Making products last - old or new thinking?

10th May 2015

Making products last - old or new thinking?

There has been quite a bit of media buzz about the Ellen MacArthur Foundation recently. Taking on waste and pollution with the same determination that made her such an incredible sailor, Dame Ellen has built an organisation that is looking for ways to create a more 'circular' economy. The concept of circularity is based on minimising or eliminating waste in the lifecycle of materials and resources, often using approaches that mimic nature.

One of the aims of the research being undertaken by the foundation is the promotion of long life products, which minimise waste and the cost of recycling by simply remaining in use for longer periods - with updates to improve efficiency or replace worn out parts. 

Whilst this may seem a new and even radical idea to some companies, others have been doing it for decades, and just calling it good engineering. When Peter Allen and Peter Philipps set up Airdri in the 1970s, they set out to build hand driers that would last - and the company is still using that approach today. By using high quality motors and making it easy to replace parts that wear out, Airdri has ensured that a large number of its products are still in use today. We have become all too familiar with the concept of obsolescence and disposability, but Airdri are far from being alone. Zippo lighters, early versions of the classic Land Rover and the famous Henry vacuum cleaner are all examples of products that have stood the test of time and were designed to be fixed when they break down, not thrown away. Some companies also actively promote the repair of their products, providing a good supply of spare parts and detailed online advice. Brompton Bicycles is an excellent example of this approach, with spares going back to their earliest model and very responsive online technical support. This trend towards fixing things is also helped by the growth of online resources, particularly videos, that show how to repair almost anything.

Another area where new technology could help products last longer is 3D printing. The ability to download and print off replacement components is already a reality for simple parts, and this has been demonstrated on the International Space Station. As these technologies become more capable, the ability to print off complex parts will enable products to be repaired more easily and, critically, more economically. If products are also designed to be dismantled quickly, safely and easily, more and more of them could become economic to repair.  

Recycling is a vital part of our management of resources, but it uses considerable amounts of time and energy, and creates its own waste products. As we rightly become more concerned about the mountain of almost 50 million tonnes of electronic waste that continues to pile up, and components that cannot be recycled, making our products last longer begins to look more and more sensible.


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