Making things maker-friendly

A possible "maker-friendly" badge, public domain. A link to the .svg is at the end of this post.

In Mark Frauenfelder’s Made by Hand, he talks about modifying his coffee machine (among other projects). He’s able to do this because the coffee machine happens to be easy to repair as a byproduct of its commercial construction.

Think about your microwave or mobile phone, on the other hand. How easy would they be to repair, if you needed to? Very difficult – in fact, stickers on many appliances note that there are “no user-serviceable parts inside”. If you have an iPhone, you’ll notice that it uses special, rare screws that it’s difficult to find a screwdriver for. Even the battery is encased within the phone and impossible to replace without serious intervention.

Why things are hard to take apart

There are some legitimate reasons for this. Microwaves, for example, probably discourage users from fiddling around with them for product liability reasons – if a user tries to repair their microwave and injures themselves, a small appliance manufacturer wants to be able to say that they told you not to mess with it. For the iPhone, there may be some good reasons having to do with branding – Apple has made its name by creating magical devices that users don’t have to intimately understand to use. Apple products are known as tools, not machines.

But there are also lots of reasons why you should be able to take apart, and perhaps then modify, the things you buy.

  • The first question for me is one of ownership. One of the things that bothers people about software license agreements is that companies argue you are just buying a license to the software, not a copy of it. From a business perspective, this would ideally mean that you can’t sell software when you’re done with it - an outcome that some software companies have managed to achieve. By making a product impossible for an average consumer to open, you’re effectively placing some of the same restrictions on purchasers of that product – though of course they can resell it and do other things you may not like, they are at least somewhat restricted in the way they can use it. Do they really “own” the product, then?
  • Secondly, making it hard for people to take apart the products they own creates tremendous waste (some of that, of course, is intentional). The story of maker Mister Jalopy is that a 20-cent part in his car broke, and it cost him $500 to replace it. Why? Because that part is attached to a subassembly, which is only sold with another assembly. So you have to buy the whole assembly again to make the repair, a waste of money for Mister Jalopy, and a waste of a bunch of extra components. We probably run into this ourselves from time to time without even realizing it. If you could get into your stuff more easily, you could repair it yourself, or get a knowledgeable amateur to take care of it for you, at a fraction of the price of the alternatives.
  • Finally, I think maker-unfriendliness impairs innovation and education. Some of the components in cheap stuff you own – your $100 laser printer, for example – are very high-quality and eminently re-usable in various technology products. But it’s hard (for me, anyway) to take my old HP Deskjet apart, so it’s just a magic box that’ll go to the landfill when some part of it dies. If I could easily disassemble it, I (or my hypothetical kids) might learn something about how it works. If I gave it to a local hackerspace or tinkerer, they might be able to do something useful with the stuff inside.

Maker-friendly

In volume 3 of MAKE Magazine, Dale Dougherty talked about (coined?) the term “maker-friendly”. “Maker-friendly” products are ones that can be disassembled with relatively little effort. Their construction is easy to understand, and therefore possible to modify. (For “maker”, you could also read “hacker” here, for the correct meanings of “hacker” – “hacker-friendly”).

In the next volume, MAKE published a Maker’s Bill of Rights, which you can see here. I’ll select a few that are most interesting to me; there are 17 rights proposed at the link.

  • Cases shall be easy to open.
  • Profiting by selling expensive special tools is wrong and not making special tools available is even worse.
  • Docs and drivers shall have permalinks and shall reside for all perpetuity at archive.org.
  • Ease of repair shall be a design ideal, not an afterthought.

The idea of “profiting by selling expensive special tools” is interesting. I guess I wonder with maker-friendliness – why do manufacturers want to do this? Right now the consumer pays twice: once upfront for the actual product, and then, on average, a little extra when they need it repaired. Will consumers pay extra upfront for “maker-friendly” designs where, for example, HP doesn’t make money off proprietary power adapters?

The fourth bullet, the idea of ease of repair as a design ideal, is a possible counter to this. If things are easy to repair, perhaps they are easier or cheaper to manufacture?  Or perhaps they have a higher value on the secondary market, and therefore are slightly more valuable upfront? On the other hand, is maker-friendliness in contradiction to the idea of user-friendliness (ease of use and operation)?

There is also a branding component to this. I wonder if maker-friendliness, or some variant or related theme, could be to technology what organic growing methods are to food. Would you pay a bit extra for something that you knew you really owned and could take apart easily, even if perhaps the benefits weren’t totally apparent right away?

Maker-friendliness seal

I thought it would be interesting to think about how you can designate maker-friendliness in a product in a way that’s easily discernible to consumers, so I came up with this seal (which I obviously am releasing to the public domain – it is based on some of the work at openclipart.org). Here is the .svg. I put my name on it, but obviously you can remove that, make whatever modifications you’d like (or not!), and promulgate it.

Is “maker-friendliness” something you’d pay extra for, either as an actual feature or as something you generally support but may or may not use? Is this something consumers at large might care about yet, or ever?