It’s Time to Design for Repair

Electronics Repair
It’s Time to Design for Repair

A Conversation With Jude Pullen

Trying to repair almost anything can be a frustrating exercise. Repair is made more difficult by the way devices are designed and the ability to repair a device could be improved greatly if different design decisions were made. This moment in time demands a new generation of designers, engineers, and makers to consider how to make products that can be more easily and safely repaired by more people.  

My guest on this episode is Jude Pullen, a creative technologist from the UK. “What’s really exciting, both about technology and creativity, is putting them side by side and seeing why we do things and considering what we can do given the capabilities of technology and our own imagination.” Pullen’s curiosity about why he couldn’t easily replace the batteries in his headphones led him to explore the reasons why repair has become even more difficult over time. He wrote a multi-part series called “The Fight For Repair” on Design Spark.  

The global Right to Repair movement was featured in Make: magazine Volume 80 last year,  The War on Repair.


YouTube player



Dale: Welcome to MakeCast. I’m Dale Dougherty, and my guest on this episode is Jude Pullen, who is a creative technologist from the UK. And our subject is really repair and and how to think about that. 

Jude has been on a journey to figure out why so many devices are difficult to repair. It started when the battery in his headphones died or would not take a charge. And he’s written a seven part series on Design Spark about what he did and what he learned. And a lot of it has to do with batteries. The general takeaway is that repair is made more difficult by the way devices are designed and perhaps could be, alleviated somewhat if they were designed differently.

The insight is behind really a global right to repair movement to change the way things are manufactured and actually designed, engineered, and manufactured. One major point that I think Jude makes is that we would all benefit from considering the repairability of a device before we buy it and not wait until it’s failed to determine whether we can repair it or not. 

Sometimes we call it extending the life of a device, and I think a lot of makers have closets full of devices, some of which no longer work, but they hope that there might be a repair for that someday. So Jude, before we start talking about repair, tell us a bit about yourself, your background and interests.

Jude: Yeah. Thanks so much, Dale. This is terrific to, to be on the show. Yeah, probably I grew up being a sort of tinkerer, a maker. I think I recently just put a little anecdote out there to say I very nearly electrocuted myself at the age of nine, taking apart a mains radio and then basically touching the aerial with my finger and I realized that it improved the reception and I got, over the channel from the uk, I got French radio, which was amazing. But yeah, it coulda cost me my life. That story since putting it out there, I realize most makers, and indeed probably a lot of your audience, can relate to that, even if dare I say, I feel like I narrowly escaped a Darwinian selection there.

I don’t take it lightly, and I think certainly being a dad, I actually take these things probably more seriously than I ever have in my life. But really the beginnings of that curiosity, I would love to say that I just landed a dream job at Dyson, Sugru, and Lego, but actually that came many years later after a disjointed struggle through trying to first do a chemistry degree working in a butcher’s, horticultural specialist, and a statistician for the council.

I really have had a sort of a bit of a shaggy dog story of getting into, finally, what I believe to be basically the best job in the world, which is getting paid to be creative, explore things, and occasionally put something back out there which other people find useful, or so I hope. Yeah. 

Dale: I love the phrase creative technologist.

I don’t know how you get to be one necessarily, except through that, what you call the shaggy dog route. I think that’s what’s really exciting, both about technology and creativity, is putting them side by side and seeing why we do things and considering what we can do given the capabilities of technology and our own imagination.

Jude: Yeah, very much and I feel, for anyone who’s new to the phrase, it’s one of those sort of how do you introduce yourself type of questions I’ve found it incredibly hard to describe what is being done. Basically, I like playing with cool stuff, but of course the professional in me is you need to sound a little bit more astute than that, so I tend to describe it as saying, I either take essentially cutting edge technology, and I do the hard thing, which is make it very simple and easy for teams, especially sales and marketing, to know how to go out there and create it into a product or an experience, and conversely, I work with companies, and I guess this is the polite way of saying it, I basically am really good at finding new life and giving a fresh twist to old technology and capability which they have at their fingertips and, giving it a new lease of life, reframing it.

I would say companies like Nintendo do this incredibly well. Actually, a lot of Nintendo stuff starts out not being on the cutting edge. Actually it’s a really clever twist of something that’s actually quite established. And then really, as I said, back to that earlier point, the joy is getting to a point in my career where I can be taken semi seriously and have a degree of repeated success with, companies big and small to basically deliver something, on time, on spec, on budget, as they say.

