Who Owns The Machine Anyway?

The story of the McDonalds’ frozen treat machine involves technology, trade secrets, inside business dealings, franchiser/franchisee friction, and an alleged NDA violation. In short: lots of money and lawyers. But it also involves something that matters to all of us hackers — what it means to own a machine.

Sad clown holding melted ice cream coneThe brief background is that McDonald’s requires its franchisees to buy a particular Taylor Soft Serve machine. The machine would enter pasteurizing mode and has opaque error codes that are triggered apparently without the owners or operators understanding, at which point Taylor service techs come in to fix them — and get paid for their service, naturally. A small hardware startup, Kytch, stepped into the mess with a device that man-in-the-middles the Taylor machine’s status codes, allowing the machine’s owners to diagnose and monitor it themselves. Heroes, right?

Taylor, naturally, wants to look at a Kytch device, but they’re locked up under NDAs that Kytch require users to sign in order to protect their trade secrets. So when Taylor gets their hands on one, Kytch takes them to court for, ironically, reverse engineering their device that they built to reverse Taylor’s protocols.

There are no good guys in this fight: it’s corporate secrecy fighting corporate secrets. None of which, by the way, is Hackaday particularly fond of. Why? Because these secrets rob the ostensible owners of the devices of their ability to inspect, fix, and operate their machines. This is akin to the “right to repair” idea, but it’s somehow even more fundamental — the right to know what your own devices are doing.

What this story needs is a Robin Hood. And as the devices we get sold become increasingly wrapped up in EULAs and NDAs, and full of secret sauce that’s out of our control, we’re going to need a lot more Robin Hoods. It’s McDonald’s frozen treat machines, but it’s also your smart thermostat and your inkjet printer and your — you name it. Have at it, Hackaday!

Robot Utopia

We see so many dystopian visions of automation, it’s time for us to do it right! The Redefine Robots round of the 2021 Hackaday Prize just started, and it’s your chance to build robots that respect the users. It doesn’t have to be the largest project in the world, but it does have to be automatic and helpful. Start your engines!

School Surplus Laptop BIOS Hacked To Remove Hardware Restrictions

Why did [Hales] end up hacking the BIOS on a 10 year old laptop left over from an Australian education program? When your BIOS starts telling you you’re not allowed to use a particular type of hardware, you don’t have much of a choice.

Originally [Hales] planned on purchasing a used Lenovo X260 to replace his dying laptop, but his plans were wrecked. A pandemic-induced surge in demand that even the used laptop market caused prices to bloat. The need for a small and affordable laptop with a built in Ethernet port led to the purchase of a Lenovo Thinkpad x131e. Although the laptop was older than he liked, [Hales] was determined to make it work. Little did he know the right-to-repair journey he was about to embark on.

Problems first arose when the Broadcom WiFi adapter stopped working reliably. He replaced it, but the coaxial antenna cable was found to be damaged. Even after replacing the damaged cabling, the WiFi adapter was still operating very poorly. Recalling past problems with fickle Broadcom WiFi adapters, it was decided that an Intel mPCIe WiFi adapter would take its place. When power was re-applied, [Hales] was shocked to find the following message:

Unauthorized network card is plugged in – Power off and remove the miniPCI network card

And this is where things got interesting. With off the shelf SOIC8 clips and a CH340 programmer, [Hales] dumped the BIOS from the laptop’s flash chip to another computer and started hacking away. After countless hours of researching, prodding, hacking, and reverse engineering, the laptop was useful once again with the new Intel WiFi adapter. His site documents in great detail how he was able to reverse engineer the BIOS over the course of several days.

But that’s not all! [Hales] was also able to modify the hardware so that his slightly more modern mPCIe WiFi adapter would come back on after the computer had been put in Hibernation. It’s an elegant hack, and be sure to check [Hales’] site to get the full details. And at the end, there’s a nice Easter egg for anybody who’s ever wanted to make their laptop boot up with their own logo.

We applaud [Hales] for his fine efforts to keep working equipment out of the landfill. We’ve covered many hacks that had similar goals in the past. Do you have a hack you’d like to share? Submit it via the Tips Line.

Sad clown holding melted ice cream cone

Freezing Out Ice Cream Machine Competition

We always knew that McDonald’s soft serve (you can’t really call it ice cream) machines are known to be finicky. There’s even a website that tracks where the machines are broken and, apparently, it is usually about 10% or more of them at any given time. But when we saw a news article about a judge issuing a restraining order, we knew there must be more to the story. Turns out, these $18,000 soft serve machines are in the heart of something we are very interested in: when do you own your own technology?

Cold Tech

There are apparently 13,000 or so of these machines and they are supposedly high-tech marvels, able to produce soft serve and milkshakes at the same time. However, they are also high maintenance. Cleaning the machine every two weeks (try not to think about that) involves a complete teardown. Worse, if anything breaks, you need a factory-authorized service person.

