A research findings report from the Internet of Production Electronic Components project (IOP-EC), to develop an open standard to aid the repairability of electronics products.
As outlined in the initial Statement of Purpose, the Internet of Production Alliance and Kitspace are bringing together interested parties to draft a new standard for open electronics design-data: IOP-EC. This standard will focus on design information and documentation of electronics components, assemblies and sub-assemblies with the goals of:
1. Repair - To aide ease of repair of electronics through documentation.
2. Reuse - To aide the adaptation and repurposing of electronics hardware through study of design information and to promote interoperability of software tooling.
3. Replication - To aide sharing of standardised design documentation for manufacturing leading to more reproducible hardware.
4. Reach - To allow mapping of the availability of required components, tools and skills for production and repair through compatibility with the Open Know-Where Specification (IOP-OKW).
This report has two key functions:
1) To share learnings from the research that would inform the development of the standard and
2) propose formulated concepts grounded in insights from the research. These deliverables are a result of the work undertaken from August 2020 until October 2022.
Kaspar Emanuel is an electronic engineer and software developer. He created the Kitspace electronics project sharing platform and led this standardisation effort.
Jon Somerscales is a user researcher and user experience designer, focusing on social and environmental projects. His current areas of interest are the circular economy and open source hardware.
Kenza M is a user experience design student and joined this effort on a voluntary basis to help with user-centred design.
Alex Kimber is a product and industrial designer, with a specialisation in distributed design and the maker movement. Alex has experience in design thinking methods to develop a tool for engagement with makers for prototyping.
Shrouk El-Attar is an electronics engineering consultant who specializes in consumer electronics, wearables, and class II medical electronics.
A qualitative approach was taken in order to identify perceived success factors for the standard, as framed in the statement of purpose, as well as to build a rapport with the participants as a community of early stakeholders in the standard.
40 people were interviewed over Zoom video conferencing. The interviews were normally kept to 30 minutes and recorded with consent. The conversations were largely unstructured with an aim to cover the interviewees experiences and challenges.
At a later date the team re-listened to the interview and each team member chose one or two poignant quotes to discuss during weekly meetings. After the quotes were discussed we extracted some key takeaways for each interview. These key takeaways were analysed in conjunction with takeaways extracted from desktop research of relevant articles, standards and sources, some of which were recommended by the participants.
The interviewees broadly fell into one or more of these categories:
Repair Activist - Someone active in campaigning and community organisation towards right-to-repair and repairability in general.
Engineer - Electronic or mechanical engineers working professionally in the product design space.
Repair Technician - Professionals earning their living from repairing electronic products.
Software Developer - Software developers of electronics CAD tools or repair aides.
Standards Expert - Someone who has taken part in a standardisation process before.
Supply Chain Experts - Professionals that concern themselves with studying and understanding supply chains.
Attention was paid to the broad geographical areas that interviewees were associated with. As many areas as possible were covered for the greatest diversity of representation, with the resources available to the team.
The team analysed the quotes, key takeaways, tacit knowledge and initial ideation in a workshop to identify more profound learnings and emergent themes from the research that would ultimately contribute to developing a technical standard relating to the intended use cases.
Product design has been described as the most impactful stage on repairability.
Participants have commented that ensuring enough space between components could solve a vast amount of repairability problems. Older design processes were less sophisticated, using larger components, fewer components on a PCB and thicker copper traces. In recent years, more embedded design processes have been adopted, which resulted in less durability, longevity, and repairability compared to electronic design processes in the 80s.
People say it’s fun what you’re doing, but nobody has the tools to do this at home. They missed the point of the video, it was just to show that it could be way easier to repair it. … In the 80s or 90s electronics were way more durable. - Ken Pillonel, repair activist and electronic engineer
More modular and circular design processes were brought up on many occasions. Participants commented on how the vast majority of the environmental impact of hardware is determined at the design stage and how engineers are making decisions that impact repairability at every step of the design process. Ensuring a design process where hazardous or valuable components are identifiable and removable would help with repairability. They raised recommendations for design processes to become more circular and repairable instead of only recyclable. Re-designing a product from the ground up with custom parts to be modular and circular was recommended.
