What’s happening to our appliances?

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Article by Chris Moller

My dad would never own anything unless he understood how to repair it, and he would hardly ever throw anything away unless it had been repaired at least a couple of times.  He said he never wanted to get into a situation in which he was dependent on someone else to be able to carry on doing what he was doing.

In today’s hi-tech world, this is no longer possible.  As technology has advanced, repairability has gone backwards.  You cannot understand how something works just by taking it apart.  As likely as not, all the clever stuff will be in the program of a silicon chip somewhere inside, that no-one but the programmer who works for the manufacturer actually understands.  Service manuals are no longer published.  In any event, the manufacturing will have been done by a surface-mount placement machine (a robotic machine costing hundreds of thousands of pounds), making manual replacement of parts almost totally impossible.

As our manufacturing capability in the UK has shrunk, along with the many, many manufacturing techniques we’ve forgotten, we have also forgotten the skills needed to design products that can last.  A steam engine made 150 years ago can be kept going indefinitely – as any part that was made can be remade.  We can no longer do this.  Indeed, no-one in the world can repair a zapped silicon chip – if you don’t have a supply of spares, the product is a write-off.  (My Morris Traveller will still be running long after my hi-tech Mercedes has run out of supplies of silicon chips to keep it running!)

One of the lessons you quickly learn when you run Repair Cafés is that the older something is, the more likely it is to be repairable.  Old radios and TVs have the circuit diagram inside the back panel or in the user manual.  They do not need specialised tools to repair.  The implications of this for society are serious.  Hi-tech products manufactured in the last few years are designed not to last – the manufacturers have a financial incentive to ensure that they don’t.  That’s the way the capitalist system works.  They don’t want you to repair the old one – they want you to buy a new one!

The Repair Café movement, along with similar organisations like Restart Parties, are pushing back against this, and documenting the way our relationship with technology is changing.  For the past two years, we have been collecting statistics on the age and brands of products that are brought for repair, and based on 650 items, this is what we’ve found:

 

You can of course read various things into these graphs.  Generally items that are nearly new have simple things that need sorting – perhaps because the user didn’t understand how to use the product.  However, the dip at 3-4 years is worrying (it has been stable throughout the two years we’ve been monitoring it), and it suggests that hi-tech products are no longer being designed to last longer than this.  We should be pushing back and complaining to manufacturers about this.

My parents had many cherished heirlooms that were still useful and able to do their job after many, many years.  I wonder how many of today’s hi-tech products will still be serving their purpose for our grandchildren when they’re our age?

 

Chris Moller is a retired electronics engineer, a Visiting Researcher at the Open University and organizer of the Cottenham Repair Café.  His other activities include International Electrical Standards and managing a Vocational College in Ghana.

A version of this blog post first appeared in the Cambridge Independent on the 18th April 2018.