- IDology #10 - The difficulties of sustainability of industrial design
This article is a transcription of episode #10 of IDology - the industrial design podcast by Mindsailors. You can watch the entire episode on YouTube or listen to the audio version on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts.
In this episode Anita Rogoża - designer & researcher and Mikołaj Wiewióra - senior designer, try to tackle the subject of responsibility in design and to what extent a designer might, or should feel responsible for a product's impact on the environment.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Hello.
Anita Rogoża: Hello again.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Hello again. Today's topic is quite a broad one and difficult to speak about without getting totally different emotions, like the positive ones and the negative ones.
Anita Rogoża: Yeah, I get more negatives, unfortunately.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Yes. Because I think that the more conscious we are, those negative emotions we have, especially when we are in this area of design, when we make products and design things to be manufactured. So basically we are these people who make planet Earth more cluttered with products. But what's the topic? The topic is sustainability. So beginning with consciousness, the thing that people are more and more conscious and concerned about planet earth, this term is, I believe, one of the most important things to at least be familiar with. So that this term is not only a word in your language, but also an approach on how to understand products and how to understand product lifecycle. And I will try not to jump into those negative fields.
Anita Rogoża: Me neither. I want to maintain some level of hope and maybe inspire someone to create stuff in a more sustainable manner because I believe that we creative people are more sensitive towards those subjects. And that can be a very good quality in business talk and maybe business modeling and developing new products.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Yes, because where we are speaking of big words like sustainability.
Anita Rogoża: Saving the planet.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Saving the planet. The business is most involved in this because we cannot design in the void, so to speak. So we have to design products that can be sold or bought by people, but still we have to take care of our planet. Maybe let's jump into the phase where there is no product at all. It's just an idea. So how can we plan a product that is as sustainable as possible? Because sustainability is something really difficult to achieve fully.
Anita Rogoża: Okay. So I believe that the beginning of the project and maybe that pre-design phase of it is the best time to think about sustainability and set up those maybe smaller goals towards achieving as big level of it as possible. And I think we can talk a little bit about few different strategies that can be applied in design, and I mean by, for example, serviceability, the number of components used in a future product, the use of mono materials, and planning to use reusable material and even subject as big as designing the whole lifecycle of a product. So to start from the beginning, the serviceability, it's something that even a European commission promotes in a way, because I believe this year, we, or maybe the producers are made responsible for creating or implementing to the market products that are able to be serviced, fixed and to minimize the risk of one single use products. I would say single use. I mean that I use something for like half of a year and then it gets broken and it cannot be fixed, and it has to be thrown away. So this is something that we should avoid. So we, as designers and engineers, should think about how to, for example, make the access into the most important parts of the object of the device possible for someone who is competent enough to fix it. So this is the strategy that influences not only the looks of the final product, but also makes us think about the mechanical parts as well.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Okay. I would like to ask you a little bit more in detail about the serviceability, because I believe that serviceability is possible within bigger objects like dishwashers. Some home appliances that are big enough to place components that are interchangeable. But how about mobile phones, for example?
Anita Rogoża: I believe that it is important to think that the user is not the only responsible person for servicing stuff. So we have to apply serviceability in a way that will be understood and useful for someone who is an expert, for example, in fixing phones. And even switching from gluing parts together towards screwing parts together, even very small ones can be helpful in that manner.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Yeah, or planning not to destroy the thing after...
Anita Rogoża: While dismantling it.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: While dismantling, you can have a glue that can be erased or removed from the bond, and then you can open the part, still repair it and rebound it once again. So it's not that only the big parts are possible to be serviced, but you have to special tooling to...
Anita Rogoża: Yeah exactly. It's like a different way of thinking.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: To repair the product. I believe that there is one other thing with European regulations, something that this year happened, it's the USB type C that is once again in favor. So it should be implemented in all the mobile devices so that no device without USB type C can be sold. So that's also towards sustainability because of the peripherals, I guess. Am I correct?