Yeah, I’m still pinching myself and hoping this ride keeps on going. , Make Magazine has obviously been a continual touchstone in all of those things and indeed hats off to Mike and Keith who gave me my first my first break and I bought my first camera with the proceeds of those two articles.

That’s great. Yeah, there’s a lot of love from all those years ago. That’s great. 

Dale: I wanted to hold up this was our issue 80 last year on the War on Repair. And so we’ve, we care about this and we’ve covered it. It’s an ongoing story. It’s not something like it’s the new release of a product and it has a certain window.

It’s, it is really trying to create a change throughout not just the industry, but really society and how we think about these things. I love that you talked about falling down the rabbit hole because so many of us have probably figured out something like what you did with the headphones. And it just went on and on trying to figure out why you couldn’t do something. So why don’t you just talk from the beginning of you had a pair of, what, six year old headphones? 

Jude: Yeah, sure, anyone can look this up online, but, I won’t overly point to things for people on our podcast and listening just to the audio, but basically I’ve got a pair of fancy noise canceling headphones, which are about six years old.

And. essentially, other than being a bit, cosmetically battered, they’re basically tip top, and I know that because, spoiler, I ended up repairing them. But at the time, the little battery inside them, and again, we can check this out online, but basically it’s one of these little pouchy lithium polymer things with a couple of wires and some of the Kapton tape around it. That thing basically went kaput and ceased to do its thing and hold a charge, as you said earlier on.

I realized I hit this point of going I want to keep it out of landfill, and I want to fix it, but I realized that there was something almost quite– I realized I was on the cusp of going– this is part of a bigger discussion. The question that really got under my skin is, how did a company, and this is not to berate Sennheiser, because Bose, Sony, all these other companies all share a similar, should we, issue, at this time and place, is that they are not designed to be easy for people like this reader slash listenership of make to just, crack it open with a screwdriver and change out the battery.

I wanted to know, from an empathetic point of view, Why is that? Why is it so difficult? Why isn’t it as simple as just changing an AA battery? Why is it more complicated than that? And I wasn’t trying to go on a sort of holier than thou crusade. I genuinely would spend time interviewing people from all around industry, consumer marketing. And I really just wanted to understand why the right to repair was so difficult and hence that’s why I called it, dubbed the whole series “The Fight to Repair” as it is both a crusade but also an accurate observation of the task. 

Dale: We elevated it to war, but it’s the same idea.

Jude: You always get carried away, you guys, don’t you? Exactly. 

Dale: Give us , if you don’t mind, just a primer on batteries, this is so much to do. This is only one component that can be repaired, but it’s a vital one.

Jude: For anyone who isn’t familiar with it, the irony is that and again, I’ve got two batteries here, but I think people listening will be able to have a mental picture, is that one of them is the old school mobile phone batteries. If you’re old enough to remember, they’re in a little box, and they have some terminals, and you click them in, and you click them out. I grew up with those. I had my first phone when I was 18, and I was like, hey, how did we find our way where those don’t exist anymore except in products like Fairphone, we’ll come back to that later.

And why is it that we have this little, foil pouch with some wires coming out of it and a little PCB? And essentially, the way these things work is that essentially they’ve got electrolytes, a bunch of funky materials inside it, obviously including lithium, and it creates a charge between the two sort of polarities, that’s what gives you your battery.

I’m obviously grossly oversimplifying this but interestingly it also has some little things like a temperature sensor, a thermistor in there, to make sure the thing doesn’t overheat. And indeed, that leads us to one of the problems, why the general public is not encouraged to just crack these open willy nilly, is the problem with heat is that you can get what’s called thermal runaway, and anyone who types in lithium polymer battery and fire into YouTube will see why these things are so dangerous, as they really go off like a firework in some cases, and there have been tragic sort of outcomes to these.

I should be really clear that, this whole series is not a please have inexperienced have- a-go people just, casually take things apart. It’s an interrogation of who should be allowed to repair things and why, and indeed, can we meet people in the middle of making it so that, the battery is safe enough to be interacted with by someone who isn’t a skilled engineer.

So that’s something which I think the legislation touches on, but maybe we won’t jump the gun and we’ll get into that later. 

Dale: What’s the difference between the one that has a foil wrap, it has some wires coming out of it? Why is that even designed differently than that original cell phone battery?

Jude: The simple thing is that this process of these little foil pouches, which they come in, that the thing that you’ll realize, and if you look at some websites, some of them actually boast having over 5, 000 different SKUs, meaning variations that you can purchase.

