An engineer makes it possible with 3D printing

Ken Pillonel may be known as the guy who built the world’s first iPhone with a USB-C port. Going forward though, he will likely be known as the person who made Apple AirPods repairable.

Here’s how he made it possible. 

After his USB-C iPhone went viral on the internet, Pillonel focused his attention on building the inverse, an Android phone with a Lightning port. A few weeks ago, he also released a sneak peek for his next engineering project, AirPods with a USB-C port.

When you might have begun to think that the engineer had become somewhat predictable in his projects, Pillonel took up the real big challenge of making the AirPods repairable. 

The Tragedy of AirPods

First announced in 2016, Apple AirPods has quickly become the company’s most popular accessory, with estimates of 90 million pairs sold in 2021. Users of the device may swear by the quality of its audio and its ability to respond to the slightest of taps and pinches. Still, Apple’s runaway success is also a tragedy for the environment. 

The company that takes pride in not shipping power bricks with the latest iterations of its phone for environmental reasons has also designed the AirPods to be unserviceable. The sleek-looking case of the AirPods provides no opportunity to access hardware components without splitting the device cover. 

The AirPod case breaks every time you try to open it
Image credit: Ken Pillonel

The hardships endured in repairing the device case are so many that repair specialists, iFixit, rate both the models of AirPods at a 0 out of a possible 10, the lowest score a device can ever get. In other words, the device is simply unrepairable. 

In an article published in 2019, Vice reported that a brand new AirPod could turn into a piece of e-waste in as little as 18 months when the device’s batteries die. With no way to replace them, the AirPods either up in a landfill or become a source of risk for someone attempting to recycle them.

Interesting Engineering has reached out to Apple to understand how they deal with the AirPods that come in as part of their replacement policy and will update this content when a comment is received. 

How AirPods can be serviced

Pillonel has made multiple attempts to carefully open up the AirPods case, as seen in the video above; all have ended up in the same result. Instead, he has turned to 3D printing to make an AirPod case that you could use to replace the original one when it falls apart.

The 3D printed AirPods case
3D printed AirPods cases Image credit: Ken Pillonel

In an email to Interesting Engineering, Pillonel said, “Assuming that the parts I have designed are produced in large quantities by someone, believe the cost of installing the parts is very low. The replacement shell uses less than $1 of plastic and the installation time is about 5 to 10 minutes.

Once you break open the case, the lithium batteries can be replaced with those bought online. Unfortunately, that’s the only part that can be easily replaced. If something else on the device is broken, Pillonel says it can only be replaced using a piece from another device. 

Pillonel has put open sourced the design so that anybody can make these cases using a simple 3D printer, thereby opening up the AirPods to service options as well. The engineer knows that a technical audience may enjoy his videos. For the non-tech savvy in the audience looking to give a new lease of life to their AirPods, Pillonel says, “if a non-tech-savvy person can get their hands on what I have designed, then they just need a knife and a screwdriver to give a second life to their device. It could be a fun weekend project and if the device is already broken, what’s the worst that can happen? Break it even more? You can’t learn if you don’t try!

Perhaps that’s the piece of advice Apple also needs to follow as it prepares to tag along with the European Union’s directive to equip all devices with USB-C ports. 

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