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Monday, March 27, 2023

The Right to Repair Will Help Us Endure Outbreaks

I’ve been thinking a lot about resilience lately.

Coronavirus is sweeping the globe, carrying with it supply chain disruptions and fear. My iFixit purchasing team has been trapped in Taiwan since January, waiting for the all clear to go back to work in our Chinese supply chain. The S&P 500 just suffered its quickest correction since the Great Depression.


Part of the magic of capitalism is its ability to route around problems quickly. But what happens when a stick is thrown into the spokes of commerce and we are completely cut off from global supply chains? What if a global pandemic caused other countries to follow China’s lead and shutter factories, short-circuiting material supplies? Would we all be forced to source locally? That might work for food staples and simple products. What about electronics?

Our society is completely dependent on technology. And the supply chain to make a modern smartphone is unimaginably complex. My company takes apart all the latest gadgets to find out what’s inside, and we regularly discover components from dozens of countries. The iPhone’s A12 processor, for example, is designed by Apple’s teams in California and Israel using technology developed by a UK-based but Japanese-owned company, and fabricated in Taiwan using equipment from the Netherlands.

The more complex the product, the more susceptible it is to disruption. When the Trump administration cut Huawei off from American silicon last year, it sent sales into a tailspin while they developed alternative sources. The 2011 Japanese earthquake shut down critical memory factories for months, sending shockwaves through the global supply chain. Manufacturers wisely responded by spreading out their supply chain to reduce their risk in any one area.

As consumers, we too should be hedging our bets.

So join me in a thought exercise. What if health restrictions meant we had to stop making new gadgets for a while? What happens if the next time you go to buy a new smartphone, Best Buy is out of stock?

Well, you’d just keep the phone you’ve got. That’s what we did during the Great Depression—new auto sales collapsed, for example, and people made up for it by maintaining their own vehicles. That trend continued throughout the war as factories shifted their output into military equipment.

And we’re already extending the lifespan of our smartphones. Americans now hold onto them for an average of three years, almost twice as long as we did five years ago. But those phones need maintenance. Every phone needs a new battery every couple of years, and accidents happen.

So in a pandemic-driven lockdown, how would we keep our high-tech products running? Repair shops would be busy! We’d lean heavily on the independent technicians with the most broad knowledge and skills, rather than big chain technicians with limited diagnostic capabilities.

Markets for secondhand and refurbished products would expand. We’re already seeing rapid growth in used product marketplaces, from Poshmark for fashion to Backmarket for smartphones. ThredUp projects that the secondhand clothing market will surpass fast fashion in the next few years. Even Nordstrom has started selling used clothing. In an economy where new goods are scarce, used products will fill in their place. Refurbishers like Trove (which powers Nordstrom) and Hobi (one of Backmarket’s refurbishers) could provide the supply chain by repairing and refurbishing products domestically at scale.

The surge in repair—both by consumers and refurbishers—will lead to parts supply shortages. We saw them two years ago, when everyone realized at once that they needed a new iPhone battery because Apple was silently slowing down iPhones with older batteries. And we’re seeing it now with iFixit’s business—we are still able to import parts from China, but our suppliers haven’t been able to fulfill all of our orders. But the supply chain for a battery is vastly simpler than it is for an entire phone. And you can always cannibalize parts from other phones, the way Cuban mechanics have kept cars from the 1950s running smoothly.

Avoiding the Supply Chain Altogether

There are other ways of keeping devices alive than simply swapping parts. Right now, if you go into an Apple Store with a water-damaged phone, they’ll swap it out for a new one. But the repair industry has developed increasingly sophisticated fixes for these problems, actually performing repairs to the corroded circuit boards themselves.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to train under master iPhone technician Jessa Jones, who pivoted her microbiology expertise into microsoldering. With extreme magnification and a steady hand, she helped me resurrect a phone that I had given up for dead. The problem? A tiny capacitor a tenth the size of a grain of rice. We harvested a replacement from a donor board and had my phone up and running like the day it was new. I used a similar technique to repair the ignition switch on my Honda Civic—no parts required!

We may need an army of technicians like Jessa deployed across the economy to keep our infrastructure ticking. But Jessa and every other technician at the cutting edge of board-level repair today are under constant threat of getting shut down by manufacturers for copyright infringement.

It turns out that all these technicians need in order to fix cutting-edge hardware is a schematic of the circuit board—like a road map, they show you where electricity flows. Twenty years ago, circuit boards had labels on them that provided a path for technicians to follow. But modern boards are so small you can’t fit labels on them, so technicians rely on PDF schematics. No manufacturer makes those schematics available directly, and some actively pursue legal measures against publishers.

Most independent shops are providing board level repair service to their customers. Every product they repair this way requires almost no supply chain access—just labor and the occasional salvaged part. And an illegally sourced schematic.

Just as we analyze supply chain risks, we should also analyze the risks associated with information flow. I started iFixit because Apple was actively sending takedown notices to anyone sharing their service information online. We’ve crowdsourced replacement service manuals for over 20,000 products. But iFixit’s community doesn’t have the technical ability to create the detailed schematics that Jessa needs.

A Modest Proposal

One proposed solution is a Right to Repair law that would require manufacturers to share information and tooling needed by repairers. Such measures have been proposed in over 20 states and endorsed by multiple presidential candidates. Farmers are particularly keen to reduce their dependence on the manufacturer and bring more repairs back onsite.

Critics say that proposed laws requiring companies to share schematics go too far by asking companies to share their intellectual property. But these maps aren’t the secret sauce of the phone. Locking up information makes us less resilient, dependent on a fragile single source for maintenance options. Ironically, China’s lax approach to IP enforcement positions them better to recover from a supply chain collapse than the West, where Apple’s takedowns are treated seriously by publishers like iFixit and YouTube.

Missing schematics are just one way our technology-driven economy is more fragile than our society was in the 1930s. The Institute for Local Self Reliance has been raising alarm bells for a while, arguing that we need local banks, community-based recycling programs that keep resources close to home, and more small, local businesses that are relatively insulated from global financial volatility.

Netflix’s engineering team developed a software tool called Chaos Monkey that randomly shuts off critical parts of their technology infrastructure. Those who make sure that Netflix.com stays online when this happens are called Site Reliability Engineers, and they’ve found that the best way to survive catastrophic failures is to practice regularly.

We need Society Reliability Engineers, to analyze critical places that our economy could fall apart and implementing policies that make us more resilient. Legalizing the work of our best service technicians would be a great way to start.

WIRED Opinion publishes articles by outside contributors representing a wide range of viewpoints. Read more opinions here. Submit an op-ed at opinion@wired.com.

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