Anita Rogoża: Yeah, that's a good point. And I believe that will also help us to maybe have less objects in a home. We will need less chargers, for example. And that's also a good point, a good step towards having less cluttered homes and less production in a big picture.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Okay. So that's quite positive, so we are still on the positive side of sustainability.
Anita Rogoża: We can do this Mikołaj.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: So let's keep this, it is this good mode. To keep this good mode, we should focus more on the product development because it's easy to make a sophisticated product, but it's really hard to make a simple product. So as an example, design for less parts. What is this all about?
Anita Rogoża: Creating as few components as possible might be challenging in regards to manufacturing, for example, because sometimes it is simpler to produce for example, four simple parts that will at the end be assembled to be a housing for, I don't know, a TV remote or even a TV itself. But it requires more skill and more engineering hours to cut this number of pieces down.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: So basically what I understand is that you have to spend a lot of time making one piece instead of two, for example, so that this time will be eventually saved in the future when thinking about manufacturing?
Anita Rogoża: Yeah, that's correct.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Assembly, and then serviceability as well.
Anita Rogoża: And sometimes even material because sometimes you can be more efficient with a smaller amount of materials in this strategy.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Okay. I like examples and I believe that we should maybe deliver one example with as few components as possible. I've already searched the web for this. And found a component that is a nozzle for the mixer for the household blender.
Anita Rogoża: Okay.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: The nozzle was before the next manufacturing possibilities, like 3D printing, the nozzle was made out of six different parts, and now with 3D printing capabilities, just as an example of using new technologies into real world problems solving, this part it now comes within one single part, so it's easy to assemble because there is no assembly.
Anita Rogoża: It's easier to control the process of manufacturing as well, because you are taking care of one part instead of six, as you mentioned.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: And that's what I wanted to take from this sentence: as little components as possible makes the product easier to maintain. So when we are speaking of lowering the number of parts, how about materials? Because we are focused on more and more sophisticated products, we are focused on strength, we are focused on all these aspects of new technologies that are enabling us something that was not possible before, like a carbon fiber with a raising that makes light and strong parts. But this is not something that we are going to talk about because sustainability is not a word about composites. How about materials?
Anita Rogoża: I believe that a big part of answering that question would be mentioning that the waste management is really important and to think about the future of the products that once were functioning and meant condition, but at the end, we need to do something with them when they meet their end. So we need to manage the materials we are using and managing composites is really hard because sometimes those totally different materials coming into creating one composite are really hard to separate and to manage in different ways, because you cannot use again the reason that is used for the carbon fiber composite. And you cannot resource that fibers that it's still there and maybe it could be reused again in some way. So this is the big problem. So a good example would be the packaging industry because for example, the pet plastic bottle, it's not the worst choice. I think worse than that is to choose the tetra pack, which is the sandwich of very different materials that are hard to separate at the end.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Okay. That's a good example. And regarding the p e t bottles, you mentioned, there are several uses of these bottles after they are bottles, for example these technical clothing like polyesters are made out of these bottles. So another example of that, these bottles are not so bad.
Anita Rogoża: They're easier to control what to do with them next. So that's a good aim, a good goal to aim
Mikołaj Wiewióra: So to take a lesson from mono materials and being more sustainable as a person, as a individual who is more and more conscious about this, maybe can you tell us something about what to look for in products maybe day to day use products like trays for food, what to look at when buying product that there is written that it's echo packaging, but what should it mean in reality?