And that’s because the mechanical setup to basically fold these little things like, bedsheets can be done so easily by the process that you can just have pretty much any size you want. Whereas when you get into these little sort of containers you either need to basically form a aluminum pocket, which is what is actually around this underneath the sticker or you need to roll it in plastic or something like this.

Essentially what we’ve really found ourselves in is these little pouch designs of the lithium polymer batteries. They’re extremely cheap. They’re extremely versatile in terms of size and manufacturability. And that has almost become our undoing. Is that we’ve somehow gone from having a standardized range, which speaking as a product designer, I can’t see why we’re not in the hundreds of variations, but we’re actually in the tens of thousands, and probably more than that, it’s probably hundreds of thousands. I just feel that is a sort of, just a gratuitous proliferation of too much choice. 

Dale: Even when you opened your headphones and took out your battery, finding its replacement was not easy. 

Jude: Exactly. Of course, being an engineer and having sourced components before professionally I’m aware that, essentially these things have serial numbers on and you can diligently type those into Google or whatever and you’ll eventually come up with something that is recognized as a particular part and sold by a supplier.

Interestingly, you will also have lots of fakes, which are aware that these things are sought after, and so you can buy a battery that says AB 123, doesn’t mean it is AB 123 part. It doesn’t mean it’s genuine at all. Part of my interrogation was also to play a little bit deliberately going through the motion of let’s see what happens if I order direct from China via AliExpress. What happens if I get it from eBay? What happens if I take my chances on Amazon, as opposed to going through a sort of, –and this isn’t a plug, but obviously, RS is a slightly more rigorous, to put it mildly, vendor of these sorts of things, you’ve got Allied in the States, McMaster-Carr. All of these companies go through much more checks, it’s fair to say, to make sure it’s the real deal. The technical data sheets come with it, and there’s, of course, a price increase in that guarantee.

Dale: What happened when you ordered those different batteries? 

Jude: I’ll be completely honest, that in the short term, there wasn’t actually much discernible difference that I think would create significant problems.

And the reason I sound a little bit like, there’s clearly a but coming, is that doesn’t mean that if you use it for two years, they’re all going to stay on the same sort of performance curve. I do have this on pretty good authority without bias, just from speaking to so many other engineers, that often that’s the reason you go with quality with a lithium battery, is because if you are a reputable brand, you’re just gonna have it blow back in your face because you’re gonna get basically product complaints, returns, and, a really bad problem on all these review sites. But I’m not gonna lie, if you are a fast fashion tech company, knocking out a cheap little Bluetooth speaker, and you know that because it’s so cheap, no one’s really gonna make a big fuss about it if it dies in six months or a year. The sad truth is, there’s a big market and a lot of money to be made in that sector.

And I think that is a little bit where we need legislation to just, as they say, curb that enthusiasm. Because it just isn’t really the best of what consumerism should be. I’m not someone who says we need to live on top of a mountain with hair shirts, but I do think there’s genuine problems that are gonna come back and bite us in the behind with these sorts of just hoping and praying that if you send it to your recycling center that it all magically just turns out perfect.

The fact is it’s a very complicated and torturous path to get all that stuff back. 

Dale: So almost backing away from your headphones, you were able to figure out that problem and solve that, but it interested you that there were all kinds of problems out there.

Jude: Exactly.

Dale: There were some big patterns out there that you were beginning to see. You went to Hong Kong, you went to a disposal site in the UK. What were you looking for? And what did you find? 

Jude: And just before anyone goes, wait, you’re supposed to be all environmental and you went to Hong Kong, I would just quickly say I was visiting my wife’s family, who we haven’t seen out there in nine years. I would like to think there was a slight exemption but also, dare I say, because we were out there for a month, my wife won’t mind me saying, for me, the lines between work and play and exploration are pretty blurred anyway.

So naturally I hit a few people up and said, hey, can I come visit the university? I spoke to a wonderful expert, Dr. Lawrence who just really took me through some of the basics. But also, I wrote it up as a slight tongue in cheek title, I admit. But just actually, is there conspiracy theories? Is this all planned obsolescence? And so I actually loved getting into the detail of, the answer is, it’s a little bit of truth and a little bit more complicated than that, as you can imagine. There is an economic model around companies not being incentivized to keep something alive for 10 years if you can’t recoup that in some way.

