Should You Be Able To Repair It? We Think So.

You own it, you need to be able to fix it. So much of the equipment sold today has been designed to be maintenance-free, unnecessarily too complicated to maintain, maintained only with specialized tools available only to authorized service agents, or without the availability of spare parts. This is a hot issue in an age when sustainability is a global concern, so lawmakers and regulators around the world are finally in sight after years of inaction, and it has become a buzzword. But what exactly is the right to repair and what do we want it to be?

Is it designed for repair?

Nestle Dolce Gusto machine
For some reason, coffee machines with pods are particularly resistant to repair. Andy 1982, CC BY 3.0

The first question to consider is this: does it matter if you have the right to repair something if it is designed specifically for lack of repair? Consider a typical home coffee machine for pods like Tassimo or similar: although physically a fairly simple device, it is designed to be particularly complex to disassemble and assemble. You just can’t get into it when something goes wrong.

Should the preservation of regulators require a design for easy repair? I think so. There are other forces working on home appliance designers; design-for-production considerations and concerns about appearance directly affect the company’s end result, while end-user repair experience is often at the bottom of the list, although the benefits at national level are obvious. That’s what the laws are for.

Are other laws abusing restrictions on repairs?

John Deere tractors are notorious for their fraudulent DMCAs
John Deere tractors are known for their cunning DMCA. Railway friend (CC BY-SA 4.0).

In many cases there is no right to repair. The Oxford Hackspace coffee machine may have been difficult to repair when it broke, but I had every right to do so.

Refer to the child / villain poster of many repair rights stories: John Deere. Since the machine itself is designed to work, it seems obvious that the farmer must be able to pull his tractor.

Here, Deere turned to the DMCA, part of the legislation of the 1990s, caused by panic in the music industry over piracy, which sought to ban circumvention of copy protection mechanisms. Similar to the methods used to castrate printer ink cartridges, Deere linked a software component that had to be connected and enabled by a Deere computer. As long as the farmer could repair his tractor, it would no longer work after unauthorized repairs. Only Deere or their agents could carry out the software part of the repair and bypassing it would be a violation of the DMCA. Should regulatory authorities have the power to prohibit the restriction of the amendment by linking the process to other legislation? I think so.

Does unnecessary complexity hinder repairability?

Everything is very good if there is something designed for repair and not burdened by legal obstacles, but there are other ways in which the manufacturer can prevent the repair of its products. When an otherwise simple product is made unnecessarily complex, this both increases the likelihood of damage and increases the cost of repair, in the interest of the manufacturer who wants to sell a new product, but not in those of the consumer. These parts of the Deere tractor again give an example in which an otherwise simple part carries a chip; where previously there was only a simple mechanical or hydraulic part, now there is unnecessary electronic equipment.

Anyone who has maintained motor vehicles manufactured in the 1980s along with those manufactured a decade ago will understand this; where the former simply has a light bulb and a switch for its lighting, the latter now performs exactly the same task with microcontrollers in both the switch and the lamp. Those who are willing to defend this practice by describing the merits of the CAN bus should consider the current shortage of chips and the reasons for this in the unnecessary proliferation of automotive microcontrollers. Should regulators ask questions about the unnecessary complexity of the product in order to prevent the repair? I think so.

Are small parts hidden in the modules?

Brushes for electric motors
Are these brushes available separately or as part of the motor only? Dvortygirl, CC BY-SA 3.0

Given a product that is simple enough to repair and easy enough to enter, we turn to the question of the availability of parts. This is a favorite trick of local appliance manufacturers to make their old products obsolete by removing spare parts from the market, and this practice has come under the spotlight with the EU’s approach to the issue.

They require, for example, parts for a washing machine to be available for sale for a decade after it is made, but it is worth thinking for a moment: what exactly is a part? Common sense dictates that any part that has the ability to fail must be available, but this is a definition that is open to interpretation.

Imagine for a minute an engine in which the brushes are damaged, you can expect to go to the parts store and buy a set of replaceable brushes. But an unscrupulous manufacturer can define the motor as a part, not as brushes, which means that a part of a few dollars becomes a part of many dollars. Other examples of small consumables that are included in much more expensive parts include bearings that cannot be replaced on their own, or seals. Should regulators have the power to require the replacement of interchangeable wear elements that are only installed in larger assemblies? I think so.

Is there enough information to fix it?

Finally, of course, many devices today are necessarily computerized. We may have complained about the unnecessary use of microcontrollers, for example in motor vehicles, but it is undeniable that there are many features in the modern car that are only possible through the use of a microcontroller. Since their diagnostic functions are an essential part of their repair, it is essential that they do not provide an opportunity to restrict repair by restricting access to information, software, protocols and error codes. American farmers need to resort to Easter European software piracy to gain access to their Deere tractor systems, and although car owners around the world may include an OBD-2 key, there is still a lot of information they can get that remains available proprietary. Should there be a requirement for regulators to make all documents, diagnostic protocols and software accessible to all? I think so.

This article is close to a manifesto in its presentation of the key points that we believe should be taken into account when evaluating a proposal for the right to repair, but we think it is important to clarify them. And fortunately we are not alone. Following the remarkable EU guidelines on the right to repair, The US Federal Trade Commission has announced its intention to more actively enforce repair laws already in place..

Inevitably, there will continue to be powerful industrial lobbies demanding that they be diluted against the will of the consumer, so the greater the number of people who have the opportunity to discuss them, the better. Have we thought about everything when researching the topic? Please let us know in the comments.