Anita Rogoża: I think it is good to aim towards packaging, for example, that are easy to recognize. I mean, like those pet bottles instead of tero packs or maybe switching towards materials that we are certain that can be recycled. For example, glass packaging or metal cans. These are stuff that are classically well managed even in our part of Europe, which is not because a good level of recycling materials doesn't happen everywhere, unfortunately. Another thing is to look for even if we have a packaging made out of few materials, we should look for stuff that are easy to separate, for example, it is easy to remove the paper part and the plastic part and et cetera. And I think it's also a good aim to look for stuff that circulates on the market. For example plastic for example glass beer bottles instead of aluminum cans because we know we can bring those bottles to the shop and they will circle again in the market.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Okay, a good example of how to look at the products. In day-to-day use of course because I think that this is the most important thing because we produce a lot of trash out of day to day use products, not the products that are going to be for years with us, but still these products, these electronics devices that we are mostly focused on, can have the same function regarding how to separate it. So I believe that they should be described as good as day-to-day use products. They should have at least a strategy in product design on how these components might be separated and then reused or recycled or damaged, so-called damage control. And this term has its definition and it's called the end of product life cycle. Can you bring an example on how current companies that are already established on the market thought about it and brought something that you think it's not reusable that is single use and you throw it away, how to make it possible that this product is currently sustainable, more sustainable?
Anita Rogoża: Okay. So one example comes to my mind and I think that would be the Brita filters, because in some countries they have a strategy to resourcing the used filters back so we can send them back and the Brita will deal with the waste instead of putting them in landfills and forgetting about them forever.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: This is not something that is easy to separate, like Tetro Park. But for example, Brita has its idea on how to make use out of it, but you have just to send the filter back. Okay. Easy. So all the things that we have already said sound easy, like planning for mono material, planning to have less parts because it's a brilliant idea to have less parts and less things to be broken. Possibility for service or serviceability, using materials that are already recycled. So not only reusable materials, but also using the materials that were already on the market once or twice. So it all sounds easy, but why, for some reason, all these things cannot happen easily in a product. Why sustainability is difficult.
Anita Rogoża: Yeah. That's the question for the decision makers, to be honest, and we as a designer are rarely decision makers. We are somewhere in between, all the knowledge we've mentioned before and the people who are trying to make money, put new products on the market and implement them. And with more sustainable approach, there are some challenges because the stuff I mentioned before need sometimes more engineering hours, like that serviceability and maybe different structural approach while designing stuff out of the recycled materials because they have different qualities, and that time costs money which is the decision it's hard to make for people implementing the products or trying to implement the product.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: I have an idea to talk about with this, what you have said already, that the business, the people who want to introduce some products into the market know that if they manufacture something more expensive, they probably won't sell this product and it won't be a success. So they don't want to waste money.
Anita Rogoża: Yeah, or take risks.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Or take risks. So I've got an idea that I think we look from the wrong perspective. That there is a paradigm in our world that humanity and people like us like sustainability because we tend to like our lives and like to be on a healthy planet, but still want to buy cheaper products, with great quality, with great surface finishing, with all these blinky aspects of new product that comes within a fully packaged bright covered with a foil box. And you get this product, you have this emotion of taking something brand new made just for you with a perfect finish with all the hundreds of pages of manual that you won't read. And there are a lot of things that we are used to. And people who sell these products know that we are used to this. We, as designers, know that this is not the right way, but I think that this is the difficulty that we have to face.
Anita Rogoża: Yeah it is sort of a clash because one side is scared of new thing, and the other side is scared of taking the risks, and it's like, it's hard to balance the both sides, I guess.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: So maybe the answer to this question, why it is difficult to make sustainable product is that nowadays, no one wants to invest their time and money into changing this paradigm of having the perfect product.
Anita Rogoża: That's a good point here.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Okay. So if we would like to speak about these compromises that we have, do you think that there are some things that we can cover and still they will be understandable, but all of us, only designers?
Anita Rogoża: I think so. One of the examples is using recycled materials because it affects the surface finish. So agreeing to use the recycled materials we are agreeing to have, for example more dim not as glossy surface finish of the plastic products we buy. That's one of the examples I would say.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Do you think that, because we were mentioning 3D printing somehow, is this the unicorn of technologies that will finally, or eventually be the one technology used for manufacturing? So that's all these things that take from six parts to one part, making parts just for the demands and so on. Is it so cool or not?
