Right to repair: a call to action for manufacturing design

By Michael Goodwin, applications engineer, Markforged.

With the Right to Repair legislation signed into UK law in July, manufacturers are now legally required to make spare parts available to people buying electrical appliances with a view to reducing waste by encouraging people to repair older or broken machines, rather than buy new ones.

Manufacturers have been given a two year window to comply, which has many re-evaluating their business models and factory layouts to ensure they have room for the parts that may be needed for repairing. This shift from buying new to repairing old provides an opportunity for all manufacturers to not only explore technologies like additive manufacturing as a means to digitising their inventory of spare parts, but also to re-evaluate how they design parts, making them easier to replace as and when future repairs are required.

From early stage prototyping to end of life services

Until relatively recently AM technology was used primarily at the beginning of the product lifecycle – for design and developing early stage prototypes to test and experiment with various part designs in order to create the optimum part for each use. Inevitably, technology and materials have improved and AM has expanded into creating end use parts. As part of this journey, additive’s capabilities to easily chop and change designs and use printed prototypes to test parts has also carved out another niche for the technology, this time at the opposite end of the product lifecycle curve: creating legacy parts. 

It wasn’t long before designers and engineers realised that legacy parts created on obsolete machinery could be designed and recreated using AM processes for a fraction of the cost that it would take to re-tool the same parts using cumbersome and out of date machinery. This validated AM as the most viable solution to replace previously manufactured legacy parts, thus opening up new opportunities for the technology in ‘end of life’ manufacturing - from restoring classic cars to repairing older appliances and machines. 

Known as sustainment engineering, AM can extend parts beyond their expected lifespans, beyond the warranty and after the tools to create them have been retired or disposed. Companies like Czech-based Tecron focus on manufacturing legacy parts for vintage race cars, including parts that are no longer available. AM provides the perfect solution to this type of low-volume, high variety production and can re-create tooling-less parts even after original dies or moulds have been lost. 

Designing for repair

In addition to legacy parts, AM has a role to play in the digitalisation of manufacturing, not least in its ability to generate cost savings by allowing manufacturers to replace much of their physical inventories of spare parts with digital ones that can be printed at the point of need, on demand rather than taking up valuable space. 

The Right to Repair is primarily about sustaining the life of machines. To truly extend the life of machines the manufacturing industry needs to re-think the way they are designed. In general, consumer white goods are designed to last about ten years without the need for repairs. And, as many of us will know, trying to repair them is far from simple, making it easier to dispose of the old and bring in the new. The challenge the industry now needs to take up is to design machines with a view to making them repairable from the start, to design parts that can be easily replaced when required – and can be manufactured without expensive tooling using alternative methods like AM. This will not only make machines easier and more cost effective to repair, but help manufacturers to save money on expensive tooling. 

If manufacturers design with methods like AM in mind, they will no longer need to invest in the upkeep of fabrication and hand-machining tools costing in the range of £15,000 to produce a few 20 parts. Tooling-less production will also enable them to be more dynamic, to pivot from one job to the next and to print the tools and parts they need on demand. Right to Repair may be aimed at consumer goods, but it is a call to action for all machine manufacturers to look at the whole design process through a more sustainable lens.

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