“I have some pretty standard components and circuits I use that I cut and paste into designs. It would be very interesting if that was part of a library of standard circuits. If it is a solved problem, you don’t need to worry about it if it’s a comprehensible design.” Joey Castillo, founder of Oddly Specific Objects
Design intelligence is seen as a significant opportunity for helping repair. Component selection is a lengthy process that should be made more efficient through existing CAD tools with BOM integration. There is an opportunity for developing standardized tools where more repairable components can be more easily identified and selected by the designer using these tools. These tools should also be able to recommend alternate parts easily.
“We built a whole tool around bill of materials upload that takes any Excel file with different columns […]. We built a tool that will allow you to import that into our system without a ton of errors. But ideally we shouldn’t need that, and everybody should have he same exact BOM format that everybody is comfortable with and move that forward.” - Zachery Feuerstein, founder at Breadboard
CAD tools moving to web-based development may improve the accessibility and repairability of electronics if the schematics, BOM, and PCB layouts are easily accessible through a constantly updated web platform. Another point of intervention could be importable Design Rule Checks (DRC) specifically designed for repairable electronics. Furthermore, distributor APIs have become much more available, and the opportunity for developing software using these APIs is expanding. Developing software to be hardware agnostic, open and as hackable as possible can extend the life of electronic products. The industry trend of more seamless integration with mechanical CAD tools is also relevant to repairability when making an accessibility assessment for a mechanical enclosure to access the electronics encase within it for repair.
Getting the parts people need, to wherever they are in the world.
Participants in many regions within the African continent highlighted severe supply chain issues. They started to look for ways to increase resilience. They began an exercise of ‘mapping’ the supply chain of parts for repair. Many parts had to be sourced from China and Taiwan, which COVID-19 highlighted as a fragile supply chain.
“After covid-19, the economic reality of repair became apparent. We depend on Android phones that are cheap, but have a short lifespan, so there’s a need for more durable parts as well as policy that holds manufacturers to account in terms of repairability.” - Charles Ikem, founder of Policy Lab Africa
Prototyping PCBs via China is seen as wasteful, slow, and expensive for those based in many African countries. It is not seen as an ideal feedback loop for product development. We learnt that professions have emerged in Asia specifically to help people in African nations get parts from Shenzhen. These people are not official distributors; they buy parts in large numbers and then sell them to others who need them, doubling as informal procurement specialists.
People across Africa are frustrated with the lack of availability of components to do hardware prototyping and manufacturing due to casual and formal gatekeepers at borders which creates a problem of accessibility across Africa. Making good quality/OEM parts available within these African countries would be helpful.
“It was really hard to get sensors out there, to get parts so I started developing a community of frustrated people, really. And that became what we call “Hardware Lagos”. That was in 2016 [...] every quarter meet up group.” Chuma Asuzu, Hardware Things 
Shipping electronic products across continents is costly; therefore, having a centralized manufacturer for repairs is unsuitable for many countries. Although most hardware companies rely on shipping components from outside of Africa, the availability of electronic components is slowly improving in some regions (e.g. Egypt). Because of continuing changes in the industry and supply chain norms, the standard should be written to be flexible and adaptable. It could also be graded for different (localized) supply chain maturation.
Knowledge is power.
Service documentation is evidently beneficial for aiding repair, but ensuring that the design rationale is clearly communicated, the documents are accessible to different experience levels and feedback from the community is incorporated could all be important success factors. Firstly, it must be stated that sharing repair documentation openly does not necessarily expose IP or present a safety risk to consumers when drafted well. Not only should the practical repair information be available, but the functionality, purpose and design intent of modules and components should be made clear also. This way, repairers may be able to find alternative solutions, if the specific part they need is not available in their region, by addressing the intended functionality. Andre Maia Chagas put it succinctly, after his experience repairing lab equipment in Nigeria.
