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Repair is as important as innovation (economist.com)
598 points by sinak on Oct 18, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 217 comments

Intellectual property protection is a major inhibitor of repair. When only one organization can legally produce replacement parts, repair becomes relegated to outlaws. Companies default to closed source, guaranteeing that at some point what they produce will all end up in a landfill unless it can be recycled. It’s an obscure position but I believe that intellectual property protection increases material waste and accelerates the destruction of the natural world. It’s an issue that sadly few people think much about, and one that I believe is invisibly harming the earth.

Recently I met Neil Gershenfeld from MIT, who advocates for research and development in to universal machinery that can assemble itself, perform its duties, and then disassemble itself back in to parts when complete. [1] As he says, “there is no trash with LEGO, and there is no trash in a forest.” It’s a far off idea it seems, but intriguing nonetheless.

In the near term, we as consumers can help avoid this waste by refusing to buy proprietary materials that will eventually become landfill waste. Don’t buy cheap Halloween decorations at the dollar store that will fill up the dump. Don’t buy cheap Christmas presents for the short term amusement they provide. We can point fingers at manufacturers for producing goods they know will become trash, but we are just as complicit for buying those things from them. Support producers who believe in repair and you will be doing the earth and all its future inhabitants a favor.

[1] https://youtu.be/3pkqm-mzXDU

IP is but one inhibitor of repair. I'm far from convinced it's the main, or even a major one.

It's more a concerted effort to make repair expensive, unexpected, unfashionable and gratuitously difficult across as many industries as possible.

30 or 40 years ago nearly all simple products were repairable, easily and cheaply. You went to any major retailer and they'd have a spares section along with aisles of new product. All of them. You could buy a new element for your toaster, kettle, heater or coffee machine. They'd keep seals and limescale filters and so on. Some of these were standard enough that they'd fit a wide range of manufacturer's products. They'd still be there years after the particular model was discontinued. There'd be a few third party offerings that were rarely as long lasting but perhaps £1 or £2 instead of £3 or £4.

Now? Nowhere sells spares, nor are they an expected part of most products. A kettle manufacturer might condescend to carry a few consumables like a limescale filter for a year or two. Then charge you around £10 with £2 p&p for a simple piece of plastic. Want a replacement element? That's basically never a spare part any more, though they don't last any longer. A fridge manufacturer might charge £18 with £4.95 p&p for a thermistor and a little heat shrink tube, but no longer have the one of the three that fails most often available at all. For a few year old refrigerator. (recent actual examples)

For larger products manufacturers are combining parts and modules into indivisible units that might ease manufacture a microscopic amount, but absolutely make many simple repairs no longer possible. So what was recently a £20 simple repair to your fridge or cooker is now a £200 major component and more labour than it's probably worth.

> Support producers who believe in repair

I've spent years, decades, trying to. There are effectively none left. Even the most expensive brands are aiming to have you throw it away and buy another as soon as they can get away with. Which leaves who?

> So what was recently a £20 simple repair to your fridge or cooker is now a £200 major component and more labour than it's probably worth.

I think this is a large part of the problem. Our goods have become so cheap to produce that they're cheaper to buy new than to repair. For example, I'm rebuilding a small motorcycle engine for a Honda. I can rebuild the engine, paying the machine-work labor cost and a small amount of parts, and it's actually just a bit more expensive than to buy a brand-new Chinese clone that's been in production for over a decade.

Labour costs for repairs have gone up, while consumer goods have gotten cheaper. In a lot of cases it's simply more cost-effective to replace than to rebuild. No mechanic rebuilds water pumps in the shop anymore than a home appliance tech would fix a coffee maker.

DIY is largely the one holdout for repairs, and it's unreasonable to think that every person can have the aptitude to fix any device that may break in their lives.

>DIY is largely the one holdout for repairs, and it's unreasonable to think that every person can have the aptitude to fix any device that may break in their lives.

It's not unreasonable at all. Every time you swap out the filter on your coffee machine, you are effectively DIY repairing it. The same idea applies to longer life components. If they are designed to be easily swapped out, the repair requires no skill at all. Now, we simply swap out the entire product.

The problem is ultimately economic and behavioral,though. People simply can't allocate the necessary attentional resources to prefer repairable products below a certain price point. Meaning, you probably consider repairability when making a large purchase like a car by looking at cost of ownership. But it's simply impractical to be as thorough when making purchase decisions for relatively cheap items like a coffee maker or even a fridge. Good luck finding cost of ownership info for those products. So unless cost of ownership starts factoring into people's decisions at the time of purchase, and/or externalities like waste disposal are priced in at that time, repairable goods just aren't going to be competitive.

> In a lot of cases it's simply more cost-effective to replace than to rebuild.

I think a lot of this is because we can choose to not factor in a lot of additional costs that will show up in other forms. E.g., unsustainable disposal leadss to environmental problems and hazardous living conditions, while the cheap chinese labour only works with far weaker labor protections than we have here.

If we can apply the same ingenuity to the end of life stage as to the creation stage, it actually makes sense to not bother attempting to fix - why expend costly human effort on individual patches when innumerable hours have been spent refining industrial processes to bring the cost of a replacement down? Just buy the replacement. Though of course even with the cleanest lifecycle there's still the power requirement and associated carbon, but perhaps even that can be taken care of via mitigation.

I should say instinctively this still seems kind of wrong and wasteful to me, but then on the other hand when so much time has been invested in processes it kind of makes sense to take advantage of that efficiency. I should also say that this still leaves manufacturers with no excuse for taking the decision to deliberately stop making consumables, which is the kind of thing I would like to see legislation against.

I don't see what one has to do with the other. Even with the most efficient production process, you will end up with landfills of toxic waste if your strategy to make your devices throwaway-only.

Also note that a lot of "ingenuity" is production is just shipping parts across the world from wherever human labor is cheapest.

> If we can apply the same ingenuity to the end of life stage

Did you miss above? I'm saying that IF devices can be recycled effectively at end of life, it may be more effective in economic terms to do away with the idea of making the thing repairable (beyond consumables) in life.

> Also note that a lot of "ingenuity" is production is just shipping parts across the world from wherever human labor is cheapest.

I think that's a little too cynical - take the car industry as an example - are you really going to argue that outsourcing to reduce labour costs has played a more significant role than technology and quality shifts? If so perhaps you should warn Germany, who still seem to be cranking out millions of cars every year, paying German wages, and turning a profit..

Exactly, the cost difference has been transferred to China

Raw materials are too cheap — the externality of their dissipation has not even begun to be appreciated.

Consumer goods are cheap also because the cost of their disposal (or recycling) is subsidised by society.

I wonder how much a carbon tax would change the economics here.

Thing is it's still a £20 component being used often enough (or at electronic supplier rates possibly a 50p component), it's just been riveted or soldered to a few other things to ensure it can't be bought without £180 of pointless other things. Even with higher labour that should make a £50 (£20 + £30 labour) repair of your £500 appliance feasible. It gets pointless when it's approaching a sealed unit with a £300 repair of a £500 appliance (£200 combined unit + £100 labour).

Turns out the free market often doesn't work because screwing you is so profitable that nobody is interested in a reasonable market.

Require durable goods like fridges to be warrantied for 10 years at no cost to the owner. Develop standards that promote cost effective repairs and make following them a condition of selling your goods in the US/Europe.

People that don't like this can go peddle their junk in whatever markets will have them.

People can already freely choose to buy goods with comparatively longer, clearer, better-honored warranties, which would put upward pressure towards your 10 year goal. Unfortunately, providing that protection is expensive for manufacturers, who understandably pass it on to buyers. It appears that buyers prioritize lower upfront cost rather than better warranties, a trade-off that ought to be theirs to make.

> It appears that buyers prioritize lower upfront cost rather than better warranties, a trade-off that ought to be theirs to make.

Not just an individual choice but a social choice too, therefore the State has a role to play.

In trading lower upfront cost for shorter life, consumers produce externalities such as pollution and raw materials depletion. The State must reinternalize those externalities and the mechanism to do that is either regulatory (mandatory 10 year warranty) or fiscal (recycling tax).

The term "social choice" is unnecessarily confusing, and should be deprecated. I don't believe you're referring to a population as a whole making a choice, but rather a population having to endure a consequence of an individual choice. Thus the individual is potentially committing a tort. I have been accumulating unrepaired gizmos in my hoard. When is a tortious act committed? Only when I concede that I will never repair an item? What if I combined parts into a combination? I can't escape the thought that even choosing to possess an unrepairable item will be regarded as a Wrongful Act.

I don't want a warranty. I want a quality product that won't fail for some predictable use life rather than a piece of junk that I can get a "free" replacement for. Of course it's only free if I don't value my time or the lack of use of the product for the duration of the warranty process. Inevitably the manufacturer erects bureaucratic barriers to minimize the real cost of the warranty on their crap.

The only time a warranty is worth anything to me is when it's so costly to the manufacturer to honor it that they have a compelling incentive to make a quality product that won't break. Warranties in this class are usually for a good long period, 10 years or more.

There are people who would sell their kidney to buy new iPhone. That's a little extreme, but generally people can't decide what's really better for them, they don't see a whole picture. If you drive a car, you must have insurance for your liability in case you damaged someone's car. A lot of people would choose not to buy that insurance if there wasn't law about it.