At the same time, it isn’t completely Mr. Burns level of maniacal evilness either. So it’s a little bit more prosaic than most people would probably care to realize unless you’re in the profession. And as you alluded to, I visited, much closer to home, I should say, just a happy train ride away for a couple of hours to Sitting Bottom, good name sorry.

Dale: Sitting Bottom?

Jude: Although, Bill Bryson actually has a collection of all these names, which I’m sure that name could probably exist. But actually, yeah, it’s Sitting Born. But, excuse me, I’m losing my train of thought. But yeah, that’s basically the UK’s largest electrical waste and disposable and reclamation site called Sweep Kusakoski, and it’s a Finnish origin group, again, Scandinavians, high five on all this stuff. Basically they do a phenomenal job of taking your household electrical waste, basically putting it in a giant Will-it-Blend style blender, smashing things to pieces. Yeah, I kid you not, it’s just got huge industrial trains that fly round. It’s basically, in terms of kinetic energy, it’s like a bomb. It just destroys things like microwaves almost instantaneously, puts them into little pieces which then can be magnetized or not; flotation tanks, all that sort of stuff.

 I took some video footage of this. It’s absolutely extraordinary. But the, actually the takeaway was that you can’t do that with a battery because you lose all the good stuff. Basically. So what they do is they need designers, desperately, to make it so that they can pull a battery out of there nice and easy.

Having a clip that allows the battery to disconnect, or, as we said from our earlier conversation, good old fashioned, mobile phone style batteries that you can just pop out without any special tools. It’s such an interesting provocation that, just to say to designers, look, I know it’s convenient, I know it’s the status quo, I know it’s how you do it, in quotes, but if there’s any possible way you could just not glue batteries in, or make them so that they’re easier to take out and disassemble, I genuinely think it’s a better user experience, but also it’s incredibly important for end of life.

I can’t stress that enough. I really feel having visited this place. It just feels almost irresponsible for anyone who calls themselves professional with designer or engineer, not to take this stuff more seriously in their work. 

Dale: It’s a kind of purgatory where you pay for the sins of design.

Jude: Yeah, absolutely. It feels I know I sound a little evangelical, but, I’ve said in previous podcasts and interviews that I think engineers and designers should study ethics. We put doctors through the same, you know, ability to make a rational decision which has a lot of nuance, and a lot of ramifications for making a decision.

One of the most powerful statistics, I’ve seen was from Boothroyd and Dewhurst, which is described as the Design for Manufacturing and Assembly Bible and it basically said that a designer’s cost might be 5 percent of the end cost of the product, but it represents 70 percent of the choices that are made in it, so 70 percent of the impact.

Many designers are like, yeah, damn I’m not a millionaire, and you’re like, yes, you are a very small cost, but actually your impact of making a good or bad decision, making a environmentally careless decision, or making something that’s as progressive as you possibly could, within the constraints of your company, the finance, all those sorts of things.

And again, this is not a plea for perfection. This is not a plea for godliness of design. This is saying, can you just incrementally improve year on year? Which is actually very much the sort of tenets of B Corp. classifications, the companies that are acknowledged for being progressively sustainable.

It is not asking you to be perfect on day one. It is asking you to keep raising the bar and keep educating yourself. So much of the journey that I’ve put together here is deliberately saying, three, four months ago, I knew very little. This is actually my journey of self teaching, and also getting taught by people who know more than me.

That’s basically the arc of the series, and why it’s a Shaggy Dog story is because I made stupid mistakes and I got confused sometimes, as well as learning. 

Dale: Would you also talk about beyond even extending the life of devices through repair, it really is what happens to them when they’re done, when they’re no longer useful? That has a cost. Disposal is not something that’s usually baked into the product price itself, right? I once talked to someone, I thought it was a fascinating thing is, and I don’t think that I’ve seen much traction on it, but you talk about manufacturability, and it’s like taking raw materials with a design and creating something, and I don’t know what they call this, but it’s like “de-manufacturing.” It’s almost taking that thing that was made and decomposing it into as close as you can, the original materials so that it could be reused again, not just like shredding something and making some kind of a thing out of that, but actually saying that material itself, that thing could be a component going back into making something new.

Jude: Totally, and I don’t know whether we’re thinking of maybe the same example or something different, but I seem to remember seeing, I want to say Nokia, did a project with MIT don’t quote me on this, but basically the notion was if you put it in a 70 degree oven, the phone, the solder and all those sorts of things wouldn’t melt, but all these little catches and special clips would thermally change in their property, and the whole thing would ping apart. And so it was like a sort of real magician’s ta-da moment. 

