Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Green Lifecycle

Product Lifecycle: Add it up.

I like to write about products that are examples of great design. A great design should accomplish many things: 1) Do its job well 2) Last a long time 3) Can be repaired 4) Can be recycled 5.) Did I mention last a long time?

My experience as a tool designer and manufacturing specialist has given me special insight into products. I have designed products from scratch, evolved products, retrofitted products, conceptualized and simulated digital products. I look at a product and I think of the factory that makes them. I think of the materials they use. I look at their quality. I look at what is environmentally “expensive” to make. I look at simplicity and complexity. I am highly critical of designs and it plagues my mind looking at the products that are available today and that break so easily.

Make it cheaper has always been a driving force in design and it has evolved into the practise of planned obsolescence or product failure. This is sad for the consumer since most of these products are unrepairable and are “landfill”. Of course we can recycle them, but, nonetheless they failed their purpose.

Reminds me one day when I broke the microwave door handle and the coffee grinder. Makes for an awkward breakfast I suppose. The microwave broke because a plastic part from the door handle “drive train” snapped a tiny little tidbit of plastic ( for those less knowledgeable about Failure Analysis ). So, this tiny little chunk can be fixed, but, labour makes it more expensive than a cheap new microwave. Argh. The coffee grinder too snapped off a tiny little chunk of plastic and was rendered useless to most. Of course I rigged it so I could get my coffee and used my stove. Mission accomplished. So, when you look at the waste of good components ( motors, lights, computer pad thing, tiny blender ) because of these two little chunks of plastic ( most plastic parts are less than 5 cents make ) it makes this product a high environmental risk.

Products that are high environmental risk seem to be around a lot these days. A laptop that kisses the concrete goodbye, the cellphone in the toilet, that coffee grinder. This e-waste is sad, but, the prices we pay for these breakable gadgets now cannot compare to the long term environmental impacts and unsustainable processes to make them .

This past weekend, I needed to do some work fixing foundations on a cottage. Being a tool collector, I have an old old cast iron jack. It is about 100 years old and is operated by hand. It has a big handle for gripping, but, you can also insert a pole, inside the handle cavity, for extra torque. Smart. So, it uses an ACME thread on a 1 1/4” shaft with a big cast iron square end. The casting is quite “over designed” to current design standards. The jack screw is very efficient, using the wedge principle of the ACME thread. The handle had a ratchet, over-designed, connected to a 3” bevel gear which in turn drove the mating gear on the shaft. After 100 years, I lubed it up and it worked great. I could jack the cottage 1/32” per click and I did it with my hand ( 7” long handle ). That is quite the mechanical advantage! I could go on about the design features it has, but, to put it simply, it is build strong and to last. Not only this, all its parts are recyclable ( steels )! It has no rubber parts, no plastic. It is over-designed and over-built to last. Comparing this simple tool to systems today reveals two things. People want easy to use products for the best cost. This will change to what I propose: People will want products that last and are good for the environment.

So, what a Lifecycle for this jack. It has no hydraulics, no hydraulic oil, no rubber seals, no electronics, no motors, no plastic, no batteries, no auxiliary power. It runs on human power, but, human power that should know what they are doing ( most of the time ) with this tool. Thank you.

When we compare this tool to others I see its value on the environment. This jack could serve its purpose for another 100 years, easy. If we look at the energy to make this tool, it is high. When we look at the cost of the materials, it is higher than its competitors. When we look at its weight, it is heavy, it is about 35 pounds. But when you take into consideration these factors over the life of the product, these factors become negligible.

The real impact of the lifecycle analysis is demonstrated when the product with a very long lifecycle is compared to a series of products that all have a lower lifecycle. For our purposes, I will use my all mechanical jack ( 100 year lifecycle ) versus 5 products that needed to be replaced in that 100 year duration ( 5 products with an average lifecycle of 20 years ) and used for the same purpose. Once we understand the summation of energies to produce, purchase and deliver all 5 of the shorter lifecycle products, we see that Long Lifecycle tools benefit our environment greatly.

Simplicity in design! Amazing performance! Recycleability! No electronics! No Power! No Kidding! My trusty jack is a great example of return on environment, return on investment and the knowledge of the deep green method.

Start looking at products, their lifecycles and start adding up the value to your environment!


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