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hillhacks Workshop Tools Part 2: Repair Culture

Last time, I wrote about the journey to supply workshop sets of PCs for hillhacks. One of the outcomes of doing that was that many of the PCs had to be opened up and modified in order to make them usable for the event. A big reason to keep all the PCs identical is because it makes maintenance much easier. If parts break, they can be scavenged from other PCs rather than having to be special ordered. Also, people maintaining the PCs can go very deep into understanding the inner workings of one PC so that more specific repairs can be made on the laptops to increase the usable life. This wouldn't be possible if all the PCs were different.

As we discussed the PC procurement over the mailing list, we gradually started thinking about repair culture and how it's an important skill to have in remote areas and developing countries. This also got me thinking about how in developed countries, repair culture is almost nonexistent. Over the past decades, there's been so many strides in marketing and mass production that repair culture has been replaced with consumer culture and the mentality of disposability.

For hillhacks, we started discussing hands on workshops to promote repair culture and decided the best course of action would be to teach people how to perform simple repairs on mobile devices. Today, mobile devices are a central device that performs multiple functions and just about everyone has. Learning how to repair them opens up some interesting possibilities. Once someone knows how to repair a phone, they can increase the usable life of the phone, purchase better phones in bad condition and restore them to a usable condition, or even start a business repairing phones or selling refurbished phones that were bought on the cheap. And of course, one of the best consequences of promoting repair culture is a reduction in electronic waste. Everybody wins!…except manufacturers, I guess.

For hillhacks, and in order to promote repair culture, we've decided to have mobile phone repair workshops that are hands on. The most common issue with smart phones that cause them to be discarded is a broken screen. This is in fact a very inexpensive repair, especially if the LCD is still working. The interesting thing is this repair also requires taking the entire phone apart to get to the LCD/front glass assembly so it provides a good exercise in getting people used to opening up mobile devices.

For a front screen repair, the parts cost is approximately $5-$10 USD for most phones. For an iPhone 5S screen repair, the front glass is less than $4! Most people that take their phones to repair shops complain about being charged on the order of $100 to $200 for a screen repair. The reason is because its much easier to replace the screen/digitizer/LCD assembly rather than the front screen only. The complete assembly can cost anywhere from $30 to $60 USD and the repair shop can make more money on the repair since they can charge a larger amount in labor without having the customer feel ripped off. Imagine paying $50 in labor to replace a $50 part. Then imagine paying $50 in labor to replace a $4 part.

The main difference is a front screen repair requires some specialty tools and expertise. The rough procedure is that the glass/digitizer/LCD assembly is put face down on a special hot plate with clamps to heat the screen. The epoxy underneath the screen will weaken, and a cutting wire is then inserted between the screen and LCD to separate them. After that, there's some residual cleaning, adding new epoxy, and mounting the replacement screen. The procedure might sound complicated but is actually quite fast.

For the hillhacks repair workshops, we've acquired a workshop set of 10 HTC One and 10 HTC Desire smart phones. These were considered a good choice because they're not very new but are considered a fairly standard phone in India. These were all purchased off eBay in a wholesale lots in broken condition. We also procured a wholesale lot of 10 iPhone 3GS phones to provide a non-Android repair workshop. All of the phones had parts missing such as batteries, covers, buttons, etc. All of them had broken screens. They were restored by ordering replacement parts and screens from Shenzhen which has a huge mobile phone replacement parts supply.

The phones and replacement parts are now procured and we've restored the missing components. We'll be replaced the broken front screens, replacing bad ports, testing them to see that they're working, wiping the memories, and doing a full factory reset. After that, there's a service code that you can enter into most phones to go into the service menu. From this menu, it's possible to test each of the different parts of the phone to make sure its working or to diagnose issues.

For the repair workshops at hillhacks, this will all be covered and workshop attendees will each get a phone and a replacement screen. They will be taking the phone apart, removing the digitizer/LCD assembly, separating the glass from the assembly, replacing the screen, and putting it all back together again. After that, we'll be going into the service menu to test them and then discussing how to source replacement parts for phones for their own repairs.

The workshop attendance will be limited based on available materials we have but we should be able to hold the workshops multiple times over the event. For the specialty tools and consumables, we're also hoping to keep a community set of tools in Dharamsala after hillhacks. These can be used by others for repair and practice. Hopefully others can excited about repair culture after hillhacks too!


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