The standards would also put pressure on the consumer. It worked in the EU with Vacuum cleaners. People preferred to buy the vacuums with more wattage because they tought they would be stronger. But that just punished manufacturers that developped energy efficient motors. So some regulation was appropriate.

This already happens with many things. Cheaper, non-EU-standard compliant electric goods are sold in Africa.

Cheaper, sulfur-ladden diesel fuel is sold there too.

> Require durable goods like fridges to be warrantied for 10 years at no cost to the owner.

Already a requirement in Australia, thanks to our Consumer Rights laws.

Unfortunately, its had no appreciable effect on being cheaper to replace than repair on most consumer items. The manufacturer just becomes the one doing the replacing.

I think that you left out from your otherwise awesome summary products such as the new Mac book pro, or the new Mac book pro with “improved keyboard and perfect dust resistance”. From my narrow point of view I will try to repair my 2015 MacBook Pro as much as possible when it will start breaking down. I would never, ever, buy an apple laptop now, after about 10 years in which I was a very happy and vocal apple user. Honestly I have no idea how or why, but they managed to destroy their top product quality in a handful of years. Apparently they don’t even care anymore to restore it for the angry users given the ever growing list of the disgruntled owners of the new MacBook Pro that was supposed to fix every keyboard problem.

If you can get away with a desktop, the DIY scene is still good and strong. I have a PC that I'm pretty sure is coming on 7 years old. I've had to replace the motherboard but otherwise it's still a very quick machine (i7 3770k).

I could give it another 4 years of life easily by putting a faster SSD in. Since I built that computer I have had bought and sold 4 or 5 laptops for a comparison.

For a number of years I have used 350USD phones instead of upgrading every 2 years to the flagship. Life is good!

If you buy a 10 year old Toyota you can run that thing for decades and there'll always be parts!

I've had an i7 3770 for a while, it's still very snappy. I've had an SSD in it for a while though, definitely recommend one of those.

I do have an SSD, but it's an old one. The new ones are so much faster. I used passmark to compare my new Ryzen 5 work rig to the i7 and the only spec that it seriously lags behind is in the disk.

It's amazing how much longevity it has!

Even my i5 3570k is running fine all these years.

I still earn money on i5 2400 as my primary machine. Over the past couple years I only upgraded RAM, GPU and put in an SSD (that last one made all the difference).

PCs are becoming smaller even; you can make one the size of a PS4 now.

Yep! I'm building an i7 machine for my brother in law this weekend using the in win chopin case: https://www.inwin-style.com/en/gaming-chassis/Chopin

It's smaller than an xbox. The only major limting factor is the TDP on the CPU, because it can only house a small cooler (so went for a 65w instead of 95w TDP).

And, it's modular, so if a bit dies we can replace it. If he wants to get a GPU 2 years from now we don't have to trash the whole build.

Very nice, was thinking about the Next Unit of Computing before I saw this.

I’ll probably opt for software rendering for everything though.

The link you posted says that there are no internal expansion slots. So when you want to add that GPU were you thinking something like an eGPU or new case?

Just trying to assess this vs something like a NUC Hades Canyon.

Always bought Big Tower, bought another big tower last year. It's good to have Big PC. So silent and cool. It's not like I don't have a place to put it or I'm moving it every Friday. Some things should stay big.

Big pc towers are awesome, but bad for the common traveler like myself. I move every year depending on the contract, and I try to keep the luggage to a minimum.

I figured the MBP stupid choices about repair and upgrade were well enough known and discussed on here to not need yet another airing. :)

I'm also hanging onto a 2015 after a horrible experience with a 2016. When it eventually dies I think the only viable option will be a Thinkpad, though I'd prefer to stay on MacOS.

Another limitation on repair and maintenance is that some manufactures deliberately make their products hard to repair and maintain because they want you to keep upgrading to newer versions.

Some mobile phones do this by making the batteries non removable so once the battery life deteriorates people will buy a new phone rather than a cheaper replacement battery.

Some laptops solder the ram onto motherboard so you cannot upgrade.

Other companies use things like non standard screws to make it hard for people to replace parts themselves.

In my engineering classes at university this was referred to as planned obsolescence.

There's a few aspects to this.

1. as you said, these things are planned obsolescence, done when a company's business model requires constant new purchases for growth and continued existence. If you make a product that lasts for 50 years without ever needing repair, then you go out of business as soon as everyone has bought one, and there's no need to make very many of the new things.

2. Suppose you go a notch down and you make a product that needs repairs. Human labour, especially in the presence of unions, is extremely expensive, and individual repairs can only be potentially profitable to the repair shops. If it's first party repairs, warranty repairs very quickly eat into whatever original profits you had. My partner once worked at a shop that did air conditioning repairs (like Harry Tuttle in Brazil), They would absolutely refuse to install Samsung air conditioners, since they would always require warranty repairs, and each time you do one of those, you lose money.

3. You get your manufacturing and supply chain so efficient, with economies of scale, and offshoring, you can get the cost of making a new thing way way below the cost of even one repair. One replacement part. The inefficient amount of time spent on diagnostics and maintenance work. Viewed in this light, soldering the ram onto the mother board isn't as much about planned obsolescence as it is about getting the cost of manufacture just a bit cheaper. Your BOM is down now, because you're not paying for the ram connector pieces.

And so, even this is oversimplifying things, but still I believe it's more complicated than evil apple planning obsolescence. And it's more complicated than consumers creating a market that is biased against repairability. It's about the economies of scale enabled by increased industrialisation.

When microchips first came out, computer maintenance people, who were used to working with discrete components, either transistors or vacuum tubes asked "If the circuits are microscopic, how do we repair it?", not quite grasping that repairing a microchip would be a waste of time when you can just replace it with a new one.

In fact go back a little further, and darning socks used to be considered an essential survival skill.

Can you imagine socks being expensive enough that sewing the holes in them, rather than buying new ones, was worth your time?

Human labour, especially in the presence of liveable wages, is extremely expensive…


It depends on the location though. In the well-off Western countries, the repairman earn much more than the people who assembled the product in the first place (mostly in Asia). Meanwhile, here in Poland for example, there's a lot more repair going on, since the wage discrepancy is not as high.

I have a pair of Fisher & Paykel dish drawers that I've kept alive since 2004. For a while I was replacing one part or another every year or two. They slowly improved the replacements and now, finally, they're trouble free, except the water inlet valve which needs to be replaced (and is available) every 3-4 years. (BTW, these things are a bit finicky and use a little more plastic than I'd like in places, but the engineering is really beautiful, and at least once they worked out the kinks, they're pretty reliable.)

Our Kenmore Trio fridge, also from 2004, I've kept alive. I had to replace the freezer fan and the air diverter motor each once. The water valve needs to be replaced every 3-4 years.

We have a GE washer & dryer from 2003 or so. Those too I've managed to keep alive. The washer needs a new timer, for now we just use the permanent press cycle all the time because my wife is patient, a replacement timer is ridiculously overpriced, and I haven't tried to repair the existing timer. :-( The dryer needed a new drive belt at some point, and I've jury-rigged a bearing for it as well.

Last year I had to replace the microswitches in our GE microwave. Fortunately, they've used pretty much exactly the same switches for decades and still do so these are easily available.

Our 2004 Wayne Dalton garage door openers were damaged by lighting a couple years ago. Was able to find the parts I needed to repair them on eBay.

So, I don't know, around my house I've had pretty good luck sourcing parts.

I notice a lot of neighbors don't even bother thinking to call a repair man and just replace appliances when they fail. I wonder how many of these things are actually repairable, but it isn't cost-effective if you can't do it yourself.

I would love to perform DIY maintenance, but it seems more like a luxury activity.

From an economic perspective, the amount of effort spent in researching, diagnosing, ordering and fixing any one device far exceeds the effort being good at one's core job and trading dollars for someone else's experience.

I really does depend where you live and how much you make relative to what the repair costs. In UK if I wanted to call an engineer to look at my fridge, it would cost at the very least £100 just for labour, without taking any parts into account. Considering that my huge larder fridge cost a whooping £180 brand new with free delivery, I'd just buy a new one. The company selling it even has to recycle the old one for free, as per EU regulations. It's just not worth repairing at all.

However, considering where I am originally from(Poland), repairman labour won't cost more than 50PLN/hour(£10), so actually, fixing a "cheap" £180/900PLN fridge is completely worth it. It's even more worth it to actually repair it yourself, as the average hourly wage in Poland is about 10-15PLN(£2-3), so even though having it repaired is "cheap" by western standards, doing it yourself still saves you money.

> as the average hourly wage in Poland is about 10-15PLN(£2-3)

This is closer to minimum wage now. The average (post-tax) is more likely to be around 20 PLN.

My day job, typing code into a computer, is beyond the understanding of everyone in my family. There’s nothing I can show them really when they ask me what it is I do.

But fixing the microwave? That they can see and understand. It gives me great enjoyment building and repairing physical things. So call it my hobby.

How do you decide when to pay someone and what to do yourself?

