Apple’s Poor Repairability Ratings: Not What They Seem?

on January 6, 2016

I brought my iPhone 6 in for service at an iPhone store a few weeks ago. Its home button had a double click that didn’t always register. A genius bar employee diagnosed it and it was repaired in about an hour. But, in order to replace the button, the entire front assembly including the bezel, display, and touch screen was also replaced.

In another experience a year ago, the case of my MacBook Pro along with the keyboard were replaced when the trackpad stopped working.

This is quite a change from how products used to be designed for repair, where a single component would be replaced.

In reviewing many of Apple products’ construction on the iFixit site over the years, you can see that Apple designers have changed many of the rules of mechanical design. Instead of designing for easy repairability of each component, such as the battery, display or switch, they’ve created products in which many of the parts have complex sub-assemblies, held together with adhesive or clips not designed to easily come apart, and instead designed to be replaced as an entire unit. As a result, these products receive a low rating from iFixit for repairability.

Perhaps it’s important to make it easy for repairs to be done by those without extensive training to disassemble and remove defective components. Swapping out a module is a lot easier and faster than removing one component buried deep under other components. Cost of manufacture can be much less if parts are not needed to be separated after assembly. The replacement parts, of course, are much costlier, because a good display is discarded along with a bad home button.

This is another area where Apple’s design methodology has bucked conventional thinking. While I can only surmise all the reasons, it makes sense from the standpoint of providing the type of good service I received, available in most all of their stores: the product was repaired quickly in an hour or a day. From that perspective, repairability is great. And that counts more than an iFixit rating.

I suspect much of the motivation behind this design methodology is also to make their products as thin and light as possible. Batteries no longer need to be enclosed in housings mounted in place to allow their removal. Instead, the bare batteries are glued to the enclosures. The iPhone’s non-removable battery caused an uproar but now this is becoming common practice, as exemplified by Samsung’s latest series of Galaxy phones. The elimination of a couple of walls of enclosure translates directly into a thinner product.

But this design approach also burdens the cost of recycling. It’s much more labor-intensive to separate the parts for recycling. You wouldn’t want to throw a battery along with a printed circuit board assembly and an aluminum housing all stuck together into the same recycling bin. The question becomes how well Apple considers the recycling of their products when designing them.