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The manufacturer’s framework for repairability in the age of COVID

By understanding the obstacles, makers of stuff can reinvent the way consumers engage with their products and create a more sustainable, circular economy in the process.

Right to repair toolkit

A key tenet of the circular economy movement is to do more with less, such as by making products last longer — through durability, maintainability and upgradability. The ability to repair products is therefore a powerful tool towards achieving this aspect of a circular economy. 

The "right to repair" movement seeks to expand product repair options from manufacturers to product owners and/or their preferred repair shops. Advocates are using the challenges imposed by COVID-19 to reenergize the call for right to repair legislation. This convergence of the right to repair and circular economy movements was illustrated in GreenBiz’s recent article featuring perspectives from Dell and Levi Strauss, sharing an array of drivers and challenges for manufacturers seeking to enable repair. 

Enabling repair is doubtlessly difficult for manufacturers, but by understanding the obstacles and considering a framework for getting started, manufacturers can access opportunities to reinvent the way that consumers engage with products and to create a more sustainable and circular economy in the process.

Context and concerns

Right to repair advocates challenge manufacturers that prohibit or otherwise impede repair by other than authorized third parties. The movement seeks access to the quality parts, specialized tools, repair manuals and diagnostics required to repair products.

In the age of COVID-19 and a stifled economy, a customer’s drive to repair products may be amplified, be it to avoid unessential services or the need to omit expenses. Allowing more shops to provide repair increases competition thereby reducing repair costs. If the manufacturer has discontinued servicing the product or even if it has entered insolvency, product maintenance and repair can go on. 

The value to manufacturers in enabling repair ... includes prospects for new market opportunities and revenue channels, deepened customer connection, more effective supply chain engagement and lower environmental impact.

For manufacturers that offer repair through their in-house or affiliate network, the challenge of accommodating repairs by others includes concern over protecting trade secrets and ensuring practices that support the safe, secure, reliable product operation. 

There is concern that sharing individual product details outside of authorized users may compromise the security of user data, networks and antitheft devices. By requiring the use of authorized service providers, manufacturers can mandate that repairs are made with parts and equipment that have been tested to meet safety and reliability requirements.

A heavy lift for manufacturers

In addition to these concerns for manufacturers, the practical steps for repairability are not always clear and are certainly not easy. Information dissemination must consider formats, frequency and the detail appropriate for a wider audience. Making parts, diagnostics and specialized tools more available requires new supply chain management efforts. Aged technology hampers a cost-effective inventory. Safety and data security liabilities must be managed. 

Furthermore, designing repairable products at times competes with alternative pro-consumer design decisions around functionality, safety, security, convenience and quality. 

Consider, for example, when consumers seek a slimmer or lighter device, designers may choose to glue a component in place rather than accommodating repair through the use of fasteners.

Microsoft estimates, for example, that to use a battery design that can be secured with screws rather than adhesive, thereby improving repairability, would necessitate use of a smaller battery resulting in a reduction of battery life of 1.4 hours. Despite the challenge, Microsoft has succeeded in addressing design for repairability in the new Surface Laptop 3 and the Surface Pro X with accessible modular design, removable SSD and other features, proving that it is possible to overcome these challenges.

The manufacturer’s framework for a repairability program

The value to manufacturers in enabling repair is broad and includes prospects for new market opportunities and revenue channels, deepened customer connection, more effective supply chain engagement and lower environmental impacts. Key to securing value in enabling repair is an effective program addressing:

  • Design for repairability by factoring non-destructive access to components and modular upgradeability into design specifications. Look to use standard components across product ranges and generations, anticipate user or third-party installation with common tools.
  • Enhanced parts management by determining priority parts (based on failure rates, opportunity to enhance functionality, upgrade need) and anticipate component demand, feeding this into inventory management and distribution. Work with the supply chain to ensure timely availability.
  • Extended customer engagement with aftercare programs that facilitate self-repair, view new warranty requirements as opportunities for customer connection, link repair with takeback programs to cycle products and components.
  • Shared information by extended availability of repair manuals, online diagnostic tools, software and firmware updates.
  • Deepened partnerships with your supply chain, the sales channel and third-party repair organizations to build shared value, ensure quality and business continuity. 
  • New business models that recognize that repair-based models represent new offers to customers, through leasing, device as a service supplying parts and upgrades, opening new markets and furthering the reach of your brand.

Enabling more repair is doubtlessly challenging, but there are opportunities to reinvent the way that consumers engage with products and to create a more sustainable and circular economy in the process.

Getting started

For manufacturers who haven’t yet developed a repairability program and find it daunting to begin, the good news is that certain companies already have put the time and effort into their journey in ways that can be leveraged by other industry peers.

Planning for repairability now will help manufacturers to capture win-win value and benefit from long-term rewards.

For example, HP has collaborated with eBay and iFixit to identify barriers and solutions to enable repair in non-commercial settings. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation supported the collaboration. The findings included: Make repair information more available; make spare parts and accessories more available; and design repairable products. 

Companies such as HP and Apple are recognizing the circular economy value of enabling repair. Until 2019, repairing an iPhone at a shop that was not Apple-authorized meant you wouldn’t get official Apple parts.

Apple has a new program that allows any shop in the United States with an Apple certified technician to access genuine parts and tools, and the same documentation as authorized repair shops for out of warranty repairs. In 2019, HP established a customer support YouTube channel with hundreds of instructional videos for repairing and maintaining products. 

Looking ahead

We know that the drive towards a more circular economy isn’t going away, and the organizations that can plan for more circular business models will be more resilient in the face of climate change and other disruptions.

Repairability is a key part of the circularity business model, and planning for repairability now will help manufacturers to capture win-win value and benefit from long-term rewards.

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