I could also change the oil in my car and rotate the tires myself, but I decided long ago I was tired of dealing with that mess/hassle, so that I pay someone else to do. (Annoyingly I have to mark the tires to make sure they rotate them correctly. Sometimes I do things myself because it’s so hard to find competent people these days it seems.)

I think it depends. We recently had an issue with our fifteen-year-old Kenmore dryer not heating anymore. A little scouting around showed new dryers around the $500 mark, so I decided to do a little more research into diagnosing what might be going on, before just buying a replacement.

Fortunately the online Sears parts outlet has a great DIY video section that helped me use my very rudimentary multimeter skills to pinpoint the issue to a bad heating element. $50 later and we have a working dryer again (and I'm not so mystified by my dryer anymore :) )!

This article prompted my to do a quick search to see what was available in terms of repair guides for dryers and I found this: https://www.familyhandyman.com/appliance-repair/washer-and-d...

Th belt on mine is going but replacing it seems to be well within my comfort zone. For $30 I can probably get several more years out of it at least. I'm hoping by then someone like dyson will come out with a much more efficient dryer anyway, surely they could tumble at a much slower rate and waste less electricity.

>> surely they could tumble at a much slower rate and waste less electricity.

Tumbling uses a fraction of energy heating does. The motor used for rotating the drum will use about 20-30W, while the heating element will be rated at 2000-3000W.

I suppose it could use less heat for longer, but then I'm not sure if it actually works out favourably(as in - if you just use 1000W of heat, is the process 2x as long, or longer? Because if it's longer or the same then it's more efficient to use full 2000W of power for heating).

The motor for the dryer also needs to power the fan that draws air through the unit. Without anything attached to the shaft, I previously measured the no-load power of the electric motor to be 200W.

I would expect the full load current to be considerably higher, as the dryer's drum rides on friction pads and not ball bearings.

And let's not forget the pressure from the SO to get it done fast!

What is left? Pleasure to learn new things, do something with own hands and see the accomplished quickly, same day or week. Not like those Agile coding periods...

I don't mind trading dollars for someone else's experience -- unless that "experience" consists in knowing a parts supplier, ordering, and adding 30% margin when billing me. Guess what, more and more of these parts suppliers sell to end users just as well, and some even give a very good advise on compatibility etc.

A 30% markup on parts may not even be enough to make it make sense to the vendor. It costs a fair amount of non-billable time to order and manage parts and you end up paying for that time in the markup. I’m semi-notoriously frugal, but don’t have a problem paying parts markup of even 50% on the rare occasion that I have someone perform work for me. Their office staff has to eat, too.

Oh no, mind you, the work time is billed separately. I have no issues with that, obviously.

The work time for the tech, of course. The markup (IMO) covers the risk (wrong part, bad part causing warranty work that they have to comp, stock shrinkage/obsolescence, cash cost of holding stock items [rather than charging you two truck rolls], etc.), the time/effort to find, order, receive, inspect, pay the invoice, etc. most of which is not done by the tech or is not billed by the tech as wrenching time.

I never got those "economic perspectives". As a salaried employee, the marginal value I can get from spending an extra hour at work is $0 (well, I may get a bit of good will). Finding a side gig of 2-3 hours is also practically impossible - you'll probably spend that much just finding it. So unless you're self-employed, you're probably better off (financially) by doing it yourself.

Over the last decade, I’ve replaced the defrost element on my fridge, the door latch on my washer, replaced the ice maker, changed the bearings and seal on my in-laws washer, the magnetron on my parents microwave, the door switch on my parents SubZero fridge, and probably a few other things that I’ve forgotten. Most of those were in the $20-30 range, and only the magnetron was substantially over $100. Parts are readily available though not locally anymore at a price that makes sense.

When I compare working to earn an extra $2000 to have $1000 left after marginal taxes to buy a new appliance vs a 1-3 hour repair (half hour google/YouTube and the rest with tools in hand), a DIY repair often makes more sense, even if your success rate is only 50%. My success rate is over 90%. Only substantial failure was a washer of ours that I couldn’t get the bearings removed to replace. They’d failed and spun and chewed up the shaft too much, leading the parts required to be prohibitive compared to a new washer.

We bought out house in 2001 and it had a high-end GE Combination refrigerator from the late fifties or early sixties. Vacuum out the lint from the condenser coils twice a year and replacing one or two inside light bulbs is all I've done. Not even that inefficient according to my KiloWatt. This is what is possible but very hard sustain for a consumer product company. People can easily compare prices but comparing quality, just by looking at something, is hard to impossible.

> It's more a concerted effort to make repair expensive, unexpected, unfashionable and gratuitously difficult across as many industries as possible.

I upvoted you because I agree with your overall comment, but on this one point I disagree. I think it's not a concerted effort, just a gentle gradient caused by economics. Meaning, all the companies that made traditionally repairable items (e.g. straight razors) were less profitable in the long run than companies that made disposable/irreparable items, so they eventually went under. Because disposable items are cheaper to manufacture, they could be sold for much lower prices in the marketplace and produced in much greater numbers, reaping much more profit. That expands markets and keeps them producing demand by the need for replacement. While consumers should be the counterpressure to that, consumers generally don't consider TCO[1], so traditional producers lost to the market and humanity irrationality.

[1] I mean honestly, who adds up the cost of all the razors they'll use in their life?

The way humans used to live two hundred years ago was definitely "waste not, want not". Things were durable because making them took human effort. People were poor and closer to the things that they made and used. Supply chains were not something optimized by logistics companies; shoes were made by people in the same town. In that setting, you better believe they made stuff to last.

In short, all of this is because of the techno-industrial marketplace.

Well it's not thousands of manufacturers participating in a global conspiracy, but it's not quite the same as commodity items like disposable razor blades either.

Whether it's prevailing economic school, or what they're teaching MBAs the last few decades but there is clear intent to a) remove maintenance and repair options, and b) ensure products are not built to last, but built to last "just long enough".

Now, profits are not so knife edge that adding 50p on a connector to permit a part to be changed in a fridge or kettle would cause them to go under. The market for kettles spans £10 to well over £100 for stupid gimmicks. Plenty of space for more ethical options alongside internet connectivity, LCD displays and LEDs that light up the water. Even the ethical extra water saving environmentally gimmicked options don't permit repair. In single blade razors the smallest change could make or break profitability. Even that is a different proposition now thanks to the ever rising blade count and added gimmicks.

Many of the companies that made traditionally repairable items are still around. It's just they all started phasing out at roughly the same time.

Were lighting a 21st century invention there would be no lightbulbs or bayonet and Edison screw fittings. We'd all be replacing the light fitting every time, and people would be explaining why it was unavoidable.

So I suspect it's something more than simple economics, though I don't think there's been a repetition of the 1,000 hour lightbulb cartel. :)

> Many of the companies that made traditionally repairable items are still around. It's just they all started phasing out at roughly the same time.

I don't think this is true. This latest phase in the last N decades is just an acceleration of a constant ecosystem dynamic since industrialization. There are tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of manufacturers over the last 200 years that have gone under, gone bankrupt, been gobbled up, pivoted to new markets, etc. Sometimes you can get a picture into this if you watch Antiques Roadshow and an expert explains that this or that chair was made by this company at that time and it's rare because, and so on. There is a huge history underlying almost any old or rare item. Super interesting, too!

On principle it's rather annoying, but in practice, customers don't ask for repairable items. It just doesn't affect their purchases. As long as that's the case, they'll buy the cheaper of a repairable vs non-repairable unit. And so that's what competitive vendors will make.

A major factor is continued development. Any product under active development is in this cycle. Consumers see a 10 yr old washing machine as almost archaic vs the newest ones. So they don't see as much value in the old device -- not enough to repair when a new one is 40% off for the labor day sale.

For items that aren't under active development -- like a coffee maker, an iron, a lawn mower -- they care about its total lifetime and the costs of repairing it.

I think if you are in china you probably can buy all the parts you want for cheap. It is just that these parts aren't in Europe/US. But I think the main point isn't manufacturers making repairing expensive, it is them making buying new stuff so cheap. It's just not worth the time and hassle to repair most devices. Buy the cheapest device you can find, if it breaks, replace it. Still cheaper than buying the high end, expensive one.

Not convinced. The components simply aren't designed for replacement in most cases any more even in China when you have the necessary part. Though sure there's a lot of creative repairs and spares in Shenzen, especially for phones. That's repairs despite the best efforts of manufacturers. :)

Even the cheapest tat domestic appliance brands used to let you replace an element etc for a fraction the cost of new. When it was designed in and a screwdriver-free sub 3 minute job I'm not sure time or hassle really entered into it. A new model often used the same filters or elements. Now the time and hassle is designed in as almost nothing is intended to be replaced, opened or disassembled so it becomes an afternoon's work (eg phone battery replacement).

One example of many. Frost free fridge freezers need a small heating element to defrost the coils. That was a simple plug in component for a few pounds, and lowest callout fee from your local repairer. Now they're mostly being combined indivisibly with the coil and that becomes a replacement of a major, mostly working, module and a re-gas that costs half the cost of the damn fridge. Even on the fancy £1k Samsung fridge freezers. Actually I think Samsung were one of the first to do this. Heating elements, of course, still fail with roughly the same regularity. That's an awful lot of metal, plastic, refrigerant and climate CO2 deliberately turned into a disposable.

