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  • Writer's pictureJohn O'Rangers

What Repairing A Device Is Really Like

Phones, tablets, computers, right up to farm equipment are all notable examples of products that can and will break down eventually. The question then turns to what should be done about the problems? Should these things be repaired or just thrown away and replaced? Generally speaking, repair is the obvious choice when it comes to devices and equipment that costs hundred, thousands, and tens of thousands of dollars. I think we all can agree with this assessment. There are times when replacement is more sensible, such as when an automobile is damaged in an accident to a level where repair costs are too high.

But there is a problem with repair these days. Who gets to do it. This blog post will attempt to clarify the positions of the stakeholders in the repair business, but more importantly provide real world realities of what it takes to do repairs correctly. I find from experience that the stakeholders on all sides have valid points, but have equally bad ideas as well. The key is to put aside partisan interests and come up with realistic solutions that serve everyone well.

At the present time we have two competing stakeholders. Manufacturers and the owners of their goods. The manufacturers are clearly seeking to maximize shareholder value by any means they can, while the owners of their goods are seeking to get the maximum value and useful life from their devices. Unfortunately neither side can see eye-to-eye on this matter and it has led to much controversy when it comes to repair.

On the one hand, manufacturers want to limit repair because selling new devices is good for their bottom line. Or they want to monopolize repair to themselves and charge sky high prices and protect their intellectual property rights. On the other hand, the owners of the products want to have more competitive pricing and be able to either have their devices fixed by someone they trust or do it themselves. Both sides have positions that must be respected, but they also have positions that are not practical. Let me demonstrate some real world problems that a repair professional comes across that neither side really is aware of.

The above photo is of the internals of a common iPad. Many folks experience the discomfort of a broken digitizer from dropping the device. There are very vocal advocates for what is called "Right To Repair", who basically believe that the parts needed to repair a device like this should be available to anyone and everyone. The manufacturer, in this case Apple, generally has the opposite position and does not make parts available directly from them. Quite the conundrum, as the owner of the device has limits as to what to do about the problem. Apple is of the opinion, and quite it is the case, that repair is a safety issue, there's proprietary considerations, and so forth.

What's the truth here? Both sides have valid points, but ultimately the repair of this device should not be done by an untrained person. Alternatively the manufacturer would be best served to make the best quality parts available to qualified repair personnel, including well trained independents like CDC Cellular Repair. At the present time that really isn't happening, which makes repair more of a challenge for everyone involved.

Now why do I emphasize qualified personnel? Look closely at the photo. The upper cell of the battery is bad. Note the wrinkles in the outer skin. This happens quite often from screen breakage. Glass gets down inside the device and punctures the battery. This leads to a loss of battery performance and can often create a severe fire hazard. A DIY repair person is highly likely to miss this detail and could easily injure themselves or others. And since the battery must be replaced, the manufacturer would be best served to make the parts available, which they rarely do. I am forced to source the parts on my own and it takes experience to find the ones that perform acceptably. Some are not very good at all.

Now look at this. Replacing the battery is a challenge because it's held in by aggressive adhesive, and the terminal runs under the logic board. Very hazardous to remove, as it could catch on fire. Additionally, disposal requires that lithium ion batteries be taken to a proper recycling facility. A DIY person likely will throw it in the trash, which is not environmentally acceptable. On top of all of that, note the residue from the adhesive. When a screen is heavily broken, fine bits of glass often embed in that residue, and upon installation of the replacement battery, it will likely get punctured and become unstable. Best to clean that adhesive off. The average DIY person likely won't know this and make a big mistake.

Here is the iPad after the adhesive was cleaned. In this case I also ran a small vacuum cleaner around the body to get any remaining glass shards out of the unit. And believe me, they're in there. I know this all too well.

Uh oh! What do we have here? The home button flex on this device has a problem. Few understand that the component is matched, and since the manufacturer does not provide the tools and systems to replace the button correctly, you have to know what to look for and repair it. Again, not a DIY repair. The yellow circle is the home button switch, and it has a tiny plastic thumb that is epoxied to the center of it. That is needed for proper home button function. In this case it is missing, so it has to be resolved.

Here is the same home button repaired. In this case I was able to epoxy another thumb to the switch. Alternatively, a new switch can be soldered in to replace the existing one, but in this case the switch was otherwise good, so I repaired it. Think a DIY repair would catch this? Not likely.

Here's another one you come across when repairing an iPad. The LCD itself will often develop flaws after a screen break. Note the specks on the display; that comes from glass bits and atmospheric exposure, along with whatever substances are contained in the digitizer itself. So unless the LCD is replaced, at significant expense, you'll never get the LCD clean. In most cases I find customers will live with these defects, as the image quality doesn't suffer when the LCD is on. But when in sleep mode, you can see the imperfections. Not my idea of perfection, and certainly a DIY/"Right To Repair" advocate won't know about this.

Here we are with a new battery installed in the unit. Again, there's a potential trap here, and the average non-trained person will miss this almost every single time. Note the white plastic under the battery terminal. Why do I have that there? It is to keep the battery disconnected while performing additional repairs. This is very important, especially with Apple. Their devices do not play well with LCDs being connected and disconnected when power is running through the system. You can easily burn out the backlight circuit, making repair even a greater headache.

These issues are not the only ones you'll see when fixing an iPad. Then there is digitizer quality and actually getting it mounted correctly. Often times the body may have bends that need to be corrected, and getting the new digitizer adhered properly requires good surface preparation, priming, and alignment. All of it requires proper tools and correct steps to achieve good results that few, if any, DIYer will know.

So as you can see, these devices are not simple to repair, and there are many things that can and do go wrong. It is vital that the person performing the repair have the experience and know-how to do it correctly, otherwise it can be a disaster. Unfortunately on the manufacturer's side, they do not wish to invest in making repair easy, and the net result is a frustrated customer who either buys another device at considerable and unnecessary expense. That should change, and the "Right To Repair" advocates have a point when it comes to this matter.

On the other hand, the "Right To Repair" advocates I find far too often do not understand the complexities of repair and think anyone can do it. Not the case at all. Far too often I find the loudest voices for the movement are not actual repair professionals. They're political lobbying groups that have mostly an anti-corporate stance. I feel their criticism is valid in some cases, but I do not believe they really understand the complexities of repair because they don't do it for a living. The truth is that it's very complex and should be done only by people who know what they're doing.

So in conclusion, my recommendations are as follows. The manufacturers, such as Apple and John Deere, should make parts, tools, and schematics available to properly trained repair personnel, including independent providers who demonstrate proper skills. "Right To Repair" is correct in their positions on monopolization and environmental matters. I do recommend, however, that the "Right To Repair" movement support only qualified repair personnel and not DIY, especially with modern consumer electronics. Proper repair takes skill and experience, and few, if any, DIYers will possess these abilities. This will lead to less than desirable quality and in the worst case a serious safety issue.

I do not completely disregard DIY repair, as certain situations call for it. A farmer with a broken down combine often needs to be able to repair his or her equipment in specific scenarios, so compromises need to be made in areas where the farmer's needs can be met. Consumer electronics are another matter, but it is possible to engineer devices to allow certain, simple repairs that can be done by the consumer. I would support such measures. But under the present designs of these devices, I would not supporter DIY repair.

Thank you, and I hope this was informative on the issues surrounding repair.

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