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The ‘right to repair’

Electronics manufacturers and the consumers that buy their devices are both increasingly focused on extending product lifespan.

In March 2020, the European Commission announced plans to extend the eco-design directive, billed as the 'right to repair', to phones and tablets in a bid to increase the repairability of electrical devices.

This is likely to be just one of a growing wave of related legislative activities in the coming years that are designed to extend the lifetime of consumer products. In the US, many states across the country are already introducing legislation to make it easier for users to repair their own equipment and electronics.

The drive towards 'right to repair' is also being shaped by environmentally aware consumer trends. There is an active right to repair movement in the US but also in several other countries including the UK and Australia. It is part of a growing backlash against products that have a short life span, or don't have spare parts, as well as those that have been welded together or mechanically sealed in some way.

With environmental issues increasingly coming to the fore, there is a growing move away from the 'throw away' society of the past and towards a new culture where waste reduction and environmental consciousness take centre stage.

Increasingly, a growing number of consumers are looking to purchase products with a longer lifespan and repair them when needed, rather than simply throwing away the device and purchasing a replacement. All this has the potential to lead to further legislation of course, but there are also more general signs that it is changing manufacturers' mindsets around device repairability.

A shift in design focus

For existing products, manufactures will be looking to modify existing designs, in order to make them compliant. This may well lead to new patents for designs of parts that are not currently repairable. Moving forwards, for new products we could see a tendency for designs to be chosen for manufacture based on how easy they are to repair by a consumer.

Manufacturers are also more conscious of safety. Consumers are certainly not skilled electricians or necessarily have the right tools to carry out repairs. There are concerns about what could happen when repairs go wrong, and the potential for new legislation to be brought in. Some manufacturers are considering introducing longer warranty periods to control repairs for longer and provide longer-lasting products.

Moving away from seals and sealants

Recent design trends have often made electronics difficult to open without compromising the device's liquid protection mechanisms or structural integrity. This is due to rigid gaskets and seals, thick conformal coatings or glues.

Any device that is mechanically sealed or glued shut cannot currently be repaired by consumers, including for example smartphones. These sealed parts and/or products are designed to keep dust out and prevent liquid damage, but once compromised are irreparable.

As repairability becomes more important, these mechanical solutions become increasingly unfit for purpose.

If a product is dropped or broken, not only are the mechanical seals often rendered obsolete, but even if it is possible to repair a device with these features, it's unlikely to be cost effective and the device will likely end up as e-waste.

A common example of this is a dropped smartphone. The cost to repair a broken smartphone screen can be as much as 30% of the cost of the device for high end products, but for mid to low tier products the cost to repair can often outpace the cost replace.

All of this is in itself likely to lead to significant changes in the ways electronics products are designed. We may see welds or glued joints replaced with latches, gaskets or connectors redesigned for greater accessibility. We could also see manufacturers increasingly avoiding unnecessary LCD screens (on the latest modern fridges, for example), as they are difficult to make repairable.

Adding to the burden on manufacturers, we may even see additional safety mechanisms needing to be added to products to protect consumers when carrying out repairs.

Driven by the prevailing market environment and most notably the right to repair legislation, manufacturers will also be increasingly focused on extending the 'time to fail' and 'time to service' a product. The more likely a component is needed to be repaired, the greater the chance of accidental damage to surrounding components, leading to a perpetual risk of device failure.

Fortunately for manufacturers, there is an alternative solution out there.

Nano coatings can continue delivering liquid protection and do not degrade over time, so will last the whole product lifetime. That's key in this context. Typically, too, nano-coatings are not compromised by other types of damage and that means that even if a product does need to be reworked or repaired, the nano-coating will remain effective after the repairs have been completed.

The ability to repair components and whole devices, rather than having to throw them away, saves costs, reduces the need for landfill and enables regulations around waste to be more easily met. And all this brings significant benefits both to the manufacturer and the end customer.

Looking to the future

Over the coming years, the drive to repairability is likely to continue as new legislation comes on stream but there will also be more focus on safety. Manufacturers will want devices to last over 10 years to avoid the need for repair.

They may need to charge more or build in longer warranties. There will also be a need for the stored spare parts for repairs to be resistant to humidity, oxidation or plasticiser evaporation, for example, to avoid manufacturers facing expensive climate-controlled storage costs, which over a number of years could amount to being highly costly.

They may also need to take design into account. They will certainly need to add safety mechanisms in both to ensure compliance but also to protect devices during repair. Those mechanisms, like the original device, will also need protecting from moisture or dust damage and that will also have an impact on design.

Manufacturers will want to have the flexibility to be able to choose the safety mechanism most suited to their device and application and have that safety mechanism last ten years; be repairable; and be protected from dust and liquid too. Again, nano coating technology offers significant benefits in this context. Not only does it help protect the original device and any associated safety mechanism from the kinds of damage that make the need for repairs more likely, it also makes carrying out those repairs a viable option.

Nano coating technology eliminates the need for bulky mechanical seals - making devices easier to open and repair, and keeping circuit boards accessible and fully re-workable.

With this technology, manufacturers can stay competitive in a market that calls for increasing levels of sustainability - boosting product life length, reducing production costs and prioritising environmental concerns.

Author details: Simon Vogt is CCO, P2i

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Simon Vogt

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What you think about this article:

The big problems blocking repair are not waterproofing sealants or coatings but the manner in which manufacturers block access to the repair tools and replacement parts which are designed to allow for complete repair. Many products are not repairable by design or manufacturing techniques, but the bulk of repairable products (90%) are not repairable because the manufacturer will not sell their existing service materials to independents.

Posted by: Gay Gordon-Byrne, 02/11/2020

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