Disposing of the disposable economy

By Catherine
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Written by Catherine Bolgar

The modern economy’s cycle of production, use and disposal—also known as the churn model—is under strain. “It could continue, but without closing the loop of the circular economy it isn’t feasible,” says Manbir Sodhi, engineering professor at the University of Rhode Island in the U.S.

But the alternative supply chain—which involves repairing, recycling or disassembling as part of the circular economy—can’t match the current system’s economies of scale for creating new products. “The volumes are too widely scattered,” he says.

The throwaway mentality of today’s consumer evolved from early-20th-century demands for better hygiene. “The earliest disposable [man-made] products were paper towels or napkins,” Dr. Sodhi says.

Instead of using cloth materials that had to be washed, the hygienic replacement was disposable products. Since then, we’ve gone to the phase where the efficiency of production makes it difficult for lasting products to compete.”

However, a new design approach might challenge this mindset. “If you want people to keep products for a longer period of time, you can try to stimulate emotional bonds to the products,” says Ruth Mugge, associate professor of consumer behavior at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.

“One way to do that is personalization,” she says. “If you personalize a product, you put effort into it in a way that suits your personality and your identity.

iStock_000020125423_SmallDr. Mugge’s research compared the attitudes of cyclists who painted their bikes with those who didn’t. “If you look at the functional aspects, like whether the bike is still working properly and whether it was worth the money, both groups were equal,” she says. “If you ask whether they bonded with their bikes, those who personalized felt much more attached to the bike than the other group did.

But customization carries risks. If consumers are entirely free to make alterations, companies risk losing control of their brands. “It’s important to give consumers some freedom, but the company is still making the big design choices,” Dr. Mugge says.

Furthermore, though often treasured for years, “bespoke products are really expensive,” says Danielle Applestone, chief executive of Other Machine Co. in San Francisco. “We have to decide we want products that last, but products that last have to be made more cheaply. If you only have $50, you can’t pay $500” regardless of how well that product meets your personal needs.

To bridge that gap, Other Machine Co. produces small-scale manufacturing tools, such as milling machines that make prototypes and customized or small-batch electronics.

“Desktop manufacturing lets you make smaller batches, Just in Time,” Dr. Applestone says. “It cuts down on waste, and you can provide customization at a price point that people can afford.”

Moreover, customers appreciate knowing a product’s origins. “It gives products a story and meaning, so people will want to keep them,” she says.

Similarly, heritage or heirloom design creates sentimental value. People tend to hold on to possessions such as watches, jewelry, paintings or furniture that tell a personal story.

“The tricky part is that while they should be able to last a long time, some you can’t keep a lifetime,” Dr. Mugge says.

New regulations could help extend a product’s life. The Brussels-based European Consumer Organization suggests ways to improve durability and repairability through new product-standard legislation, better consumer information, longer guarantees, greater availability of spare parts and more digital support. Meanwhile, the European Union’s Ecodesign Directive has set minimum durability standards for such goods as refrigerators, lighting and vacuum cleaners.

One appliance maker set its own unconventional benchmark when it advertised its washing machine with a wedding dress, and a strapline suggesting that its machines could outlast the average marriage.

Another way to extend durability is by changing a product’s dimensions or using new materials. This might “make a product more expensive, but if it lasts longer, it will give the brand a positive image,” Dr. Mugge says.

Alternatively, manufacturers could make it easier for customers to access a product’s inner workings or simply replace the batteries. Companies might not intentionally make it hard to fix their products, but the miniaturization trend—especially in electronics—often means that consumers need specialized tools to do so, Dr. Sodhi adds.

“It’s really an issue of consumer mindset,” he says. “People don’t have time or capability to do repairs. At the same time, they have enough money to buy new things. In societies where people don’t have money, they will repair.”

 

Catherine Bolgar is a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe. For more from Catherine Bolgar, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion on LinkedIn.

Photos courtesy of iStock

The art of making do

By Catherine
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Written by Catherine Bolgar


Lemons
 

When life gives you lemons, some make lemonade; others use the lemon juice to prevent the spread of gastroenteritis. Indeed, researchers at the German Cancer Research Center found that putting lemon juice on contaminated food or surfaces could be a cheap, practical and safe way to stop the spread of novoviruses, which cause gastroenteritis outbreaks, typically in hospitals, cruise ships and schools.

People who design solutions using simple materials are often called MacGyvers, named after the TV secret agent who would extricate himself from dangerous situations using only the materials to hand.

In India, such innovation is known as jugaad in Hindi. One jugaad pioneer is Ravidranath Tongaonkar, a surgeon in rural India, who substituted mosquito netting for expensive surgical mesh in the 1990s to repair groin hernias.

