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Will Right to Repair Affect Your Design?

June 19, 2017
Is your product repairable or just disposable? The right to repair movement is pushing the former.

Remember when devices were repairable? Many still are, but an increasing number are not. The History Channel has a number of interesting shows—including “American Restoration,” “American Pickers,” and “Counting Cars”—that often wind up repairing or rebuilding devices. Most of the devices are older and designed to be maintained and repaired.

These days, my devices are designed never to be repaired. This is especially true for many Internet of Things (IoT) devices, like bridge pressure sensors designed to be installed when a bridge is constructed, or sensors designed to run in the field for more than 20 years. Very low power operating or power scavenging techniques allows electronic devices to run until they wear out.

Some devices are designed for various levels of repair. For example, cars are designed with many replaceable items, ranging from air filters to tires. Some present-day car components are designed to be replaced at a module level, like engine control units (ECU). And some devices are impractical to repair, like fixing a broken connection on the interior of a multilayer printed circuit board.

Even doing a teardown will effectively damage a device beyond repair because it was designed that way. Making devices hard or impossible to repair, or even replace, has been done purposely to maintain a monopoly. Take printer toner or ink cartridges as examples. Most have chips that work with matching support in a printer that was designed to prevent the use of third party cartridges.

Likewise, support for firmware updates to most devices, from routers to smartphones, are designed to be limited to those provided by the vendors. Replacing the firmware with a third-party alternative is sometimes done by hacking the system. Systems can be designed in a variety of ways, and it is possible to design systems specifically to prevent repairs or make it impractical without specialized hardware.

At least eight states have introduced or passed right-to-repair legislation, also known as the Fair Repair Act in some locations. The Repairs Association is one organization that is fostering this type of legislation. A number of large corporations are working in opposition to this, although some are changing their approach to accommodate or mitigate this movement.

The question of whether a designer or programmer can make a difference in these matters is usually moot, as the decision over whether devices will be limited in this fashion is usually made at a corporate level. How a policy is implemented, or what kinds of options are provided for the decision-making process, is another issue.

These days there are actually more options, at least from a hardware and software perspective. For example, partitioned systems—often using virtual machines, or even separate processors—can allow for controlled, third-party support. Mechanical design can be a bit more challenging. Using materials like epoxy can sometimes reduce manufacturing costs, but make repairs impossible.

So, how will this effort affect your designs? Are your systems already designed with repair in mind, or are they designed to prevent repairs? Do you think open-source designs will help?

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