If we can't go back to the old view, at least partially, resolving climate change is going to remain challenging.

I love this topic, if you are interested in the details how companies engineer products to break watch AvE videos on YouTube. He is disassembling tools and pointing out how they are made to fail. There are a few exceptions still, like Hilti who's business model is to rent tools, so they are interested in building lasting and repairable things.

There definitely needs to be a paradigm shift so that companies have a motivation to repair their products. One way would be to change the ownership of the products back to those that produce them and the consumer loans them from these companies. Companies would be responsible for repairing any defective products that are on loan; this would mean and emphasis would be placed on quality over quantity in their products. The company would have a large incentive to get the most life out of a product with the minimum amount of repairs if they're liable for all maintenance. They would also have a consistent revenue stream through hired products.

If there was a big name player out there who offered this service to me, I'd sign up.

You can lease a car, why not lease your fridge/washing-machine/toaster? If it's anything like leasing a car, you'll pay 150% of the value of the toaster over 5 years, and then have a ridiculous residual at the end. Oh, and a penalty for toasting too many slices on the "extra dark" setting. And you never own the toaster, so you end up paying a small monthly fee forever.

The point of the companies from the viewpoint of the demos is supposed to be to provide goods; your fix retains high profits.

Why not look at the life of a fridge and say the median current ownership period is now the free, transferable guarantee/warranty period; companies have to buy insurance against bankruptcy to maintain forward ability to repair (stops companies closing in order to clear liabilities, then restarting).

Rinse and repeat, minimum 2 year warranty for material and workmanship on all goods. Increase warranty to maintain medians.

Perhaps then we can start curing 'designed to fail' goods.

> You could buy a new element for your toaster, kettle, heater or coffee machine.

I've heard good things about these folks, although I haven't got any direct experience:


I've had a classic Dualit toaster since 2004ish. I can't comment on repairability since it's never gone wrong but it looks like it's easy to service with its 50s style screwed-down pressed panels.

On a side note, I like that they're seen as classically British but like other classically British things e.g. Dr Marten's boots, the original Mini car or fish and chips they were all designed by foreign born Brits.

Just in case anyone is wondering what a Dualit Toaster is:-


I've fixed some old stuff before and often there's a schematic affixed to the inside of the case.

Knowing how a Mac is connected and what parts are used is a long way away from being able to make one for most people.

One of my favourite films is Brazil. The premise is basically, “what if orwell’s 1984 were a comedy?” in Brazil, Robert Deniro plays a vigilante repairman, swinging heroically from apartment to apartment doing unauthorised repairs of broken air conditioning systems. He is the state’s most wanted outlaw, in the film, even more sought than actual terrorists.

> even more sought than actual terrorists

I don't think there are actual terrorists in Brazil. All their crap is breaking down, and terrorists are a convenient scapegoat that government there I'm sure internally thinks exist. A sort of systemic hallucination.

It never occurred to me the explosions were due to poorly maintained systems, but that seems like a common interpretation, when I searched around it.

It doesn't quite make sense to me though. If you take the explosions literally, ventilation systems don't tend to do that sort of thing, and if/when they do fail, it tends to be by suffocating everyone with freeon or carbon monoxide, not with explosive fireballs. Boilers can explode, but those are usually in basements, not at the floor level of a restaurant. Restaurant kitchens can and do regularly catch fire, as a result of failing to clean the grease out of cooktop exhaust filters. But again, this usually isn't an explosion.

I suppose the explosions could be a kind of visual metaphor, for the way a small clerical error snowballed into a rolling deadly disaster due to the inhumane and inflexible nature of the bureaucracy.

I'll have to watch the film again to see where all the explosions are- but while I think the explosions are evocative of societal failures, I'm not convinced they're purely metaphorical, or purely meant to be mechanical failures. The film was made in the historical context of the IRA bombing places in real life regularly, and the film would have been stupid to imply, in effect, that the IRA's bombings were government fiction.

Edit: Just had another quick search around and it seems possible that the restaurant explosion scene, character reaction to it, and news rhetoric depicted around terrorism in general could have been inspired by this contemporary event (notably, Thatcher, like the characters in the film, attempted to carry on with the conference as if nothing had happened):


> [Boilers] are usually in basements, not at the floor level of a restaurant.

Are you sure it's like that in Brazil or are you just assuming from where boilers typically are in your location? I for one have never seen a basement in my life, and have never seen a boiler anywhere else but at the floor level.

Basements are a structural necessity in regions where the ground freezes, and the deeper the frost penetrates the deeper the foundation must go.

If you have a basement, you may as well put the boiler or furnace down there, freeing up space on the main floor.

Regardless of where a boiler is, here is what a boiler explosion looks like:


Notable is the lack of any visible fire.

Brilliant, hilarious, disturbing movie. You probably know this already, but Brazil has two versions, with radically different endings. They lend themselves to diametrically opposed interpretations of the film as a whole. I prefer the director Gilliam's cut, but also appreciate on some meta level how the juxtaposition of both the original and alternate endings -- and the real-life drama around their editing and release -- serves as a self-referential commentary on the film's themes of social critique / satire and the struggle of the individual in the face of massive, broken, impersonal bureaucratic machinery.

without any spoilers the only radically different ending I know of was the USA TV broadcast ending (ends like 15 minutes earlier). I'm not sure you can even find this version.

AFAIK all the other versions are effectively the same except for a sutble difference. In one the background of the scene is the inside of a dark tower. In the other that tower fades to clouds. in both cases the main character is smiling so I'm not sure there much difference in meaning. I prefer the cloud version and have always wished for a large hi-res poster to frame of that image.

PS: one of my favorite movies. Saw it in the theater original release in the 80s. Owned VHS, then laserdisc, then DVD, then Bluray

Yes it's the US version I was referring to.

Just to be clear, that's the US "TV" version. The US theater version has the same ending as all other versions (except for that minor thing of whether the tower fads or not)

The wikipedia article[1] explains more clearly what I've been trying (unsuccessfully?) to describe without spoilers.

1. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brazil_(1985_film)

1984 * Catch 22 = Brazil

1984 plus Terry Gilliam.

I think blaming "intellectual property protection" abstracts this a bit too much. There's real human effort on the other side, not just a concept.

Companies not wanting things to be repaired is a major inhibitor of repair. Those companies push for those laws, but they often do other things too to make it hard.

I think it colors the happening with the probably inexistent emotion/intent.

Think of it in IT terms. Making and supporting a single high performance monolith is easier than taking care of a zoo of interoperable and interchangeable micro services...

Or was it supposed to be the other way round ? ;-)

Let's put the blame where it belongs: on the consumer. If there was a market demand for repairable products, companies would make them. It's not like Apple is using IP law to keep you from repairing an iPhone. If people wanted repairable products, there would be demand for them. (I have a dryer I was going to throw away until my father in law spent $50 replacing the belt. Now I have a stupid old dryer that doesn't match my fancy new Samsung washer that I feel too guilty to replace.)

Individual people would also happily buy cheap cars that are gas guzzlers - yet, governments have made laws mandating car efficiency.

This is point of governments. To change the incentives for individuals so markets optimize for global good. This is not a hard concept.

That's an excellent example of bad governance though. The government instead should have priced in the externalities of gasoline directly into the gas and then allowed consumers to decide if they wanted to spend money on better gas mileage. Customers would give a significant amount of demand for better gas mileage themselves if gas was $7/gallon.

The reason the current approach is a failure is that everyone who doesn't care about efficiency can skirt the whole mandate by buying a truck/suv that gets a whopping 15mpg in town[1]. The popularity of trucks in the US speaks to how bone-headed the approach of mandating efficiency in cars is.

The even worse part about not correctly taxing the actual externality is that people think they are doing good things for the environment by buying new high gas mileage cars and then unwinding that whole thing with a cheap flight to Paris or by constantly having things shipped across the country for them.

>To change the incentives for individuals so markets optimize for global good. This is not a hard concept.

Yep, not a hard concept but the implementation is where everything went completely to shit.

1. https://fueleconomy.gov/feg/bymodel/2017_Ram_1500_Pickup.sht...

> allowed consumers to decide if they wanted to spend money

This makes assumptions about one's ability to even make such a decision given their environment/situation. There's a theoretical vs practical difference in taxing consumers for otherwise cheap yet harmful products. Theoretically you'd be right, but practically it's regressive.

No, altering incentives is not the point of government, at least by a reading of the US constitution, history, or probably polling. Admittedly it is a method desired currently in the Democratic party.

The thing is the markets don't optimise for global good, this is a sticking plaster ('band-aid') to inhibit the worst of the harm. The combative, capitalistic, market-led system is the problem.

>This is point of governments. To change the incentives for individuals so markets optimize for global good. This is not a hard concept.

Huh, this whole time I thought the point of governments was to protect individual rights. TIL /s

Yes it is. And they do that by imposing responsibilities on the same individuals they are protecting. Also there are more rights to be protected than what is trivially obvious from an individual point of view - like the right of our children to breathe air without gas masks (exaggeration intended for emphasis)

> Let's put the blame where it belongs: on the consumer. If there was a market demand for repairable products, companies would make them. It's not like Apple is using IP law to keep you from repairing an iPhone. If people wanted repairable products, there would be demand for them.