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Should You Be Able To Repair It? We Think So.

You own it, you should be able to fix it. So much equipment on sale today has either been designed to be impossible to maintain, unnecessarily too complex to maintain, maintainable only with specialist tooling only available to authorised service agents, or with no repair parts availability. It’s a hot-button issue in an age when sustainability is a global concern, so legislators and regulators worldwide now finally have it in their sights after years of inaction and it’s become a buzzword. But what exactly is the right to repair, and what do we want it to be?

Is It Designed For Repair?

A Nestle Dolce Gusto machine
For some reason, pod coffee makers are especially resistant to repair. Andy1982, CC BY 3.0

The first question to consider is this: does it matter whether or not you have the right to repair something, if it’s designed specifically with lack of repairability in mind? Consider a typical domestic pod coffeemaker such as a Tassimo or similar: despite being physically quite a simple device, it is designed to be especially complex to dismantle and reassemble. You just can’t get into it when something goes wrong.

Should it be the preserve of regulators to require design for easy repair? We think so. There are other forces working on the designers of home appliances; design-for-manufacture considerations and exterior appearance concerns directly affect the firm’s bottom line, while the end users’ repair experience is often at the bottom of the list, even though the benefit at a national level is obvious. That’s what laws are for.
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FTC Rules On Right To Repair

A few days ago, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) came out with a 5-0 unanimous vote on its position on right to repair. (PDF) It’s great news, in that they basically agree with us all:

Restricting consumers and businesses from choosing how they repair products can substantially increase the total cost of repairs, generate harmful electronic waste, and unnecessarily increase wait times for repairs. In contrast, providing more choice in repairs can lead to lower costs, reduce e-waste by extending the useful lifespan of products, enable more timely repairs, and provide economic opportunities for entrepreneurs and local businesses.

The long version of the “Nixing the Fix” report goes on to list ways that the FTC found firms were impeding repair: ranging from poor initial design, through restrictive firmware and digital rights management (DRM), all the way down to “disparagement of non-OEM parts and independent repair services”.

While the FTC isn’t making any new laws here, they’re conveying a willingness to use the consumer-protection laws that are already on the books: the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act and Section 5 of the FTC Act, which prohibits unfair competitive practices.

Only time will tell if this dog really has teeth, but it’s a good sign that it’s barking. And given that the European Union is heading in a similar direction, we’d be betting that repairability increases in the future.

Thanks [deshipu] for tipping us off on this one!

Repair Hack Saves Tesla Owner From Massive Bill

As expensive as a new car is, it almost seems like a loss leader now to get you locked into exorbitantly expensive repairs at the dealership’s service department. That’s the reason a lot of us still try to do as much of the maintenance and repairs on our cars as possible — it’s just too darn expensive to pay someone else to do it.

Case in point: this story about a hapless Tesla owner who faced a massive repair bill on his brand new car. [Donald]’s tale of woe began when he hit some road debris with his two-wheel-drive Model 3. The object hit penetrated the plastic shield over the front of the battery pack, striking a fitting in the low-pressure battery cooling plumbing. The plastic fitting cracked, causing a leak that obviously needed repair. The authorized Tesla service center gave him the bad news: that he needed a new battery pack, at a cost of $16,000. Through a series of oversights, [Donald]’s comprehensive insurance on the car had lapsed, so he was looking at funding the repair, approximately half the cost of a new Model 3, out of pocket.

Luckily, he got in touch with [Rich Benoit] of The Electrified Garage, one of the few independent garages doing Tesla repairs and customizations. The video below is queued up to the part where they actually do the repair, which is ridiculously simple. After cutting off the remains of the broken fitting with a utility knife, [Rich]’s tech was able to cut a thread in both the fitting and the battery pack, and attach them together with a brass nipple from the plumbing section of the local home store. The total bill for the repair was $700, which still seems steep to us, but a far cry from what it could have been.

Hats off to [Rich] and his crew for finding a cost-effective workaround for this issue. And if you think you’ve seen his EV repairs before, you’re right. Of course, some repairs are more successful than others.

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Tractors And The Right To Repair: It’s Going Global

For more than a few years now, we’ve been covering the saga of tractors from the larger manufacturers on which all components are locked down by software to the extent that they can only be replaced by officially sanctioned dealers. We’re thus pleased to see a couple of moments when the story has broken out of the field of a few farmers and right-to-repair geeks and into the mainstream. First up:  a segment on the subject from NPR is worth a listen, as the US public radio station interviews a Montana farmer hit by a $5k fuel sensor on his John Deere as a hook form which to examine the issue. Then there is a blog post from the National Farmers Union, the body representing UK farmers, in which they too lay out the situation and also highlight the data-grabbing aspects of these machines.

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