Planting Laptops and Eating Batteries: Designing for Disassembly

electronics, manufacturing, advanced manufacturing, design manufacturing, engineering
Photo: Ehsan Noursalehi, used with permission

No, you won’t grow laptops from seeds and batteries probably won’t be the next big thing in breakfast cereal, but someday, you might plant your biodegradable laptop in the ground to fertilize and grow embedded seeds. And you might pop a biodegradable vitamin capsule-sized battery-operated device instead of scheduling a colonoscopy. The point of these future designs is to think about what to do with a product when it has exceeded its useful lifespan. That’s where “Designing for Disassembly” shines and financial impact might be significant.

In 2012, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation published Towards the Circular Economy: Economic and business rational for an accelerated transition. According to this report, a subset of the European Union manufacturing sector could save up to $630 billion a year by 2025.

When product designers think about designing for easier repair, component reuse and material recyclability, they create the potential to radically change the design and manufacturing industry. For example, an EPA study reports that electronics makes up 1 percent of the known municipal solid waste stream and is growing at three times the rate of other municipal waste. Because it isn’t as difficult to design easily disassembled products when it’s part of the initial design process, it makes sense to start with the idea of disassembly from the beginning. Once engineering, design and production have been completed, it’s nearly impossible to redesign for easy disassembly. So, what kinds of ideas might reduce e-waste, improve repair accessibility, and ultimately make recycling a natural step in the product lifecycle? What if everything was designed with disassembly in mind?

That’s the kind of thinking a team of Stanford University designers considered when they envisioned the Bloom laptop. Looking first at required electronics and designing a shell around those components in order to make the device easy to take apart for recycling, the team took a design for disassembly approach from the onset. Early prototypes for products included a hand-held device embedded with a bamboo seed that would grow when watering the device. The idea being that when the product reached end-of-life, the plant growth process would break apart the gadget, preparing it for recycling. Ultimately, the team designed an easily disassembled laptop design that can easily be taken apart at home. What’s even better, the team designed the laptop’s shell to easily separate from modular electronics. An added benefit, the recyclability actually improved the user experience as the design allowed for a keyboard and mouse wireless design that easily removes from the laptop for use anywhere in the room.

Then there’s the cardboard Wi-Fi router where the cardboard package is also a functional part of the product body. Designed to be affordable, disposable and easily repairable, Ehsan Noursalehi’s idea won an honorable mention for this design in the Design for (Your) Lifetime competition.  As an added bonus, the clever packaging and easy to disassemble components lend themselves very well to developed and developing markets equally.

From modular design that makes products easy to disassemble and repair, to careful consideration of recyclable or biodegradable parts, design for disassembly not only reduces environmental impacts, it also sometimes improves the user experience. If designers can rethink laptops and routers, they can imagine many other products from a design for disassembly perspective. What else might this design thinking disrupt? If you’re not thinking about it, you’re missing out on the circular economy where products are designed for a cycle of disassembly and reuse.

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