How to Extend the Life of Products
My last few articles have been concentrating on effective utilization of resources and resource productivity as a driver for manufacturing (including green manufacturing) innovation. In part 3 of that series a list of seven ways to improve resource effectiveness was given. These were (and see part 3 for the details):
1) Avoid use of a resource in the first place 2) Light-weighting 3) Increased yield 4) Reduced footprint of resources 5) Insure high re-use yield and low “cost” of reuse 6) Leveraged resources 7) Extended life
It’s that last one that is the focus in this posting – extended life. With apologies to Yogi Berra, the goal is to get people to use products longer or, conversely, give products a longer useful life. Sort of a “ground hog day” for products if you recall the film by that name some time ago. Simply put, the longer a product lasts the lower the amortized impact – impact/unit of time. And, this is generally better.
One caution – as was covered in the posting on Green and Frugal (including graphs on trade-offs in replacement of products) the one circumstance that might cause this “longer is better” scenario to play out badly is if the technology of the product (or material, or production methodology or operating characteristics) change, meaning for the better or lower impact or consumption, then it might actually be better to replace the product more frequently. Of course you’d want to ‘do the numbers’ on this to make sure the net effect was positive.
If this is to work, it requires the ability to update products, accept “older” styles, design and build products to last longer, change consumer preferences to accept the longer use of a product, etc. The focus here is on “updating the product” both technically as well as, to some extent, stylishly.
Before launching into this “make the product last longer” one might ask – What do consumers want? I am not an expert on consumer preferences. But, it seems reasonable that, with respect to product use by a consumer, there are some simple categories that can define behavior. So, at the risk of getting way in over my head on this, let’s charge ahead.
These categories might be consumers who: 1) replace a product when it is broken (as long as the product is still needed) 2) replace a product when they are tired of it or it is “out of style” 3) replace a product when the technology is improved enough (as opposed to simply style)
I am aware that there is a class of consumer called the early adopters or some thing like that – folks who will always buy the latest and greatest. That is not the group targeted here.
Let’s wade in a bit deeper on the discussion. So, with these three classes of consumer behavior for replacement, the second and third category fits for products that are still functional but no longer cutting edge. They might still be productive and even relatively low impact. Within these categories I can imagine that there are products for which style actually does not matter as well as those for which style is important. By style here I mean appearance or the ability to engender envy from others. A wash machine might be an example of a product that would not be swapped out because it did not look stylish anymore. A smart cell phone would.
We’d like to design products that lend themselves to longer lives or design for upgrading – basically, design for long life. There are likely two basic strategies. For “not style” products, just make the components out of materials and processes that last longer. For “style” products, make them so that the technological and/or stylish features can be easily upgraded when new technology and/or style comes along.
Can we do this?
I recently read an article in the Christian Science Monitor weekly edition of November 25, 2013, discussing in some detail what Chris Gaylord, the author, called “snap together a custom cell phone.” See a companion article on line. The Monitor article describes Motorola’s (now Google’s) project “Ara” (details on the phone) for the development of a new user designed smart phone. The customer would be able to assemble bits and pieces of the phone, sort of like a Lego toy, and select battery type and life, camera features, covers (front and back), etc. According to Paul Eremenko of the Motorola Advanced Technology and Projects group, writing on a blog posting, their goal is ” to drive a more thoughtful, expressive, and open relationship between users, developers, and their phones.” He goes on to state that this will “give you the power to decide what your phone does, how it looks, where and what it’s made of, how much it costs, and how long you’ll keep it.”
Again, it’s the last bit that caught my eye – how long you keep it!
Here might be an early example of a product clearly in the “replace when something new comes along” category that is designed to be upgraded both technologically and stylishly.
An image of modules designed for this “build it yourself” phone is below.
Another statement about this was also impressive – it could offer a solution to the ‘alleged wastefulness’ of the current two year cycle of cell phones.
Will this work? Who knows … consumers are finicky but if this is the start of a trend towards trying to address the throwaway instincts in much of society today it could be an important first step. And it will be a great challenge to manufacturers to come up with the goods.
Can it work technologically? Concerns raised in the Gaylord article include “packaging” … meaning essentially bespoke design to fit all the necessary parts into a very small package. This is pretty challenging if all the pieces are functionally individual to allow the “‘plug and play” mode.
We’ll follow this … and the whole discussion about re-making products to keep them current without discarding them.
David Dornfeld is the Will C. Hall Family Chair in Engineering in Mechanical Engineering at University of California Berkeley. He leads the Laboratory for Manufacturing and Sustainability (LMAS), and he writes the Green Manufacturing blog. This article was republished with permission by David Dornfeld.
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