Designing Solutions for a Less Wasteful Life

By Catherine

Written by Catherine Bolgar

Lego bricksThe future of design looks a lot like Legos.

Modular design allows a product to be assembled from easily replaceable or interchangeable parts. Most people are familiar with it in architecture and furniture. However, it’s also being applied to other things, from nuclear-power plants to shoes, submarines and guitars.

Modular design is gaining traction thanks to the convergence of several trends. Mass customization is pushing industries—from consumer products and electronics to automobiles—to find ways to deliver customized solutions without sacrificing economies of scale. Tighter environmental regulations are prompting companies to find ways to reduce waste caused by their products. And consumers, fed up with a throwaway society, are looking for products that manage to last yet which can be upgraded as needed.

Take mobile phones: the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that Americans disposed of 129 million mobile devices in 2009 and sent 11.7 million for recycling.

I was thinking about stuff and why we throw it away,” says Dave Hakkens, who invented Phonebloks, a modular design for a mobile phone. “All our electronics are disposable. If a bike has a flat [tire] you fix it, you don’t throw it away. But if a phone part is broken, you have to throw [the phone] away.”

old cellphonesIn wanting to reduce electronic waste, Mr. Hakkens considered several alternatives. “Should I make a phone that could last 100 years?” he asks. “I like technology and the way it evolves and can improve our lives. If I make a phone that lasts 100 years, I won’t be able to upgrade it. But if it has modules that I can upgrade, I can throw away only a little part.”

Unbeknown to Mr. Hakkens, Motorola Mobility had been working on a modular mobile phone as well, called Project Ara. Google, which acquired Motorola in 2011, is expected to unveil its prototype of Project Ara next year. The goal: a phone that can be customized and upgraded at will.

Mr. Hakkens, who came up with the idea of Phonebloks as a graduation project from the Dutch Design Academy in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, has linked up with Project Ara.

It’s hard to make a phone and it’s a tough world—you need patents, lawyers, you have to compete with big companies,” he says. “I don’t want to build a phone myself. I don’t want to start a phone company. I want to push industry to start a new way to make phones.”

Phonebloks

Mobile phones might be just the beginning. “The Phonebloks concept could be extended to all electronic devices: cameras, TVs, computers,” he says. “You could have building-blocks for electronics, with components that can be exchanged among them and can be upgraded.”

In such a world, it’s possible that new entrants would design the ultimate camera module, while others would specialize in the smallest, lightest battery, and still others would focus on packing more capacity into the memory module. Just as now, you can buy specialized software to meet your needs: in the future, you may be able to buy pieces of a phone to put together the mobile device best suited to your uses.

While some companies choose modular design for competitive advantage, others might find themselves pushed in that direction by environmental-protection laws. The Consultative Commission on Industrial Change (CCMI) for the European Economic and Social Committee of the European Union is working on ways to stop planned obsolescence.

For example, a decade ago the EU banned chips in printer cartridges that signaled the cartridges were empty when they still contained ink. Now it’s taking aim at things like batteries in phones that are impossible for people to replace themselves—and which are so expensive to have fixed by the manufacturer that most people just buy a new phone instead.

“We’ll have less waste,” says Jean-Pierre Haber, delegate of the CCMI consultative committee. “We now create 500 tons of waste per person per year.”

The CCMI proposes five requirements for consumer goods:

  • a minimum two-year guarantee
  • replacement parts available for at least five years
  • certification on the nature and life cycle of all products, no matter their country of origin
  • manufacturer-trained repair shops, which could generate 450,000 jobs in Europe
  • an orientation toward an economy of functionality, so that rather than buying a product, you buy a service, and companies would see incentives in designing goods that don’t break.

Overall, the thrust is to promote the design of goods that can be repaired or upgraded, rather than requiring purchase of a completely new item.

The online community iFixit, which encourages repair over replacement, suggests design features such as product cases that are easy to open, or that have doors to allow access to the inner workings; making the most breakable parts the easiest to access; making some internal components standardized and replaceable by commodity parts; making repair instructions free and publicly available.

We need lots of innovation,” Mr. Haber says. “But we need innovation that gives added value for the consumer and that doesn’t create problems for the environment.”

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For more from Catherine, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join The Future Realities discussion.

