(Originally posted on Sep 15, 2021 on the Drishti blog)

Right to repair is the idea that customers should be able to repair any purchased hardware from any repair shop or person. In May of this year, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued a report about “anti-competitive repair restrictions” in the U.S. Then in early July, President Biden followed FTC guidelines and signed an executive order aimed at promoting the right to repair. Twelve days later, the FTC voted unanimously to enforce federal laws like the Magnuson Moss Warranty Act

This bipartisan issue is spreading out across the country; as of last year, similar initiatives were on the ballot in 23 states. Considering all of this, if things maintain their current rate, it seems likely that the right to repair will become widespread. With these changes come implications for manufacturers, who need to remain proactive to protect their brand and experience. 

Complexity in products is on the rise

I have kept my family’s 2000 Chevy Prizm as the kids’ car because we like to tinker with it every now and then. My kids and I have had a lot of fun diagnosing problems, YouTube searching possible fixes and learning how to perform simple repairs and maintenance. However, complexity is increasing in modern vehicles; today’s cars have between 50-100 CPUs powered by one thousand semiconductors running about 100 million lines of code, making up 40% of the total cost of the car. (This is also why the current semiconductor shortage is having such a profound impact on the automotive supply chain.)

In the 1990s, car manufacturers began to partner with semiconductor manufacturers to produce chips that supported the electrification of cars. This trend, which is not limited to cars but can be found in many products, makes it extremely difficult for a consumer to repair a unit on his own. For example, my 1999 Chevy Prizm has hydraulic-assisted steering, but modern cars use electric power steering with servo-controls that are not that different from those controlling the flaps of a multi-million dollar fighter jet. Only a very small fraction of the population is interested in or likely to attempt to fix something with that level of complexity. And this has implications for consumers: Rather than opening the hood and working on an engine repair with your daughter over the weekend, more people need to take their vehicles to dealers and repair shops. 

Part of this increase in complexity is due to this progression of technology, and part of it is due to manufacturing decisions made on design for assembly versus design for repair. For example, let’s compare two luxury car powerhouses, Lexus and BMW. When considering car ownership over time of a 2007 model in their tenth year from both brands, the average maintenance cost for the Lexus was about $590, while the BMW’s average maintenance cost was about $1,125. Lexus has focused on reliability, while BMW focuses on performance. These two design philosophies are not incongruent to each other, but Lexus is cheaper to repair because they intentionally design with that in mind. As the right to repair continues to gain traction, manufacturers should begin to consider the act of repair as a determinant of worth. Whether at an individual or shared level, choosing to repair this and discard that has a lot in common with the process of selection of whether to buy a product in the first place. Customers may begin to consider buying from companies that design for repair, and viewing this as a benefit will help brands ingratiate themselves with customers. 

Rather than fight it, manufacturers can empower their customers to repair goods

As technology advances, product complexity increases. Manufacturers can turn this tide to their advantage. They can proactively build customer goodwill and loyalty by providing guides to repair basic problems — a “right to affordable repair,” so to speak. This is possible with very little added expense or effort on the part of the manufacturer if they use video-based standardized disassembly and assembly guides, pulled directly from the assembly line. Beyond being a byproduct of their assembly operations, the beauty of this approach is that these video guides can be easily shared without the need for any translation that is typically found in manuals shipped with a product. Done right, it might even be possible to get the repair video for the very unit that you bought — the right to affordable, personalized repair!

A video is worth a million words, and maybe a million dollars. Imagine the reaction a customer has when, instead of learning he is unable to repair a broken cell phone, he downloads a video with clear steps on how to fix a faulty charging port. When he’s ready to upgrade the phone in a few years, he’ll remember that Acme Phones provides an economical path to repair and, in an increasingly waste-conscious world, an environmentally friendly product. Chances are good that he will buy another product from Acme.  

Not all parts can be fixed by the owner or a local expert. And bad things can happen when such parts are partially or improperly “fixed.” So both the demand and supply side need to recognize that product owners give up all warranty rights the minute any third party opens their unit, which is legally mandated. If product vendors want to take an even more customer-friendly stance, they can set up mechanisms to validate repair at non-company facilities. But vendors will need to make sure that the customer experience at non-company facilities meets the brand experience customers come to expect. 

The best solution would be to vet and partner with third parties and provide them with video training on the proper disassembly process of a product, ensuring that they understand what is expected of them to serve a vendor’s customers as an extension of the brand. This will allow manufacturers to have better control of the repair process and the brand experience if the right to repair continues to spread. 

Meeting the concerns of all on this issue is tricky, but manufacturers that take a positive stance will come out ahead of the rest of the market as customers will reward them for the personalization and the flexibility to find value. 

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