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Make devices last longer with repairable design

We have seen in recent months in coverage of plastic pollution in the ocean how bad the problem of disposing of these materials has become.

Governments are now stepping in prevent the use of plastic in products that are intended to be used just once. But electronics has its own form of the single-use problem and, as piles of e-waste build up, may also come to greater attention.

Mobile phones are rarely disposed of after just a single call but they do not typically have a long service life. The device the user no longer wants might have batteries inside that fail to keep a charge after intensive use. The screen or USB port may be broken. Or the device might simply not be as fast at running software as the latest model.

The end result is often the same: they are disposed of and wind up in a recycling centre that is largely unable to recycle much more than the case. The electronics inside are extremely difficult to break down and reprocess safely so they stand a good chance of winding up, eventually, in landfill.

An unfortunate trend in recent years has been to restrict the ability of third parties and users to repair or upgrade their electronic products. This makes it far more likely that devices will be consigned to the scrapheap instead of being reduced.

Sometimes these design decisions are based on an attempt to improve usability. For example, by using custom battery packs that can be formed around the circuit boards inside a portable device, it is possible to provide greater energy capacity compared to using standard form-factor batteries. But those battery packs are much harder to replace. Consumers generally have to have phones serviced by a specialist whereas with older designs they could simply order a replacement and in a few minutes after switching packs have a phone that is as good as new. The cost of the service will tend to make consumers favour simply upgrading to a new phone even if they do not really need or want the new features.

Similarly, in order to adopt novel designs, device makers opted for screen mounts that were much harder to replace. But users have to contend with displays that crack and scratch. Toughened glasses help but a little bit of harsh treatment soon makes it hard to read what is on the LCD. By making the display hard to replace or upgrade, manufacturers force the user to throw their old device away and buy a completely new model.

Some manufacturers have reacted to the criticism and made screens and batteries more readily serviceable. Failures at the circuit-board level will lead to the device being rendered more or less useless if just one small I/O component suffers from a dry joint or simply latches up and fails. The industry can do a lot more to avoid phones and other electronic products from being thrown away in the first place. That is to incorporate design techniques that favour repairs and upgrades.

In 2012, iFixit, Core77 and Autodesk ran a competition to try to find ideas for systems that were much easier to repair. A computer monitor and a microwave that could both be repaired and its external appearance changed to fit changing tastes won the top prizes. But also in the shortlist was a mobile phone that unfolded to reveal a variety of internal modules that could easily be swapped out.

Four years later, the PuzzlePhone appeared with a novel design that may represent how consumer products will come to be designed for a more sustainable future, although the industry is a long way from fully embracing these ideas. The crowdfunding campaign for the phone ultimately failed, raising only half of the capital the founders needed to start production. As its name suggested, electronic modules were designed to slide into the PuzzlePhone’s chassis, similar to the much larger Mac Pro designs produced by Apple in the mid-2000s. Guide rails ensured the modules would clip into high-speed connectors.

The rise of wireless communications may make modular designs much more practical. This was the approach taken by Google’s Project Ara. Although the modules would use regular connectors for power and to hold the pieces inside the chassis, the electronics inside would communicate using high-speed, short-range wireless. This would overcome many of the forwards compatibility problems that plague modular electronics because of changes in connectors. Let’s face it, even near-ubiquitous USB is not immune to those changes.

The problem today is that, aside from the traditional desktop PC, upgradeable electronics devices remain pretty rare. However, there are things that manufacturers can do to make the job of repair and upgrade easier. Designs such as the old Mac Pro show that it is possible to build machines that can have storage, power supplies, fans and processors replaced in just a few minutes.

But there are smaller changes that make a difference.

For example, iFixit recommends the use of standard screws for mounting circuit boards into enclosures rather than tamperproof custom designs. Where possible, use standard memory modules and storage devices.

As technologies such as system-in-package improve, we may see a return to socketed processors so that performance upgrades can be fitted easily. But where it is possible to perform upgrades and repairs, make sure those items are readily accessible so that the user does not have to unhook fans, power supplies and an assortment of cables simply to change a SIMM.

With such conceptually simple changes, manufacturers can do a lot to reverse the trend of single-use electronics and make the industry overall better at delivering on promises of sustainability.

Author details: Mark Patrick is a Technical Marketing Manager, EMEA, with Mouser

Mark Patrick

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