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Sustainability and Ecology

A great sea is formed from many small drops.

Persian proverb


Sustainability and Ecology are often perceived of as two counterparts. But it has to be considered, if instead there could be two birds killed with one stone: A design so well thought-out that by reducing the amount of materials one could save costs, protect the environment and go easy on natural resources.


Reducing Material Consumption

Industrial designers carry a great deal of responsibility. Especially when speaking of high quantities, even small sums can end up as considerable costs. For example, 10 g of unnecessary material in a serial production of 100,000 pieces adds up to a 1 t loss of material. This happens even though there are simple and effective ways to reduce material costs without threatening the longevity and stability of a product.


Ideal Forms

Please imagine you have to design a can for a company that produces canned ravioli. This should have a determined volume, let’s say 0.5 litres. And according to the method of production it has to have a cylindrical form. There are unlimited possibilities for realizing this. The can, for example, may be wide and flat or narrow and therefore very high.

All three cylindrical forms in the following graphics have the pre-determined volume of 0.5 l. The form in the middle has the smallest surface and therefore minimal material consumption. Compared to the other alternatives about 20 % less material is needed. Sure, this might only be a few grams for a single can. But with a production volume of about 1 million ravioli cans a year this adds up to a couple of tons every year.

Naturally we cannot produce every product according to this principle and not all content will be as flexible as ravioli. Nonetheless we can conclude:

For every geometrical form there exists an ideal ratio between surface and volume. As the best possible constellation, it minimizes material use in order to reach a certain volume. This ideal ratio can be mathematically determined quite easily by calculating the extreme value. The best thing about this is: It can be adapted for nearly all the products and packaging that surround us, for example: Those disposable cups handed out a million times every day in aeroplanes. The perfect form can reduce waste without giving passengers less to drink.

On the contrary: The lower and wider the form of the cup, the greater the possibility that the orange juice or cola lands in the passenger‘s stomach and not their lap. The ideal form is not only resource-efficient but – just as an added bonus – also almost tilt-proof.

And now imagine how big the saving potential could be with bigger products.

The graphic on the following page shows the ideal form for different geometric forms.

Of course the process to finding the right form is far more complex than described below. To find the ideal form there are many other aspects to be considered like ergonomics or legal requirements. And many products are indeed far more complex than a can or a cup. Computers, MP3-players, and tumble dryers for example contain more components that have to be considered in design. To see the principle of the ideal ratio with such products, it is necessary to look at the essential and determined components first. What components cannot be varied in their dimensions? What are the minimum sizes? Are there any ergonomic aspects to consider? If these constants have been found, a rough overall form can be defined that fulfils the specific requirements and has approximately the ideal form with the lowest possible material costs. This should please producers and ecological activists alike.

Despite having the same volume b has 12 % less surface than a and needs 12 % less material.


Surface Area Efficiency (OE)

To show the differences between geometric forms and to get a vivid image of the relation between surface area and volume, it is helpful and necessary to define a new standard to compare different geometric forms. At first glance one can grasp the material costs and a form’s resource efficiency. Remember the quote in Chapter 2 about compactness: “The most compact geometrical form is a sphere From a mathematical point of view a sphere has the maximum volume combined with a minimum surface area.”

That means the sphere uses the smallest surface area for packing. Therefore we take that as the measure of all things and compare it to other forms. Let us call the ratio between a sphere‘s volume and surface: ‘Surface area efficiency.‘ The unit surface area efficiency helps to assess how efficiently a geometrical form is designed. The sphere as a model has the maximum value of 1.


Ideal Statics

The forces and loads acting on a product are the basis in determining the dimensions of its components. Statics defines the necessary material properties, material input and the construction as a whole. Thanks to this a product resists function-related forces and strains.

An intelligent construction helps to reduce material consumption - even if the material properties stay the same. At this point many designers think that the responsibility for costs lies with the engineers, since technicians test every product before actual production starts. If a designer who doesn’t know better chooses an inconvenient form, of course an engineer can improve the design so that in the end it lives up to the static requirements. But this solution is a poor compromise; it simply cannot be the ideal. A designer should not base his work on the engineering team’s standard right from the beginning, as much as technicians should not suddenly turn themselves into designers. Designers should simply keep static relevant factors in mind right from the beginning. If a technician afterwards tries to turn a donkey into a racehorse, he will never be able to turn it into an Arabian thoroughbred – at best it will become a racedonkey. The ideal form can only be achieved when, from the start, a designer orients the design as a construction that considers function and strains. Otherwise engineers do not only have to readjust, but to change the whole construction. This cannot be a designer’s intention and also causes additional work. To find out if a product will resist the strains in practice and over the long term, classic logical thinking is the first step in the design process. Modern proceedings like the finite-element-method (FEM) are a helpful addition in product design. Let us have a look at the topic with a simple example: You are required to design a new clothes hanger. The following questions can be useful: What are the stresses and strains? Which forces have an effect on the hanger? What weight does it have?


Due to the twist the hanger is very stable and comfortable, the material is used most effectively, form and statics are ideal.