“Schematics shouldn’t just mention the part, they should also explain what is the purpose of that part” - Andre Maia Chaga, Open Science Coordinator at TReND in Africa
Platforms like iFixit make service documentation publicly available to people globally, but accessibility goes beyond just being able to get hold of schematics. Document format and content must be adapted for different user levels of competency. This point (and the last point for that matter) is made by Joey Castillo, an engineer who develops maker projects, such as The Open Book.
“I think the principle of replaceable, swappable parts would be really useful. Documenting design thinking choices on why we chose this part for example could be really helpful. Show alternative methods. People have very different experience levels. It’s a challenge, how do you design for people at different levels.” - Joey Castillo, founder of Oddly Specific Objects
Making information accessible to lay, users is essential, but it should be paired with capturing and sharing insights from the community and experienced repairers in the repair documentation - a feedback loop. This function is already happening in forums and informal networks. However, it should be baked into the repair documentation such that the community shares the best practices for the community.
Overcoming obstacles to repair.
There are barriers to adoption of design for repairability, cultural, commercial and structural, both within industry and globally. There is a culture of hesitancy in the manufacturing industry, particularly in larger companies, towards new workflows and sustainable practices.
“One specific area I’m looking at now is replacement materials for that process [epoxy in PCB’s] that wouldn’t affect the design process for engineers. The biggest problem with changing the process is that all their software has to change, their workflow has to change and there’s loads of resistance to any change in manufacturing at all, because it’s well established.” - John Nussey, co-founder of ONN Studio
The extent to which businesses perceive a commercial threat from repair is such that they will not allocate resources to repairability and documentation and they will even actively obstruct repair standards. This was typified by the experience of Kyle Wiens:
“The reason we have not yet succeeded is that for a long time the manufacturers approach to anything towards repair has been to stall, deflect, misdirect. They vetoed all of our attempts to get any language around repairability into environmental standards such as EPEAT. Things like you can get an extra point if your batteries are user removable and they’d say we’re absolutely not approving the standard if that’s included.” - Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit
Structural issues also relate to repairability standardisation landscape. Material extraction  is deeply rooted in years of colonialism, exploitation and capitalism, which manifests in repeating historical patterns. So when considering global applicability for a repairability standard, intrinsically tied to material extraction, there must be use cases included representing the global south and marginalised groups .
Money talks, bullshit walks.
The business case needs to be made for a repairability standard in this space, but three themes emerged from the interviews about how this ought to be framed: risk, brand and efficiency. There needs to be a strong commercial risk-based reason for standards adoption, such as long term legislative trends towards repairability, as Trudy Ward described.
“Very often our clients only want us to look at what they need to do to get to market [...] Most of the decisions we make are based on risk.” - Trudy Ward, regulatory lead at Bluefruit Software
If there is a great positive ‘weight’ to a standard, it can be a savvy brand decision to be associated, as it draws attention to voluntary adoption, vis-a-vis B-Corp. When the Halte à l’Obsolescence Programmée (HOP) assessed the French Repairability Index one year after implementation, they found that manufacturers had systematically given themselves a higher repairability score than the independent review. A reasonable conjecture could be drawn that the positive association of the index with consumers meant that manufacturers saw a brand risk and chose to mitigate it, albeit unscrupulously. Of course it is the role of the regulators and interest groups to hold manufacturers to account, but this might indicate that popular repairability standards can be a positive brand asset.
A common argument among the interviewees was that if adoption of a standard can be shown to improve workflows and engineering team efficiency then the cultural barrier of hesitancy might be overcome. Compatibility with industry standard protocols would go some way to improving efficiency, by extending usage options.
Education is the passport of the future.
