ST. PAUL — The coronavirus pandemic has forced scores of Minnesotans to work and study from home, and a group of electronics repair shop operators say they're seeing a renewed demand for refurbished tech as a result.
But they say they may not have the supply to match because of manufacturer policies that bar consumers from repairing and modifying their own devices. Several signed onto a letter sent to the state Legislature this week asking lawmakers to pass a bill that would bring what is known as the right to repair to Minnesota.
"Factories in China aren't turning out new models so the alternative for the foreseeable future is used equipment," reads a portion of the letter, which several environmental groups also signed. "Yet the used market does not work without the ability to repair and restore equipment to its original function."
At the center of the coalition's request to the Legislature is a Minnesota House bill that would require electronic equipment makers to provide their customers and independent businesses with repair manuals and affordable replacement parts. Manufacturers of everything from cell phones to tractors have in the past objected to such measures, preferring to service their products in-house.
Consumer advocates argue that such company policies hurt customers and stifle competition.
During an online press conference Thursday, April 16, Tech Dump CEO Amanda LaGrange said her Twin Cities area business has been contacted by several companies seeking additional computer equipment for their newly housebound employees. She's sitting on stockpile of used laptops she wants to fix up and sell them, but LaGrange said she can't do that without spare parts and repair diagrams.
"We know we have this technology in this state," she said. But what's missing is the ability to restore it.
Introduced in spring 2019, Minnesota's right-to-repair bill has been tweaked by state House committees as recently as Tuesday, April 14. Shep Harris, an attorney representing the coalition, said Thursday that House legislators are generally enthusiastic about the bill.
Harris said what is less certain is the bill's future in the state Senate, which hasn't touched it since last March.
Business officials said Thursday that they can't make or manufacture their own replacement parts, as some have done using 3D printers, because many are protected by patents and trade secret agreements. Even if they could, they said, production might be cost-prohibitive.
"It’s fairly complicated for a company like ours to try and make our own replacement parts," said Neil Vill, CEO of Mankato-based World Data Products.