Fixing Things Is Good For You. And me.
Fixing things is good for you. That is the conclusion that I have come to. Sometimes fixing things is hard, like when things aren’t designed to be fixed, or when the fix is technically difficult. Luckily, some manufacturers have embraced the maker movement and are once again making things that can be fixed.
I chose to use the word “again” consciously. Once upon a time, it was an expectation that every house would have a toolbox and someone who knew how to use what was contained therein. Somewhere in the last generation or two, however, something changed. As our society changed, the products made for it and marketed to it changed as well. We don’t hold onto things as long, and the things that we have can’t be held onto for as long. The commonplace skills to repair and fix were replaced by the replacing of things. Now those who are “handy” are lauded for their uncommon skill. At the same time, devices, appliances, and cars became more difficult to repair due to ever increasing complexity and ever tighter engineering to cut production costs and materials use. These manufacturing trends reinforced the social changes, which has led to an ever increasing amount of short lived products that are purchased with their eventual disposal already in mind.
While rapidly advancing technology is partly (or largely) to blame, it might also be the solution. With the advent of 3d printing, microscale CNC mills, and a blooming maker movement, things are being fixed again.
Let me give you a very small example. I recently received a desktop computer for a project I am working on. One of the keyboard feet was missing. Not a huge deal, except I really like having my keyboard tilted up when typing. I had two choices: 1) Get a new keyboard, or; 2) Fix the one I had. I couldn’t find replacement feet to purchase anywhere. (And from a manufacturer’s standpoint, why would they offer them? A keyboard foot is an item that offers almost no profit for infrequent single sales and significant cost to market and maintain stock of them for anyone but the actual keyboard makers.) What I did find was a plan to build one. Thingaverse offered a .STL file that I could download for free, created and shared by a fellow maker. So I downloaded and printed it out using our 3D printer. Here are the results:
I could have gone out and spent $20.00 and bought a new keyboard. It would have probably been cheaper from a time standpoint. But the repair cost me $0.05 worth of filament and 45 minutes of my time. It didn’t even come out especially pretty, but it gets the job done. And now every time I see it on the bottom of my keyboard, I know that I did that. I saw the problem, defeated the problem, and am now connected to that keyboard on an emotional level. I saved it from destruction through the power of my will and ability to do web searches. Admittedly, it’s a small victory. But here’s the thing: I’m not alone.
I recently bought an iPod replacement battery kit from iFixit.com. It comes with all the tools necessary to restore my “vintage” iPod classic to full function. It cost less than $20 with shipping. While I bought the tools, the knowledge on how to do the replacement was given for free. And I think that sort of thing is a bit of a breakthrough. Part of the reason why people rarely fix things anymore is because they lack the resources to do so. The model has been there for a while, with auto parts stores stocking Chilton manuals, but the tools becoming available are much more dynamic and varied. Battery and screen replacements for phones and other mobile devices are a no-brainer. Refurbishing your device for 5 - 25% of the cost of a new one makes good sense. But why stop with consumer electronics?
Pintrest, Reddit, youtube, and other online communities constantly bombarded their members with DIY home repair and upgrade projects. Many of them are complex and expensive dream projects that can only happen once a decade, performed by someone with a lot of skill, time, and money. But not all of them. Maybe you don’t have the time or money to remodel the carriage house, but if you have a friend with a 3D printer, you can fix that shelf with the broken bracket that hasn’t been made since 1978, replace the drawer guide to ensure smooth silverware retrieval, or change out the broken knob on an appliance. Using open source designs or even learning enough to design your, you can make replacement parts for cabinets, cars, or coffee maker for pennies a gram.
You might say to yourself, but you are just talking about printing out plastic doo-dads or buying already put together repair kits. That’s hardly a revolution. And you would be right, but it’s the start of one. The old anecdote about the gold rush is that the only people who got rich were the ones selling to the miners. iFixit is embracing the power of the internet to commoditize information to bundle a single time sellable physical product (replacement batteries) to a infinitely resalable digital product, the knowledge to use the batteries. Much like Adafruit produces free guides and libraries to use its programmable electronics. The ability to instantly disseminate the knowledge gives the potential customer that reason to buy the products. As the knowledge base and penetration of the internet widens and deepens, the more of these “pick axe sellers” will appear, serving new niche types of repair and modes of self-expression.
My hope is that this initiates a virtuous circle. As more people repair things, more people will create businesses to sell them the tools and knowledge to repair things. As more types of these businesses are created, the idea of repair and maintenance is strengthened and people repair things more. As a consequence, people who tend to repair things also tend to take better care of their things. And maybe, just maybe, the type of people who come to value taking care of their things will become more likely to take care of each other. That is a change that is good for everybody.