Industrial designer advocates hackable products


A lot of makers find themselves annoyed by throwaway products that can’t be fixed and are hard to open. Check out this interesting article by Alex Diener discussing the phenomenon from the opposite perspective: an industrial designer’s. To illustrate, Diener attempts to open up a busted iron (video above).

Design for Disassembly is a design strategy that considers the future need to disassemble a product for repair, refurbish or recycle. Will a product need to be repaired? Which parts will need replacement? Who will repair it? How can the experience be simple and intuitive? Can the product be reclaimed, refurbished, and resold? If it must be discarded, how can we facilitate its disassembly into easily recyclable components? By responding to questions like these, the DfD method increases the effectiveness of a product both during and after its life.

Our ancient tools, meticulously crafted from natural materials and intended for repair and reuse, are perhaps the earliest example of DfD. During the 1950’s rise of consumerism, fueled by mass production methods, cheap labor, and design fashion, disposability became the norm. Over time, the waste created by planned obsolescence and a throw-away culture was exposed. Organizations studied the negative impacts of toxins found in our product waste and governments began to regulate. In 2004, the European Union passed the landmark WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) Directive, placing the responsibility of disposing electronic products with their manufacturers. This tectonic shift was recognized as a sign of things to come by global manufacturers, driving interest in the DfD strategy.

Remember, if you can’t open it, you don’t own it!

12 thoughts on “Industrial designer advocates hackable products

  1. salsa says:

    It does seem like the iron could be disassembled, though– held together with screws as opposed to the case being fused or held together with clips designed to break when opened.

    The big issue is really how to repair mass-produced products made with so many specialized parts. The parts were cheap when bought by the manufacturer in quantities of thousands, but are impossible for a consumer or repair facility to buy at any price!

    I recently broke the LCD in a remote control, and the manufacturer (Logitech) not only told me there was no repair facility (which I doubt), but an official post on their forums states that it was “never intended to be opened”!
    That was too much for me– I promptly opened it up (easy btw) and was able to remove the broken LCD. Not able to find a replacement module, my only choice was to buy a broken donor remote on Ebay (with an undamaged LCD) and do the screen transplant myself– worked like a charm.

    Refusing to offer any repair service or replacement parts should be a crime!

  2. Jim McCorison says:

    I find Diener’s premise to be disingenuous. If he really wants an easy to disassemble iron with a low tool count, then he should have purchased an old fashion flat iron. One part, the metal of the cast iron. No tools. But then he’d have to give up automatic temperature control, push button steam, auto off, and all the other features of a modern iron. I doubt, despite his cries for more simple products, that he would go back to “the good ole days of yore”.

    If anything, the iron shows that it is what he wants. He was able to disassemble it into its component parts with comparative ease. But he wasn’t trying to repair it. His sole purpose was to prove how many parts it contained. I suppose he also wants an airplane with the simplicity of the 1920’s as well.

    And how did he make his point? With a series of photos, no doubt taken with a digital camera with lots of parts. Massaged on a compute, again with lots of parts. And posted to the internet. The internet. Talk about lots of parts! The reality is that our modern life requires lots of parts.

    It also requires that items be manufactured cheaply, as well as be made as reliable as they can be for the price the average consumer is willing to pay. We can make computers much easier to repair. No more surface mounted components. All ICs socketed. Cables and connectors can be made larger so that they are easier to work on.

    The problem is that size costs money. I also doubt that anybody would be willing to purchase a computer like the old Compaq luggable, no matter how repairable it is. (You youngsters will have to read up on it. Socketed ICs? Sure, they are easy to replace. They also have a significantly shorter MTBF due, in large part, to the sockets themselves.

    So what do we want? We can have large, not as reliable, very expensive, but easy to repair. Or small, reliable, cheap, and throw away. The consumers have voted for the later, and no matter how much we hate it, if we are honest with ourselves, so have we.

    1. dennisj says:

      Thank you for a fine dose of sanity.

      I design consumer products for a certain 2-letter company and as Jim stated, it’s all about what the customer wants and what they are willing to pay for. Most customers don’t want to fix their products themselves. We makers/hackers/what-have-you are a very small subset of the consumer class and as a result you can be sure that the day of designing for hackable products for the mass market will never come.

      My company used to repair consumer products. But repair is so relatively expensive now that in most cases the repair strategy is to simply provide a new unit to the customer. These costs are largely a result of the global nature of business and how expensive it is to support repair centers in many regions and countries.

      We can talk in platitudes and how a perfect world should be, but unless regulators or consumers demand it, the current paradigm will not change.

  3. failrate says:

    That iron could be made just as well with about 20% fewer parts and easier access. For example, the round plastic cap that conceals a screw is unnecessary. It offers no function.

    Additionally, non-standard screw heads are pointless. The only compelling reason for using a screw head that can’t be purchased at a regular tool store is to keep people from opening it. Phillips is good enough for most applications, and even Torx is acceptable in my book, but garbage like Y-heads is just there to keep the device owner from getting inside.

    1. Jim McCorison says:

      Yes, Y heads are there to prevent owners from accessing the insides. And until our legal system changes, at least in the USA, they will continue to be present. Unfortunately for manufacturers, if you disassemble their product, then put it back together incorrectly and injure or kill yourself, they stand a good chance of being sued for damages. It’s not right, in the moral sense, but there it is anyway. So they do things like Y heads, and “No owner serviceable parts” labels, etc.

      Don’t get me wrong. I strongly believe in being able to fix what we bought. But I am also a realist and realize that it won’t always be easy, or even possible. And it will stay that way, or even get worse, until the legal system changes, and until consumers are willing to pay more for devices which they can repair. The former is a slow process, the later almost certainly will never happen.

  4. ianmoise says:

    Hi John,

    Thanks so much for sharing this article. I am all about reuse and I think design is such a critical piece. I am building a website ( for global knowledge sharing around reuse but intend, in a year or two, to add a redesign challenge section (like where companies can crowdsource their design problems to better design for reuse.

    Thanks again for highlighting this article.

    Warmest wishes,
    Ian Moise

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My interests include writing, electronics, RPGs, scifi, hackers & hackerspaces, 3D printing, building sets & toys. @johnbaichtal

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