Now I’ll be honest and say, I think that is something that really captures the imagination. I think we should absolutely continue to look at things like that. But at the same time, I would imagine if Sweep Kusakoski, the recycling plant was here, they would probably say Yeah, it’s good, but actually, if we have a choice between a very exotic, unusual plastic that has crazy properties, or you just keep using ABS, PETG, stuff that we can actually get money back from, because it’s saleable, and also it doesn’t contaminate the vats that they’re creating, I could see a counter argument to that. Again, I’m not qualified to answer that definitively, but I think one thing I’m picking up as a continual trend from all these interviews I would almost say, don’t overthink this.

It really is as simple as strangely, my earlier training at Dyson, we used to use a lot of screws, not just because it was good for end of life, but it was really good for maintenance. If you needed a repair person to go out and fix something, which is good for the user, and creates a secondary economy around maintenance and service, just as we do with cars.

But also, it’s that thing, when it gets to end of life, it can be disassembled. The moot point, which we are circling around here is, at what point will legislation encourage companies to make it possible that a non qualified person, i. e. member of the public, could reasonably interact with this in a safe way?

And I gotta be honest I feel that this is a strange thing, the more you look back at history, I have more questions. Instead of, what’s the new technology that’s magical and gonna fix this, to how did we move away from being able to wire plugs up? You’re old enough to remember that if you got a plug, you could unscrew the back, let’s say something went wrong, A, you could change the fuse if you’re in the UK; I appreciate it’s different in America. But that was considered a job that a general public person could do, and still is in the UK, and yet it feels like that has shifted to a point of, oh no, you can’t possibly do anything, and it’s all sealed in, and I appreciate there is a safety imperative for that, but I think that something has got lost with throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as they say.

Dale: You also talk a bit about modular design, and the cell phones. All I can think of is in the 70s or 80s, if you really liked stereos, you wanted components, not an all in one, 

Jude: The hi fi separates. 

Dale: You made choices about those things and you plug them together and, you got better sound rather than an all in one device. And I think modular design is like we become familiar with the components that go into something and those components may degrade, but we could replace them. 

Jude: Completely, and I think actually it’s a good talking point that modular design, and again, I’m sure people can point out the outliers in this, but I would say as a rule of thumb, modular design makes sense for products which have an expected long lifetime.

I don’t believe anyone who buys hi fi separates is throwing those out every two years because their contract has ended like we do with mobile phones, right? There’s something broken about that business model. Hi fi components separates are generally, that was where most of my student loan went when I first got to uni is straight away on that. So I feel that it’s a sensible and quite environmental model that you can literally upgrade But also you would totally eBay or sell that other thing to try and recoup some of that money. I hope there’s a resurgence and a consumer enthusiasm for feeling that things can be switched out. Now, I guess I would say that It’s really hard to do that for things which are very cheap, because the simple fact is you need design, you need a degree of understanding of how to build those interfaces, right?

And also, there’s a business model. If you’ve ever bought hi fi cables, they charge you a pretty penny for the things that wire up these things at the back, right? So I think it’s also looking for the holistic opportunity for companies to realize how do we still remain, y’know, as a great interview of mine with Andrew Carr, he says people forget that it’s important that sustainable businesses remain sustainable.

And he’s obviously meaning the economics of this. So it’s a bit of a tightrope walk, but I hope to summarize your point. I guess what I’m saying is, it’s not a one size fits all, it’s a shrewd business decision that says modularity can work for some examples. But I do think brands can really explore it with a lot of return and customer enthusiasm and love.

Dale: The cell phone is the smartphone, if you want to be more specific, it’s the emblem of this device that has tremendous complexity and we can’t really repair it. Apple is changing its tune a little bit but it’s, it really is all the market incentives are to replace it every couple of years.

In America, a lot of the cell phone carriers have a campaign. They say the new phone is “on us,” and meaning like they’re giving it to you for free, and It’s just a really ridiculous thing. When I was thinking in terms of repair, the repair is on us. That thing that you’re in a broader sense of us is when you return that your older cell phone, when it’s still decent, it goes somewhere, right? And someone has to figure that out. 

Jude: Yeah, and I think that’s a really complicated thing for companies to disrupt. I don’t know, I’d be curious to know how big the brand’s and product Fairphone is in the US. I certainly am aware of it in the UK, but I’m not gonna pretend as if, every other person I know has one.

It’s very niche. It’s very early adopter. 

Dale: No, I haven’t heard of it, really. 