People make decisions along more than one axis. I'd say there's a demand, it's just that it's not prioritized the most highly.

And I don't think this can be blamed on consumers. Have you seen any marketing that touts repairability? Companies have judged that they profit by selling products that are less reliable and less reparable, since that means they can make more sales. I can't find the link now, but I read an article that explained that Whirlpool has a cleverly designed racket to sell unreliable, unrepairable products and keep customers coming back: they own almost all the washing machine brands. If you hate your Whirlpool because it broke down after a couple years, you vow never to buy that brand again. So you buy a Maytag and it's the exact same machine from the exact same factory, just with different markings and styling.

Let's not blame consumers for economic externalities, it's the government's job to address those.

I’m the parent poster here and I absolutely do not think it is the job of the government to solve problems like this. Consumers need to stop giving money to corporations whose only motivation is profit.

> I absolutely do not think it is the job of the government to solve problems like this

Well then, I guess we'll have to watch as this problem will remain unsolved. If you want an unregulated market, people will do what they want, and they happen to want to give money to corporations whose only motivation is profit, because they get direct benefit from those transactions. Like cheap disposable halloween costumes, to take your own example.

Government has addressed economic externalities countless times with laws restricting various types of pollution, funding public transit, public health, education, etc. It is most definitely the government's job to fix such externalities by adjusting incentives on third party effects. No one else can achieve that.

Maybe you think this disposable-products externality is somehow special, but I don't really see a case for that.

Exactly. If it wasn't for the economic systems set up by the government there would be no reason to make repairing things hard because that is simply a byproduct of the current system that is controlled by the government.

I can't see that being a workable equilibrium-state. In my mind, if there was an uprising in market demand for repairable product, companies would actually unleash a massive industry-wide astroturf campaign to convince customers that repairable products are a bad idea.

i do fabrication work, and sometimes repair. desperate people wander up to my shop and ask to get things fixed. when they find out it might cost as much as 3 hours at minimum wage, they often wander away.

By minimum wage, you mean the shop hourly rate, right? Or is your minimum wage particularly high?

no, I mean local legal minimum wage, not including materials, overhead, consumables, or taxes.

> If there was a market demand for repairable products, companies would make them.

That sounds very nice, but I see a few practical implementation problems that reinforce each other:

1) Market demand for a product that doesn't exist is an undefined value, and estimating its hypothetical value ranges in reliability from back-of-the-envelope to astrology

2) Economies of scale often require that total demand reach a threshold for a product to even have a chance to be profitable/competitive, i.e. there is some demand below which vendors are effectively forced to round it down to zero.

3) For high-tech products especially, a handful of big vendors agreeing on the way things are done can create massive network effects among suppliers that make it unduly expensive or outright infeasible for an erstwhile competitor to do things any other way. For example, good luck building a smartphone with leaded chip packages instead of leadless (a decision having a great deal to do with concerns about reliability, repairability, and component reuse).

I did blame the consumer.

We get what we are willing to accept and so far we keep buying unrepairable materials that quickly become trash. I made that statement in my original comment.

We must be willing to pay niche creators more for doing work that reduces our impact on the world, and so far people haven’t been willing to do much of that. Sadly though the corporations control our communication mediums and everyone is taught to blindly consume. It’s hard to fight the programming.

Make a cost-benefit calculation and maybe you won't feel as bad throwing it out. It will depend on financing and electricity costs which way is cheaper in the long run. :-)

I think you (and the OC) will find that, with dryers, there's really not much room to gain efficiency. It's not as if modern dryers are using a heat pump instead of burning gas [1] or "burning" electricity with resistive heating.

[1] and natural gas tends to be cheaper than electric heat pumps, especially nowadays

That sounds reasonable, except there is an almost 10 year old Miele dryer in my apartment, with a heat pump.

Here's their top of the line current offering in the USA: https://www.mieleusa.com/domestic/tumble-dryers-1575.htm?mat...

Natural gas dryer I never even heard of, but I am not surprised - when I visited Pennsylvania I saw quite a lot of clever uses of natural gas.

> there is an almost 10 year old Miele dryer in my apartment, with a heat pump.

I stand corrected. I'd be curious if it's actually any more efficient, especially if the heat it's pumping comes from gas, oil, or resistive heating (in the winter, assuming cold climate). It can appear more efficient, of course, if one only measures the dryer itself, but that wouldn't be apples-to-apples.

> Here's their top of the line current offering in the USA

$1800 is an eye-watering price. That'd buy me 3750 hours of 4kW [1] dryer usage, so buying it for long-term savings alone is hardly an obvious choice.

> clever uses of natural gas

Raising temperature by burning it seems like the least clever use of natural gas (or any combustible).

[1] I figure the least efficient resistive heating dryer is 5kW and that Miele is 1kW.

No, all fair points.

For my case, I figure it has in recent years started to give a return. I had to repair it (myself) with parts for $40 once. It has certainly been running for much more than 4000 hours.

Looking at the greater picture, the power mix here is about 50% nuclear and hydro, the rest from burning garbage in combined heat (heats the whole town) and power.

You can tell it's not using as much power as our previous dryer, the bathroom would get sauna hot if you closed the bathroom door and also the clothes would take longer to dry - with the Miele there isn't much difference with the door open or closed either in drying time or room temperature. It's also less wear and tear on the clothes. The clothes come out consistently "dry" instead of between "humid" and "extra crisp" with the old dryer.

Stepping away even further from the picture, I actually prefer hanging to dry (clothes don't wear out as fast and I actually enjoy the slight stiffness of textiles hung to dry, a childhood thing I guess) but my (soon to be ex-, thank God) wife swears by the dryer, so... a dryer it was. And I have to admit, it's damn useful at times.

You can buy a heat pump drier for less than $500 in Germany, with the premium brands' models around $700. Their energy consumption is about half that of a condensation drier. At German electricity prices (ca 25ct/kWh), it's not hard to see why heat pump driers have gained significant market share.

And for the record, the heat pump is used to dehumidify the processing air. The air is still heated using electricity. It just doesn't waste as much heat.

> Their energy consumption is about half that of a condensation drier.

Again, this is not necessarily a fair comparison, if what's being pumped actually costs something that can't be measured at the dryer's plug.

$500 would likely be worth it, even at $.12/kWh, but the market may not think so if they're not available for that price in places with cheap electricity (and/or cheap enough natural gas, which can be much cheaper, ranging between $.04/kWh and $.06/kWh, equivalent, on my last bill).

> the heat pump is used to dehumidify the processing air.

This seems a bit strange to me, but it makes sense, especially if there's recirculation going on.

> The air is still heated using electricity. It just doesn't waste as much heat.

This is pretty clear from the efficiency only being 2:1, which is much worse than what I'd expect from a heat pump being used for heating.

The only energy input is electricity. The heat pump is used to recover heat from the exhaust air. There is no other source of heat involved, so the comparison is entirely fair.

I'm a bit confused, since, initially, you mentioned dehumidifying.

However, I'm getting the impression that the heat pump in this case is entirely internal to the machine, which is not what I had in mind when mentioning heat pumps (thinking of their coefficient of performance of 3-4) [1]. Were I aware of these machines, I would have specified:

It's not as if modern dryers are using a heat pump with an outdoor source to raise the temperature of the clothing instead of burning gas or "burning" electricity with resistive heating.

That said, a 2x efficiency gain, by whatever method, is more than I expected, though still falling into what I would categorize as "not much room", especially if the gain comparison always assumes the oldest, least-efficient 5kW model only ever running at its highest setting. The other key assumption in all these comparisons is that all these dryers can finish the same sized load in the same amount of time, which can't possibly be true in the real world.

If my $40-to-repair machine already has some efficiency tweaks such that its worst-case is only 4kW, the $500 machine's worst-case is 2.5kW, but my actual behavior averages out to running them at 70% power, I'm saving barely over a kilowatt per hour, and I'm back up to 3500 hours to break-even at $.12/kWh electric rates. $1800-for-1kW is nearly 14k hours, or nearly 18 hours a week over fifteen years, and I don't do that much laundry.

[1] If this is so, it strikes me as odd to call it that, just as it would strike me as odd to call out a free-standing dehumidifier having a "heat pump", even though that's the crucial to the device functioning.

Electricity is far more expensive than gas. I would even factor the cost of not having a gas line when choosing to purchase a property. Commercial dryers, such as in hotels, are also gas. Actually, the only time I’ve seen electric dryers are in apartment buildings too old to have been hooked up with gas lines.

Where I live, gas is not even a thing, except in restaurants where it comes in bottles by truck.

And the town's buses are running on biogas but are on schedule to be replaced with electric buses.

> Electricity is far more expensive than gas.

That's usually only if the gas is natural gas, and that's not available. Even then, "far more" can be misleading.

My experience in California is that it's on the order of 4x cheaper than using resistive heating in a residence (i.e. buying naively from the utility at retail rates).

My latest PG&E bill shows "procurement" costs (which I assume are the wholesale energy-only part of the bill [1]) of $.009-$.01/kWh [2], and, IIUC, wholesale electricity is about 4x that.

This is to say that an efficient enough electric heat pump (which I believe is plausible for whole-house heating, not high-temperature use cases like a dryer) could at least get close to gas in operating cost.

