Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Stylish longevity

I've had a lot of discussion recently with a number of people about green manufacturing and what can actually be done given the complexity of most manufacturing, the constant push to reduce costs and, importantly, the constant urge to "upgrade" products to the latest features and functions. One question that comes up is "how can we ever make product lifetimes long enough to amortize the embedded energy, materials, resources and their impacts to realize any gain?"

We'll cover some ideas about this below.

In the meantime ... I remind anyone who will listen that it is better to be aware of "the way the wind is blowing" (as we used to say when I was in college) than to ignore the trends.

I Illustrated this need to be aware in a presentation recently to a manufacturing conference in Orlando. I called it  the "Everett and Jones" philosophy.  There is a great bar-b-que place in Berkeley of the same name and, in addition to serving up fantastic ribs and a killer sauce, they have signs and bumper stickers posted behind the cash register.

One sign in particular sums it up well to me (and apologies in advance if you were in Orlando and heard this!).  It says

"There are three types of people in the world-

- those that make things happen,
- those that watch things happen, and
- those that say 'what happened?'"!

I tell my students that, at least, we should try to be in the first two categories. We've seen enough, and recently, that proves the last category doesn't work very well.

In the spirit to "making things happen" let's get back to longevity. One of the tenets of sustainable manufacturing is that more durable, longer lifetime products are more sustainable. And, if they are designed to be returned to productive use with the least amount of recycling or remanufacturing this seals the deal. Recall the Comet Circle from Ricoh and the loops closest to the consumer (see the Sept. 21st posting).

This is a challenging problem for many products. We can think about manufactured goods distributed along a scale of characteristics with "function" on one end and "style" on the other. Most products are sold based on a balance between function and style in the eyes of the consumer (whether that is a teenager ogling the latest MP3 player or a family considering a vehicle). Things that tend to be heavy on the style also tend to have short lifecycles (with some exceptions of course - see Louis Vuitton luggage for example).

In fact, the scale is really more like (from left to right) function ----- function/style ------ style.  There is a gradual transition along the scale from totally functional products with little "style" (a large metal forging press, for example) through those that have a balance (like the Mac laptop I am using to write this) to those for which style is everything (I don't know first hand but I'd guess a good example of this is women's shoes - see Jimmy Choo!).

Where our products lie along this scale informs us about ease of  "extending the  lifetime" of the product since it helps define the pressure to replace the product even if the embedded technology is sufficient for our needs (think of how often you need to upgrade software to give you some added bells and whistles that you will seldom, if ever, use - point made!).

So how do we approach this? We can first try to define where our products (or processes) fit along this scale. Most manufacturing machinery and processes fall near the "function" end of the scale. Meaning, if the function is appropriate for our processing needs the "style" of the machine is not so important. This also suggests, for most manufacturing, functional  upgrades can often be made, or should be made, without requiring major redesign of the machine itself - upgrade the controller on a numerically controlled machine tool, for example. Or perhaps a higher speed spindle on the machine.

There are limits of course. If a new technology for axis motion and control based on a linear motor is introduced for faster, more accurate machine tool motion and positioning then it may not be so simple. But, the machine could be designed to allow such upgrades. This would substantially extend the life of the machine and offer the machine tool builder a chance to keep supplying new technology to the market - just not always wrapped in a brand new machine.

This is being done already with some products, copier machines, for example, or large office printers. Without meaning to disparage anyone's products, I think it is fair to say that no one really buys a copy machine because of the way it looks. But we do expect a certain level of functionality and performance. And components of these machines are designed to be upgraded and swapped as new "engines" for the copier become available. Of course, for this business model, the copier company is leasing you the machine in most cases.

This is another business model for sustainable manufacturing, and includes the concept of extended producer responsibility, that we'll discuss in the future.

What about the middle and right end of the scale where the style is important to the consumer. That is a bit tougher. Trying to sell an automobile to a consumer that lasts a lifetime but can be "upgraded" with newer engines, drive train, brakes, or battery storage may be a bit more challenging.  The idea of upgrading a cell phone as technology advances (these, along with flat screen televisions have about a 6 month life time before new products are introduced) is provocative but hard to envision. Just recycling them has proven a challenge.

Or is it that hard? If you look at the evolution of styles of some of the commercially available hybrid vehicles over the past few years one might say, again not meaning to disparage anyone's products, that "style wise" there has been little change in appearance (body shape, interior layout, etc.) while performance wise there have been many improvements. So, perhaps, for "basic products" that we purchase with more function in mind - machine tools to hybrid vehicles - we may be closer than we think.

And, there is always Louis Vuitton or Tesla Motors (or Jimmy Choo!) for those who are more on the style end of the scale!

Oh, one last thing. Everett and Jones is on the corner of University and San Pablo in Berkeley if you are ever in that part of the Bay area. And, make sure to read the wall!


  1. Dear Prof. Dornfeld,

    I cannot agree with you anymore!
    For the products of which the style is important, the recyclability is important.

    But can we just design such components of the products that their appearance can be upgraded? For example, we can change the shell of a cell phone.

    PS… we can get access to Blogspot now! because the Great Firewall of China is turned off these days…