Creating a Repair Society

Policies, networks and people

Exploring Dimensions of Repair as a Matter of Time

By Jennifer D. Russell and Sahra Svensson-Höglund

Our things need to be repaired all the time. A shirt is missing a button; a chair leg gets wobbly; scratches and dents appear on our cars; children’s favorite toys often need to be glued, sewed, and reassembled multiple times. For those who have the skills (e.g., know how to sew), the tools (e.g., superglue, needle and thread), and the motivation (e.g., dislike throw-away culture, or maybe cannot afford to replace), repair is often part of everyday living.

The complexity of repair, the skills required, and the specialized nature of the tools needed – those factors can vary widely depending on the product. Also affecting whether repair is possible are things that are well beyond the control of the user: Was it designed to be durable? Are spare parts available? Is the warranty voided if they attempt to repair it themselves? Can broken modules be removed without damaging the entire device? Basic design decisions, such as the use of adhesives instead of fasteners, dictate the options that are available to users even before the need for repair has arisen.

Repair is often explored in the context of the infrastructure (e.g., supply of spare parts and repair expertise) and access (e.g., affordable price and ability to connect with repair expertise) that are available when a repair is needed (e.g. after the damage is done). However, these elements are only part of what determines the “ability to repair” something. By assuming a systems-perspective across the lifecycle of a product, it becomes clear that although the decision to repair-or-not-repair is fundamentally one that is made by the user, the factors that determine whether, and to what extent repair is even possible, are determined much earlier in the product’s lifecycle, while also being impacted in real-time by the conditions in the user-phase.

Compounding this challenge, is the fact that these factors are determined by individuals in the product’s value chain who are both spatially and temporally far away from the user. It is this broader “System of Repairability” that ultimately determines the extent of one’s “ability to repair” something, and thus it’s potential to be part of a circular economy (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Overview of the system that influences whether, and the extent to which repair is possible, herein named the “System of Repairability”.

There are three important elements to the System of Repairability: 1) The timing within the ownership period and product service-life, and the reason that repair may be undertaken (When: Timing of and Motivation for Repair); 2) The circumstances and responses undertaken (What: Conditions & Actions Taken); and 3) Who has the ability to influence and control the options that are available (Who: Locus of Control). As we will show, each of these three elements has a temporal dimension to it.

1. When: Timing of and Motivation for Repair

A product may need to be repaired multiple times, and in different ways, during its service life (period of ownership and use), and there are several primary reasons for repair to be undertaken:  Damage may occur as a result of an unexpected event, such as impact or fall (e.g., a “Hazard” event); Damage may result from general, continuous wear-and-tear that occurs over time (e.g., “Fatigue”); or the repair may be undertaken in advance of any damage, in order to prevent or mitigate the risks associated with a hazard or fatigue situation, through regular or scheduled maintenance actions (e.g., “Scheduled”). An example of the latter is when a vehicle owner has an oil and filter change performed after being notified by an automated indicator light on the vehicle’s dashboard.

Temporal Dimension to Timing of and Motivation for Repair

Depending on the reason for the repair, the timing may be different: Repairs that are motivated by damage resulting from wear-and-tear typically occur relatively later in the product’s service life, i.e., multiple months, or even years after purchase. Depending on the product type, and how it is used, wear-and-tear is often assumed as minor damage that accumulates over time, such as the wearing down of tire treads, or the weakening of a zipper as it gets used. In contrast, a hazard event, such as a product being dropped and damaged, can occur at any time – whether a few moments after purchase, or multiple years later. While the nature of the likely damage may be predictable (e.g., a smartphone screen crack), the time at which the repair is needed is unpredictable. Finally, in theory, scheduled maintenance and repair activities should occur at regular intervals that are anticipated by both the owner and the producer, such as vehicle oil changes, virus scans in electronic devices, and even the seasonal removal of dead leaves from rooftop gutters.

2. What: Conditions and Actions Taken

The product’s owner is central to the decision to act to repair a product, and each repair action will depend on the specific conditions and context of the product owner: How risk-averse are they? Can they afford the repair? How emotionally attached (e.g., motivated) is the consumer to the product? Is the damaged product ‘essential’ to them, and what alternatives are available? Can they access the necessary skills, tools, expertise, and parts when they need them? Is there newer models released that pulls the consumer towards replacement? 

