Just how many screws, clips, connectors, specialized tools, and steps to disassemble 21 common tablets?

Do you own a tablet yet? Chances are good your tablet is making your PC or laptop redundant. And your tablet goes beyond: taking photos, playing music, making paper books and magazines seem like relics of an ancient past. The smaller, lighter machines and all the other toys they replace may make tablets an environmental dream if the devices themselves do not become disposal nightmares.

So how do tablets stack up in design for disassembly? In spite of being marketed under the slick acronym D4R -- design for repair, refurbishment, reuse, or recycling -- the ability to extend the life of a tablet and to recover the valuable materials used in its manufacture at the end of its life may not be a key driver of consumer desire. But tablet manufacturers do pay attention when their product is tested against the competition.

That is what the Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration (IZM) did with 21 popular tablets. The Green Electronics Council purchased a bunch of tablets so that the Fraunhofer scientists could tear them apart. Alphabetically, the team examined the Acer Iconia A510, Acer Iconia W700, Apple iPad 4, Apple iPad mini, Asus Google Nexus 7, Asus MeMo Pad Smart ME301T, Asus Transformer TF300TG, Blaupunkt Discovery, Dell Latitude 10 ST2, Dell Latitude 10, Huawei Media Pad 7, Intenso TAB714, Kindle Fire HD, Lenovo IdeaTab A2107A, Odys Neo X7, Odys Noon, Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1, Samsung Galaxy Tab 2, Samsung Google Nexus 10 GT‐P8110, Sony Xperia Tablet S SGPT121DE/S, and a Toshiba AT270.

Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration (IZM)/Screen capture

Praise for ease of access in Apple tablets?

Unfortunately for consumer choice, the tablet D4R study hides the identity of the devices studied. But there is no hiding the unique Apple products, with heat-gun disassembly required and extensive adhesive tacking batteries to the metal cases.

You can be pretty sure that the devices given the alias DUT_07 and DUT_12 (devices under test, in case you were wondering) have the tasty fruit redacted to hide their identities. The report describes separating the front glass to get access to the internals as "not only an option but the necessary way to open the DUT_07 and DUT_12." In spite of studies that have slammed the iPad design, the report observes that if one knows in advance not to rip the cables on opening the glass, this method avoids the need to "unscrew, unclip, or detach in some kind of way a lot of tiny subcomponents," a process which amounted to between 10 and 30 steps in other tablet designs.

Page 25 of the study shows the range of complexity in various tablets. Opening the case requires between 1 and 5 tools, occasionally specialized tools such as a torx head screwdriver or a heat gun. Up to 8 different screws complicate the disassembly. Clips range from 0 to 46 and heaven help the repair when a clip snaps off -- but recyclers actually like the clips which beneficially snap away to make recovery of the various materials in the guts easier. With 56 actions required, the DUT_07 represents the most steps to open the device and remove the battery and main board.

Conflicting Conclusions

The lessons learned cannot be easily incorporated in better designs, due to conflicting benefits. In the final conclusion:
In general there is no optimal design, which is the best option under all scenarios: Those devices, which feature better access to battery and mainboard for replacement and repair typically do not allow easy access to the display unit and vice versa. Also the question whether screws or glues and adhesives are preferable cannot be answered unambiguously: For repair screws are the better option, but for material separation glue seems to be favorable over a multitude of screws. Products, which seem to be more robust (but be aware that robustness as such was not analyzed in this study) are less disassembly-friendly.

Fraunhofer plans next to further evaluate when and how repair can be optimized, the balance of robustness versus repairability and other factors to help clarify the design decisions. The complete study (pdf):
Disassembly Analysis of Slates: Design for Repair and Recycling Evaluation

Tags: Apple Inc | Computing | Design Competitions | Recycling

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