Explained: Why it’s hard to repair a smartphone

German smartphone maker Shift claims the amount of broken displays its customers have actually returned would fit into an ordinary moving box. The company is based in Falkenberg, in the German state of Hesse, and in 2016 was the first smartphone manufacturer to introduce a deposit system for its Shiftphone models. If you don’t want to use the firm’s phone anymore, you simply return it, pay its so-called salvage value, reclaim your deposit — usually around €22 ($23) — and that’s it.

The goal of Shift’s unusual business model is to reuse every working component from its phones. The number of those parts that cannot be rescued in one way or the other, like broken displays, is small, the firm told DW. This is possible because of the phones’ modular design, it said, meaning most components can be easily replaced.

Magic ‘modularization’

While the company markets its Shift6m model as “the most modular smartphone in the world” on its website, the Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration (IZM) — a Berlin-based research institute — tackles the subject of reliable and sustainable electronic devices from a scientific point of view. Marina Proske and Karsten Schischke from the IZM collaborated with Shift to develop its smartphones. What they call “modularization” was already standard in manufacturing desktop computers but had yet to become more common in smartphones and tablet PCs.

“Shift has shown that it’s possible to replace even very tiny components so that repairs needn’t be expensive when you have the spare parts readily available,” Proske told DW. “Time is money, especially for commercial repair shops.” Proske added that the way components were placed in a phone was similarly important because it wouldn’t make sense if many other components had to be taken out before the broken part could be replaced.

Non-repairable gadgets to be banned

The Fraunhofer researchers have found that smartphone batteries and displays are by far the components most prone to break. Proske, therefore, demanded that even ordinary customers should be able to replace them and pointed to a major downside of commercial repairs. “Devices are usually returned to customers with all personal data completely erased. This is why doing repairs yourself at home is much better,” she said. What could be a problem, though, is that the phone might then no longer be waterproof or dust-resistant, and wireless charging could also be impaired, she added.

IZM’s findings are contributing to legislation currently being prepared by the European Commission to improve so-called environmental and reliability engineering with regard to smartphones and tablet PCs sold in the E.U. The rules are intended to define new product design requirements such as ensuring the supply of spare parts, battery durability and other standards to enhance the lifespan of electronic devices. “The minimum goal intended is a commercial ban on non-repairable gadgets,” said IZM researcher Karsten Schischke. He advocates for a “repair label” to give customers a product choice, similarly to the labeling already in place for energy consumption.

‘Greenwashing’ and other labeling problems

On a national level, France in April 2021 introduced a repair friendliness index for TV-sets, smartphones, laptop computers, washing machines and lawn mowers, with the manufacturers giving themselves points from 1 to 10. One year later, a survey by consumer advocacy group HOP found that half of the population was aware of the index and was using it for making purchase decisions. “Manufacturers and sellers have been making valuable contributions to the index, for example by providing more repair manuals and better opportunities to buy spare parts easier,” HOP said in its report.

The group, however, also said there were very few products that ranked in the lower index categories, which would indicate that most of them were either indeed easy to repair or that there were no strict criteria to observe. It lamented that high overall points could be achieved in spite of the fact that a device couldn’t be disassembled, thus making repairs virtually impossible.

HOP cited Apple and Samsung smartphones as most striking examples. “Disassembling three gadgets [included in the index] proved to be next to impossible, as parts were soldiered or glued together.” As a result of its findings, HOP has called for more transparency, saying it wants to see the details of the index calculations published, including data on how long spare parts are really available and at what prices.

The German nonprofit Runder Tisch Reparatur, which translates as Repair Roundtable, is also demanding measures to improve the repairability of electronic devices. The organization brings together environment and consumer advocacy groups as well as professionals from handicraft businesses. In a list of demands sent to the German government, they are pushing measures intended to lower repair costs such as reduced value-added tax (VAT) or a government-sponsored bonus for customers.

Repair centers in shopping malls

Jonathan Schött from Repair Roundtable said customers in Germany were still lacking “trustworthy repairers” because setting up shop in the sector isn’t lucrative enough. Manufacturers’ monopolies on software and parts, he told DW, as well as limited access to the devices’ technical data would make running a repair shop difficult.

Greenpeace has set out to change this with a public awareness campaign seeking to give repair shops more visibility in the public space. “We’re campaigning for one-tenth of all retail sales areas in Germany to be rented to businesses that offer alternatives to purchasing new goods,” said Viola Wohlgemuth, a Greenpeace expert on circular economy and resource protection. The businesses supported are mainly repair shops, but also pawn and exchange outlets, as well as stores offering used and recycled products.

“These sales spaces must be located right in the middle of commercial retail activities,” she told DW, “and should be supported by local authorities with tax breaks, subsidized rents and other financial incentives.” Greenpeace has announced recently that it is still looking for local communities and municipalities to get its campaign off the ground in Germany.


Nigarai M Grusio

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