Right to repair (RTR): Good intentions, but risky as well

Article By : Bill Schweber

Mandating "right to repair" for electronic products seems like a good idea, but it's also worthwhile to review its limitations.

As an engineer, I like to fix things, or at least try to. This may be something as conceptually simple as replacing bad capacitors in the AC/DC power supply of a TV converter, or as delicate as making a tiny new axle for a toy using a Dremel motor tool as a mini-lathe. Sometimes, I even try to fix things that I really know can’t be fixed to get the experience of opening the product up, seeing how it was made, and testing new techniques.

That’s why I have been following the “right to repair” (RTR) movement, which is getting a lot of attention these days. Just Google it and you’ll see. There are legislative efforts underway as well as administrative regulations being put in place to ensure that products are repairable—at least to some extent—by their purchasers over some number of years. Most media coverage of RTR effort has been favorable. When manufacturers object—as car dealers have done vigorously—these are usually portrayed as self-serving objections; which is true to a large extent, of course.

So, what is RTR? There’s no single definition, as it depends on where the product is sold and who is buying it as well as other factors. In some cases, it means that manufacturers must provide public access, for a nominal fee, to relevant repair-related information. This may include part lists and assembly/disassembly information, or it may mean ensuring availability of spare parts for some number of years, or even provision of bill of materials (BOM) and schematics.

There’s a strong argument for RTR, no doubt. In the most obvious case, you’d like to have the option of bringing your car despite all of its high-tech electronics to an independent repair ship instead of a dealer because of price, comfort, location, or other factors. RTR advocates point to cases where farmers had to wait days for the dealer’s mechanic to come and repair their super-expensive farm equipment for several hundred thousand dollars while crops had to be planted or harvested, and here, every day counts.

This seems to make sense. But there’s also a legitimate argument as to how much should be repairable or even accessible to an outside third party. Should independent repair person be allowed to make changes to the software? Can they flash an operating algorithm into that tractor, which perhaps improves performance but also stresses components beyond their design limits? How do you “bound” the scope of the allowed repairs?

Even in the case of a $20 clock with bad electrolytic (bulk) capacitors which I fixed, it was still tricky, as I had to disassemble the AC-side safety enclosure to get to the low-voltage DC side. What if I didn’t put it back properly? Who would be responsible for any subsequent risks and possible shock?

To some extent, RTR butts up against the least replaceable unit (LRU) decision. In the case of a car, it might be a circuit board or module that is the LRU, while fixing that board itself requires sending it back to the vendor’s repair depot.

While I support RTR in principle, I also see so many practical issues. Who decides what is the suitable level of vendor support, what must be RTR-compliant with what resources, and to what extent? Would it be managed by bureaucrats or engineers? Would glued-together rather than screwed clamshell enclosures be banned? Would products need an RTR “certification tests” similar to those required for many regulatory mandates and standards for basic safety, EMI/RFI, and other performance aspects? As they say, the “devil is in the details” and the road to misery may be paved with good intentions.

Whatever perspires on RTR, what I’d really like to see is simpler access to replaceable parts and ease of actually doing the replacement. For example, I have a three-year-old handheld vacuum cleaner—Black & Decker Dustbuster HHVI320JR—powered by 12-V lithium batteries that won’t hold much charge anymore. Replacing the battery back should be an easy task, but it’s not, even though the power pack uses the common 18650 cells.

This basic Black & Decker Dustbuster handheld cordless vacuum retails for about $50; when the lithium-based batteries degrade after just a few years, the replacement situation almost forces you to toss the whole unit. Source: Google

The battery pack—once you get to it—has a conformal wrapping around the cells rather than a clamshell case. Furthermore, the batteries in the assembly are spot-welded with connecting tabs, which makes it even harder to connect them once I extricate the defunct ones, as explained in this short and helpful video “Repairable: Can You Replace the Batteries in a Black + Decker Lithium Dustbuster Vacuum Cleaner?” I could buy a replacement battery pack, but that costs almost as much as a new Dustbuster and many of these aftermarket packs use low-quality cells which don’t last long.

I’ll likely still make the effort to swap out the batteries when I have a chance, as engineering pride prevents me from tossing an otherwise lightly used $50 appliance because of degraded batteries. But it shouldn’t have to be such a challenge.

What’s been your perspective on right to repair? How about the challenges to basic repairability or replacement of obvious parts?

This article was originally published on Planet Analog.

Bill Schweber is an electronics engineer who has written three textbooks on electronic communications systems, as well as hundreds of technical articles, opinion columns, and product features. In past roles, he worked as a technical website manager for multiple EE Times sites and as both Executive Editor and Analog Editor at EDN. At Analog Devices, he was in marketing communications; as a result, he has been on both sides of the technical PR function, presenting company products, stories, and messages to the media and also as the recipient of these. Prior to the marcom role at Analog, Bill was Associate Editor of its respected technical journal, and also worked in its product marketing and applications engineering groups. Before those roles, he was at Instron Corp., doing hands-on analog- and power-circuit design and systems integration for materials-testing machine controls. He has a BSEE from Columbia University and an MSEE from the University of Massachusetts, is a Registered Professional Engineer, and holds an Advanced Class amateur radio license. He has also planned, written, and presented online courses on a variety of engineering topics, including MOSFET basics, ADC selection, and driving LEDs.


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