13-10-2021 | | By Robin Mitchell
Recently, Microsoft announced that it will be looking to make its hardware more easily repairable. What benefits does Right to Repair offer, what did Microsoft say regarding their own products, and why can right to repair be challenging for engineers?
The term “Right to Repair” refers to the right for individuals and tradesmen to access components and tools needed to repair products that are also available to the original manufacturer. Before the 21st century, most products (both electronic and mechanical) were constructed from discrete parts that could easily be sourced from various manufacturers making repair relatively easy.
However, the turn of the 21st century saw the rise of mass production on a scale never seen before fueled by mass consumerism. Furthermore, the speed at which technology advanced saw products become quickly outdated with newer versions.
These two saw manufacturers turn to design electronics with intentional design flaws that would effectively make the product unusable in a matter of years. To make matters worse, these same engineers would also design their products to be intentionally hard to repair and prevent anyone from using the repair tools available to the manufacturer. This was effectively forcing customers to get new versions of products once every few years.
Fast forward to 2021, and the world is very different; climate change and environmental issues are at the top of the agenda, widespread ecological damage is being done from industrial activities, and the idea of using older recycled technology is gaining traction. Activists worldwide have been pushing for a right to repair so that electronics, which would otherwise be destined for the landfill, can be given new life.
Overall, the “right to repair” enables customers to keep their devices in service for longer by giving them the means to repair their devices, reduce the amount of e-waste produced, and help improve the environment.
The right to repair has taken the world by storm. It is even being put into law in the UK where electrical devices (such as washing machines) need to repair documentation and services available from the original manufacturer.
In light of this, Microsoft has recently announced its intention to look into its own hardware and see if it can be designed with repairs in mind. This announcement is one of the first from a major company in the US. Considering Microsoft’s size could signal to the rest of the industry that products should no longer be designed to fail in a matter of years with construction techniques specifically aimed at preventing repair.
One company that is mainly known for its resistance to repair is Apple; they charge extortionate amounts to customers for repair jobs, try to replace entire motherboards when a single capacitor or IC goes faulty, and actively refuse to provide key parts repair companies.
Being specific, Microsoft acknowledged the importance of customers repairing their own products and is actively looking at how it can improve its own designs. Furthermore, the results of a current study undertaken by Microsoft will be used to find methods to expand repair options to customers. While Microsoft is primarily a software company, some of its products, such as the Surface, are notoriously difficult to repair.
Having the right to repair a TV from the 80s is not the same as having the right to repair a modern smartphone, and expecting engineers to make all devices repairable can be unreasonable. To understand why this is the case, one needs to look at how modern electronics are designed and constructed.
Products from the past would be built from large discrete components, which could easily be de-soldered and replaced. In some cases, integrated circuits would be socketed, allowing customers to simply pull out faulty chips and insert new functioning chips.
Modern electronics, however, involves surface mount components so small that they can’t even be adequately seen without a microscope. To make matters worse, modern integrated circuits can have in excess of 200 contacts directly beneath their package while measuring a few mm across. Such small sizes enable advanced portable electronics (smartphones etc.) but can make repair jobs extremely difficult.
As such, expecting repair capabilities on all modern electronics can be unreasonable. This does not mean that engineers can simply ignore repairability in their design, but customers should also appreciate the incredibly advanced technology may not be something that can be repaired.