A Weber State University course created in fall 2020 called Repair as a Radical Act is on the vanguard of a “Right to Repair’’ movement in this country. Many states and the federal government are pursuing legislation to allow you to fix your own stuff in 2021.
Co-taught by two faculty, Taylor Foss (manufacturing and systems engineering) and Matt Gnagey (economics), students repaired and repurposed older technology while learning about the economics of repairing or replacing technology. Students learned basic skills like welding, soldering, sewing, hand-tools, using a multimeter and understanding manipulating various materials. They also learned about the economics and associated supply chains of consumer products.
Students had access to tools, materials and instructional videos. They created their own videos and had to write explanations of how their repairs fit into a social context. A key takeaway was understanding the environmental and social impacts of a “throwaway society.”
Students had to explain their own interactions in light of individuals, institutions and global processes. For example, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S.PIRG) found that if all Americans kept their phones for an extra year, it would be the carbon equivalent of 626,000 vehicles. Weber State’s University’s Sustainability Practices & Research Center liked the approach so much, they sponsored several fix-it days, so anyone could see how to repair their broken stuff.
Student projects required them to repair or repurpose technological artifacts of their choosing. Projects included replacing a smartphone screen, re-soldering Christmas lights, fixing derailleurs and other bike parts, and turning Coke cans into a lamp.
A number of organizations across the country have pushed for “fair repair” rules. Organizations like iFixIt.com, repair.org, U.S.PIRG and others are focused on promoting appropriate legislation, reducing waste, sharing techniques and supporting local businesses. They are primarily focused on electronics, but since almost everything has electronics in it nowadays, that covers almost everything. Their intent is to require companies to assure access to parts, manuals and diagnostic tools, so individuals and local repair shops can unlock or open devices and repair or modify their technology. This doesn’t necessarily stop you from violating the warranty if you attempt repair, but it does give you choices.
The legislation typically has bipartisan support. States from Florida to Washington are debating laws. Massachusetts led the way when 86% of voters passed the automobile owners’ Right to Repair law in 2012. Tinkering with technology has a long and appreciated history in this country, romanticized in “MacGyver,” “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” almost all science fiction, and recognized in engineering for lighting the inner fire of many a budding engineer.
Many companies don’t want users modifying their devices and argue against the legislation, sometimes dramatically. An organization representing most automobile manufacturers ran ads in Massachusetts this past fall claiming an update to the 2012 law (looking to promote generally “open source” accessible diagnostic tools) would lead to sexual predation. In 2017, Apple claimed that a proposed law in Nebraska would turn the state into a “mecca for hackers.” A few weeks ago, there was enough confusion created to kill a bill in the Colorado state legislature.
Apple has further expressed concerns about off-market lithium batteries potentially catching fire and out-of-network repair people accessing private information. In a win for fair repair, a few years ago, a class-action lawsuit forced Apple to replace batteries. This eliminated some of the planned obsolescence built into the products. But the company still protects its products by limiting access to battery-controller software and charging customers for a service agreement program. Allowing third-party repair cuts into corporate profits.
A number of states have no history of pursuing the right to repair, including Utah. That’s interesting because a large amount of revenue for the state is based on repair — the upkeep of airframes and missiles at Hill Air Force Base. Given the length of time military equipment hangs around (the B-52 first flew in 1952), repair becomes a constant game of reinvention by private and public entities. That’s why the Air Force now insists on a “digital twin” for any new technology, so the military can choose how to repair it.
Some replacement parts for the F-16 were even created by students in Weber State’s College of Engineering, Applied Science & Technology Concept Center. The radical act of repair can support education, local business, a clean environment and keep our fighters in the air.