Anita Rogoża: Unfortunately not. It'd probably be more common in production. But it can bring a lot of benefits and maybe thin up or thin out a little bit of mass production and mass production that is happening nowadays. Because 3D printing can be a great tool in mass customization, which is a way of manufacturing on demand in a way. So you are ordering objects, you wait for them, and you receive them and you are receiving the very attractive product I would say, for example, some glass frames or shoe installs are made with that technology, but you don't participate in creating the whole big surrounding of different products that conventionally comes with such orders.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Okay. Okay. So it's more like opening new possibilities, but not closing the possibilities that we already have. So it is possible that 3D printing will be not sustainable as well, and we would like to emphasize that. Well, so far so good. We've covered some topics about product planning, the product life cycle. How about talking about some concepts that are part of sustainability but should be covered more to be more understood by all of us. So that we can be conscious, we can bring something as people towards being more sustainable as humanity. So maybe let's start with something that is rather a negative one, it's called the greenwashing, how to describe it and how to find that this greenwashing happens.
Anita Rogoża: Well, the problem with that, it's quite a cynical one because some companies or so marketing strategies are using that term of being ecological, being sustainable, being planet friendly to sell more products because they notice that it is attractive from some sort of clients, especially those who would like to be more sustainable in their lives. So this is the term that it's used for describing a situation when some product has a big green lift, for example, saying, I'm planet friendly, but it happens to not be just one small piece of that product is really sustainable and rest of it's very conventional and not planned to be sustainable at all.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Okay. Can you recall any example of the screen washing thing?
Anita Rogoża: I'd rather not, but I believe that every person who is interested in such subject becomes more conscious and more eager to maybe check the sources, check what each company means by claiming to be sustainable and make better decisions, more suitable for their idea of what sustainability should be.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Okay. So a lesson to learn definitely, and to check if it's true, what's written or what's advertised. Another thing is something that was brought by new technologies, emerging technologies, including 3D printing, of course, but not only, it's called mass customization. How can we look at maas customization so that the perspective is more sustainable? Because mass customization is not only about sustainability, but how to look from the perspective of sustainability.
Anita Rogoża: I think that it has some qualities that can be very appealing and very useful in more sustainable approach. For example, mass customization can help to minimize or make the supply change shorter because it doesn't require big factory plans. It requires only a good 3D printing hub, for example. So we can manufacture more locally and those objects we are ordering are not traveling the whole world. So it is always a useful situation.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: And that brings another term, it's called carbon footprint, I guess, so that all these things are interconnected and I would like all of us...
Anita Rogoża: And that's why it's so hard.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: I think actually to remember that this term is not a single term that is in the vacuum. It's a term that is connected with...
Anita Rogoża: Intertwined with different situations, different aspects of manufacturing and delivering products.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: So the supply chain or the supply vendor that is thousand kilometers off the destination is also something wrong in terms of sustainable design, because we should think of more local production.
Anita Rogoża: Yeah. And maybe smaller facilities rather than one big offshore source of products.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Okay, worth mentioning that I believe. But about the customization, what are the benefits for a regular customer for example, maybe let's leave the sustainability? Let's jump into the mass customization and its benefits for us.
Anita Rogoża: Okay. So I believe that mass customization can be really attractive not only because of the sustainable aspect you've mentioned, but also because it can bring us some products easier. For example, we can order highly customized insources for shoes, order them and have them quite fast. It's happening because the companies that do that collect orders for a very different geometry of those insults from each person, which is very ergonomically correct, very suitable for your feet and stuff like that. They collect those orders, they print the whole volume of the print so they don't waste any material along the way, or they don't create new expensive and material consuming tooling for manufacturing them. And they send them to people who ordered them. So it is like having your very own speciality for your product without creating a whole big surrounding of factory plants, for example.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: So it's a win-win platform that can deliver product just for you, and without any tooling needed so that the manufacturer gets to read all of the facilities just as can be a simple software, a platform that can gather the data from user sent to the manufacturer that is providing services for those kind of manufacturers, and you as a customer benefit from it. Like you have a product in days instead of months and have this product personalized for you.
