Design for Repair and Upgrade

Article By : Michael Kirschner

Cell phones and laptops are chief among high volume consumer electronics that have become less repairable, less modular, and less upgradeable over time.

Cell phones and laptops are chief among high volume consumer electronics that have become less repairable, less modular, and less upgradeable over time.

A decade ago most laptops had user-replaceable battery packs, disk drives, and memory. Some had a modular drive port that could take a CD drive, a DVD drive, an improved wireless transceiver, or additional storage. Battery packs became non-replaceable once the battery form factor could be made thin and distributed across the bottom of the laptop, simplifying the design and reducing the thickness of the final product. That repair facilities could theoretically replace the battery seemed to become an accepted fact. I don’t think I know anyone who ever had a battery replaced to extend the use life of their laptop; they simply purchased a new one.

Now even memory isn’t necessarily upgradeable. To do something as crazy as replacing a keyboard (that, years ago, Someone In My Family spilled water on) can require removing — and making sure you keep track of because they’re not all the same — a boatload of screws (16 in the photo of that specific laptop), the first of a whole host of difficult and tedious subsequent steps.

“… a boatload of screws…”

In their defense, the need to upgrade the primary removable items has generally diminished: lithium ion battery technology has an improved lifespan; DRAM and SSD costs have come down so much that adequate capacity can be built in to the vast majority of consumer laptops; and overall performance is quite adequate for the simple tasks most consumers use the product for.

And our laptops are now thinner and lighter! I love that, of course, but there’s a circular economy-related downside.

Nearly five years ago I bought LG’s last flagship phone with a replaceable battery, the V20, which came out in the fall of 2016. I still use it because it continues to meet most of my (admittedly simple and non-gaming or 5G-related) needs and I can readily replace the battery. Did this effectively cannibalize LG’s future flagship phones? Is my purchase of the V20 the reason they ultimately decided to get out of the smartphone business? Did they make too good and long-lived a product without having thought through the long-term implications? That’s doubtful, but stay with me here.

Unless you do modular design right, the cannibalization of future product may kill your company, particularly when it is mandated by a circular economy requirement.

A few phones with replaceable batteries remain, but none are “flagships”.

Product features will typically reflect customer-demanded requirements. I don’t entirely blame manufacturers for producing less modular, repairable, and upgradable consumer electronics; the users are to blame too. The status quo will remain this way due to its powerful inertia unless a strong and undeniable external force is applied. That external force is government intervention. Only governments can require that products be designed and manufactured to be maintainable, upgradeable, and repairable. Manufacturers generally won’t do this alone as it cannibalizes their future production.

So consumers will just grumble that their TV or smartphone didn’t last as long as expected and subsequently buy a competitor’s product. By setting a level playing field and teaching consumers that they should expect and demand electronics that will serve them for much longer, governments have a critical role to play in forcing the circularity of manufactured goods. This, in fact, is the European Union’s playbook.

For example, in a recent webinar, Öko-Institut noted that a study they performed for the German government showed that using repairable and upgradeable laptop computers (across the government) for six years rather than just the typical three years reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 71,000 metric tons and saves (the federal entities buying the machines for their employees) €95 million.

(Click on the image for a larger view)

The service contract that went along with these repairable and upgradeable laptops undoubtedly made up for some if not all of the profit lost by the manufacturer who didn’t get to sell €95 million worth of new laptops after 3 years. Bulk procurement has its virtues but without products designed for maintenance and upgrade, consumers won’t get the same effective benefit.

As noted in my May 2021 column about Durability, Derating, and Circularity, reliability at the component (and at the system) level will have to improve — or at least be better characterized and understood — in order to achieve longer lasting products and product components/modules that will continue to be usable beyond their first use. For still more evidence that Great Minds Think Alike, iNEMI is starting a project to understand component reliability implications of the longer product use life that is driven by circularity and reuse. Membership in iNEMI is required for participation. Sign-up ends September 3 and the project will start in mid-September; find out more here.

This article was originally published on EE Times.

Michael Kirschner is president of Design Chain Associates LLC.

Leave a comment