Happily the right to repair movement is slowly gaining ground, and recently they’ve scored a major success in the European Parliament that includes a requirement that products be labelled with expected lifetime and repairability information, long-term availability of parts, and numerous measures aimed at preventing waste.
… including by requiring improved product information through mandatory labelling on the durability and reparability of a product (expected lifetime, availability of spare parts, etc.), defining durability and reparability as the main characteristics of a product…
Even the UK, whose path is diverging from the EU due to Brexit, appears to have a moment of harmony on this front. This builds upon existing rights to repair in that devices sold in Europe will eventually have to carry a clearly visible repair score to communicate the ease of repairability and supply of spare parts, making a clear incentive for manufacturers to strive for the highest score possible.
We live in an age in which our machines, appliances, and devices are becoming ever more complex, while at the same time ever more difficult to repair. Our community are the masters of fixing things, but even we are becoming increasingly stumped in the face of the latest flashy kitchen appliance or iDevice. The right to repair movement, and this measure in particular, seeks to improve the ability of all consumers, not just us hackers, to makebuying decisions for better products and lower environmental impact.
With a population of around 450 million people spread across 27 member countries, the EU represents a colossal market that no manufacturer can afford to ignore. Therefore while plenty of other regions of the planet have no such legislation this move will have a knock-on effect across the whole planet. Since the same products are routinely sold worldwide it is to be expected that an improvement in repairability for European markets will propagate also to the rest of the world. So when your next phone has a replaceable battery and easier spares availability, thank the EU-based right to repair campaigners and some European lawmakers for that convenience.
The dongle is a DIY copy of one that Medtronic makes, which of course they don’t sell to anyone. It makes a three-way connection between the patient’s monitor, a breath delivery system, and a computer, and lets technicians sync software between two broken machines so they can be Frankensteined into a single working ventilator. The company open-sourced an older model at the end of March, but this was widely viewed as a PR stunt.
This is not just the latest chapter in the right-to-repair saga. What began with locked-down tractors and phones has taken a serious turn as hospitals are filled to capacity with COVID-19 patients, many of whom will die without access to a ventilator. Not only is there a shortage of ventilators, but many of the companies that make them are refusing outside repair techs’ access to manuals and parts.
These companies insist that their own in-house technicians be the only ones who touch the machines, and many are not afraid to admit that they consider the ventilators to be their property long after the sale has been made. The ridiculousness of that aside, they don’t have the manpower to fix all the broken ventilators, and the people don’t have the time to wait on them.
We wish we could share the dongle schematic with our readers, but alas we do not have it. Hopefully it will show up on iFixit soon alongside all the ventilator manuals and schematics that have been compiled and centralized since the pandemic took off. In the meantime, you can take Ventilators 101 from our own [Bob Baddeley], and then find out what kind of engineering goes into them.
We love writing about DRM here at Hackaday. Because when we do, it usually means someone found a way to circumvent the forced restrictions laid upon by a vendor, limiting the use of a device we thought is ours once we bought it. The device in question this time: the water filter built into GE’s fridges that would normally allow its “owner” to pour a refreshing glass of cold water. Except the filter is equipped with an RFID tag and an expiration, which will eventually deny you that little luxury. And if that’s already a feature, you can bet it won’t just let you insert any arbitrary filter as replacement either.
Enraged by every single aspect of that, [Anonymous] made a website to vent the frustration, and ended up tearing the culprit apart and circumvent the problem, with a little help from someone who was in the same situation before. As it turns out, the fridge comes with a “bypass filter” that is just a piece of plastic to fit in place of the actual filter, to pour unfiltered, but still cold water. That bypass filter is also equipped with an RFID tag, so the reader will recognize it as a special-case filter, which luckily enough doesn’t have an expiration counter.
The general idea is to take out that bypass filter’s RFID tag and place it on a generic, way cheaper filter to trick the fridge into thinking it simply doesn’t have a filter in the first place, while still enjoying the filters actual functionality. However, this might not be the most stable solution if the tag isn’t placed in the exact position. Also, retrieving the tag in the first place proved tricky, and [Anonymous] initially ended up with nothing but the antenna pad, while the tag itself remained sturdily glued into the plastic piece.
The simmering duel between farmers and agricultural machinery manufacturers over access to the software to unlock the DRM which excludes all but the manufacturer’s agents from performing repairs goes on. How this plays out will have implications for the right to repair for everyone on many more devices than simply tractors. Events so far have centred on the American Midwest, but there is an interesting new front opening up in Australia. The Aussie government consumer watchdog, the ACCC, is looking into the matter, and examining whether the tractor manufacturers are in breach of the country’s Competition and Consumer Act. As ABC News reports there is a dual focus, both of the DRM aspect and on the manufacturer’s harvesting and lock-in of customer farm data.
This is an exciting turn of events for anyone with an interest in the right to repair, because it takes the manufacturers out of the comfort zone of their home legal environment into one that may be less accommodating to their needs. If Aussie farmers force them to open up their platforms then it will benefit all of us, but even if it fails, the fact that the issue has received more publicity in a different part of the world can only be a good thing. There are still tractor manufacturers that do not load their machines with DRM, how long will it be we ask before the easy repairability of their products becomes a selling point?
For the past few years now we’ve covered a long-running battle between American farmers and the manufacturers of their farm machinery, over their right to repair, with particular focus on the agricultural giant John Deere. The manufacturer of the familiar green and yellow machinery that lies in the heart and soul of American farming has attracted criticism for using restrictive DRM and closed-source embedded software to lock down the repair of its products into the hands of its dealer network.
We last visited the Nebraska farmers a couple of years ago when they were working towards the bill reaching their legislature. The Bloomberg piece brings the saga up to date, with the Nebraska Farm Bureau failing to advance it, and the consequent anger from the farmers themselves. It’s interesting in its laying bare the arguments of the manufacturer, also for its looking at the hidden aspect of the value of the data collected by these connected machines.
It’s likely that the wider hardware hacker community and the farming community have different outlooks on many fronts, but in our shared readiness to dive in and fix things and now in our concern over right to repair we have a common purpose. Watching these stories at a distance, from the agricultural heartland of the European country where this is being written, it’s striking how much the farmers featured are the quintessential salt-of-the-earth Americans representing what much of America still likes to believe that it is at heart. If a company such as John Deere has lost those guys, something really must have gone wrong in the world of green and yellow machinery.
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.
It’s never been harder to repair your electronics. When the keyboard in your shiny new MacBook dies, you’ll have to send it to a Genius. When the battery in your iPhone dies, you’ll have to break out the pentalobe screwdrivers. Your technology does not respect your freedom, and this is true all the way down to the source code: the Library of Congress is thankfully chipping away at the DMCA in an effort that serves the Right to Repair movement, but still problems remain.
The ability — or rather, right — to repair will inevitably mean using electronics longer, and keeping them out of the garbage. That’s less e-waste, but it’s also older, potentially slower and less powerful portable workstations. This is the question: how long should you keep your electronics running? When do you start getting into the false economy of repairing something just because you can? What is the minimally viable laptop?