[1] only about 1/7th of the retail total, something which would likely surprise most consumers. This seems true for electricity, too, where, IIRC, the energy costs $.04/kWh, but PG&E charges upward of $.24/kWh at the highest residential "tier".

[2] converted from $/therm using 29.300111111111 kWh/therm

If there was government regulations that mandate producers must also take back the waste. This should dramatically raise prices of disposables that consumers will not like the price and lean towards cheaper products ie long term or sustainable ones. Producers would be very conscious to minimise waste.

Think of it akin to fees for externalised costs such as pollution (ie carbon fee/tax) but applied to all products.

This would be brilliant! Buy any product over $200 and 10kg? If it breaks within x years you repair it or if thats impossible/too hard, return it to a broken-shit-r-us where you get $20 and they turn around and charge the manufacturer full retail price as mandated by law. Should be incentive enough for easy repair design.

I would love that. I can already imagine the manufacturer outlet going all, "please, PLEASE don't drop this on us; here, take this free complimentary toolbox and a set of spares, also our associate over there can make you that repair for free". One could only dream.

I would imagine this would disincentivize manufacturing in general giving consumers fewer options and the industry fewer players amongst which to innovate. It's a good way to entrench only those that can absorb losses though.

The demand would still be there, and so would the opportunity. The main difference would be that new players would have to build something serviceable. They wouldn't be able to crank out shit in the amount and pace of today, but that would be a great thing for the planet.

The biggest problem I can see with that is bankruptcy - both natrual and liability dropping shenanigans. Perhaps some sort of deposit for a low overhead system? Granted buying trash only to repair it enough for the deposit and dump it leaves us at square one via a circutious even less efficient path.

Who does believe in repair? I'm a strong believer in it, but I don't remember ever finding producers listing it as a feature. I know there are guides like iFixit, but I'm never sure those producers actually consider it or just used a design thst happened to be more repairable than others.

Car companies do. They want the car to run without repair for 3 years, with repair for 10, and after 12 years enough breaks at once that it isn't worth repairing. This gives their direct repeat customers a quality experience, and enough quality leftover that there is a good used market so the direct customers feel they can get enough trade-in value that they can afford a new car every 3 years.

They also want a few 30+ year old cars (nothing in between!) to show how long their cars last. This is just enough that everybody sees such a car, but not enough that many people have such a car.

Only because they were legislated into wanting it (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnuson%E2%80%93Moss_Warranty... etc) Prior to being forced to allow third-party repair shops and parts, they would use every opportunity to void warranties and shut down third parties just as tech companies like Apple are doing today. ('So sorry your engine block cracked. You're right, that would be covered under warranty but we see you had someone install a 3rd party radio so the warranty is void...')

cough Tesla cough

Tesla makes John Deere look like they care about their customers.

I believe you, but do you have a source?

> Intellectual property protection is a major inhibitor of repair.

Notice that this is only a problem as a result of excessive copyright terms and patent thickets/evergreening. If you buy a product halfway through its twenty year patent term and then have to repair it after ten years, no problem, by then the patent is expired and anyone can make parts.

Unless by then the manufacturer has stopped making new software/firmware for the device and the old version has security vulnerabilities or isn't compatible with modern systems, yet no one can fix it because the old unsupported software still has an unexpired copyright even though the vendor has abandoned it.

I have a hard time thinking of a product where the repair is inhibited by IP issues. Can you give a specific example?

I tend to buy and repair scientific and lab equipment and repair it. I also do/try for consumer stuff sometimes, it’s usually not economical.

Tried to repair a microwave for example, but couldn’t find a replacement magnetron. That part isn’t covered by patents, it’s just not available... if there was more interest, I think there would be more stripped parts on eBay too.

Companies legally prohibit 3rd party repair as it affects their IP. There are a lot of companies that void all warranties if you try a 3rd party / DIY repair. I've had first-hand experiences with Apple and Samsung in India. There are lots of other companies, see - https://repair.org/industries/main/

Coming back to your situation, a magnetron might not be patented but that could just be one of the many components that renders a microwave non-functional and a lot of those other components might be patented. A microwave repair shop cannot possibly be profitable if it only fixes magnetron issues. It would want to fix most, if not all, issues with customers' microwaves. But it can't as companies legally prohibit 3rd party repairs. Sure, people still reverse engineer and fix things by themselves but these laws are major blockers for 3rd party repair markets to flourish. Despite the laws, there are pockets where this still occurs (e.g. China). And should the ban on 3rd party repair be lifted, it's going to be a different ball game and opportunities could bring us a lot more big businesses like iFixit.

It seems totally reasonable for 3rd party repair to void warranties. 3rd party repair will be of varying quality and it doesn’t seem logical to make the vendor liable.

It's not that simple. The point is vendors empowering 3rd party repair shops with knowledge and tools than monopolizing repair market which leads to higher repair costs, lower product lifespans, forced product upgrades, etc. - basically everything right to repair associations are fighting for.

John Deere tractors is one example

I guess intellection property protection to me means IP law (patents etc).

But if DRM was meant I can see how there are cases where this could be a problem (I don’t think it is yet a very common problem however, or one that prevents the majority of goods from being repaired).

It's a combination. And as more and more goods transition from purely mechanical/electrical through electronical to software-defined, this problem is going to get even worse.

there was a disassemblable furniture startup in the last yc batch: https://shop.aalo.co/

I'm not sure how useful this is. The furniture I have had usually wears out fairly evenly so by the time something actually fails the whole thing is in a pretty bad state. Having it disassembleable might actually make it worse because instead of strong welds you have screws which can wobble around a bit and make the item less stiff.

There are other items where this kind of thing makes a lot of sense though. My 3D printer is extremely easy to pull apart and replace parts for. I have a full manual for how every single bit goes together and the parts are usually generic things I can buy off ebay for a few $.

Which 3D printer do you have?

The Pursa i3 MK3. The whole thing is open source including all the part designs, hardware and firmware. The creator also designs guides to upgrade your old printer to work better when new designs come out so instead of having to buy a new device every 2 years you just read the manual on making your old device work like the new one.

Looks good.

Those same laws that mean you can't change the software on a car also mean that you can't change the tuning to make the car pollute more.

That's nonsense. It's literally illegal to change your car so that it pollutes more. You don't need a second law making it illegal to modify any and all software to make sure that doesn't happen.

Illegal where? California, sure. But even the rules there aren't as cut and dry as that. I can swap an arguably higher polluting Chevy Small Block in any car, get it certified with the BAR and now I have legally modified my car to pollute more.

Since I can't reply to RaceWon directly (not sure why?) -- depends on your scene, I know a lot of people who do it since its one of the few legal ways to get more power in some imports without risking an impound or ref ticket, losing your fancy RB/SR/whatever JDM motor in the process.

Well yeah, but how many people are gonna stick a crate motor in a car.

*Note: these are likely my peeps btw.

This is one of the core messages of Strong Towns (strongtowns.org).

In general humans get really excited about building new and transformative things, and we have a big blind spot to ongoing maintenance. In particular we've come to utterly depend on the things that were "shiny and new" back in first generation of suburbanization (50s - 70s), while many of those things have been poorly maintained, and in many cases the economic returns on that infrastructure don't actually justify the ongoing maintenance cost.

It's a dangerous drag on the economy, but we're stuck with it now, and the lesson learned is we should prioritize maintenance in our thought process and make sure we're getting a positive return out of the infrastructure liabilities we already have before creating new ones.

> In general humans get really excited about building new and transformative things, and we have a big blind spot to ongoing maintenance.

The IT industry mirrors this exactly, where we need a constant churn of new shiny tech for new projects. It means that many projects are done while still learning some tech rather that using well understood because it is unfashionable.

Exactly...90% or more of Security SEM platform sales could be saved if the new kids had a good command of syslog, awk and grep.

Most of those tools exist to check boxes. 80% of cyber stuff is bullshit or snake oil.

Yup. I spent some months working on a product in this space, and the most surprising takeaway I had was that there's a risk that by buying such a product, you're exposing yourself to legal problems - e.g. when a product tells you about some potential security issue, you can no longer claim ignorance. This apparently informs buying decisions, so product makers need to take it into account.

A good SIEM can search terabytes of logs quickly and aggregate interesting things like least common values. Good luck doing that with grep.

Which is great if you have terabytes of logs, but GP's point is that the majority don't have that problem. Simple solutions are, well, simpler.

I worked for an ex-Australian Navy commander who managed various Asset and Maintenance groups for various organisations. The subject of maintenance is a very interesting subject.

If your maintenance regime is done properly, over the long haul, you save a fortune. Do your normal maintenance, refurbish at the correct times and replace with new when the % maintenance cost has reached the trigger point.

This means that every asset lasts longer (on the whole) costing you less and you get some return on that asset in the end. The one thing that generally gets in the way of proper maintenance are the accountants. They have a penchant for not understanding maintenance and future costs.

I have seen them willing to spend up to 80% of the cost of replacement for an item on repairing an item year on year, when it would be better to simply replace the item in question. They also seem to have the general attitude of "It's working therefore we do not need to spend any money on maintenance for it." This attitude seems to ensure that all sorts of organisations have a continually degrading asset base instead of a maintained asset base.