Reducing Production Costs 

Time is money, energy too. Not only are the material costs defined by design, the chosen design also determines the manufacturing process and the selection of materials.

Designers have a big impact on how much time and energy is needed for fabricating a product. A thought through design can lessen the amount of CO2 emissions and reduce the carbon footprint. What kind of process is used depends on the material, the form and the number of units.


Faster shaping into form.
An important criterion when choosing a material is the question of how effectively a material can be shaped into a certain form. A material’s workability determines, to an important extent, how complex the production will be. Some materials can only be cast while others can only be milled – alternative ones are best shaped into a form through deep-drawing. It is important to know whether the material has to be post-processed afterwards and how many steps are necessary for that.


Perfect even in the tiniest detail.
Of course there are other relevant factors for choosing a form apart from the production process. But considering the possible techniques can reduce the production costs by a huge amount. It makes sense to determine the requirements of the form in advance and afterwards optimize it according to the demands of production methods. But it is essential that these concessions to economic production are not at the expense of other important factors like ergonomics or aesthetics. As is so often in life there is a proven remedy: Small cause, big effect. Often enough with a minimal change a form can be made suitable for casting, or made so that certain parts can be deep-drawn with relative ease. Even just a rough overview of how the product will work allows the form to be optimized without ruining the look. An ideal form produces less wastage by eliminating potential faults in advance. A product‘s ‘health rate‘, which describes the ratio between the amount of goods with and without flaws then increases. For example: if only one out of ten products is objectionable one speaks of a health rate of 90 %.


Mechanical feasibility.
This factor a designer can influence least of all. Most of the time there is actually no alternative to a mechanical production. The most beautiful draft is of no value at all if it cannot be produced in large quantity. This is often evident in the automobile industry. At exhibitions they often show beautiful futuristic models and shapes that later will be seen in the streets in a tamed and easier to produce form. This more or less fine-tuning is a concession to economical producibility. Small quantities have their advantages as well: This gives a designer more space and freedom, as more sophisticated, complicated and extravagant production methods are possible.


Shah & Shah
The typical graphic depiction of a chessboard is well known from chess books or magazines. They are mostly small pictograms symbolizing the different figures and have become ubiquitous and for chess players are very familiar. Reduced to their essence the pictograms enable the viewer to grasp a scene and get an overview of the complete chess board and scenario. A new design concept takes over this minimalistic reduction and shows a chess board without distracting details. The simple and consistent chess pieces generate calm and harmony and also reduce production costs. They are also easy to clean: Instead of a wooden chessboard a soft silicon pad is used that can be easily rolled up and stored in a cylindrical package.


Reducing the Set-up Costs

For every new step in the production process the machines have to be set-up again. Everything grinds to a halt, nothing can be produced. The design, next to the manufacturing method, determines how complex and complicated it is to adjust the tools and instruments needed for the production. Three golden rules help to reduce the costs for the mechanical set-up:
• Clarity: A simple form can normally be produced far more easily.
• Reduction: Fewer components reduce the set-up costs.
• Uniformity: Uniform elements result in having to adjust a machine only once.

How to reduce the set-up costs of a product can be seen in the design of the chessboard Shah & Shah. Everyone accustomed to the board game knows its typical surface. The graphic illustrations symbolizing the chess pieces are well known from chess books and have been memorized over the years. With the chessboard Shah & Shah the figures’ characters are reduced to their essentials: As pictograms on cylindrical bodies. Players have – even more than with a traditional layout – a complete overview. The simple and concentrated forms do not distract, they help draw the focus to the actual play. And they save production costs. The simplified form language only needs two instead of six moulds for queen, castle, knight, bishop and pawn. That reduces the set-up costs by about 66 %. The chessboard is no board at all but a silicon pad that can be rolled up easily and stored in cylindrical packing. Compared with traditional chess games containing hinges and a small locking mechanism, the new design reduces the production costs. And the enjoyable side effect: Due to its unconventional form it stands out among the masses – a unique characteristic that should please both marketing and sales staff. 

Reducing Assembly Costs

Optimizing production costs often goes hand in hand with the principles of good design. One of them is that design should never use too many different forms. And this also plays an important role in reducing assembly costs. An efficiently producible product can be a practical outgrowth of professional design. Here is a small example: A new MP3 player has to be designed. It’s not only from the aesthetic point of view that having several push buttons with different sizes makes no sense. More buttons unnecessarily increase production costs because different moulds are necessary, and cause additional assembly steps.

It is far more efficient to concentrate on creating a few elements that can fulfill the desired functions via smart linkages. When using Jog Dials, for example, only one mould and one assembly step are necessary. All the functions of the player can be managed by the turn of a wheel.

Sustainability and Obsolescence

When someone says that today we produce far too much waste this someone is right. Sadly, in more than one way. Firstly, there are many cheap products overfilling the shop shelves that nobody actually needs. Often enough their design costs are non-existent. Secondly: There are a lot of products that become waste after a short timespan – they suddenly no longer function. Products refuse to work, often enough not only because some parts are worn out but because this effect is intended. This is called planned obsolescence. Presumably, if the achievements of the modern age had already existed in Ancient Rome the Colosseum would have long since tumbled down leaving a space for someone to build a new one. This has absolutely nothing to do with sustainability.

