What Tech Manufacturers Have Wrong: How to Design Electronics For Repair

Here's how tech manufacturers can make electronics we can actually repair, because people are clumsy and concrete is unforgiving.

If you’ve ever heard of iFixit, you probably know that we’re always calling for more repairable electronics. Repair is good for the planet—fixing something old instead of buying new means less toxic mining and manufacturing and less e-waste piling up in landfills and contaminating our soil and water. It’s also usually cheaper to fix something than buy a new one. But ultimately, electronics need to be repairable because eventually they all break. People are clumsy and concrete is unforgiving. 54 percent of young adult smartphone users have damaged their phones.

That is why we are unsettled by the latest wave of unfixable electronics. It’s a crisis with global consequences. And it will be solved not in the halls of government, but in the cramped offices of young designers.
The next generation of designers can’t just strive to kick off the latest consumer trend. They have to understand the need for conscientious and sustainable design. So we recently partnered with Core77 and Autodesk to hold a design for repair contest. More than 200 students submitted ideas for more modular, repairable household items. We selected two first-place winners: Marshall Jamshidi’s repairable microwave with all components accessible via a slide-out drawer, and Gabriel Nicasio, Praneeth Pulusani and John Zakrzewski’s Easy Access Computer Monitor with a hinged front.

75 percent of consumer electronics end up in landfills or incinerators. No one doubts that gadgets of the future will be smaller and sleeker. But if they’re not also more repairable, the air and water of tomorrow will be a lot more toxic. So, what does it mean to design electronics for repair?
1. Cases must be openable. Parts should be sealed with screws and latches rather than sticky industrial adhesives. Screws should be standard, not proprietary. The most repairable devices make opening obvious and easy: for example, thumb-depressions in the bottom cover tell you immediately how to get inside the Mac Mini, no manual required. Similarly, the hinged lid of the Easy Access Computer Monitor makes changing a dead backlight a snap.
2. Parts that are most likely to break should be the easiest to access. The easy-to-break screen is the first part that comes off in the new iPhone, which is the biggest reason we gave it a much higher repairability score than its predecessor.
3. Internal components, such as hard drives and RAM, should be standard and independently replaceable, so that replacements are readily available and inexpensive.
4. Repair instructions should be free and publicly available. When only manufacturer-authorized service representatives can get reliable repair instructions, it drives up the cost of repair and makes it difficult for independent repair shops to survive. Lots of companies already put all their repair information online, including Dell. But others, like Toshiba, are fighting to keep their repair manuals out of consumers’ hands. If you’re a product designer and want help making good service documentation, let us know—we can help.
But most of you reading this are probably not designing electronics. So for the rest of us, it is vitally important to vote with our wallets. That’s why iFixit is committed to giving people the tools they need to make smart buying decisions. We give repairability ratings to all the new electronics we tear open, to make it easy for you to support companies that make service documentation available. Your purchases do make a difference. Choose repairable electronics.
Image 1 via Macs Moser/Shutterstock; image 2 via Marshall Jamshidi\n
via Michael Belanger / Flickr

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