Viewpoint: Take a lesson from the past about product repair


Richard Wilson

If, like me, you are angered by the increasingly “throw-away” culture which pervades technology products you might wonder, like me, why the government can’t be more active in encouraging, even forcing companies that make consumer goods to make their products more repairable.

You may be surprised to learn that the government is already doing exactly that in the business sector and encouraging greater reuse and repair of broken IT and telecoms equipment.

I am old enough to remember a time when TVs and washing machines that broke down could be repaired at a friendly shop in the high street. Now once an electronic product has survived beyond its warranty period, maybe six months to a year, there seems to be little possibility of repairing it, should it breakdown. We have been forced to accept the culture of “throw it away and buy a new one”.

In the non-consumer, corporate sector technology write‑offs have a direct impact on the bottom-line so companies have continued to adopt reuse and repair activities for high-value tech equipment such as high end computers and test and measurement systems. The government hopes to encourage more of this in its Resources and Waste Strategy, outlined as part of its 25-Year Environment Plan.

Tech business thinks it’s a good idea and, through the representative body Tech UK, it wants to see greater take-up of innovative digital technologies that can support product repair. The aim is greater product “reuse, repair, remanufacture” in the ICT sector. The government has said it wants to see tech products that last longer; which are safer for the environment and more cost-effective for businesses.

The corporate sector is well ahead of the consumer sector and is already using techniques such as predictive maintenance to anticipate when a product is going to fail so that it can be repaired in advance. According to Tech UK’s report the UK already has what it calls a flourishing professional repair sector. So there is a real opportunity to spread the culture of reuse and repair to the consumer sector.

There are ways that the government can encourage the repair of products. One is to provide a tax incentive by introducing a VAT reduction on repair activities, as has recently been done in Sweden.

According to Susanne Baker, head of environment and compliance at Tech UK, there are some signs of encouragement. “The market for reused smartphones is outperforming markets for new phones. It is clear that strategies to support reuse must be developed,” says Baker.

For instance, 3D printing could be used to reduce the cost of basic spare parts. But the big cost associated with repair tends to relate to the labour, not spare parts. A reduced cost of labour would support greater levels of out-of-warranty repairs, but how this is to be achieved is not certain. Maybe a return to a competitive market of small independent repair shops is the answer.

Consultant editor Richard Wilson writes a regular column for Electronics Weekly


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