The idea spread. In Uganda, a piece of surgical mesh can cost $125  and patients often have to buy it themselves before an operation, says Jenny Löfgren, a medical doctor whose doctorate thesis at Umea University in Sweden examined the efficacy of mosquito mesh in Uganda.

However, when mosquito netting is cut to the right size, washed in water with a mild detergent and then disinfected for 30 minutes in an autoclave, it can do the job, Dr. Löfgren says. It’s important because out of 220 million hernias in the world, only 20 million receive operations. “And those who receive surgery in low- and middle-income settings are operated on with less-effective methods than in high-income countries,” she says.

The findings from our study will address and provide a solution for the inequality of surgery.”

Commonplace items are used for unintended purposes in a wide variety of situations world-wide. Cigarette ash has been deployed to removed 96% of arsenic from water, according to scientists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Hefei and King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Brazilian scientists have used banana peel to extract heavy metals such as lead and copper from water. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have used polyacrylate, a cheap, absorbent material found in diapers, to swell brain samples, making them easier to view under regular microscopes thus dispensing with the need for high-tech super-resolution microscopes. Another MIT team found that paraffin wax didn‘t just seal fruit preserves and jams, but was also a cheap way to encase chemical reagents to isolate them from oxygen, carbon dioxide or water. This allows for pre-measured “grab and go” capsules that don’t need an expensive inert storage container.

While Mr. MacGyver usually had to rely on paper clips and duct tape, today’s lab scientists have access to 3D printers—or at least know-how to make them. Consider the example of Michigan Technical University Prof. Joshua Pearce, who first made a self-replicating rapid (RepRap) 3D printer for about $500, that was comparable to $20,000 models.

He wanted to 3D print inexpensive versions of scientific equipment, such as open-source syringe pumps used in labs to discharge precise quantities of chemicals, in industry as 3D printing tool heads, and in hospitals to deliver medication.

The 3D printer uses open script-based computer-aided design, or SCAD, that calculates automatically the proportions for syringes of any size (whether pushing out tiny droplets or concrete). “You put in which size syringe you want and the size of the motor, and the parametric program automatically scales it and gives you the parts you need to print,” Dr. Pearce says.

You can customize the design, print out the files, then 3D print all the plastic parts, buying the few remaining parts at any hardware store, he says. The pump’s “brain” is an inexpensive credit-card size computer, the Raspberry Pi, which runs open-source software.

The free design and low-cost materials “make it possible for anyone to design a high-end syringe pump that might cost $2,000, for about $100,” Dr. Pearce says. “If a hospital in a developing country needs a high-end syringe pump, they can make it.”

The open-source software allows any changes to be widely shared. For example, the software was adapted to Arduino, an open-source electronics platform used on some 3D printers.

“Something you learn from engineering is you can design something exactly the way you want,” Dr. Pearce says. “Today, with open-source designs and easy access to prototype RepRap 3D printers, where you start is you go to the Web and download designs. You can stand on the shoulders of giants and your MacGyverism is taking that and applying it to a completely new application.”

 

Catherine Bolgar is a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe. For more from Catherine Bolgar, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion.

Photos courtesy of iStock

Smarter Solutions for Smarter Ideation

By Estelle
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An Interview with Anne Asensio, VP Design Experience at Dassault Systèmes

This Article has been written by Teshia Treuhaft and originally appeared at Core 77

 

While the terms ‘internet of things,’ ‘smart objects’ and ‘connected devices’ seem to be regularly splashed across the pages of newspapers, design briefs, crowdfunding campaigns and conference topics—relatively little is discussed about what tools designers need in order to design smart devices.

Some startups and corporate departments are beginning to understand how the inclusion of technology in our everyday lives is changing us. With this realization comes changing demands for product teams looking to innovate. This usually includes designers working alongside engineers and software developers, oftentimes with a new set of tools to match. Among the tools already available to designers, many of the emerging industry standards have come from Dassault Systèmes. Dassault Systèmes has long recognized the cross disciplinary needs of designers and responded with several solutions, allowing for the creation of holistic design experiences, not just products.

As product teams become more interdisciplinary, the process for creating products has expanded to include engineers, scientists, developers and many more key players. As the requirements of designing change—so does the process of design thinking, adapting to what Dassault Systèmes has named ‘Social Ideation.’ Social Ideation is the method by which the iterative process is expanded beyond just including designers. Each phase of ideation can be visualized for not just the design-savvy, but for all members of an interdisciplinary team.