Obsolescence means a product becomes out-dated. This can happen as a natural process or artificially. There are different kinds of obsolescence, here are the most important ones:

Planned Obsolescence

This kind of obsolescence is often part of a marketing strategy. Even during construction weak points are predetermined to make a product’s lifespan, ”manageable“, to make sure that the customer has to buy a new product after a short time. Wear and tear is also taken into account to arouse the customer’s wish for a new flawless product. 

Functional Obsolescence

Should a product no longer be used because of current requirements, one speaks of functional obsolescence. For example, computer operating systems can become obsolete if a new and desperately needed software will not work impeccably with it. The same can happen to printers when there are no longer printer cartridges.

Psychological Obsolescence

With this kind of obsolescence a still impeccably working product nonetheless becomes out-dated in the eyes of the customer, as it no longer corresponds to a certain zeitgeist. It is no longer up-to-date. This phenomenon can especially be observed in constantly changing fashion trends. Technical development causes psychological obsolescence as well, for example when analogue photography was replaced by digital photography. Or let us take a look at mobile phones: The knowledge that today’s news is tomorrow’s old hat can be applied to mobile phone technology. Even though the older device might function properly, many people buy a new phone believing that an up-to-date model is better.

Obsolete Obsolescence

Even though the planned use of obsolescence might improve sales, business growth should never be the base of good design. Here one thing should always be made sure of: Quality over quantity.  
Although we are able to recycle many materials, this nonetheless uses lots of energy that could be put to better use elsewhere. And not all material is recyclable as can be seen with so-called rare metals. These substances are not only rare – as their name implies – but mostly cannot be recycled at all. Among the rare metals are molybdenum, niobium and indium. They are essential for many processes, and if they are missing complete production flows can be brought to a halt. Innovative sectors in particular are in need of rare metals that are used for fuel cells, computers, hybrid cars or photovoltaic cells.

The best solution therefore remains: Produce less waste.
Back in the day a man used his razor all his life: He fostered and treasured it with love and passion and then passed it on to the next generation. The new trend of using disposable products that started in the 1950s was also the birth of the plastic one-way razor, colorful and sold 20 in a package. Of course, nobody wants to turn back time so that before every shave a man has to sharpen a razor blade for at least ten minutes. Finding the middle ground between both extremes is the sensible thing to do. The way forward does not lie with ‚disposables.‘ Planned obsolescence is an insane idea and should be banished in business in the years to come. It was never up-to-date and never will be. The ruthless urge to enhance sales figures no matter what the cost not only burdens the environment but also weakens the customer’s trust in the brand.

What might seem to be an economic success can become a boomerang returning to its sender, resulting in financial losses and at worse the end of a brand.
The ecological awareness of consumers and societies is constantly growing. The times of fastfood mentality are slowly but surely drawing to an end. Independent watchdog groups and consumer organizations as well as the internet make the quality of products far more transparent. Companies only trying to make fast money on the backs of the environment and consumers will no longer have any chance on the market in the long term. At least this is what we would wish. Warner Philips, grandson of the Philips electronic concern founder, gave a positive signal. Together with the Lemnis company he developed a new LED light that has a lifespan 25 times longer than a traditional light bulb – and thereby is 90 % more efficient. This is even more important when seen in the context of 1924 when the so called Phoebus cartel, an association of international light bulb fabricators, decided to restrict a bulb’s burning time to 1,000 hours even though a longer burning time was technically possible. There were regular tests to make sure these restrictions were observed. Cartel members whose light bulbs burned longer than 1,000 hours were sanctioned with severe penalties. Even though the cartel was officially liquidated in 1941 the idea became more popular than one would care for.
But back to more positive things:
To design long-life products one has to observe their function over the long-term. Only continuous stress tests will show a product‘s weak point. A mattress has to provide reliable stability and comfort not only once but thousands of times. A team of test sleepers is not even necessary for that: It can be simulated equally well with a computer or tested with machines placing pressure on the mattress. When the weak spots are found they can be remedied by optimizing the construction or the material. In general, high quality materials will affirm a customer‘s choice and strengthen his or her trust in a brand. Another possibility to make a product last longer is to make sure the wearing parts can be replaced. No one thinks his new car is fit only for the junkyard when just the brake pads have to be exchanged. What might sound self-evident at this point is actually non-existent for many products. For example, the rechargeable batteries of many products cannot be replaced, therefore making it necessary to buy a new device only because this small part is defective. In conclusion we can say there are three possibilities to improve a product’s longevity:

• Adjusting the construction to its strains
• Using high quality and durable materials  
• Replacing parts that typically wear out
or, better said: Let‘s dispose with disposables.

is a reusable drinking straw made of recyclable plastic. Thanks to a patented design, each straw consists of two halves that can be easily pushed in and out. After use, both parts can be put into the dishwasher separately and cleaned hygienically - which is not possible with a conventional disposable drinking straw, due to its small diameter.

The texts are excerpts from the book "360° Industrial Design" by the author Arman Emami, published 2014, niggli Verlag