Monday, October 26, 2020

The Right to Repair

Frustrated by planned obsolescence and products that can only be repaired, if at all, by the manufacturer, consumers and local repair shops are increasingly pressuring regulators and legislators for "right to repair" provisions. Many jurisdictions in the US and Europe already have laws requiring that manufacturers make parts, tools, and spec diagrams available to outsiders, but the struggle continues as manufacturers keep coming up with new systems that, intentionally or not, limit what outsiders can do. 

The "Right to Repair" movement brings several sorts of complaints together. One is manufacturers designing devices that require special tools or special computer codes to access, hoping thereby to monopolize the repair market. Another is a blanket refusal to sell replacement parts to outsiders. But the biggest is frustration with things not lasting as long as they used to, leading to a "throwaway culture" that wastes resources and encourages fads. The tech industry is of course especially bad here, with technological progress rapidly rendering old devices something only nerdy collectors would want; what can you do with a 20-year-old computer or phone? But there are also lots of complaints about household appliances and other objects.

I have devoted a fair amount of thought and even some research to the appliance problem, after going through three dishwashers in five years. First, the new appliances all have more complex circuit boards in them, or chips, which are partly there to manage energy-saving and water-saving features. (It was the circuit boards that kept failing in our dishwashers.) There is simply not the same amount of engineering know-how for making newly designed circuit boards reliable as there is for valves. Second, there is intense cost pressure, driven partly by offshoring or Korean competition and partly by American consumers' intense focus on price. (It has always bugged me that Americans complain about offshoring or imports but then buy the cheaper Chinese-made products, but that is in fact what we do.) 

And third, there is an information problem. In the US there used to be certain brands (Amana, Maytag) that had reputations for quality and reliability; their appliances cost more but people expected them to last a long time. Which are the good brands now? I don't know. And when I tried to find out, from Consumer Reports and others, I entered a contested minefield. Partly because all the manufacturers are buying parts made around the world and constantly re-arranging their supply chains, their products develop new faults every year, or fix old ones, with the result that their quality bounces around. So if you care about buying something that lasts you have to do your research every time, and even then you may find that half the models on the market are too new for anyone to have good quality data on them. Some people respond to this by buying something expensive, hoping that price = quality, but a friend of mine who bought a high-end dishwasher for her newly remodeled kitchen hated it and was actually happy when it died less than two years later and she could replace it.

So, yeah, I understand all these frustrations, which is why I followed up reading this New York Times article with a bit of research; here is the website of the Repair Association. I wonder, though, how much impact all of this can have in a world in which keeping devices going is mostly about insuring their various chips are talking properly to each other; how many local repair shops can do that?


Susi said...

1. Daughter bought a Very expensive refrigerator two years ago, after much research... the ice maker in the door has never worked, The repairman said he’d order a new door, because the ice maker is in the door. Never came in. They received a check for the price of the WHOLE refrigerator in the mail yesterday. Never got a bill for the repairs! At least the manufacturer was honest about their inability to repair!
2. When I bought a washer, online, the delivery men told me that they pick up almost new ones due to the buyers not understanding about the automatic water leveling. They take those directly to the dump. It costs more to return them to the warehouse and resell them.
3. When I bought a GE front-load washer it’s spindle, on which the washer basket rests and turns, disintegrated in gravel. The repairman said they were made of ‘Pot metal’ which disintegrates in soapy water. He was seeing most of the front loaders have this problem at 5 years. Cost of labor to repair $400, cost of part $400. New washer: $1000.
4. Mother bought a GE refrigerator that the repairman said had a freezer that was too big for it to keep ice frozen. Never worked. Her GE wall oven caught on fire due to faulty wiring as soon as it was used.
I should have sold my GE Stock then. Bad engineering? Bad management?

Shadow said...

Circuit boards are very reliable, mostly because there have no moving parts. Usually you burn in the boards in the factory for X hours, and if by the end of X hours they are still working then they are very likely to keep working for the life of the machine. Yeah, sometimes the fail, but to have three fail in the same machine?

Anonymous said...

I wonder, though, how much impact all of this can have in a world in which keeping devices going is mostly about insuring their various chips are talking properly to each other; how many local repair shops can do that?

I don't see how it matters - if the repair is possible, people should be able to do it themselves, or hire whoever they prefer to do it for them.

There are plenty of other things that require a certain degree of expertise to do correctly, but we don't allow people to artificially monopolize the market for those services. If you need surgery, no one can stop you from finding a different surgeon willing to perform the operation.

Imagine if surgical techniques could be restricted and doctors could be prevented from having access to life-saving information! Or if pharmaceutical companies got away with blanket refusals to sell life-saving drugs to independent doctors! Or if hospitals were allowed to knowingly perform shoddy work that would require patients to come back in for further treatment down the line! Imagine the outrage!

Imagine if we built homes the way we let manufacturers build appliances! Construction techniques kept secret, to prevent independent labor from being able to offer repair or renovation services! Requiring special proprietary tools or access codes to make work impossible! Blanket refusals to sell construction materials to outsiders! Houses intentionally designed not to last, in order to force you to pay the original builders to get them fixed! We'd be protesting in the streets!

This is nothing less than monopoly-by-duress, and it should be wildly illegal.

G. Verloren said...

Dangit, did it again. I'm getting careless. That's my post above.

John said...


In the dish washers I have recently owned, from two different manufacturers, the buttons interact directly with the circuit board, which sits right behind them. So while they may not move, they are touched by some element of the button, and for whatever reason that can very quickly stop working.