Design for Disassembly a Step Towards Dematerialization

Recently, Core77 ran an interesting article on design for disassembly or DfD, I wont repost the article you can read it here.The article is spot on, absolutely a fantastic representation of the things designers should be thinking about during the design process. The author even included a diagram detailing their understanding of how to repeatedly create products that consider the entire life-cycle (via: Pensar Development, 2009).

What do designer’s mean by considering the life-cycle? The life-cycle of a product has traditionally only considered a products use, from the point it’s purchased to it’s use by the consumer. Annie Leonard of Story of Stuff has a very informative video series on the impact of the things in our daily lives. In her video on consumption she says, “Guess how much product is still in use six months after it’s date of purchase? One percent!” In the, core 77 article this point was briefly covered as “systems thinking” with an example from Nike designers.

Systems Thinking: “Having designers understand how they can affect the different groups in the organization is fundamental to designing more sustainable products,” notes Phil Berry, President of Sustainable Product Works, and former Director of Footwear Sustainability at Nike. “Development teams used to be isolated in silos, but now are working together to find new ways to build products that can be separated into pure materials.” By seeing that products can be reclaimed, designers are changing the way things are constructed, so those materials can be re-integrated into the production cycle.
To this end while systems thinking is within the realm of design it includes many decision makers forcing businesses to work across-departments and in interdisciplinary teams. This restructuring has operational management issues inherent in this system. Meaning, becoming more concerned with supply-chain issues and costs.
Moving to systems of this nature removes products as the key market-driver in  the economy. The product now operates within a system that the user may pay for on a reoccurring basis or be more brand-loyal if rewards are offered for assisting the system.
In the case of shoes, when they’re good and worn out take them back for a new pair. This is akin to glass bottle recycling programs. Buy the beverage and then take it to a recycling facility and get about $0.08. This isn’t much but what if Nike said, bring your worn out shoes back for a new pair and get 10% off your new pair. That feels pretty good, this discount helps promote customer loyalty and turns them into the take-back transportation stream making this relationship a win-win for all involved.
To continue using our Nike example, they have already been using a service of this nature since 1990. They have harvested their technical nutrients and created a new product called Nike Grind, that is shoe soles used in weight room floors, tracks, etc. The take-back step is where material choice and new product lines must be considered by designers. In the case of Nike they decided rubber from shoe soles, is perfect for athletic flooring needs.
Why aren’t more companies practicing service design methods such as DfD or dematerialization? There isn’t one clear reason, but several issues around this topic.
  • Not all companies understand or trust the benefits of moving to services. But, this is easiest of the issues to overcome with education.
  • Companies see their products as physical advertisements. Therefore, their instinct is towards creating more stuff.
  • The key issue, implementing services requires developing service systems with partnerships and added jobs. This is often times, outside the comfort zones of organizations.
  • Companies have a core competency and are hesitant to venture outside of what works. “We’re making money, why change.” With this kind of thinking change will be arduous.
These are my thoughts based on my observations and research. Please leave your ideas/thoughts/critique in the comments. We’d love to hear about any new ideas in this realm.

How does DfD relate to dematerialization? Dematerialization implies a service over a product. How might we replace good with services? Well we will have to, in some instances, think of products not as goods, but as services. This forces the companies selling goods to consider their products entire life-cycle. From how it’s made to how it is disposed of, ideally repurposed or recycled of course.

At first glance suggesting companies take responsibility could seem naive. Why would they want to incur the added expense of recycling their products? Proponents of DfD would suggest there is value inherent in products and they should be designed for both ease of manufacturing and disassembly. Allow assembly and disassembly lines to get at the valuable components quickly and cheaply. These ideas have so far been firmly in the realm of DfD, however now we must figure out how do we convince consumers to bring our products back to the companies who made them? This question brings us firmly into the realm of service design. Thinking of each user within the system and their motivations, pains and abilities will help designers shape the world we live in for the better.

By implementing services around goods of this nature companies have the ability to more closely connect with their users, harvest value from their aging products and make additional profit from added services around their products. What do companies and users have to lose, by making this shift? Offering services of this nature will require restructuring of organizations, possibly the creation of new business units, new infrastructure within companies and of course the redesign of product lines. However, in the long run this adds value to companies, consumers and the planet.

2 thoughts on “Design for Disassembly a Step Towards Dematerialization

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