Learning from Nature Fuels Aerospace Innovation

By Catherine

Written by Catherine Bolgar

Imagine a trans-Atlantic flight in the future: you’re sitting on seats whose fabrics resist dirt, the way lotus flowers remain clean and dry in a wet and dirty environment. The plane’s exterior is covered with tiny ridges, like sharkskin, which reduce drag. The plane is part of a scheduled V-formation, which saves fuel.

Icarus donned man-made wings in Greek mythology. Leonardo DaVinci drew flying machines. “In the 21st century, we’re not just trying to emulate bird-flight, but trying to understand how birds are so successful,” says Norman Wood, an expert on aerodynamics and flow control at Airbus.

Flying bee

Imitating nature has a name: biomimicry. It has three aspects, Dr. Wood explains.

First is nature as a mentor. We observe how living things succeed and understand what they’re doing. “It’s the art of the possible,” Dr. Wood says. “If we want aerospace vehicles to improve, we can say, ‘Insects can do it—so why can’t we?’”

Second is nature as a model. “We can ask, ‘How do insects fly—and can we transfer their approach into aerospace vehicles?” he says.

Third is nature as a measure. Simple calculations show that bees shouldn’t be able to fly and yet they are extremely successful. “Using the techniques bees use to achieve flight, we can measure how successful we could be ultimately—and how much further we could take a technology if we were to be as efficient as nature,” Dr. Wood says.

Nature by definition is successful,” he says. “So it’s an extremely good benchmark. We’re now moving into a deeper investigation, known as biomimicry, understanding the details of what nature can achieve and using that to fuel our innovation.”

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Take sharkskin, which is covered with rough, dermal denticles (hard, tooth-like scales) that decrease drag. Transferring that technology on to aircraft would cut fuel-consumption and thus reduce emissions.

Shark skin

Airbus has developed an aerospace surface with “riblets” that resemble shark skin.

Small patches of sharkskin-like material are currently undergoing tests on Airbus aircraft in commercial service in Europe, to see how it stands up to rain, hail, cleaning, ground contamination and other challenges.

Birds are an obvious model for aerospace biomimicry. Hawks survive thanks to their ability to execute extreme maneuvers in woodlands, or over cliffs, in order to catch their prey. They do it by maneuvering at or very near to their “maximum lift” condition. For aircraft, maximum lift is the point at which they can no longer stay in straight and level flight and stall, experiencing a sudden decline in lift.

Hawk

Pilots, aircraft owners and makers are legally required to maintain a safety margin from that condition occurring.

Many birds fly near maximum lift by using feathers on the top of their wings to detect when the airflow over the wings reaches that condition. The bird has evolved a nervous system that enables it to quickly modify its wing shape to manage the flow near maximum lift to maintain safe flight and maximum performance.

Airbus is looking at how to use surfaces on the wing to replicate the control demonstrated by birds.

Can we react quickly enough to define how we can make small changes to the wing and not go beyond a safe condition?” says Dr. Wood. “Our aspiration would be that we create an aircraft in the future that has its own nervous system. A bird doesn’t think, ‘oh, I’m at maximum lift and I have to do this.’ It makes the change automatically.”

The result could allow lower approach and takeoff speeds, as well as lighter wings, saving weight and therefore fuel.

Not all biomimicry involves new technology. Migrating birds fly in V-shaped formations partly because birds behind the leader can save a lot of energy, by flying in its wake.

Geese in flight

Transferring that to aerospace was assumed to require that aircraft fly close together, presenting traffic control, piloting and safety concerns. However, “as we get more understanding as to how and why birds do it, we find that the flapping of their wings destabilizes the wake behind them. So they have to fly close together to gain benefit.”

Aircraft get thrust from engines, not from flapping their wings, so the wake is not so chaotic. “We have the luxury of having fixed-wing aircraft, a structure that allows the benefit to persist, sometimes for many miles downstream, to trailing aircraft,” he says.

NASA recently demonstrated a 5% to 10% fuel saving by flying aircraft in formation up to a kilometer apart. Such a gap eliminates many of the issues of having commercial aircraft flying close together.

Over 400 commercial flights cross the North Atlantic in each direction every day. If even half were arranged into formations, “the impact on fuel-burn on those routes could be significant,” Dr. Wood says. “With no change to aircraft, we can achieve fuel savings. It’s one example where we can potentially exceed the benefits produced by nature.”

For more from Catherine, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join The Future Realities discussion.