If you were to look at each state government in any country, you will find that most of the state assets are ill-maintained and that to get them to the correct maintenance level would be more than the current state budgets.

The other side of this is that accountants have a skewed point of view as to what is an asset and what is not. As such they will spend plenty of money on smaller item with replacement rather than refurbish or repair those items. Hence, office furniture, phones, computers, etc, are treated as consumable items and not worth repairing. So why would suppliers and manufacturers be bothered to make these items repairable?

Change the mindset of those whose responsibility is the finance and your will see a change in what supplier and manufacturers do in terms of repairability of their products. The small scale consumer such as us would then then benefit from this.

It effect, the mentality of not repairing items has a number of interconnected causes that feed the problem, from the basic tax law and attitudes of accountants "protecting" the bottom line, to companies using this attitude to make it cheaper to not design products that are repairable, to patent law and copyright law, to that simple staple called greed and the other stable called politics.

I've witnessed same effect in the US Military. The problem is, and always was, they're spending other people's money. They don't need to make the best long-term decision, they need to make the 'what fits in my budget this quarter' decision.

Couldn't agree more! Considering that up to 50% of total costs are actually coming from operating a system I'm still puzzled to what degree that is ignored.

Usually, you find that kind of "accountant" (a good one is worth his weight in gold in these cases) in the supporting bureaucracy. Actual user tend to understand the need for spare part availability and sound maintenance. Bureaucrats care about formalities, usually sitting in an office they have no incentive to be any different.

from the basic tax law and attitudes of accountants "protecting" the bottom line

Which tax laws in particular?

Culturally we just don't seem to particularly value old things that still work & have been well taken care of.

In the West, I agree. Here in Japan, they seem to value old things and their maintenance more than I've ever seen anywhere else.

Not sure what you mean by "the West" but here in Western Europe we have have lots of protection for old buildings.

In the UK they're referred to as "Listed Buildings" and are protected by law.

We also have a strong heritage cultures e.g. things like classic car clubs, historical farm displays, etc.

I can't comment on Japanese homes but I can tell you it would be pretty easy to find examples of a 500-1000 year old houses or pubs still in daily use through out the UK .

It used to be the case that Japanese cars were bought new with vehicles exported after only a few years of use, although I believe that this has lessened somewhat now.


Except for houses ironically - they are depreciating assets such that refurbishing is notable.

Especially if they're people.

In the US, they’re the most taken care of (by the government).

Maintenance is an often ignored life cycle cost factor. Especially for complex systems, e.g. planes or ships or stuff like that. The longer a system is operated the higher the obsolescence risk gets. In part because the need for spare parts is much lower than during initial production. With life cycles for individual components getting shorter keeping the cost effective mass production up is not worth it. And then system get really expensive to operate. Militaries all over the world feel the impacts.

That being said, the extension of maintenance, supply chain and logistics, is even more often ignored. I think modularization is a potential solution in the future, at least foe the defense sector. In civil aerospace the maintenance problem is under tight control, an aircraft that is not flying is just a cost factor. But then there is a lot of competition for civil aircraft maintenance, so single aource suppliers are rarer than for defence.

Bulldoze it and use the concrete for landfill. Every new road project I've seen in California involves building the ramps with reclaimed concrete as fill.

That’s really interesting. The point has been made about individual variance on the big-5 (OCEAN) personality traits, specifically openness and conscientiousness. Those with higher openness are good at starting new businesses or projects, while those with higher conscientiousness are better at running them once they are past the startup phase. The argument goes that, as with business, you need both types of personalities to make society function. But in terms of political and infrastructural projects, getting both styles of thinking interacting in early stages, in a less linear process than we see in startups, would be constructive. This is unfortunately rare. JJane Jacobs comes to mind as a rare thinker who could integrate ideas of perservation/maintenance and renewal/innovation, which is probably why she has been lauded by both hard lefty types as well as market libertarians.

> The discipline’s most prominent statistic, gdp, is gross (as opposed to net) because it leaves out the cost of wear and tear.

Net domestic product is an interesting concept that I haven't considered before.

The Fed appears to track it somehow, despite the difficulty in measuring it, as the article mentions. Here is a graph I configured on the St Louis Fed site that compares GDP to NDP:


In general, it seems to track GDP pretty well, although recently it appears to have gotten closer to GDP, though I don't have any idea why.

The article's comparison of "wear and tear" as a % of countries' GDP is interesting. Since lower income countries (China, India) often have a lower standards for acceptable maintenance level in both the public and private realm than wealthier ones, it kind of makes sense that they spend less of their GDP on wear and tear.

Also, a lot of the expensive modern infrastructure (airports, freeways, etc) in those countries is relatively new, so a big repair bill might just be further down the road (no pun intended).

Britain in this view is an anomaly, being a high income country with low maintenance spend as a % of GDP.

I'd say there are three main reasons for Britain's lower maintenance spending:

1) Compared to France and Germany the climate and environment is a lot simpler. We don't have lots of mountains with tunnels, the temperature barely dips below freezing. Even though we have roughly the same population size, we have roughly half the length of motorways [0].

2) In the 80s a lot of public infrastructure was privatised. Taking the railways as an example, First Group is a company listed on the London Stock Exchange which owns a large majority of train and local bus services across the country [1]. Infrastructure projects are still funded by the government, but they are often funded in the way of loans, that at some point they expect to be repaid, so don't impact the GDP.

3) After the financial crisis, fixed capital spending was greatly cut (as well as public spending in general), but as a % of GDP it still hasn't returned to its 2008 levels [2]. I suspect a lot of what was cut was really improvements and new projects that have been shelved. If we were to compare it to other countries over a greater timeframe, I'd expect to see the spending closer to that of France and Germany.

It'll be interesting to see what happens after Brexit as a large percentage of both the construction labour force and building supplies are imported from Europe.

[0] http://www.nationmaster.com/country-info/stats/Transport/Roa...

[1] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/FirstGroup

[2] https://tradingeconomics.com/united-kingdom/gross-fixed-capi...

Much of the maintenance of Britian's infrastructure is still done by the government. Rails, for example, are government maintained but we just don't get the profits anymore.

[..] In March California became the 18th state in America to introduce a bill supporting the “right to repair”, by obliging manufacturers to make manuals more widely available to customers and independent repair shops. [..]

Patently untrue. More here: https://www.wired.com/story/john-deere-farmers-right-to-repa.... At least for CA farmers [..] a big California farmers’ lobbying group just blithely signed away farmers’ right to access or modify the source code of any farm equipment software. As an organization representing 2.5 million California agriculture jobs, the California Farm Bureau gave up the right to purchase repair parts without going through a dealer. Farmers can’t change engine settings, can’t retrofit old equipment with new features, and can’t modify their tractors to meet new environmental standards on their own. Worse, the lobbyists are calling it a victory.[..]

(Author of the linked piece here.) The Economist is technically correct. The bill was introduced, but did not pass. We're going to try again next year.

If you use words to suggest something untrue, you are a liar.

"Technically correct" is something best left to lawyers, whose job entails just that, by its very nature. Everybody else, especially those whose job is to inform people, don't get to use a "technically correct" free pass. They're either telling the truth or lying.

In this case, the unnamed coward journalist is lying.

But isn't that what "introduce" is for?

"Attempted to pass" might be clearer?

The US military sells itself on being incredibly capable thanks to developing and fielding cutting edge weapons technology.

It is actually capable because it is extremely effective at logistics and maintenance.

US military logistics had a big coming of age in Vietnam. Marc Levinson's book The Box talks about this at length, but there are other articles and podcasts which get into it, eg: http://digg.com/2017/containers-episode-1

A lot of that was originally about shipping in basic stuff like rations and equipment, but maintaining an inventory and supply chain of spare parts is I'm sure a huge part of it, especially nowadays.

FWIW "The Box" is on the current CNO reading list:


I think that's very subjective. The USSR actually led the way on some innovation:

* IRST on MIG-29 and helmet-targeting for infrared missiles

* Titanium welding for high-speed submarines

* Super-cavitating torpedoes

* Stealth theory

* Air dropped vehicles

* Urban tank support vehicles (BMPT)

* Radar targeting for individual machine guns


* Reactive armor

* Lots of other stuff I can't think of right now.

It's also questionable whether the US military efficiency over opponents scales with budget over opponents.

So its both questionable that it leads in innovation and that this leads to superiority.

I think you misunderstand the parent, which is precisely arguing that the "boring" things about the US military are actually the things that give it strategic superiority - not innovation. In fact your point is totally consistent with the parent - others may have innovated well, but that's no guarantee of success.

Good point, I totally misread.

> It's also questionable whether the US military efficiency over opponents scales with budget over opponents

That's a good point. Apparently the US military funding accounts for 36 percent of global military funding, with 3x as much funding as the country with the second highest spend, China.

I have no idea if the US military is particularly efficient. Even if it was half as efficient as competitors, the US military could still have an advantage due to the sheer volume of resources dedicated.

A certain percentage of that is simply cost of living - China can pay their soldiers and military industrial researchers a Chinese wage while the US has to pay US wages all the way down the supply chain.

Still incredibly inefficient, to be sure.

Sure, it's undoubtedly #1 overall.

