batteries to screens and image sensors.
Beyond consumer electronic devices, the EU legislation aims to make appliance repair more accessible. Image used courtesy of Ansys
While screens and glass surfaces are prime replacement items due to accidents (drops or impacts) and defects, other items like lithium-ion batteries (which degrade with age), are more difficult to address.
Likewise, logic board alterations are finicky, especially when circuitry is stacked or packaged. There are certain things engineers won’t be able to change, like CPU or GPU modes of attachment. Furthermore, these components will outlast any other critical internals. Users won’t have to replace them.
What makes an item easy to repair? Numerous questions come into play:
- Can parts be removed?
- Can parts be removed with common tools or without specialized methods?
- How are parts secured within the device?
- Are potential wear items accessible within the device?
- How easy is it to obtain parts?
- What first-party and third-party repair services are available?
A sample methodology on assessing repairability. Image used courtesy of JRC Technical Reports
The line between what should and shouldn't be repaired is also debated between consumers and manufacturers. Users were initially up in arms over the nixing of replaceable smartphone batteries. The sealed nature of new designs, manufacturers argued, benefitted safety and reduced maintenance requirements.
For batteries and beyond, there’s an ongoing argument over replacement quality. The issue for manufacturers is that unaffiliated shops, deprived of genuine replacement parts, may perform repairs with subpar components. Accordingly, brands have favored official repairs.
Pushing for Better Scores
One of the key results of the European Parliament's recent votes is now, manufacturers now have a clear metric to chase. A labeled score out of 10 will ultimately let designers know how they’re doing in facilitating repairability.
Issued by the French government (and others to come), this scoring system aims to promote accountability in electronics design. While companies might not strive to achieve perfect ratings—coming at the cost of some innovation—striking a balance between technological prowess and consumer needs will be critical.
Come January, electronic devices in France will receive a score out of 10 for repairability. Image used courtesy of Right to Repair
Device makers can boost device repairability by nailing the smaller things. Replacing hex or star screws with accessible alternatives (Phillips or otherwise) is a great start. That alone makes it easier to crack devices open without specialized kits. Replacing strong adhesives with other connectors will make components more accessible. Simplifying internal layouts, within reason, is also beneficial.
Ease of disassembly will be key. There’s power in claiming that one’s brand is user-friendlier than another. The repairability movement, especially in terms of score-ability, won't be perfect, but legislatures expect periodic review and standards changes in the future.
For instance, in the future, France and its neighbors may display a durability score alongside repairability scores—letting customers know how “robust” a device may be.
Future Repairability and Responsibility
With Europe leading the charge, it appears that the global right-to-repair movement is gaining steam.
Consumer satisfaction, environmentalism, and economic equality have played key roles. Lawmakers must sell companies on the competitive advantages of being consumer-friendly or meet continued resistance. Engineers may experience new project instructions as they relate to design transparency should more legislation push repairability transparency.
What's your take on the right-to-repair conversation? Do you think it would affect your job in any significant way? Share your thoughts in the comments below.