Fostering a maintenance culture08 August 2023

(Image credit: AdobeStock: ltummy)

Our society has become a throw-away one, and part of the problem is a lack of knowledge and capability in repair

Globalisation has made household goods (computers, televisions, white goods) available to all, thanks to supply chains optimised on cost. Buying new is now almost always cheaper and lower-risk than a local repair. While that is good news for today’s consumers, it is saving up a problem for tomorrow, contends University College London professor of materials and society Mark Miodownik.

“What this does is creates disposability, and a mountain of WEEE waste. The UK is the second-largest per-capita producer of WEEE (waste electrical and electronic equipment), [after Norway]. That environmental cost will be paid by someone,” he adds, even if it is not the customer. At the moment, it is being passed on to the disposal chain – usually in another country.

He blames a breakdown in the contract between the buyer and seller of consumer goods for causing this situation. “If every manufacturer had to pay for the environmental costs of recycling technology back to raw materials, they would want things to last longer, and change their business model. We need the computer sector to take ownership of the waste problem and really start using their innovative minds to redesign the computer for the 21st century, which should outlive the person who owns it.”

Miodownik adds: “You want to keep the cheap cost of the machine, but you want it to last 10 years. And in order to get into that 10 years, you need them to be repairable over that period of time.”

Customers might say, he continues: “I am buying something that has a battery in it; I demand that I should be able to replace the battery. You as the manufacturer have to make that possible with normal tools. That is totally doable.” Such a proposition would be ideal for predictable failures, he adds. For example, in a hard water area, a [common] dishwasher failure is caused by the electric heater element furring up. “All you need is a sensor that detects that furring up and alerts the user to soften the water or add salt to prevent it.”

But this is not inevitable, Miodownik continues. He says: “The reason why it hasn’t happened yet is that it’s not in the manufacturer’s interest to do so, [even though] it’s entirely in the world’s interest for that to happen.” That results in fewer failures, a longer-lasting and less environmentally-damaging device.

He points out that business models already exist where customers send information to the manufacturer about the operation of the machine, and the manufacturer’s job is to make it last as long as possible; that is the idea behind servitisation contracts, in which users never own the equipment but pay per use, and breakdowns are covered by a service contract. Office photocopiers are an example.


A model of maintenance culture within industry, specifically a metalwork production facility, is described by Alex Collins, former machinist and now engineering lecturer at Colchester Institute. For him, good maintenance culture is part of a production environment. Collins says: “It’s not just repair; it’s making a site and the equipment better and more efficient, working in the way that you want it to work.”

Five or six years ago, his previous employer hired a consultant to consider whether it could outsource their maintenance department, and just have contractors come in as soon as there was a production-stopping event. Contracted to be on call to turn up within a day, they would replace six or seven staff on full-time pay and benefits. (They eventually decided to keep the engineers.)

Collins continues: “The discussion was around maintenance culture. Are we only be interested in things when they stop production, or are we interested in maintenance as part of a larger story?

“Those that have a good maintenance culture see [maintenance] in a more holistic view. It’s not just these big events. It is a day-to-day thing; it’s talking with operators when they say, ‘that doesn’t sound right’. It might be making up a jig or adapting something. The sort of work that falls to maintenance, making those little enhancements in production.”

If that is the ideal, what is preventing such an approach elsewhere in industry, and beyond, in the consumer goods world?

Changes in skilling is one area, according to Collins, who has witnessed a shifting in ability level among learners even over the decade since he was an apprentice. “The biggest difference I’ve noticed is the lack of exposure to engineering. Everybody knows that technical skills are [taught] less in high schools. But there are also fewer hobbyists. Then, people were coming in with a genuine personal interest mixed with a little experience and exposure. That’s less common. Now it’s more, ‘I was good at maths, so I guess I’ll be good at engineering.’ But practical and theoretical skills are two very different things.” (Collins points out that Colchester Institute still offers apprentices a level 2 practical qualification in hand-fitting, covering tasks such as using a file and hand saw).

