Engineering Group: Cellphones Need Better Repairability

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers says smartphones would be cheaper and more eco-friendly if manufacturers put more effort into making the devices user-repairable.

Your iPhone may be slick and polished, but good luck trying to replace its battery.

One association says it doesn’t have to be this way.

According to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), an association representing 425,000 tech-focused members in 160 countries, the challenges caused by the lack of user repairability go beyond consumer choice and convenience. They could have significant effects on the environment.

The association, in its latest initiative, is encouraging smartphone manufacturers to make devices easier to repair, as a way to save costs and provide alternatives to simply recycling raw materials.

More details:

The alternative to recycling: Could a longer cellphone lifespan—made possible with upgradeable, repairable devices—help save money and slow down upgrade cycles? One IEEE member thinks so: “Simple things like utilizing openable cases, using screws rather than adhesives, and providing easy access to parts that are most likely to break, like screens, greatly improve the repairability of cellphones and significantly extend their life,” said Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, a company that offers online repair manuals for devices, in a press release. “It is imperative for designers to incorporate sustainable features into their products, not only to make them last longer but to help promote a more sustainable and environmentally friendly future.” On Earth Day earlier this week, Wiens argued that recycling should be a backup option—and that repair should come first.

Economic and other benefits: Smartphone makers may be focused on early adopters, but according to IEEE fellow Stu Lipoff, easing repairability and upgradeability (and making replacement parts easy to find) could also help get the devices into the hands of consumers who can’t afford the latest and greatest. This approach can also reduce manufacturing costs, he says. “Upstream cellphone manufacturing can be reduced by employing designs that enable easier and more economic device repairability, so refurbished phones from the first market can have an extended life through use in secondary and tertiary markets,” Lipoff explained in the press release. And a 2003 IEEE study shows that increasing the lifespan of a cellphone from one year to four decreases its environmental impact by as much as 40 percent.

How hard are repairs today? To give an idea of challenges currently facing cellphone users, iFixit features “teardowns” of various devices, some of them quite intricate. For example, the iPhone 5 requires a pair of tweezers, a suction cup, a spudger (a wiring tool), and three kinds of screwdrivers, one of which is unique to Apple devices. The company’s teardown of the phone lists 34 separate steps of varying difficulty. As a result, if a consumer’s device breaks, they’re much more likely to just buy a new one.

How does your IT department balance having the most recent technology with the need to upgrade devices? Let us know your thoughts on the matter below.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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