I have the concern that - as the pace of tech development increases - the timeframe of designers, planners, and stake-holders shrinks. The advantage of this trend is obvious (why invest in tools that will be greatly improved upon in coming years?), but the pitfalls are less apparent and less exciting. The perspective needs to be broad.

Honestly, some rudimentary technology (physical infrastructure, financial instruments, computing solutions) is rather effective and oftentimes elegant. Why not lean into these artifacts and design around repair/maintenance/continued-use?

It also leaves less time for reverse engineers and hackers to work out the device. By the time you have worked out the 300 step process to replace the power button on the latest iphone without triggering the security chip its too late and no one has that phone anymore.

You mean tech companies want everyone to buy almost identical phone every two years?

If anything pace of tech development plateaus after technology gets commoditized.

Up until recently mobile devices had been getting ludicrously massive performance gains year over year, much like traditional PC's had before ~2012. Going from my iPhone 6 Plus to iPhone 7 Plus two years ago was an absolutely massive leap in terms of even day-to-day performance, meanwhile outside PC gaming I'd have a hard time justifying a replacement or upgrade of a mid-range or better laptop or desktop made in the past 6 years.

Times have changed however, had my iPhone 7 Plus not died on me I wouldn't have bothered to upgrade to an iPhone XS (I had an extended warranty through T-Mobile and got the device swapped just to trade it in for a $300 credit) - it was still stupidly fast and I certainly wasn't missing any of the gimmicks in the newer devices. This is probably why T-Mobile is now testing 3 year financing options with the iPhone XS and Galaxy Note 9.

I really don't understand why phones needed those performance gains. What on earth are people doing with their phones to make use of multiple cores, anyway? The form factor makes their utility so fundamentally limited that increased compute capacity doesn't seem to change anything.

Have you seen the code people write for mobile apps lately?

No, I have no contact with any of that ecosystem, and I use very few mobile apps since most of them seem like pointless skins over poorly designed websites. What do you have in mind?

speaking as an engine mechanic by trade, I agree 100%. But manufacturers have another tactic that needs to be reigned in. Namely, fabricated service bulletins and procedures.

Example: reporting a bad transfer case bearing as a service bulletin. This is normal, as customers have detected the fault and the manufacturer has identified it as a problem. What isnt normal is the manufacturer insisting the part cant be repaired, and instead of a $50 part you need to chuck the entire thing and pay $2500 for a new assembly. Sure, bearings are a hard example, but ive also encountered manufacturers who demand their brake calipers cannot be re manufactured (Porsche and BMW, im looking at you.) and instead of a $119 rebuild, you'll need to buy a one thousand dollar caliper straight from germany or the entire car will explode.

See Apple for the equivalent fraudolent behavior in the computing world.


Freakonomics did a Podcast on this if anyone wants a pretty good listen. I listened and couldn't stop thinking about all of the applications to software in it.


I suspect a legislative process not dominated by industry lobbyists would ensure that people have the right to repair everything.

I think countries that use proportional representation rather than winner-take-all elections aren't as hijacked by such lobbyists. I know there was an effort in the EU to ensure the right to repair.

I think you're looking at this totally wrong.

Making things repairable has real costs. They have to be designed in a modular way so they can be taken apart. Given the choice, most people want sleekness and better industrial design over the ability to repair. This is why products like the iPhone, which feature seam-less industrial design and no externally-visible screws, are so popular.

In order to make something maintainable, the design must be stable, it must be designed to be serviceable, it must be built with serviceable parts, and it must have a long enough lifetime where maintenance is worth it economically, and a buyer who cares. None of these are typically true for huge segments of what consumers buy.

I think the distinction between the right to repair and the ability to repair is important. I think you're addressing the latter and stretchwithme is addressing the former. As the article suggests, the lack of recognition for the right to repair is one of the phenomena inhibiting repair. Where the right isn't enforced, it's possible for manufacturers to make things repairable, while also imposing a monopoly on repair, thereby inflating repair costs and inhibiting (legal) repair.

Please see this Vice article about tractor repair https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/xykkkd/why-americ...

See my comment above, unless there are changes in all sorts of areas, "right to repair" will only have partial success because there will still be no incentive to make products that are repairable, making the cost of repair more than the cost of just replacing.

"Because the thing about repairing, maintaining and cleaning is, it's not an adventure." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IUHECxS6IEU

The article does a good job of differentiating between repairing high fixed cost items (like a bridge or house) and low fixed cost items (like electronics). It's also worth thinking about the labor cost of repairing vs manufacturing, especially in a world where manufacturing is automated and repairing is a very labor intensive process (diagnosis, sourcing replacement parts, performing the repair, verifying functionality post-repair etc).

This is probably the reason why repairing is generally more common in low labor costs markets than in the developed world.

I would like to point out the Portland Aerial Tram as an example of an infrastructure project that has an extremely strong focus on maintenance and repair (understandably so).

Here's a nice video from Oregon Health & Science University featuring the Tram's maintenance supervisor talking about the maintenance program and the impact it has on the Tram's performance.


I don't think all infrastructure projects require this level of maintenance, but it's nice to see what's possible when it's baked into a project from the beginning.

The problem is short term versus long-term profits.

It seems it's more expensive to make products that are more easily repairable or can last longer, because obviously brands benefit from making products that break, although I'm curious if consumers really know how to switch brand when one break early, and if consumers can really understand why and how a product will last longer.

There should be regulations about how products are made and how their parts can break. I saw some broom vacuum cleaner's break because of a flexible plastic air canal. It requires buying a big piece. It's either intentional, or bad design. Those designs should be regulated, inspected and fined.

I thought this was quite interesting:

Tractor Hacking: The Farmers Breaking Big Tech's Repair Monopoly - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F8JCh0owT4w

While I am coming to this discussion after most have moved on, as a software guy who has moved toward hardware I think a substantial point not made here is that manufacturing processes are not like software.

Lego works for reassembly because it is a one-part item: standard interface, bulky, light, strong, simple. A typical circuit board by contrast is centrally fabricated by high-end robots as an extremely high density sub-assembly including tens, hundreds or thousands of components. It's not easy to repair because it requires relatively specialist knowledge and tools to do so, and there are so many different components available. In a similar way, many products have been explicitly designed to be smaller, lighter, simpler or cheaper instead of being reassembly-capable. Injection molded plastic is a classic example, so is assembly by glue or snap-in vs. screws. These are powerful techniques and valid trade-offs.

This does not excuse, for example, companies like Canon and Nikon requiring customers to pay extortionate amounts for repairs and replacements of simpler mechanisms and refusing to supply replacement parts to independent service people.

The real change will come when my handphone can repair itself. Screen cracked? no problem just throw some sand on it and the nanobots will do the rest.

In the same vein of repair and things having a long life, I'm experimenting with the idea of giving unused things new homes. We own many things that are not utilized often, so why not move those things better homes?


Realistically, repair & sustainability is far more important than innovation largely driven by our fossil fuel dependency, which is going to run out in the next 50 years anyways.

More important. The only innovative thing I can come up with to avoid having to fix my leaky toilet is shitting in the yard.

1) Start eating meals at regular hours,

2) join a gym,

3) get a part-time job to fill your empty hours.

Voila, no need for a toilet of your own. (No thank-you required)

But seriously, hold your nose and fix your leaky toilet - this is one of the easiest things in your house to repair. There's such a thing as being _too_ lazy.

Repairs need to be part of the business model to become a priority. Currently, the manufacturers see repairs only as a mandatory service they need to offer as imposed on them by the local law. The market doesn't impose any further requirements on these products. 2 years are just about as far in the future humans can anticipate and foresee things.

Robust design is a feature that doesn't do good to your business. Soviet product design, as laughable it seems to one, was really incredible and produced products that would rarely break and when they do so parts were always available. But in that market model getting rich was never the goal. Quite the contrary!

For example, my grandmother still has a radio that weights 7 kg built in 50s that works despite all things. I can listen to Radio Moscow from my kitchen 2000km away. The antenna is broken and that radio hangs near the cooker, it is already filled with a lot of dust and grease. Just like your extractor fan. That's just one example. Kalashnikov, Russian tanks, cars, soviet home electrical appliances like tvs, washing machines or vacuum cleaners etc. They all work today.

In a capitalist economy only the regulators can impose repairs as a requirement. Most humans are beyond their ability to think critically at what happens in 2-5 years time.

Just establish worldwide regulation that favours any approach with the least amount of resource consumption.

Would not force people into replacing/fixing. It would always favour the approach best for all of us.

Simple solution IMHO

non-paywalled link: https://archive.fo/TIWAi

Thanks, unfortunately it didn't work (SSL_ERROR_NO_CYPHER_OVERLAP on FF 63.0b10).

Firefox 62.0.3 (64-bit) on Windows 10 seems to load it ok.


Is there not some irony here that The Economist, a rag if any is more associated with neoliberalism is running this story?

Repair and maintenance is one of those things that is completely overlooked by neoliberal, modern capitalism. As they state in the article, GDP and economic analysis in general doesn't take into account wear and tear, amongst a number of other things. If anything, the drive away from things like interchangeable/universal parts and the ability to repair things you own in the first place is directly tied to rise of unfettered capitalism.

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