Education is a key point of intervention, for repairability and a mindset shift towards openness in product design. George Cave highlights the importance of this in his article 
“A mindset shift from "hide the internals" to "someone is going to see this" is all you need to get started. Suddenly the whole product, inside and out, becomes a canvas for brand building, customer support and ultimately, design for repair.” - George Cave, founder of Interaction Magic
How do we reach this attitude among engineers in an industry with established methodologies? An emergent theme suggests: education, education, education. Willian Santos passionately illustrated an aspect of the issue:
“We are failing students. We are failing technicians and engineers by not teaching them how to repair, how to troubleshoot, how to maintain electronics. There is minimal hands on, practical learning in universities these days and there is no practical learning about repair. So we talk a lot about right to repair and design to repair but we don't train to repair.” - Willian Santos, Team Manager at Repair Don’t Waste
Coupling this practical and project based repair learning with open source know-how and standardisation could have a better impact. Going open source goes hand in hand with replaceable electronics and the ability to change the software to make new functionalities possible. In other words, openness is intrinsically repairable, and it can start with open repair education.
R&D is the key to success.
Our research surfaced an opportunity: the potential impact for repairability as an R&D strategy in the early product design stage. It is clear that design decisions taken early in the process impact repairability and sustainability more broadly. Actions like reducing part count, modularising, design for disassembly and addressing the material level can all be leveraged by the design team to aid repair.
However, this still considers repair as a downstream impact that the designers should mitigate, making it hard to overcome commercial barriers as the repair value is only experienced by the customer after the point of purchase. By re-framing repairability as an upstream activity and a strategy for R&D, repair intelligence can be used for early decision making. To this end, repair investment and costs could be absorbed into R&D budgets, in order to learn how to improve the product. Russel Cosway, developer and B-Corp advocate, proposed this kind of scenario:
“On the basis that if your product ever broke down we’d replace it for free. We’d get it back, break it down and work out what went wrong. It’s always the problem - diagnostics. It’s not worth the time to repair these things but it might be that you could learn something for building a new one.” - Russel Cosway, Gydeline
This model could work towards improving the broken economics of repair.
To take a parallel example, of channelling downstream information up to design teams for decision making, Supply frame have taken supply chain data to present ‘Design-to-Source Intelligence’ (DSI) direct into the BOM. This way, components are selected on the basis of their supply chain robustness, providing a solid business case for upstream investment. This conceptual framing could be appropriated to great avail for repair expertise. The Supplyframe white paper describes:
“Increasingly, engineers are searching for design insights and related technical content across new digital channels, peer communities, vertical search properties, and media sites beyond the website of the component manufacturer or distributor.”
If repair data could be captured and augmented as technical content and insights for engineers, coupled with a solid business case for repairability as an R&D strategy, then making design for repairability decisions could be made far more effectively by design teams.
Bill of materials exchange between designers and manufacturers is ad-hoc and unlike some other manufacturing files is not standardised. This can cause considerable friction and error when submitting designs to manufacture and complicates sourcing of parts.
Formats used vary in the specifics for the the spreadsheet file format (xlsx, ods, csv etc.) and in the column headings and order of these headings within the files. Another complication arises through not having a singular canonical name for each component across different bill of materials.
The opportunity here is to standardise the headings, order and serialisation format of a bill of materials among electronics design software and manufacturers. Attaching this standardised bill of materials to a product would give a complete set of “ingredients” of the circuit board of the product and aide both manufacturing and repair and recycling down the line.
The standard should also take into account the possibility of replacing one component with another as this helps both with sourcing for manufacture and replacement components for repair.
The challenge of providing canonical names of electronic components is addressed in the next section.
Manufacturers of electronic components are strict about only every releasing a single type of component under the same “stock keeping unit” (a.k.a the “manufacturer part number” i.e. MPN) but engineers are less strict about how they refer to these components. Companies and individuals manage their own databases and reference these components under different names.
