Earth Day: What's missing from CE devices today

In honor of Earth Day, let's look at a once-commonplace feature that has almost entirely disappeared from today's consumer electronics, one which has a significant influence over environmental impact of our gadgets.

In honor of Earth Day, let's look at a once-commonplace feature that has almost entirely disappeared from today's consumer electronics. To illustrate my point, here's a picture from my gadget archive, a perfectly ordinary Sony radio Walkman of mid-90's vintage:

Sony Walkman
Adam Richardson
Now let's look at the back:

Sony Walkman rear
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Notice anything? No? Let's look closer:

Sony Walkman screw
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What's that...a screw? Remember those? Yes, indeed, thanks to the constant drive for sleekness and cost-cutting you never see screws on CE devices any more, especially portable ones.

What does this have to do with Earth Day? A couple of things:

1. Screws facilitate repairability

Screws allow easy disassembly without potential for breaking housing parts. Without disassembly, easy repair or replacement of internal parts is more difficult, and pretty much impossible for the everyday user. What do you think that does to the likelihood the product will get repaired, or parts of it re-used for another product?

(Nerd note: Most CE devices today are either snapped together (and snaps are purposefully hard to take apart without breaking), or are fastened with a process known as ultrasonic welding. Essentially the plastic parts are vibrated together at very high speed causing the plastic at the edges to melt and fuse together, making a very strong bond. This also makes them impossible to get into, kind of like that clear plastic "blister" packaging that a lot of small products come in where you have to take a chainsaw to get it open and you destroy it in the process.)

2. Shift from "fix it" to "junk it"

Looking beyond individual products, screws are symptomatic of a gradual but persistent shift away from the mentality of repairing products, both for manufacturers and consumers. Products just get thrown "away", but of course there really is no "away", it's just out of sight and out of mind.

On the Walkman shown here the screws are clearly illustrated with arrows that almost encourage one to get into the guts. Today the equivalent product -- the iPod -- is hermetically sealed and we are explicitly kept out of understanding how it works or from thinking that it can be repaired.

Companies only profit when we buy new things, not when we get them repaired. And the costs of repairing or servicing old CE devices have approached so close to the ever-reducing cost of new ones, thanks to Moore's Law, global supply chains, and constant price pressure from mega retailers. Many people, for example, buy a new inkjet printer whenever they need to replace the ink, since the cost of the printers themselves (often sold at or below cost since profits are made on the cartridges) is barely above the new cartridges. Therefore most consumer electronics are designed be disposable, not repairable.

This is an unsustainable system. We have to break ourselves (as consumers) from the disposable thinking, and manufacturers also have to find ways to facilitate and profit from repairs, not just new product sales.

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Tech Culture
About the author

    Adam Richardson is the director of product strategy at frog design, where he guides strategy engagements for frog's international roster of clients, envisioning and creating new products, consumer electronics, and digital experiences. Adam combines a background in industrial design, interaction design, and sociology, and spends most of his time on convergent designs that combine hardware, software, service, brand, and retail. He writes and speaks extensively on design, business, culture, and technology, and runs his own Richardsona blog.

     

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