Collins adds that also during his time in industry he noticed that service engineers, while they may have specific training for the job at hand, were more and more lacking a broad engineering background. About that, he says: “All machines have the same basic components. It’s just an ability to be able to read a drawing, interpret how it works and then problem-solve. And it’s not too dissimilar with electronics.”

Another engineer who credits his own education for providing repair competence is retired engineering project manager Chris Moller, a graduate of Cambridge University. He says: “Learning how to reason, identify and localise faults requires a level of skill and discipline. Also, the process of taking things out in a certain order so that you can put them back together.”

But, perhaps surprisingly, what he prizes above even that is curiosity…and experience. “Ever since I can remember, when something broke, I didn’t throw it away; I took it apart to understand how it worked. All repairers do that as a matter of course; over time you build an understanding of what the inside of a toaster is like.”

He continues that work by organising in (and promoting) repair cafés; there are now 26 at his city of residence Cambridge, and 2,500 worldwide, which help ordinary people fix their possessions for free (see also box).

To a greater or lesser degree, they are taking the place of repair shops, a dying breed. He observes: “The reason why repair shops have shut down is because it’s so difficult. There are fundamental problems with repairability of electronics. Nobody in the world, not even the guy who originally made it, can repair a zapped silicon chip.” Moller, a former Texas Instruments product marketing manager, points out it is practically impossible to recreate a manufacturing line for an old silicon chip.

He continues: “That defines the lifetime of a piece of electronic kit; you compare that to a steam engine, where any part could be remade.”

Which is not to discount the role of human ingenuity – skill. Moller has run repair cafés in Ghana, where he is also treasurer of a vocational college. It is a country that receives a large amount of secondhand electronics, which often need repair after suffering from the country’s ambient environmental conditions of high humidity, airborne salt and dust. He observes: “People in west Africa are very resourceful, because they have to be. If they don’t, equipment will only be short-lived.

“They do extraordinary things. I had to repair an audio cassette recorder for somebody. The Dolby noise reduction chip had blown, and he couldn’t get a spare replacement chip, so he looked at the data sheet and found that the circuit diagram, and built himself a Dolby chip using discrete components.”

UK engineers need not necessarily go to such extreme lengths of ingenuity to repair electronics. Miodownik says what is needed is better modularity of design of ICT equipment to allow poorly-performing parts to be swapped out and replaced.

That could be at a scale smaller than a printed circuit board, which Moller has experience repairing in his repair cafés. He says: “A resistor or capacitor is going to be surface-mounted, requiring tweezers and a hot air gun to do it. Capacitors in particular very frequently need to go. I’m amazed that in the RS Components catalogue the lifetime of electrolytic capacitors is quoted as 2,000 hours, and they are going into products that are meant to last for many years. We can repair surface-mount features on chips with up to five pins.”

He also complains that much useful ICT equipment becomes obsolete only because of issues with software, such as compatibility issues. “Software needs fixes all the time. There are constantly new hacks; new viruses to be protected against. And the application itself also changes. More computer equipment is thrown away now because it’s incompatible with something else than because it’s broken. That is a scandal.”

He adds: “One of the words in Cambridge which opens all doors is innovation. Go to West Africa, and it’s a rude word. It means fragile, incomprehensible, completely dependent on support from somewhere else. They say, ‘I don’t want something which is innovative; I just want something that works and works.’”


Repair cafés are very informal, says Moller. There’s no contract; no enduring commitment between the repairers and their ‘customers’, which is also important for legal liability. Repaircafé.org is based in the Netherlands, and sells a franchise guide that explains how to set one up (€49). A key part of the Cambridge organisation is its communal tool kit, donated by a local outlet of a national supplier, which is available for any café to borrow, and will likely have the right tool for the job. On the other hand, it has so many tools that it weighs 100kg.

Will Dalrymple

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