To make tools for social ideation not only work, but work fast, precise and for team members with different competencies is a big task. To understand what is needed, we asked someone who has been linking design methodologies and fostering collaboration in multidisciplinary teams for years, Anne Asensio. Asensio, came from General Motors and Renault to join Dassault Systèmes in 2007 as Vice President of Design Experience. She sat down to share her view on the need for social ideation across disciplines and the new responsibilities of designers in the next generations.

Anne Asensio, VP Design Experience at Dassault Systèmes

Core77: Is the consumer expectation for experience over product a recent occurrence?

Anne Asensio: This is something we have seen coming from quite some time. People have always been interested in this notion of experience because it’s part of our lives, but now when we are talking about the experience it’s because I think that we have passed the time for just producing products for functional aspects of life in the new economy. We must begin looking at a much higher level of expectation.

The digital effect is that everything is now contextualized. Digital devices with the capacity to be customized and configured can now become a little personal space that you can immerse yourself into anytime you want. It delivers this notion of being part of that moment and that’s a different expectation in terms of experience. What we are seeing is an accelerated view of the natural evolution of human experience due to the digital devices that are transforming our lives.

What kinds of tools are necessary to design these experiences?

What I am personally interested in is design experience. You might ask what the difference is between design experience and experience design. In experience design we have seen an incredible expansion of design methodologies and practices in the area of digital design. The act of just designing through screen-based software is necessary for designers to do the work they needed to do—that is, to humanize the relationship between man and technology.

But I believe that the world of design is not just to help humanize the evolution of technology—I believe we have a particular aim, which is to question where we are going on a broader level, to create designed experiences. To do this we have to bring meaning and question the type of experience we are providing. Especially now that technology gives us the total liberty and expertise to do anything, bringing with it a high level of responsibility.

“We have seen an incredible expansion of design methodologies and practices in the area of digital design” says Asensio.

So has the designer’s role in multidisciplinary teams changed?

Designers have always been serving this function: acting as a contributor among a multidisciplinary team while bringing their own perspective. But today, designers help everyone visualize what they are doing collaboratively in order to make decisions—that is quite new. What the new tools are doing is enabling two aspects: the capability to not only design, but also to represent and the ability to see what others are doing in order to help them reduce risk and uncertainty.

This is absolutely critical when it comes to making decisions about new products because it helps people embrace disruptive innovation—not because they are coming up with better ideas—but by allowing for synthesis. Now you can combine the capabilities of teams into a physical or virtual medium and share progress throughout the whole process. This model can be continuously transformed—it can keep being changed. You have the perfect subject to apply the typical design methodology of iterations—test, fail, change, and do it again.

What are the big challenges facing multidisciplinary teams?

I don’t know if I would say challenges or opportunities. The fact is, what you see is a convergence of digital technology and a convergence of very interesting capacities that are coming from different industries. For Dassault Systèmes, we come from the formalization of the product and we extend it with physics, simulation all the way to imaginaries and meanings. to reach the point where we can embrace more team members in the process and get something very complex to be seen, interacted with and visualized.

What is really key is that wherever you come from, whatever meaning you are looking for, we want to allow anyone the ability to deliver their vision of the future. That is very important because right now, team members can be accused of not being transparent, and I can see a way in which everyone will have a stake in the way we are designing the world.

“We are not at a moment where desginers need to return to their capacity to project ideas, both imaginary and visionary” says Asensio. 

You mean they will have a stake in it because anyone can have the tools?

All of those capacities that were designed and developed in a particular area of application—be it manufacturing, design, science, entertainment etc.—are now merging. That convergence, we see today in the Internet of Things. All those aspects are just something we are visualizing today—it’s a way to see what’s happening, and react.

I believe that today we are looking at something more forward thinking, more visionary. Basically asking: we have these capabilities, but where do we start? How should we be innovating and why? What would be the best way of innovating, embracing some questions that are more on the social and not just the technical side. Answers are not going to only be found on the technical side.

What abilities does the next generation of young designers need to help find those answers?

We were designers before the industrial era. Everyone was a craftsman or artisan with the ability to make a beautiful, signature object. The industrial era then put the designers into a different situation—they must humanize. Some designers were able to push to the level of questioning, in a critical manner, how the objects produced by the industry were affecting our society, our lives, our ethical approach of living our condition as humans. Now that era is done. We are now at a moment where designers need to return to their capacity to project ideas both imaginary and visionary.

That leads me to believe that young designers need to not only establish themselves in their role of humanizing technology but critically question what is happening. It’s no longer what you’re going to be doing—but what you’re going to be. Period.

Thanks to Anne Asensio for speaking with us. To read more about Dassault Systèmes Solutions and Social Ideation & Creative Design, check out their website



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