Jude: Yeah, exactly, and that is, for anyone, do check out Fairphone, and I think they have two products which especially interest me, and of course, one of them we’ll get onto later, but there is a phone, and the promise is that they try to do the best that they possibly can, within this time and place to look at the components, so to avoid things like child labor, conflict minerals in the Congo, all of this sort of stuff, and obviously recycling as much as possible.

I think, if I’m going to be brutally honest, it’s a really good acknowledgement that part of the reason people will still stick to an iPhone, if they have started out in Apple’s ecosystem, is that the Apple iPhone is more than just a phone, it’s baked in to this interoperability and fluidity and seamless connections, which of course is by design, that’s the point, so it makes it very hard to go outside of that bubble.

Of course, if you’re in Android, you should totally check out Fairphone. But I would say, interestingly, the other product they make, is the big headphones, like the ones you’re wearing and I was trying to repair myself, they are not captured by this ecosystem or operating system. So consequently, to cut to the punchline, I’ve looked at reviews in terms of price, noise cancelling capability, battery life etc.

I can’t think of any conscionable reason your next pair of over the ear headphones wouldn’t be Fairphones, Fairbuds, because it just is literally the same price for a thing that you can repair, as opposed to a thing you really can’t. I’m not being paid, I’m not being sponsored, there’s no bias, but really spending three months interrogating this?

I think it’s a terrific thing to have a standalone project that isn’t caught up in an ecosystem, it’s not locked in. I really hope designers start to take pride in this, and another company to mention is Frameworks, which do laptops with the same mission, pretty much, that you can, and again, you’re old enough to be like, wait, deja vu, we used to change out RAM in computers, who knew?

Lo and behold, it is indeed possible to do, and you still have a nice, lightweight, sleek, modern, high performance laptop. These things are possible, and I would say to anyone who is starting out in their career, or indeed anyone who’s feeling they’re getting a little bit rusty, now’s the time to back these companies.

Having gone from big, extremely capable companies to also working in startups, I think it’s great to take some of that knowledge and muscle and intelligence, and then apply it to some of these companies that really need a boost from that expertise. The time to be a designer working in sustainability and taking this stuff, I think this is one of the most exciting, moments in our history. It really is. I think we’ll look back on this as a seminal moment. , 

Dale: Like how do we get an edge into this engineering and design process? How do we find people that begin doing some of this, and they do more of it, and it grows?

Jude: Yeah. 

Dale:You close with recommendations for people who are designing and engineering electronics, and some of them are really specific, and that’s useful in that way, but maybe you want to touch on some of those. 

Jude: Yeah, and I think I mentioned, I actually took a picture of this little portable speaker, which for anyone who is just listening, this is in part 7.

But basically, the product essentially has a lithium battery inside it, which we can just see at the back there. This is completely easy to get hold of another one. It’s even pleasantly got a little JST clip, which means you don’t have to unsolder the wires to change it out. What sort of drives me crazy is that they’ve glued it in for simplicity, and when it could have just had a little clip. I’ve done a fair bit of injection molding design. It’s not because of the tooling angle and blah blah blah, you totally could have put this in with enough tension and it would have stayed in place, and the two things are coming together.

No reason it’s going to slide around. It’s just disappointing that we can’t apply that thinking in an early stage. So this isn’t me berating this company. This is actually saying it’s a call to engineering leads to say, Look, it’s not even about my blog, but things like this should be passed around internal companies and said, Hey, it really doesn’t cost us anything else and it’s good for the environment.

We should go ahead and do it. And I think, What’s important, it’s that thing of being excited about taking the first step. As with so many things in life that you think are going to be impossibly hard, once you get going, you get into it. Your team gets excited and goes, oh, that wasn’t so bad, we didn’t even lose money, in fact, we made money and we’ve got really nice reviews about it.

And then it’s okay, now should we look at things like percentage of recycle in injection molding plastics? My point here is that you don’t have to do it all in one product but just keep chippin away at it. Keep building up. 

Dale: Your general point is screws and clips are better than glues.

Jude: Yeah, you know that’s it. In fact, that’s a nice slogan. I may steal that from you. It’s a good rhyme

Dale: Screws not glues. 

Jude: Some of the stuff most designers If you ask yourself Do I want to take this apart later because i’m refining the design? That more often than not is probably a good thing for the end of life and indeed the consumer interaction. I am happy to acknowledge that If you make everything modular, it does actually end up having a counter effect, and you end up using more materials, and hence actually creating a problem for the environment, because you put too many clips and bells and whistles.

