“Why do we throw away electronics when they break?”

© 2022 EPFL / Hillary Sanctuary

© 2022 EPFL / Hillary Sanctuary

With electronic waste on the rise, recent EPFL robotics graduate Ken Pillonel has turned to YouTube to make a statement about the repairability of our devices.

Have you ever tried to fix a device, only to find that if you take it apart, the damage would be irreparable? Or that the electronics board is embedded in so much glue or epoxy that you cannot even attempt to troubleshoot the components?

School of Engineering alumnus Ken Pillonel, who received his bachelor's degree in Microengineering (2019) and his master's degree in Robotics (2022), has had enough of this “fast-electronics” consumer model that leads to increasing electronic waste. He has taken to YouTube to make a statement by hacking Apple products, highlighting design choices by this mega corporation that allegedly limit the durability of a product. His latest video about AirPods, published under the account name “Exploring the Simulation,” has amassed almost 2 million views.

“When a tire is broken on a car, you don’t throw away the entire car, you simply replace the tire. Why do we throw away electronics when they break?” exclaims Pillonel. “Through my engineering videos, I try to show that it’s a simple thing to fix if the right design choices are made.”

As a teenager, Ken started off by fixing his favorite computer consoles. His electronics savvy got him noticed, and soon he was repairing iPhones for family and friends. “But I wanted to understand how electronic devices work. That’s why I chose to study Microengineering. It’s a nice mix between electronics, mechanics and computer science.”

Business has never been an obstacle for the young graduate, who started earning pocket money by selling his knowledge about hacking video games not to his friends, but his friends’ parents who wanted to spend less! Before high school was finished, he had set up a website for selling his iPhone repair services. Now, he’s freelancing as hardware prototyping consultant while making revenue from his online videos.

This passion for electronic devices led him to the largest electronics market in the world, in China, during his studies. After observing how quickly new ideas could be assembled into products, he came back to Switzerland with determination, “I realized in China that you can build anything you want if you have the right tools. When I came back, I set out the task to build my own workshop and turn ideas into reality.”

Along the way, a documentary about electronic waste was a turning point for Pillonel. “I was shocked by images of computer keyboards floating down streams in rural Africa,” he says. The documentary opened his eyes about the electronics industry along the entire production chain, from extraction of rare earth metals for components, to design choices that contribute to fast consumerism and encourages the “replace instead of repair” mentality. It was the start of understanding his own impact on the world as a consumer of electronics.

In his latest video “Airpod’s Dirty Secret”, Pillonel argues that the charging station for recharging Apple’s wireless earphones is poorly designed. The station contains a rechargeable battery, but the battery cannot be replaced without destroying the station’s casing. Pillonel provides 3D printer plans and instructions to fix your own AirPods charging case.

“Devices should be designed to be repairable. It used to be the case, you used to be able to find user manuals and where to order replacement parts. Big corporations should be making these design choices at the outset,” continues Pillonel.

In another one of Pillonel’s YouTube videos, currently at 1 million views, Pillonel makes the first USB-C iPhone, criticizing Apple and their refusal to adopt the USB-C connector on their ubiquitous product. Pillonel explains, “I was frustrated with the lack of coherence when it comes to charging standards. When the results of the EU-mandated studies came back, I learned that having a universal charging port would greatly reduce the amount of electronic waste produced each year. I then set out to build the first USB-C iPhone, to show that if a student can do it, so can a massive corporation.” He is currently fine-tuning his Master’s thesis project on another iPhone hack that he says “will extend its lifetime.”

Pillonel points out that consumers are not necessarily aware of the constraints before buying a product, which is also a reason that he makes his YouTube videos. He pays attention to the electronics he buys, and encourages consumers to carefully research their products before buying them.