Designing sustainability – How can we identify it and how much do we dare to demand?
“The quality will remain long after the price is forgotten”, said Sir Henry Royce in a time when the Second Industrial Revolution had led to significant advancements in manufacturing. Although the life expectancy of cars has increased ever since, we nowadays have a bunch of gadgets which do not age as beautifully as a Rolls Royce.
The average lifespan of a mobile phone is less than 2 years, and even a coffee maker lasts only around 6 years. A tragicomic study of electronic device waste summarizes our lives as follows: An average US citizen will use 44 phones, 20 laptops, 10 TVs and 13 coffee makers before passing away, leaving around 1940 lbs or 870 kg of electronics waste for future generations.
However, the average realized lifespan of a product does not necessarily correlate with the designed lifespan. We don’t throw away huge amounts of clothes because they are unusable, but because we want something else instead. Who can foresee design trends for the next 10 years?
From a technological perspective, many devices are indeed designed to work for a whole decade, especially in the industrial sector. Our ongoing R&D projects remind us about this almost daily when we get results from our customers' reliability tests. As an example, consider 3D metallization of an injection molded plastic part, to be used as an element in a mmWave antenna array. The prototype looks amazing, but what happens with the antenna over time. How can we make sure that the metal will stick and the material will keep its shape and properties?
Can we guarantee that the antenna works also after 5 years? Or 10?
To ensure it, you test reliability with (more or less) standardized test methods. These can include temperature (-40 to +80 °C) and humidity cycling, thermal shocks and salt sprays, testing metal adhesion between every step. Accelerated aging is used to simulate what influence time will have on a component – something we have been able to study thanks to our academic partners.
The tests which a product needs to pass heavily depend on the designed lifespan, which comes down to product warranties. Many sectors such as the telecom or military industry build equipment to last for decades. In the consumer market, we are used to a lot less. Longer warranties would put pressure to make longer lasting products, making the link from warranty to sustainability quite obvious. But to what extent are manufacturers ready to offer this? And most importantly, are the consumers ready to pay for better products, longer testing, and aftercare?
If we truly want to improve sustainability, one of the most obvious actions is to increase efficiency and minimize energy consumption.
With clever design and the use of better materials and components, you can achieve substantial differences. One example is presented by the Swedish antenna manufacturer CellMax, who has demonstrated that with their products operators achieve the same network coverage with 20 % fewer sites and 30 % less energy.
This is a classical example of sustainable design since it directly diminishes energy consumption.
Consumers and industries can always demand longer warranties, which necessitates tougher reliability tests. But without proper design, enabling efficiency and long-lasting user experience, the warranty is not enough. If we really want our technology to last longer, it may all come down to design - of aesthetics, efficiency and reliability.
So how do you identify sustainable design?