Solar Energy Prepares to Shine

By Catherine

Written by Catherine Bolgar

Solar energy has been the promise of the future for a long time now—the solar cell was invented in 1883. Yet it looks as if the coming decades will be when solar power truly finds its place in the sun.

Solar panels

There’s been a six-fold reduction in the cost of solar panels since 2008. The full implication of that isn’t as widely appreciated as it could be,” says Martin Green, professor at the Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. “Solar panels now are getting to the kind of cost that makes them interesting for more applications.”

Those future applications could see commercial and residential buildings clad in solar panels. Already, the Delta, a self-powered building in New York built by Voltaic Solaire, uses solar panels on two sides of the building, as well as other solar panels that act as awnings above the windows.

Eventually “we will make transparent or semitransparent windows that use some of the light to generate electricity and the rest to light the interior,” Dr. Green says.

Drones may use solar panels to allow them to stay perpetually in flight. Mainstream aviation could someday use solar panels to make hydrogen for fuel. Researchers at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana are working on paint with nanoparticles that will convert sunshine to power and turn any surface into a solar panel.

“If electric vehicles take off the way they’re supposed to, solar power could be a range-extender,” Dr. Green says. A rechargeable electric vehicle could juice up its batteries any time it’s parked in the sunlight.

Meanwhile, there’s an electric-car charging station in Pflugerville, Texas, that uses a giant sail made by Pvillion, a New York maker of flexible solar panels.

Another solar technology could recharge electric cars in a flash. Eicke Weber, director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems in Freiburg, Germany, drives a fuel-cell car requiring hydrogen as a fuel. The Fraunhofer Institute has a charging station that converts solar power into hydrogen. A fill-up there takes only five minutes at 700 bar, to deliver three kilograms of hydrogen, which can power the car for 300 kilometers.

Photovoltaic panels keep getting more efficient—commercial panels are able to convert 20% of the sunshine that falls on them, up from 7% to 8% when the industry began. “I think we will [reach] 30% to 40% efficiency in 20 years,” Dr. Green says.

Greater efficiency means cheaper panels because they could be smaller, and glass and packaging account for a large part of the cost. The key material in photovoltaic panels is silicon, which is the second most abundant element on Earth after oxygen, and is nontoxic to boot.

Solar cellsThe silicon used in solar panels is in a crystalized form, which resembles that of diamonds, and are nearly as strong as the gems.

Diamonds are for ever and silicon is almost the same,” Prof. Weber says. “Silicon has a very, very long lifetime.”

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New technologies continue to be developed. There are efforts to use a multilayer structure, which is very efficient but costly. To reduce the cost, the panels are cut into 1,000 small cells, each about two millimeters square. These are placed under a big lens that focuses the light on them, but the cells must move along two axes to track the sun, Prof. Weber says.

Solar power has entered a virtuous circle, where technological advances have led to greater efficiency, which has brought down the cost, which has expanded the market and has generated interest in research and development for new solar technology, Prof. Weber says.

Solar electricity in Frankfurt now costs about €0.10 ($0.14) per kilowatt-hour, he says. In Africa, it can cost as little as six or seven cents per kwh.

By contrast, average residential electricity prices, including taxes, in 2012, were €0.26 per kwh in Germany and €0.19 on average for the 15 original members of the European Union, according to the European Residential Energy Price Report by VaasaETT, a global energy think tank based in Helsinki. Electricity from oil costs about €0.20 per kilowatt-hour.

Most people are not aware that solar electricity has a lower cost of production than for electricity from oil,” Prof. Weber says, adding: “In a decade or two, solar energy will cost just two to three cents per kilowatt-hour.”

For private homes in Australia, “it’s cheaper to install solar panels than to buy electricity from the power company,” Dr. Green says. It’s no wonder that one in eight homes in Australia is installing solar panels.

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Shopping centers also have discovered the benefits of solar power. Retail buildings consume power during the day—when tariffs tend to be the most expensive—yet that’s ideal for making the most of solar power, he says.

One of the drawbacks of solar power—that it’s available only during the day—could one day change as well. Not just through better battery technology, but by creating a global grid.

We can imagine a world that’s globally connected,” Dr. Green says. “We’ll be able to transmit electricity from wherever the sun is shining to where it’s needed.”

For more from Catherine, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join The Future Realities discussion.



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