All to often users are excluded from engaging with the repair and maintenance of their own products as they are advised not to do so by the manuals and labelling on products. I have even come across examples of manuals supplied with children’s bicycles that advise the owners not to undertake any maintenance or adjustments.
This proposal could apply to many different products that encase their inner workings within a concealing body. The design principle that supports this concept encourages the development of products that allow easy and safe access to the inner workings and allow users to conduct regular servicing and maintenance.
In this case, users can carefully apply oil to the roller bearings and are able to replace the drive belt once it becomes stretched of worn. Printers are an interesting subject as domestic users frequently replace ink cartridges which requires a level of access to the interior of the product.
Boeing have been pioneering research into the use of Augmented Reality (AR) in the aerospace industry. This exciting technology that overlays digital information over a realtime view of the real world could offer useful context relevant instruction for anyone wishing to work on their own products. There is a wealth of information online with instructions, videos, step-by-step tutorials available to help people with maintenance and repair.
This work is still under development and as aircraft need to be built to exacting standards, it will not be used commercially until proven to be reliable. However, coupled with Google Cardboard or similar such commercial versions, there is potential in this technology.
Today, by chance, the service warning indicator on my VW T5 van lit up on the dashboard. This indicator tells me that I need to service the vehicle in 2000 miles. This made me consider what it is that prompts users to conduct preventative maintenance and whether the warning lights actually serve to disconnect users from the actual systems that need regular care or attention.
The image shown at the top of this post contains a selection of the common warning (or witness) indicators that tell the driver of a car there is an issue that needs attention. I struck me that these indicators have always raised a level of alarm when I see one light up and see me searching through the owners manual to find out exactly what the warning means. As cars have become more complex and the electronic systems they contain have become more responsive, these notifications can be delivered with much more information.
These are good examples of where technology is used to monitor the condition of certain service parts and provide an indicator to the user as to when an intervention is required. These indicators provide a convenient solution, but cannot cover all aspect s of the operation of a vehicle. There are also many examples of products where it would be inappropriate to provide so much technology simply to monitor the health of a product. There are other, simpler ways of checking the condition of many of these parts, but this requires some specialist knowledge. I suspect that most people have no idea how the vehicles that they own work, what the indicators mean or which part of the car they refer to. This seems to indicate that owners/users are far removed from the physical care of their own possessions and are unable, unwilling or simply not aware of how they can correctly maintain their own vehicles.
I started this post considering what it is that prompts someone to carry out maintenance and got distracted when thinking about the fact that the indicator lights removing the necessity to check parts of a vehicle could actually prevent people undertaking maintenance. There is more research to be done to help understand the relationship between owners and products that require some form of regular intervention.
I came across this section of a manual published by NASA that gives guidelines for the design of spacecraft. As you would expect, it appears that there are some demanding standards to be met when considering the design and engineering of such craft. This section of the manual is specifically focussed on Design for Maintainability and lists a number of very specific considerations and requirements to ensure that spacecraft can be maintained effectively on the Earth and in orbit.
The general principles outlined in this document look to offer some simple and sensible considerations and design requirements that could be applied elsewhere.
Often, insight derived in extreme conditions can make highlight the smallest of issues that might normally get missed under normal conditions. This manual is based on experience gained from many space flights and experiments conducted on orbiting space stations.
The photograph above shows the improvisation that saved the crew members of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission. During an emergency return to Earth, the crew needed to replace the saturated filters from the air scrubbers used to removed CO2 from the air. The only replacements available were from a different part of the spacecraft and would not integrate with the equipment that needed to be maintained. This blog gives considerable detail of the emergency procedure that was rapidly developed on Earth to help the astronauts.
This is an example of a valuable lesson learned. The design of future craft would ensure that parts were interchangeable and I’m certain that this incident contributed to the motivation to produce the standards document mentioned above.
Publishing some form of ‘Design Guidelines’ that both encourage designers to consider maintenance as a fundamental aspect of the design process and also aid them in doing so could prove to be a useful tool.
IFIXIT is an online resource that provides information and access to parts the allow for non-expert repairs to a multitude of products. Originally focussed around the proliferation of electronic devices that suffer from battery degradation, damaged screens, broken buttons etc., it has grown to provide advice and instructions on how to repair all kinds of things.
The site is interesting in that it is has an open ‘community’ approach as stated:
iFixit is a wiki-based site that teaches people how to fix almost anything. Anyone can create a repair manual for a device, and anyone can also edit the existing set of manuals to improve them. Our site empowers individuals to share their technical knowledge with the rest of the world.
There is a wealth of information available on the site. The ‘Teardown’ section is where videos of new products being disassembled are posted. The aim is to examine the internal components and assess the product for repair. I watched an Apple Pencil ‘Teardown’ film and at the end the presenter gave a ‘repairability score’ for the product based on the ease of access to the internal parts. The Apple Pencil received a score of 1 out of 10 for this as there was no way to access the components without destroying the product in the process.
The repair guides that are produced by the IFIXIT team are excellent. The are clear, incredibly well illustrated and allow users to comment on each step making suggestions or offering advice.
There is also a forum where users can discuss issues and ask for advice.
Below is an example of a user generated guide. The team at IFIXIT produce comprehensive guides to the most common repairs with mass market products. They also encourage the general public to contribute to the site and to produce repair guides themselves. There is comprehensive advice and instruction on how to create a good guide on the site and in interesting section that allows the community to ‘upgrade’ the quality of these user developed repair guides.
This is an incredible resource that is free at point of use as a repair guide, but also supports an organisation that aims to change the way in which companies design their products to make them repairable by the owners. Their manifesto can be accessed here.
This site is exciting in that it offers an alternative to the ‘no user serviceable parts’ attitude of many mass produced electronic/electrical products. The site is well structured, contains excellent instructional material and makes use of a crowd sourcing to help cover the almost infinite number of products.
The guides on the site are developed using open source software called omanual, the name is derived from the term ‘open format manual’, allowing for rich media content and non-linear linking of sections. They claim that this is great resource for creating any form of manual, not just for repair and may be worth exploring further.
This approach to sharing knowledge and advice, especially the crowd sourcing/community contributor model is potentially a very powerful concept. It may be that this approach could extend to caring and maintenance as a means of sharing good practice, tips and advice. Perhaps an alternative version called ILOOKAFTERIT could be a viable proposition. Whether the motivation to maintain a product in peak condition is as strong as of that repair a damaged one is yet to be discovered.
It seems that as western society becomes more risk averse (not sure if this is true, will need to find evidence), consumers are becoming increasingly advised ‘NOT’ to maintain there own possessions. I found the following section in an owners manual for bicycles published by Raleigh America and supplied with new bicycles.
The warnings given are unequivocal, informing the consumer that ‘serious injury or death’ may come as a consequence of attempting to look after your bicycle! This may be genuine advice, but it may also be a means of avoiding litigation should someone injure themselves from using a badly maintained machine. It used to be common for owners to service their own vehicles, but increasingly it seems the advice given by manufacturers is to pay someone to do the work for you. This could have significant consequences in that owners may neglect maintenance due to the inconvenience or cost. This in turn could mean that some devices may become dangerous, inefficient or suffer from a reduced lifespan.
Perhaps a way forward for this work would be to consider a means of providing good advice and information to encourage consumer maintenance.
It is not at all unusual to see examples of the following labels on consumer goods. It is certain that, with electrical products, that there is some risk associated with opening the product, however there must be ways in which the design of the product can go some way to protecting the user when engaging in maintenance or servicing.
Designing products to allow ‘user servicing’ that will facilitate safe and easy maintenance may also provide a possible direction.