Business Unusual

We hope tech will fix most things, so what happens when we can't fix technology?

Reduce, reuse and recycle are a powerful call for us to slow the impact of consumerism, but it might be time for a fourth term - repair.

The issue with overconsumption and the reliance on disposable products is concerning. Not only is waste (including e-waste) increasing, the cost of replacement is rising while the time between new model releases is short and in some cases getting shorter.

It is not new, but we have so many electronic devices now that it is becoming a problem.

A short history

Prior to WW2 those who owned machines typically needed a good working knowledge of them. The original car owners may have hoped to simply jump in and drive, but when something did not work, they typically knew enough to determine what was wrong and fix it.

After WW2 the US's significant production capacity switched from building weapons to civilian projects. Vehicles and appliances were two product groups that increased significantly during the 1950s. Once the market started becoming saturated major suppliers looked at ways to sustain sales. By introducing small changes that would show the age of the appliance or car was one method, the other was designing the product to discourage repairs or to have a critical part with a limited lifespan cost more to replace than buying a new product.

This is most often seen with TVs where replacing a part of the screen is more expensive than the cost of a new TV.

A further way to reduce the possibility of repair is to make the product hard to open or for parts to be removed individually. Mobile phones favour this option, both to optimise space and weight but also to increase the chance of replacement.

Considering this is not hidden from consumers at the time of purchase you could argue that consumers could reject products that lock them into a service or replacement plan.

Car manufacturers rely on this. Discounting new car costs and upselling the service and warranty contracts makes for a more attractive deal. In truth, cars are now very reliable and need surprisingly little by way of regular services.

Should something go wrong though there is another technique to ensure car owners only use approved dealers. The vehicles have multiple sensors that manage and diagnose most of the car operations. Access to the program can only be done using approved software and even if physical parts could be replaced, the car system will regard the replacement as being inferior if not also logged with the software.

The upshot of the progression to remove consumers' ability to do anything with products not expressly allowed by manufacturers is that now most of us have no idea how the products we rely on every day even works, let alone what to do should it need a repair.

We have effectively ensured that products become disposable despite consistent calls for a more environmentally friendly approach to waste management.

Motherboard Vice created two short documentaries looking specifically at the implications for agriculture and mobile phones. It highlights both the justifications for manufacturers but also the downside of this philosophy.

Where will it end?

If we do nothing we will continue to add to the growing waste pile, but there are alternatives. As the products improve quality and longevity, a potential solution is to stop buying them, but renting them instead. It is possible with many products already. The move to autonomous vehicles may see manufacturers optimise the bookings to use their vehicles rather than their sales. Because they would maintain the fleets, they have a vested interest in improving it only when it offers an advantage and repair and upgrade minor parts for the rest of the time.

Consumers could splash out on a sports car experience without ever needing to own one while also being able to book basic, but highly dependable vehicles for most of their transport needs.

Likewise, phone manufacturers would make more of recycling handsets or design them in such as way that they can be upgraded. PCs use this model allowing for changes to individuals parts that have improved without having to get rid of the entire unit every time.

Some like Ifixit encourage repair and share manuals and how-to guide to repair many products. This works for many but they have a line that is worth noting. If you can't fix it, you don't own it.

Don’t expect this anytime soon though, because most business is based on a sales model. The cost to shift to a new model is both expensive and, unless enough do it, may see it turn out a failure in the short term.

If you can't fix it, you don't own it.

From IFixIt manifesto

This shift is not unique though either. When steam-driven manufacturing plants began switching to electricity they experienced losses as the electric machines were still new, while the steam-powered ones have been refined over time. Many saw the cost to switch as too high. But building new plants optimised for an electric plant layout soon saw significant cost savings (not have to keep steam engines running full time) and a surge in productivity as machines could be turned on and off as required.

Autonomous driving could be one trigger although still some way away. The other may be manufacturers like Apple and Samsung that create a range of products for use in your work and home offering packages that would allow you to get all their products and they would manage the pace of upgrades and look after any repairs. That would be a new model so it may be more likely that third party companies may choose to test it rather than the manufacturers themselves


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