Anita Rogoża: Yeah, and that personalization I think is a huge gain because it's very accessible and it's not as expensive as it was, for example, 5 or 10 years ago.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Okay, but still a pretty narrow implementation of this can happen because of the nature of 3D printed parts. They cannot embed electronics or any other mechanical mechanisms inside. But yes, it's a matter of the future. We've got another term that is, I think, the most comprehensive one in between those terms that we have already mentioned, because it's called the circular economy. In comparison to the linear economy, which we are existing now, what are the differences? What are the assumptions of the circular economy? And of course, we would like to hear about the examples, if it's happening already.
Anita Rogoża: Circular economy it's a different approach than the Dell linear economy you are living now, because we are living in a situation when companies design, manufacture, implement products to the market and forget them as fast as possible, when the buyer buys them, for example. But in the circular economy, you not only do all the stuff I've mentioned, manufacture and implement to the market, but also you are planning the end life of the product to create as little waste as possible and to gain as much from the, for example, products that are finishing their lives. So for example, you collect all the broken for example, phones from the market when you are as living in a circular economy situation or leading the company in a circular way, and you check what pieces of those phone you can use again, for example, while fixing different phones, and you are checking all the batteries if they're okay, if you had to utilize them. And you are very responsible regarding all of the elements. That's the very short summary.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: You are working towards less waste.
Anita Rogoża: Yeah, as little as possible.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: You are trying, because circular economy in a manner of 100% reusable of all the things is I believe not possible.
Anita Rogoża: It is.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Maybe yet. Regarding all environments that we have, we have to think of energy as well here in a circular economy because when we are using fossil fuels, I believe that it's not towards circular economy because it's linear. We use the resources that we have...
Anita Rogoża: And it's used.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: And it's used and there's a waste. Of course some products or byproducts of some technologies are okay. Like burning hydrogen produces water. But burning coal means carbon dioxide, so it's not a good gas for the planet. But still, if we have this gas, we can do something with this gas, like pressurize it and store this gas not to be in the atmosphere, but have it sort of bottled. And these are steps towards a circular economy because it's not only producing the waste, but also taking this waste and reusing it.
Anita Rogoża: Reusing to refurbish the products that are already on the market to manage the waste when some may be looking for resources in those stuff that we consider waste at the time. So it's like, for example, maybe using the housing of old products to create recyclable material and so on and so forth. So it's like working with what you already have for 100% rather than just going the easiest way possible.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Okay. So maybe to sum up I think that I've heard it, I didn't invent this sentence that a trash for someone is a treasure for somebody else. So that the circular economy is all about it. That you can produce...
Anita Rogoża: Yeah you can find value...
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Something valuable if you look at it from the right perspective. So even a byproduct of burning the coal might be a treasure for some company that might take benefits out of it. So to recap all of our terms and all these things about sustainability, maybe we should sum up with a sentence that everybody is responsible for sustainability. That not only designers, not only manufacturers are the people who should take care or should care about this term, because without people, without a regular man consumer that is living on this planet, sustainability cannot happen because we have to change our habits. We have to change our beliefs and approach...
Anita Rogoża: Given to modeling businesses, not only to being a consumer.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Okay. Because once we change this approach, the business will change because they will have to face different challenges, because people won't buy products that are not sustainable. And that's the economy. That's how it works. So thank you for that. Thank you. I hope we
Anita Rogoża: I hope we manage to maintain, to be hopeful.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Thank you for talking about difficult things because it's not that easy. I wish we could talk about...
Anita Rogoża: Darker aspects as well.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: But instead we could talk about beautiful, shiny products that are lighter mass laying on the ground and ruin our planet. So this is not the perspective we want. So I think that it was worth talking about it, and hopefully there was a lot of information for all of our listeners.
Anita Rogoża: Thank you.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Thank you.
Anita Rogoża is a researcher & designer at Mindsailors. Her priority is on making functional designs that are both user and environment friendly.
Mikołaj Wiewióra is a senior designer at Mindsailors. He has extensive experience in leading teams of designers and engineers on all stages of the design process.
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