As anyone who has been faced with a recently-manufactured household appliance that has broken will know, sometimes they can be surprisingly difficult to fix. In many cases it is not in the interests of manufacturers keen to sell more products to make a device that lasts significantly longer than its warranty period, to design it with dismantling or repairability in mind, or to make spare parts available to extend its life. As hardware hackers we do our best with home-made replacement components, hot glue, and cable ties, but all too often another appliance that should have plenty of life in it heads for the dump.
If we are at a loss to fix a domestic appliance then the general public are doubly so, and the resulting mountain of electrical waste is enough of a problem that the European Union is introducing new rules governing their repairability. The new law mandates that certain classes of household appliances and other devices for sale within the EU’s jurisdiction must have a guaranteed period of replacement part availability and that they must be designed such that they can be worked upon with standard tools. These special classes include washing machines, dishwashers, refrigerators, televisions, and more.
Let’s dig into the ramifications of this decision which will likely affect markets beyond the EU and hopefully lead to a supply of available parts useful for repair and beyond.
When A Large Customer Adopts Right To Repair, Everybody Does
The right to repair what we own has been a hot topic in our community for many years, and indeed has appeared in these pages many times. The recent legislation will not help in some of the key battlegrounds such as the use of DRM to restrict maintenance of John Deere tractors, but it will have a huge impact upon the domestic appliance market far beyond the EU borders. The union’s member states collectively represent such a significant market that these rules will affect the design of appliances sold in all markets, as the manufacture of these devices is now a global undertaking. Thus it is not unreasonable to expect that, for example, a Korean-made washing machine sold in Paris will have the same underpinnings as one sold in Miami, and that both machines will benefit from the same supply of replacement parts.
The story is not without a sting in the tail though, for within it is the news that those spare parts will not be made available to the consumer, instead they will only be released to the appliance repair trade. We see this as a regressive step, because by restricting repair to an anointed few it is hardly a universal right to repair, however we also expect that the usual online suppliers of appliance parts will happily sell to all comers and that a thriving grey market will spring up to fill any gap in the market. There is also the question of what it might do to the lower end of the appliance market, what would the spare parts burden do to the availability of the sub-$50 Chinese breadmaker for example? We would expect this to solve itself by manufacturers of low-end goods adopting a largely standard library of parts, however a concern is that it might push up the entry level for appliance ownership to the disadvatage of less well-heeled consumers.
That’s The Feelgood News Story, Now What About The Hardware Hacker Community?
So far this has been a consumer story, but what about our world of hardware hackers? Going back to the start of this piece it is likely to mean that in future we more likely to be able to fix those dead appliances that cross our benches, but there is more in it for us. This measure will mean a bonanza of readily-available parts will come to market as spares, and while many of them will be restricted to their intended application there will be plenty that will have utility well beyond. Expect to see more brushless motors, valves, pumps, and more at mass-produced and grey market prices, and start thinking about how you might use them.
As this is being written the news streams are full of environmental protests, from Greta Thunberg to Extinction Rebellion to the Bolivian capital and it’s undeniable that they represent the prevailing zeitgeist. The European Right To Repair laws are not in the name of personal freedom but aimed at reducing environmental impact. There is a sunk cost of carbon emissions and other impacts in every product we produce. It is in the public interest to give each the longest life possible, and on balance this law aims to reduce waste through increased longevity with a repairability mindset. I think it is inevitable that we will see the same ethos spread to other jurisdictions and fields of manufacturing.