The opportunity here is to provide a publicly query-able web-accessibly database of every MPN that is and ever was available. Minimal specs and any aliases would be associated with the MPN allowing users to search for a component. Transient information such as distributor stock levels and market price would not be included in this database.
This endeavour only really seems feasible as a public crowd-sourced effort: a wiki database. The standard itself would be a “living standard” of the data schema used by this database.
Modularity came up again and again as a crucial strategy for repairable design. Modularity in the sense of multiple, potentially individually replaceable circuit boards arose as an opportunity. A more exciting opportunity may be to focus on sub-circuit modularity within printed circuit board design. Modularity here also can potentially be a productivity booster at the design stage.
The opportunity is to provide mechanisms for publishing sub-circuits and associated printed circuit board layouts and a way to integrate them into designs. Attention should be paid to clear separation, placing test points (allowing isolation of sub-circuits when testing) and documentation of each sub-circuit when combining them.
The challenges are the heterogeneity of file formats and unaligned incentives of various design automation tools. One approach may be first to attempt this using open-source software tools and their open file formats.
This effort is best exemplified by the EDeA project, which attempts to implement this for the KiCad EDA software. It is very early days for this effort, so we will keep an eye on it and look for opportunities to help the project.
All design automation software for electronics has a concept of “design rule checks” that conforms to physical constraints set by the designer or the chosen electronics manufacturer.
One thing that came up often during the research about repairability is requiring spacing between components to aid in disassembly and replacing components. Component footprints were also a barrier to repairability for two reasons: one being that some footprints have a minimal pitch between the pins, which are also often hard to reach. Another is that many footprints are not standardized, despite the efforts of bodies such as the IPC.
The opportunity here is to provide design rules for any design automation program focused solely on repairability.
The challenge is, once again, the heterogeneity of the industry standard design automation software and the lack of incentives for them to provide a user-friendly way to import our design rules.
Documentation is essential for repairability. It is sporadic that a consumer product will be accompanied by documentation for repairability, despite not having always been the case in 20th-century tech products.
The opportunity is to improve access to design schematics and PCB layout documentation. Documentation where main components are clearly labelled and where alternative components are easily suggestible would dramatically improve the ability to repair. The availability of accessible online tools can help keep the documentation up to date in the case of component obsolescence. Access to firmware documentation can also be improved using these online tools.
The challenge is incentives for profit-making companies to publish such data, which may threaten their profitability.
Despite this being an electronics-specific standard, this research shows that the mechanical enclosure is a genuine and critical factor in electronics repairability.
The opportunity is to provide a standard with standardised mechanical enclosure opening methods where tools for, for example, screws driver types, are readily available in all parts of the world. Documentation on how to penetrate the mechanical layer to get to the electronics should be provided as part of this process.
Again, the challenge is the need for incentives for the companies making these products to provide this information.
This research shows that many parts of the world remain unprioritized and ignored. The supply chains in Asia tend to be euro-centric while ignoring the rest of the world.
There is an opportunity for the standard to prioritize inclusivity in design and repair. The standard should encourage de-centralization methods for repair; prioritizing repair methods where the equipment and components needed are readily available worldwide. The capabilities of equipment needed for repair should be as simple as possible.
The challenge is that the repair standard should be flexible to allow for a constantly changing supply chain landscape. Availability of specific parts and repair capabilities is also a challenge that may mean fewer options.
Our recommendations for developing workable solutions, based on the research findings and the ideas for the standard, include:
Prototyping the above concepts and start building a working solution for each, at least in principle.
Community engagement, via interviews, consultation and forums, to gather feedback on the prototypes and iterate.
Develop success criteria, based on initial prototyping paired with research findings, to finalise the requirements for the standard.
Apply requirements to prototypes to select and narrow down to a final concept, to be developed out.
There would undoubtedly be challenges in this domain, from hesitancy to scalability. However, learnings from this research can be used to create a workable open electronic component repair standard. Acting on the research outcomes could significantly mitigate some of the devastating impacts of e-waste on our beloved planet.