The Unreliable World of McDonald’s Ice Cream Machines

Video mcdonald's ice cream machine


iFixit staff taking apart Taylor ice cream machine

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It’s not just your imagination – McDonald’s soft-serve ice cream machines are frequently out of order. According to iFixit, a repair vendor and advocate, a staggering 34 percent of the machines in New York state are reported to be inoperable. Nationally, the number of broken machines stands just above 14 percent. In an effort to address this issue, iFixit has taken two steps to improve the state of the nation’s semi-frozen milk fat infrastructure.

The Petition for Change

Firstly, iFixit has collaborated with the interest group Public Knowledge to petition the Copyright Office. Their aim is to secure an exemption under Section 1201 of the DMCA, which would allow people to fix commercial equipment, including McDonald’s ice cream machines and other industrial kitchen equipment, without fear of legal repercussions. This exemption would give individuals the freedom to repair without violating copyright laws.

Analyzing the Taylor Ice Cream Machine

Secondly, iFixit acquired one of the Taylor ice cream machines used by McDonald’s franchises to conduct a thorough teardown. They wanted to understand why these machines are so notoriously unreliable. In a video documenting the teardown, Shahram Mokhtari starts the Taylor C709 Soft Serve Freezer, only to encounter a series of errors during what should have been a four-hour warm-up cycle. This extended warm-up, along with the obscure error codes, which even with a manual at hand are difficult to decipher, leads Mokhtari to raise concerns about the right to repair.

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The Kytch Controversy

Interestingly, a small company called Kytch had previously attempted to address the issues with Taylor machines. They developed a product based on Raspberry Pi technology that provided McDonald’s franchisees with insights into their machines’ operations and failures. Additionally, Kytch’s product offered the ability to override locks that prevent the machines from working due to non-critical errors. However, Taylor, who reportedly holds an exclusive contract with McDonald’s for machine maintenance, swiftly moved to render the use of Kytch products as contract violations. This led to legal battles, discovery emails being revealed, and a substantial $900 million lawsuit against Kytch.

The Push for Change

Public Knowledge and iFixit have jointly submitted a petition to the Copyright Office, arguing that bypassing digital security measures on commercial equipment, such as Taylor ice cream machines, should not be considered illegal. They also highlight automated building management systems as another example that should offer repair bypass. Kathleen Burke, policy counsel at Public Knowledge, emphasizes that copyright should not hinder individuals from repairing their devices, be it consumer or commercial. However, she acknowledges that the current copyright system is as broken as the average McDonald’s ice cream machine.

The Anatomy of the Machine

To address the question of how easy it would be for a determined McDonald’s franchisee to fix their machine if they had the necessary access, iFixit examines the components of the ice cream machine. It comprises a compressor (much more powerful than a home fridge), a motor, a belt, a churning bin, three printed circuit boards and power relays, a dispensing agitator, and a display. iFixit maintains that there is no inherent reason for the machine to fail at the rate it does, pointing to issues such as overheating under repeated use and programming that shuts it down when a cycle goes awry. Having better visibility into the machine’s internal functions would undoubtedly lead to improved service uptime.

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The Challenges Ahead

Even if the Copyright Office were to grant the repair exemption sought by iFixit, it would only enable individual ice cream machine owners to find ways to bypass their machine’s limitations. To distribute the necessary software or tools, like the Kytch, would require an amendment to Section 1201 of the DMCA itself. iFixit has plans to collaborate with representatives to reintroduce the Freedom to Repair Act to Congress this year, with the goal of achieving that change.

The Path to Change

Every three years, the Copyright Office reviews exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. After hearing from all relevant parties, the Register of Copyrights submits recommendations to the Librarian of Congress, who then adopts them. In the previous round of exemptions, Public Knowledge and iFixit successfully obtained exemptions allowing the repair of game consoles. However, restrictions were in place concerning the distribution of tools for bypassing digital locks.

Disclosure: Kevin Purdy, the author of this article, previously worked for iFixit. However, he has no financial ties to the company.

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