So this is where you hear the phrase life cycle analysis come into play, and that’s basically the grown up version of saying, let’s not just entirely go on gut instinct and intuition. Maybe let’s look at the numbers and see how these things come out. I still would say for anyone, be a little bit circumspect if you think that you only need an LCA to apply common sense.

As we said, screws, not glue. That, that doesn’t need a full blown LCA to realize that. More often than not, that rule of thumb will be true. And the same thing with snap fits. If you make snap fits so that once they’re snapped, they are impossible to get open, common sense tells you actually you can have snap fits, and if you maybe put a little detail or a little witness so that people go, Great, I can just put a few cocktail sticks around it, and poof, it comes off and I don’t shatter the design.

Those things are not actually fundamental changes to the product. They are just making it more viable to be repaired, serviced, or interacted with. So I think that’s the sort of thing I’m petitioning for, is not to get into a sort of pedantic debate about the minutiae of, wait a minute, but if you have a connection, ICs and microchips are one of the most problematic things, blah blah blah blah, I get it.

Go read the LCA report for a Fairphone. It gets into that detail really fine microscopic level stuff, and Fairphone are very honest about saying where they think this is a little bit of a grey area; we don’t know the exact thing. But I think, to circle back to the point that you said.

A little bit is just applying a sort of common sense of don’t just bodge it together. That’s really what we’re saying here is good design looks like good design. We all know it when we see it, right? 

Dale: I don’t know if this makes sense to you, but in some ways it seems to me that the right to repair movement and open source are after similar things, and in terms of disclosure making things available. Most people who use open source code are not contributing to that code or writing that code, but they benefit from those who do and are able to do that.

And I think that is similar in the right to repair. It’s not just Oh, I would never repair anything, so I’m not interested. You ask your brother in law to repair it for you or you go to a shop to repair it. There’s some way to get to yes on that question of can it be repaired if it’s possible. It isn’t just like making it for the masses and this everybody You know, we have closed things. We have open things and yeah It’s a recognition that there’s real value for the open things, you don’t necessarily get to wipe out all the closed things, but you’re trying to look for an ecosystem that has some balance in it. 

Jude: I think it’s fair to say that, y’know, Not all decisions in life are economic, or totally rational.

 I’m old enough to remember when organic food was starting to build up, and, boy, it was not cheaper. It was like double, triple the price. And now, I’d say it’s at the point where really there’s not too much difference between organic and non organic milk.

It’s one of those things where I think we have to hold our nerve through the initial building up of economies of scale and all these sorts of things, to realize that, yep. sometimes it is going to be a little bit more expensive, and we need to invest in it in those early days.

We need to champion the things. But again, as I said the point I made with Fairphone’s headphones, they’re actually the same price as the sort of equivalent competitor in Sony and Bose and Sennheiser. So I do think that we shouldn’t automatically assume that better means that you’re getting absolutely hammered in terms of price.

That’s where we need reporters, bloggers, journalists like yourself, actually going, hey, guess what? This is great, and it didn’t even hurt, in quotes, financially, or in terms of it being substandard, or some sort of, hair cloth equivalent, where you go, yeah, it’s green, but it’s kinda crap, really.

And I really think we’re turning a corner, and the good designers are flocking to companies like this, to go, yeah, let’s really get some David and Goliath energy going here. And I think that’s an exciting place to be in those environments. 

Dale: That’s great. Is there anything we haven’t touched on that you wanted to cover?

Jude: Gosh I would say the legislation is something that, it’s not a quick read on part six, but I would say the takeaways, and I’m not going to profess to be absolutely flawless on this, takeaways were, we find ourselves in this slightly problematic area where most people who work in technology know that legislation lags behind what is in the bleeding edge, almost by definition.

It takes time to write these complicated universal documents. So consequently, when you look at the legislation, it has a problematic statement as to my eyes, which is that a product should be designed to be repaired by public. Or, and the key word is or repair shop. Now, if I were a big company who made phones, who, let’s say, will remain nameless, that means that it’s tantamount to saying you don’t actually have to design it so it’s easy to repair.

You can make it repairable. By God, is it going to be difficult. And so basically there’s no economic incentive, no self-respecting person would want to spend ten hours and buy $50K worth of machinery, just to say they can fix a phone screen. So it becomes You know, tantamount to being non viable.

