Right to Repair and Additive Manufacturing

2021-03-24

Lee-Bath Nelson  

EssentielB Refrigerator 3D printed replacement hinge part

Sustainability is on everyone’s minds. It’s about greenwashing, it’s about recycling, it’s about reusing, and it’s also about repairing and avoiding obsolescence.  We are starting a new series on the LEO Lane blog called #AMsustains – it will look at the many ways that additive manufacturing (AM) can support, enable and, on the other hand, occasionally hinder sustainability in all its facets. In this inaugural post we will focus on the Right to Repair in light of the recently enacted EU regulation on the subject. Stay tuned for additional posts in the #AMsustains series (sign up for our weekly newsletter so you won’t miss any).

Right to Repair – Some History

The Right to Repair is a consumer activism movement that started in the US in the beginning of this millennium. It started with automobiles with a bill introduced (and failed) in 2001 at the federal level to enable equal access to information needed to repair cars, which were becoming more and more technical and computer dependent. Various states introduced similar bills (that failed) until in 2012 Massachusetts passed a bill called the Motor Vehicle Owners’ Right to Repair Act in 2012 that granted this access to all repair shops, whether affiliated with the automotive brand or not. The aim of this bill was to lower barriers and allow for widespread ability to repair. A few years later, in a preemptive move, several automakers signed an accord to apply this bills in all states. However, some automakers did not participate – Tesla, for example, claimed it had no dealerships so it did not need to sign it. The 2012 bill had several loopholes, most importantly access to diagnostic tools (which was crucial for the more software driven cars, such as Tesla and probably most future cars) and availability of spare parts. The first was addressed in a 2020 amendment to the 2012 bill in Massachusetts but this did not yet address the spare part issue specifically.

miele dishwasher 3D printed replacement wheel

Because cars are relatively expensive, people do not rush to scrap them so these Right to Repair bills didn’t have a significant sustainability aspect to it. However, the 2012 bill inspired a similar movement when it comes to consumer electronics, including white appliances, mobile phones, and computers. Here, there is an important sustainability aspect as people tend to replace rather than repair their appliances, because the cost of repair is sometimes prohibitive compared to the cost of the device. For example, in 2016, repairing a broken iphone screen cost only $75 less than buying a new one. Many consumer groups, like The Repair Association, claimed that device manufacturers were happy for people to buy new and not fix. The problem with that is that it creates a lot of waste including some unfriendly metals – the opposite of sustainable. According to the New York Times, if Americans extended the life of their cellphones by 1 year it would have a positive environmental impact in carbon footprint equivalent to taking 636,000 cars off the road. The difficulty in repair is still the same: access to information and spare parts.

New EU Regulation

In 2020, the EU passed regulation to be enacted in 2021 that requires all electronics and appliance manufacturers selling in EU countries to provide spare parts for their devices for 10 years after they sold them. Currently, for some appliances it’s hard to find any spare parts and people just buy a new one. My personal experience has been with an in wall timer for a shower fan – it costs about $10 and it’s installed in a bathroom wall that is later tiled (and then a final plate for the timer is screwed in place). 1 month after we started using it the knob on the timer broke. The store offered to replace the timer with a newer model (whose knob did not fit mine) for free but to use that I would probably have to break and repair the tiling of that part of the bathroom – costly and messy – I would have preferred to just buy the knob – if only it were available… A recent German study by the Öko-Institut demonstrated that using appliances for a longer period can save Germans yearly CO2 emissions equivalent to 1.85 million cars. Therefore, this EU regulation is highly significant from a sustainability point of view.

3D printed timer knob in Nelson household - LEO Lane

Implications for AM

An analyst told me that a company he is following has on average 20k SKUs (i.e., different) parts per product line. This is in the current situation where they do not support products for more than 2-5 years, depending on the product. Requiring these companies to hold spare parts for all products sold for 10 years will increase the SKUs 2-5 fold and create inventories of many hundreds of thousands or even millions of SKUs over all product lines. That’s way too many to always hold in physical inventory. As Deutsche Bahn realized when it started Mobility Goes Additive, the way to reduce physical inventory is to move to repeatable and consistent additive manufacturing and use digital (and secured!) inventory from suppliers. This way an inventory of 2-5x different parts compared to what is currently held is feasible and actually not a problem. In fact, as Mark Dickin (Ricoh 3D’s Additive Manufacturing and Molding Engineering Manager) said: “With only a data file needed, why stop at a 10-year guarantee?” Indeed, putting secured digital inventory in place can also later serve loyal customers when a product or part becomes obsolete. As usual, it is important to remember to go for quick wins so manufacturers can start with a few parts or products and grow from there, but there is no question that the EU’s approach to sustainability and the right to repair adds another layer of enabling sustainability with AM: extending the lifetime of products through longer availability of spare parts.

In my personal case of the broken timer knob, my dear colleagues at LEO Lane designed an alternative knob that worked with the timer. It doesn’t hide the screws, but I find it is more comfortable to operate. Initially I thought it would be a stop gap part (or emergency part) until I could find another exact timer online but then I liked the way the knob looked (even the fact that it isn’t white) and kept it. As they say, nothing is more permanent than a temporary solution. Now, 6 years later, the PLA knob 3D printed on a homebrewed RepRap (above) is still working exactly the same way.

For more insights and information follow us on LinkedIn or subscribe to our newsletter for weekly updates. Photos: up top is an official EssentielB fridge 3D printed replacement hinge, followed by an alternative 3D printed wheel for a Miele dishwasher from Thingiverse, and my photo of the repaired vent timer.

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