With consumer electronics, you want to make sure that a device that will be in your life long term — not just until the next update. Considering how to repair or update hardware and software are two important steps when building products that can last as long as your favorite piece of furniture.
7 minute read
September 8, 2017
When it comes to building products (particularly hardware products), there’s a lot of responsibility. Companies should strive to create something that people really love - something that will fit into the lives of their users and provide real value for them.
Additionally, you want to make sure that whatever you’re building is not just great now — but stands the test of time.
For consumer electronics, this can be really difficult. In addition to balancing design, mechanical engineering, software engineering, manufacturing and more — you have to think about how to optimize all of these things to last (hopefully) for years.
It’s a tall order, and as a small company it can be even more difficult with limited resources in terms of time, money and people. Here at Senic, we are working towards solving this problem. The topic has lately become even more important to us, as we've recently launched our designer smart light, COVI.
Because our products exist at the crosspoint between design and technology, we want to make sure that we are creating devices that will be in your life long term — not just until the next update.
Below are a few things we considered while building the hardware and software for COVI to ensure that it’s a piece of technology that lasts.
Building Products That Last
Most consumer tech has two big pieces that need to be balanced — the hardware and the software. To create something that lasts, you can break these pieces down into two key features:
The hardware should be repairable.
The software should outlast the company.
A lot goes into building hardware, especially if you’d like it to last as long as your grandfather’s favorite armchair. As a general rule, if a company is thinking about these two things then they are headed in the right direction.
1. The Hardware Should Be Repairable
Everything breaks eventually — from your grandmother’s watch to your new iPhone. The issue in consumer tech is that as companies and consumers, we get used to the idea of buying something new every year or two (hello new iPhone).
It probably won’t surprise you that about 50% of people have experienced a broken phone screen at one point or another (according to Motorola’s official study in 2015). More surprisingly though, about 23% are living with those cracked screens instead of getting them replaced, either due to the cost or the inconvenience.
There are two questions that companies can ask to help facilitate easier repairability:
How Are Things Attached?
When it comes to the almost-ubiquitous cracked phone screen, the biggest issue is that the glass and the screen are attached using an adhesive in most phones, meaning it can be difficult for the average person to repair on their own. Likewise - thanks to the adhesive on both materials - it’s often unlikely that you can save any part of the damaged screen, requiring you to opt for a complete replacement (DIY screen replacement kits for the iPhone 7 cost anywhere from $50–120).
Using means of attachment other than glue is a design challenge when building consumer electronics, but a big plus for repairability.
Inside our product Nuimo Control, we use 3 small screws that affix the core of the device to the surface — meaning that if someone breaks the device we can easily repair the damaged part, often with the ability to recycle the damaged components because they don’t have adhesive on them.
Designing your product with mechanical fixtures, screws or other non-adhesives is a great alternative to glue because it’s better for the environment and the user. It also often has unforeseen benefits for the company, who might need to repair or refurbish a device at some point during it’s lifespan.
What Materials/Components are Being Used?
When you initially design a consumer electronic , there is a lot of necessary sourcing of materials and components. The device must be designed to reflect its use and potentially house a lot of electronic components.
Typically, the electronics will come first in the prototyping stage as a company maps out exactly what features the device should have. Next, a decision must be made about the overall design of the device and materials for what is often referred to as the ‘casing’. Many companies opt for plastic casings as they can be easily mass manufactured via injection molding.
The issue with plastic (outside of it traditionally being thought of as a cheap material) is that it has a terrible impact on the environment due to it’s inability to biodegrade. Many people are trying to find ways to better recycle plastic , but for the most part it is considered our toxic legacy on an environment that cannot absorb it.
With COVI, we opted to use aluminum and glass as the main components for our smart lamp. The great thing about using these materials is that the parts can be conveniently detached from the rest of COVI - so they can easily be recycled or replaced should someone need to return or repair a broken device.
The Software Should Outlast The Company
Building a consumer electronic that is meant to last goes beyond using quality materials. It also means that the company needs to build their software in such a way that it will outlast them. One of the easiest ways to do this is to invest in products by companies that open source their software and have regular release cycles along with big developer communities.
Software Updates vs. Hardware Updates
As most companies that make hardware and software will tell you — hardware is hard. The big reason for this is that once you put a product into the world, it’s very difficult to update it. Alternatively, with software (which still takes a lot of talent to build) it is much easier to push out as an update to fix bugs or launch new features.
A high quality hardware product is more likely to last a long time if the company is having regular release cycles of new software. Companies like Apple do regular releases of new hardware to sell more product - with the expectation that people will want to upgrade to the newest thing. However, this often indicates that repairability and long term durability of the hardware is considered as a second thought.
Buying Open Source
As we discussed in our last post ‘Why Smart Home Should Be Open’ - while you can buy a product with high quality hardware and regular software updates, you can’t account for things like the company going bankrupt, etc.
What usually happens when a company stops supporting their own software is that the hardware is “bricked” e.g. it no longer functions properly and effectively is just a brick. There’s no way to fully avoid this - however , if a company has built their product open source, it means there is a chance that the developer community may carry on with the development of the product without the support of the company. Building open source software is effectively like cooking in a glass kitchen, if you’re going to show your customers what you’re making — it better be good.
This is one of the biggest reasons why we believe that it’s actually a sign of quality if a company builds open source. If they aren’t holding up their standards, it’s pretty easy to tell and generally you have a community of developers who are looking into things like privacy, security and bug fixes. Read more on why we love open source here.
In Conclusion, Ask More From Your Devices
There is a growing global community of people who care about repairability and making electronics that last. Initiatives like iFixit are amazing because they are creating places to share knowledge outside of the company’s forums or support in order to understand how to repair devices. Their user-generated tear downs of devices are one of our favorite places to get ideas about how to design better assembly methods for our devices that allow us or others to repair our products.
We hope that this gives you a few ideas of how for making and using hardware that is built to last. You can always reach us with ideas, questions and feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Part 2/8: Time, People and Money - Exactly Why ‘Hardware is Hard’