It’s a safe bet that many of you will soon find shiny new electronic gadgets under your Christmas trees this month.
It’s also a safe bet that not much thought has been given about what to do with the old ones. The average lifespan of a digital music player is just three years. Smart phones last four years, while tablets, laptops and game consoles last five years. Some will be hand-me-downs; some will get recycled; and some, sadly, will end up in landfills.
That is becoming problematic for a growing number of consumers. Many would like to extend the life of these products by repairing, rather than replacing them. Unfortunately, consumers often discover that it’s far cheaper to buy a new gadget than to fix it.
Worse yet, that’s exactly how OEMs want it. Many OEMs don’t want consumers to fix their devices themselves or take them to local repair shops. Instead, they would rather have consumers pay them to fix the devices, often at a cost that’s much more than what an independent shop would charge. Most OEMs don’t sell genuine replacement parts or offer repair documentation. And, some assemble their products with proprietary screws that cannot be unfastened with standard tools. (In their defense, OEMs argue that third-party repairs could be unsafe for consumers and technicians.)
Frustration behind such tactics is the impetus behind the “right-to-repair” movement, which advocates that consumers have a right to fix electronics and other items. In October, the European Union passed a law requiring certain devices to be designed so key components can be easily replaced with standard tools. Spare parts and repair information would have to be made available to professional repairers for a minimum number of years, and the products must be designed for recycling. Set to take effect in April 2021, the law will apply to lighting, televisions, displays, washing machines, dishwashers and fridges.
There is a growing call for similar laws in the U.S. To date, 17 states have introduced bills that would give independent shops the equal access to genuine parts, tools and repair information. None have passed, but in 2012, Massachusetts enacted an automotive right to repair law with similar language.
The issue has even emerged on the presidential campaign trail. Earlier this year, Democratic candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren issued an agriculture platform that included a national right-to-repair law. Warren’s proposal explicitly addresses tractors and other farm equipment, requiring OEMs to make diagnostic tools and equipment manuals available for consumers who would rather repair their own machines instead of needing an authorized agent.
The issue is about more than just cost or convenience. It’s also an environmental concern. For example, extending the life of washing machines by just five years would save the EU as much carbon emissions as taking half a million cars off the roads annually, a recent study found.
Engineers will need to keep an eye on such proposals and adjust their designs accordingly.