Often not mentioned in the context of repair, the designer, manufacturer, and distributor also play critical roles in this System of Repairability. Product design decisions determine the extent to which a product can be repaired and returned to functionality. The durability of various parts and components, particularly those that are most likely to suffer a hazard event, can determine whether, and the extent of damage that may occur. The use of adhesives to connect components often means that these components cannot be deconstructed to allow for repair, and thus ensures that damage to one component determines the end-of-life of the entire product. The use of proprietary and/or specialized tools in the construction of the product can limit who is able to perform any repair work; in some cases, these design controls impose constraints on repair options, limiting the sharing of tools, instructions, and product specifications to a certified and controlled subset of the manufacturer’s value chain, such as a ‘certified repairer’. Thus, design and manufacturing decisions often dictate whether repair is technically possible, and also whether a repair is viable, from financial, legal, and value perspectives.

The nature of repair actions that are undertaken also depend on the options that are predetermined by decisions made by the manufacturer and the distribution network. This includes considerations such as the cost, existence, appropriate coverage, and duration of the product warranty; the availability and cost of necessary spare parts; the compatibility of upgrade software with older versions of the product; and even the perceived legal implications of having a repair performed by a service provider outside of an approved network (e.g., voiding of warranty).

Temporal Dimensions to Conditions and Actions Taken

The passage of time can affect the product, product-system, and product owner’s conditions and possible actions, and this is typically related to one of two themes: 1) The time-distance from the time of the product purchase; and 2), The time-distance from the model release date. The time-distance (amount of time) from the time of the product purchase may impact the warranty coverage. If the product is under warranty when the repair is needed, decisions made previously regarding product design and warranty coverage can greatly influence whether and what form of repair is undertaken. If the product is no longer under warranty, the price of repair may become increasingly relevant, as well as the owner’s ability to access the skills, tools, spare parts, and/or independent repairer, since the manufacturer no longer takes responsibility for the repair outcome.

The time-distance from the model release date influences the availability of necessities (i.e., spares, repair information and tools) needed to perform the repair. As time passes, manufacturers may cease to produce the spare parts required for older models. At the same time, the longer a product model has been on the market, the greater the chance that repair manuals and information have been made available,  “leaked” or developed by a third party organization.

3. Who: Locus of Control

In the pursuit of inclusive and circular economies, the importance of repair is being quickly realized and advanced. However, there are varying degrees to which individuals feel empowered and in control of their ability to repair. Locus of control refers to the degree that individuals feel empowered to act to influence something. In the context of repair, individuals with an internal local of control may tend to feel a greater sense of control over their own decision to repair or not repair; Individuals with an external locus of control may feel that external forces, including their personal conditions as well as the System of Repairability, may determine what options are available (e.g., traditional product design typically assumed that the decision to repair rests with the future product owner, and is therefore beyond what the product designer could or should personally influence). These mindsets, combined with views about what repair entails, who has the ability to influence the repair system, and who is responsible, may limit our ability to scale repair in a meaningful way. Figure 2 describes the narrower understanding of the repair scenario, in which the repair decision is often inappropriately simplified to a decision made by the internally-focused product owner, alone.

Figure 2: Overview of the traditional view of the product repair scenario, the options available, and the factors that influence the product owner’s decision regarding whether a repair is undertaken.

However, from the previous discussion, it is apparent that an expanded view of the repair scenario that acknowledges the other actors within the proposed System of Repairability (product designers, OEMs, distributors, and product owners), is needed to truly appreciate that the control afforded to product owners is, in fact, quite limited. From Figure 3, this expanded view of the product repair scenario clearly demonstrates the influence, and thus the need for greater design and manufacturer accountability for decisions that negatively impact the System of Repairability.

Figure 3: Overview of an expanded view of the product repair scenario, the options available, and various factors determined through design, manufacturing, and the product owner’s context, which can influence whether a repair is undertaken.

Temporal Dimension to Locus of Control

The System of Repairability implies a product lifecycle perspective, within which the locus of control exists in two forms: fixed conditions, once made are effectively irreversible; and variable conditions that may be flexible or are changeable over time. For manufacturers, fixed decisions typically include product development, design, manufacturing, and supply chain factors, whereas variable decisions (over which there is on-going influence and control) may include how access to necessities is provided, details and warranty provisions, pricing of repair services, the provision of updates to software, and how products and services are marketed to consumers. For consumers, fixed decisions include the point-of-purchase (assuming no return), and whether repairability is a relevant consideration for the purchase decision. After purchase, the consumer arguably retains control over the condition of the product, including whether appropriate maintenance is conducted, as well as willingness to spend time and money getting something repaired.

Circular economy is built-upon a comprehensive understanding of product lifecycles, and the potential to retain products and their inherent value within economic systems, for longer. In order to meaningfully pursue this vision of scaled repair within a circular economy, the expanded view presented in Figure 3 provides a starting point to identify opportunities for meaningful policy intervention to advance the effectiveness of the System of Repairability.

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Repair Barriers

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