Leading Us Out of the Darkness

Article By : Michael Kirschner

Framework's laptop is designed so a typical user—not an engineer or technician—can easily replace or upgrade any subassembly.

In August, I shared with you my frustration over unrepairable laptops. The complaints I mentioned included:

  • No user-replaceable battery packs
  • No user-replaceable storage
  • No user-replaceable DRAM
  • No modular drive port
  • No user-replaceable keyboard
  • Multiple fastener types

These are not new complaints: I bought a 128K Mac soon after Apple began selling them in 1984. After a short while I wanted to upgrade the memory and was furious that they had used a star-head screw for the enclosure. Who has a star head screwdriver?? Hilariously, a common hex wrench worked to remove them; but the intent to prevent me from opening the case was evident.

I won’t even go into the verbiage of my mid-1990s report to my then-management detailing the assemblers’ complaints about the heatsink with nearly two dozen bolts holding it down to the motherboard I had to go to South Dakota in the dead of winter to investigate because they wanted to understand why this assembly was so expensive to produce. Nope. Won’t talk about it. Suffice it to say that manufacturability and reparability are two ilities that are synergistic.

A company trying to address these issues is Framework Computer Inc., which is right down the street from me in Burlingame, California. This local (San Francisco Bay Area) manufacturer was started just a couple years ago. The idea, according to Nirav Patel, the company’s founder, was to produce “a thin, light, high performance 13.5″ notebook that can be upgraded, customized, and repaired in ways that no other laptop can be.”

Photo © Framework; used by permission.

The product is designed so a typical user — not an engineer or technician — can easily replace or upgrade (step-by-step guides are published online and linked to via a QR code on each module) any functional subassembly in the product.

Framework is also taking a very different approach to support and upgradeability than every other laptop manufacturer: they are publishing their specifications to enable 3rd parties to define, build, and sell their own expansion modules. They expect to expand this to other components of the system in the future.

Photo © Framework; used by permission.

This is a risk for both Framework and for its customers. This is a new company; by purchasing this laptop a user is betting that Framework and its ecosystem will be there when a replacement module or upgrade is needed or desired. On the other hand, by enabling a 3rd party marketplace they are—they hope—creating enough of an ecosystem to keep the product going… perhaps even without them. Note that this has happened before, in this exact space. Remember that IBM defined their version of the personal computer, but opened up and published the hardware specifications. IBM was eventually forced to exit the market, having lost control and been undercut by lower cost, and in some ways more creative, manufacturers like Compaq.

Setting up the company to operate like this creates questions and challenges—are they cannibalizing future production for sales today? Is the business model of ultimately selling more modules as more people upgrade their existing computers than purchase new ones going to be profitable enough? This is, in my mind, the crux of the matter for the circular economy: how does revenue for things and stuff get replaced by revenue for services, and how much can one be substituted for the other?

Watch CEO Nirav Patel talk about the product at a recent iNEMI webinar. And watch Linus Tech Tips go through the product and build it. “Screws! No glue!”

How do you make your product more modular, more repairable, more upgradeable? And maybe more importantly, how do you get Product Management to rewrite those MRDs so you can design it like that? One way is to think about the ilities – a more manufacturable product may be less expensive to manufacture, and result in lower warranty and repair costs. Because you don’t have to pay for the two hours it takes to mount or remove a heatsink when it should take 4 minutes.

This article was originally published on EE Times.

Michael Kirschner is president of Design Chain Associates LLC.


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