And I think that, for me, would be the cynical interpretation of what the legislation is doing. And you’ve got two options. You can either use that loophole and exploit it, but I think that’s where you start to have to question the values of the company that you’re working at. And I do think, especially the people listening to this sort of podcast, I would like to think if they’ve been paying attention to anything that you’ve been saying over the decades, it’s kinda to be better than that, right? No one’s saying, don’t go without food, don’t have a profession. Man, there’s a lot of good jobs out there that that you can actually walk the talk. And I think that’s so much of what I’ve been trying to put forward into this attempt of one person’s muddled journey through this. I come out the other side realizing, of course, it’s harder than it sounds, but truly believing there are footholds where you can start to make genuine progress without making terrible sacrifices to your own personal livelihood, but you are making a huge contribution to the planet and the ethos that surrounds those things.

Dale: I was going to ask you what makers can do. This is a great call for experiments, to try different things. And yeah, it’s to say, yeah, you’re not Goliath, but you can do small things that, stones throw away that might make a difference, that show what’s possible in repair or design or any of these areas. We need more people researching this stuff, just like you did.

Jude: I think research in the least academic way of that sort of connotation. I think research is also building it and seeing if it makes sense in your hands. If you try and do something, does it make sense at the end of the day?

One of the things I would love to see, and again, this is somewhat of an open challenge to people, is I was observing how we’re getting into a real pickle, that if you want to put a rechargeable battery in something, the circuitry doesn’t know how to tell easily whether that is a non rechargeable battery, a nickel metal hydride battery, or in terms of AA, you could actually buy the 14500, which has the same form factor, but is in fact a higher voltage lithium battery.

And so the point is, having a trapdoor that says — stick any battery in here you like, doesn’t exist, and the reason it doesn’t exist is because there isn’t this all in one circuit. So I would say, to people listening to this, if they’re a smart electronics person, I would say this is an invention that’s crying out to be produced, and I think that is just something that occurred to me through going through this process. I guarantee you if anyone tinkers around long enough and, really looks at the products around them, they’re gonna see other opportunities to innovate.

And I think that’s the key, really, is that, the ideas come from getting stuck into it. It’s not sitting in front of, a search engine waiting for a great idea. It’s everything that your magazine has stood for all these years, which is the ideas come by doing, not by stroking your chin and putting the worlds to right from your armchair.

Dale: It is an immersion in, immersion in these worlds, that you care about them and you, there’s so much to explore and trusting that what is worth seeing, what you’re doing is worth doing, 

Jude: I think it’s that thing that people get enthused by seeing someone take a first step.

And for me, this is, I don’t consider this a home run. I don’t even feel I’ve got to first base, but what’s so great is loads of people are getting in touch going, this is a great first step. Can we help, do you wanna come work on this? And I think that’s the thing to really underscore here is, sometimes just making a little bit of noise, the reciprocation of other people’s enthusiasm for something that is latent and in people. It’s just so exciting. 

Dale: Thank you, Jude, for talking to me today and sharing this with our readers. I’ll put links to your articles. They’re very detailed and lots of interesting images showing teardowns and choices and things.

Thanks for talking to me today and good luck to you as you continue to fight for repair.

Jude: It’s a real pleasure, Dale. Thank you.

Discuss this article with the rest of the community on our Discord server!

DALE DOUGHERTY is the leading advocate of the Maker Movement. He founded Make: Magazine 2005, which first used the term “makers” to describe people who enjoyed “hands-on” work and play. He started Maker Faire in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2006, and this event has spread to nearly 200 locations in 40 countries, with over 1.5M attendees annually. He is President of Make:Community, which produces Make: and Maker Faire.

In 2011 Dougherty was honored at the White House as a “Champion of Change” through an initiative that honors Americans who are “doing extraordinary things in their communities to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.” At the 2014 White House Maker Faire he was introduced by President Obama as an American innovator making significant contributions to the fields of education and business. He believes that the Maker Movement has the potential to transform the educational experience of students and introduce them to the practice of innovation through play and tinkering.

Dougherty is the author of “Free to Make: How the Maker Movement Is Changing our Jobs, Schools and Minds” with Adriane Conrad. He is co-author of "Maker City: A Practical Guide for Reinventing American Cities" with Peter Hirshberg and Marcia Kadanoff.

View more articles by Dale Dougherty


Maker Faire Bay Area 2023 - Mare Island, CA

Escape to an island of imagination + innovation as Maker Faire Bay Area returns for its 15th iteration!

Buy Tickets today! SAVE 15% and lock-in your preferred date(s).