Designing for the Right to Repair
By Marco Perry, Partner at PENSA
A recent NPR/Planet Money article has me thinking about the Right to Repair and ice cream. In the dead of winter, amidst a pandemic, McDonald’s ice cream fans in NYC have been left without. According to McBroken, about 35% of the McDonald’s ice cream machines in NYC are broken. The manufacturer technicians can’t keep up, and the franchise owners can’t repair the machines themselves, because they were not designed to be repaired by the on-site staff.
In the last article in our series on Right to Repair, my partner Mark Prommel argued that the legislation should be seen as an opportunity rather than a constraint for our industry. If the bill passes and is widely embraced, the relationship between product makers and consumers will evolve from transactional to loyal and long-term, and we’ll see many positive environmental impacts globally from less waste.
With the bill passing in New York’s Senate and heading to the State Assembly, and likely imminently in other states, we should all be thinking about how to pivot our approach to product design now. Before you think your product is too simple or complex to go through this exercise, first consider: a dishwasher, which has dozens of parts, and an ax, with its two main parts (a head and a handle) both have individually replaceable, repairable, or upgradeable components. These considerations apply to everyone in manufacturing, regardless of industry or product complexity. Here’s how product developers can get ahead of these changes.
Form an internal task force. Identify stakeholders in your company across design, business, and engineering to brainstorm what you can change about your products’ designs and discuss long-term opportunities. Everyone should come to the table with an open mind and their best creative thinking. How will the business model change if the customer can repair their own device, or if you offer white glove repair services for fixes and upgrades on a consistent basis? Ask yourselves: What’s the customer’s experience of this newly designed product? Can it be thought of as a system, rather than a single product? What are the impacts to the engineering of internal components and cosmetic housing when considering repairability?
Think through repairability. Determine what the “atoms” are — the smallest components that are practical to replace. Consider which parts will be the most likely to break or fail in the future, due to wear, use, abuse, or cosmetic damage and figure out how to separate them from the rest of the product to make it easier to fix. A car’s bumper, for example, is likely going to get dented, but because cameras and sensors are integrated in newer vehicles, it could cost a few thousand dollars to repair as opposed to a few hundred dollars, which is the true cost of a regular bumper. How can you separate the sensors from the bumper, perhaps by moving them to a different place on the car, to make it easier for third-party shops to replace it?
Future-proof your products. Are there components you can add to your core product, as upgrades, or to future-proof it for emergent technologies? Are there ways to personalize the product or extend its usability with the addition of new components? For example, Kitchen Aid sells several add-ons to its core Standing Mixer, including a pasta dough attachment, a spiralizer blade set, and a range of different beaters. By keeping their strong motor at the center of the product, they can develop new upgrades for years to come.
Create better self-service parts for consumers and professionals. What elements can be self-repaired, and how can that experience be simplified for non-technical hands? Consider doing away with adhesives, instead use commonly available fasteners, and offer any necessary custom parts for sale on your website. Or, for a growing number of technically savvy consumers, you might think about providing instructions and files so they can 3D-print custom parts and assembly jigs to repair it themselves. For repairs that require skilled professionals, how do you better educate third-party repair shops on your components, so they provide even better service? Keep in mind, getting a repair is a continued experience with your brand, so the easier and faster you make it for repair shops to work with your product, the happier your customer will be with your brand in the end.
Professional servicing shouldn’t be an afterthought. How can you surprise and delight your customer when your product needs servicing? Patagonia’s products, though comparatively more expensive, are made with top-of-the-line materials, so they last much longer than other retailers’. But they continue to provide value after the sale by offering free repairs in-store, or by mail, and they offer self-repair kits for simple patches. If they can’t fix it, they’ll recycle the product for you. The brand has a cult-like following because of how they treat their customers and for their noble sustainability efforts, proving that the Right to Repair is an opportunity for adding customer value.
Rethink what lifetime support looks like. How do you create a long-term relationship with your customers, through all the repairs and upgrades? In Pensa’s shop, we use a Clausing Lathe from the 1950s, and I can still get parts and manuals for it today. We have upgraded it a few times with technology that never existed at the time of its purchase, but it’s the same tool at its core. On the other side of the coin, we’ve had to throw out two large 3D printers that cost us tens of thousands of dollars because the company no longer provided support, and we couldn’t repair the machines because the manufacturer could not sell us the necessary custom components. This soured our experience with the 3D printing company, and we’ll be hesitant to buy from them again.
Embrace the downsides. When designing products that are built to last, some products might become a little bulkier or have exposed seam lines or fasteners. But a new look can become a signature part of your brand. A Jeep, for example, was designed to be repaired on the fly in the field of battle, and its bulky fasteners are part of the ruggedized look, which is what its loyal customers love about it and have grown to expect from Jeep.
At Pensa, we work to design and engineer for the future. We reimagined Zero Halliburton suitcases through many iterations of aluminum prototypes to focus on geometries that provided stiffness and impact resistance. The final product is not only functional but also provides an elegant and recognizable signature element across the Zero Halliburton cases. But, if your suitcase is damaged, Zero Halliburton is there for you with a thoughtful repair team.
We’re excited for a world in which every product’s future is carefully considered, and our products get better with age. In our next piece in this series on Right to Repair, we’ll explore how business models will have to shift in the coming years.
But first, how about some ice cream… as soon as we can get that McDonald’s machine up and running.
This is the second of a series on Right to Repair, which will cover how our industry can think about developing lifetime products, how business models will have to shift, and how we can design for more meaningful product experiences.
Read the first article in the series here.
Marco is a co-founder, partner and the head of engineering at PENSA, where he works alongside and mentors a diverse group of engineers and designers working at the crossroads of strategy, engineering and invention. Throughout his 27+ years in product engineering and design, Marco has followed his passion for shaping the physical products that enhance everyday life … and fixing everything that has broken in his home.