The freedom to fix our stuff

Last Updated on July 15, 2017 by Dave Farquhar

This week the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial about the right to fix our gadgets. It was surprisingly pro-consumer. The author wrote about a friend whose Samsung TV broke due to $12 worth of capacitors and how he fixed the TV, with no experience, in a couple of hours. I can relate, though I took the easy way out.

He lamented the throwaway of gadgets being unethical on several levels, and I agree. I also remember a time when it wasn’t this way.

I remember when televisions and radios came with manuals, and in the back of the manual, there was a schematic, so that if it ever broke, a repair technician could follow the schematic and fix the device. Dad had a 13-inch TV he kept in the basement, and he kept the booklet under the TV just in case he ever needed to get it fixed.

Somehow, the companies that followed this practice stayed in business for decades, so I don’t know how providing schematics today is a threat to their existence. There was a time when it was expected.

For that matter, Commodore computers came with a schematic. Somehow their authorized dealers who did most repairs survived even though any independent yahoo with a soldering iron and access to components could use those schematics to make repairs.

For that matter, I think there would be an overall benefit to society. Look at the number of independent cell phone repair shops out there. I remember when large cities only had one or two shops like that. Today there are two of them within three miles of my house. What if word got out that other things, like TVs, can also be fixed? That would mean more small businesses and more jobs, and independent jobbers could do weekend repairs for some extra money.

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2 thoughts on “The freedom to fix our stuff

  • September 13, 2015 at 1:07 pm

    Schematics and repair shops are useless if the parts don’t exist. The freedom to fix stuff no longer exists, and your fantasy of revitalizing the economy by bringing back the repairman is just that, a fantasy.

    It used to be that devices used fairly generic parts that could be swapped out easily. Repairmen didn’t even need a soldering iron. Nowadays it’s all custom circuit boards, often with custom chips so there’s really only a handful of components on the board. Even if your repairman knows how to solder, if anything more complicated than a resistor or capacitor goes wrong, you’re going to need a brand new board.

    That’s if the manufacturer even bothers to make any spare parts, and if they still bother to keep any parts in stock for a machine that’s no longer sold. This summer we had to buy a new washing machine because the manufacturer of the old one (less than 10 years old) no longer had the logic board in stock, and tracking down the correct logic board from a 3rd party US supplier and having it shipped to Canada, then hiring someone to install it, would have left us without a washing machine for weeks.

    It doesn’t help when the factory that makes the parts is in China, run by contract with the company that puts its brand on the device. So the parts are built to the lowest possible standard, and there’s a complete divorce between the company that sells the widgets (and bears what little responsibility for customer service they aren’t able to foist off on a call centre in the Philippines) and the company that has any idea at all how the widget is made and how it can be repaired.

    If my model M keyboard starts acting flaky, I can ship it to unicomp and they will repair it for a scandalously low fee, because they make them there in their corporate HQ in the US. When I wanted a less noisy keyboard and bought a second hand Matais Quiet Pro, then discovered too late that it had a dead backspace key, I learned that because Matais contracts their manufacturing out to companies in China, they don’t have the ability to repair anything. So that $150 keyboard is a paperweight if anything ever goes wrong with it once the warranty expires. Matais has arranged it so that they get to make all of the money and take none of the responsibility.

    Sorry to go on so long, but my point is, the entire system of making and selling things has been transformed since the old days when we were younger. It’s been transformed partly by accident (more and more components got outsourced to Asia where labour was cheap, until the entire manufacturing base here had been hollowed out and it was no longer *possible* to make electronic stuff here because none of the parts were made here) and partly by design (whirlpool chose to not bother stocking parts for 5 year old washers anymore, Matais chooses not to enable any repair service for their keyboards). Corporations hired accountants who put zero value on customer satisfaction and customer loyalty. Then they compared the cost of maintaining repairability (high) with the allegedly zero value such things delivered to their bottom line, and they started making all their stuff disposable instead of repairable.

    • September 13, 2015 at 4:53 pm

      Wow, I hope you feel better now that you have that off your chest. Of course, nearly half the time I write about how to fix something, you take issue with it, so I think you have your mind made up.

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