The Repair Café

For me, it is always a pleasure when a number of my interests become aligned – sometimes the resulting whole is greater than the sum of the parts. This happened with digital photography, for example. For years I had used film and I had worked with and enjoyed computers; now they have come together nicely. Just recently, I heard about something that promised to yield the same kind of benefit …

Like most people, I like making things – creating something new can be great fun. But I also like fixing things. I really dislike the “throw away” attitude which is almost universal nowadays. While some things – like a light-bulb or a silicon chip – cannot be repaired, many things may be brought back to life. Unfortunately, the cost of skilled labor in western countries is so high, that we usually find it cheaper to dump something and buy a replacement, which has been manufactured using cheap labor elsewhere. Although this addresses the short term issue, the approach is simply putting off the inevitable. The planet is running out of resources; throw-away is not sustainable. Remember the key saying of some green campaigners: reuse is better than recycling, which is better than disposal.

As I said, I like fixing things. I am keen on anything that helps the environment. And it is fun to rub shoulders with like-minded folks. So, when I heard about an outfit called the Repair Café, my interest was piqued. Two friends separately mentioned that they were involved with the RC and told me a bit about it. The idea is very simple. A session is run in a local community center for a few hours on a Saturday every month. Anyone can bring along items that need repairing. A bunch of volunteers are on hand to assess whether repairs are possible and, when they can, send the person home with a repaired item. There is no charge, but users of the service are encouraged to make a donation.

I recently went along for a couple of hours to shadow one of my friends to understand how it worked. I was very impressed by the “can do” attitude and collaborative approach of the repairers. In that time, I was involved to varying extent in 3 repair attempts:

  • A lady had a wind-up radio, which had suddenly stopped working. You could wind it up, but, when the handle was released it would quickly spin back instead of turning the generator at a steady rate. We soon located a small drive belt which had fallen off. She was sent away happy.
  • Another challenge was a string of solar powered garden lights. We quickly confirmed that the lights themselves were OK, but the charging circuit seemed to be dead. We concluded that a repair was not feasible.
  • A guy came in with an electric lawn mower. He had cut through the power cable while mowing his lawn. He effected a very bodged [and quite dangerous] repair and then managed to cut the cable again. I was impressed by my colleagues not telling him how stupid he was. Instead, they set forth repairing both breaks in a safe secure way.

I enjoyed my time at the RC and I have applied to become a volunteer myself and cannot wait to notch up my first satisfied customer. I have since learned that there is an international movement of Repair Cafés, which provides guidance in setting up and running local operations. You can find more information here.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at https://blogs.sw.siemens.com/embedded-software/2015/05/21/the-repair-cafe/