Nice piece, Doug. It's disheartening to hear, though, that design for disassembly doesn't have the legs or backing that perhaps it should. I think the example you cited about the university students using digital prototyping and 3D CAD software from Autodesk to both optimize the ergonomics and appeal of their laptop design while also getting good results in terms of design for disassembly is a great example and one I hope more engineering teams will follow.
Engineer's hearts are in the right place, and that clearly showed through in our survey results. But there isn't much that they can realistically accomplish without strong corporate support. Design for recyclability is a major initiative that requires support from the very highest level officers in the company. That isn't happening.
Doug, I hearing the same things you mention -- the EU WEEE directive has not been enforced evenly. Here's in the U.S., we have a patchwork of different laws in different states, many states with nothing. A uniform national U.S. law could help the design engineer with a coherent compliance target. Congress, however, doesn't seem to be in the mood to pass federal environmental regulations.
The best hope now seems to be companies that bring green practices to their materials choices voluntarily. The concept seems to resonate with consumers.
I think we overlook the problem in the middle of the recycling chain. For example, my governng bodies provide me with refuse containers. The one for garbage is a 96-gallon monster with 8" wheels to allow me to get it to the street withoug having a hernia. In fact, I have two containers because one is never enough. I fill them both weekly, and by the end of the year, I should have the place cleaned up to suit me.
On the other hand, the bin for recycling is a little bitty thing, possibly no more than 6 gallons. I have to crush the aluminum cans, even though the recycling depot has a mahine to do that. They won't take steel cans or glass, even though both are recyclable. I can put out any amount of newspaper, up to the bin's capacity, but only on days it might not rain. Magazines are generally unacceptable; some nonsense about slick paper. Heaven forbid I should want to toss the box that contained an appliance. They will take cardboard, but only in pieces that fit in the bin. And why not toss it all in the truck and sort it at the depot.
I cannot help believing that most people would gladly recycle if it were even remotely simple. And why isn't the recycling bin as large as the trash bin. What can the average person do with his electronics? I see an old CRT TV on the curb at least once a week. It seems like we could come up with a simple and cost-effective system for recycling so everyone would participate with ease.
There is a large consumer market for items that can be disassembled and serviced. Consumers will pay more for items that can be disassembled and serviced for longer life. They do not naturally consider this as recycling or helping the environment. They just see it as putting a little more money into a component to get a lot more life out of it. Company driven directives to use screws instead of welds and having available service departments show a dedication to long product life as well as environmental consideration.
Great point, Tim. In my wife's native El Salvador, absolutely everything is disassembled and serviced long after it would be considered junk here. One result is that there are quite a few people with a high degree of mechanical aptitude and a working knowledge of electromechanical systems. This might be one reason why many U.S. airlines send their aircraft to El Salvador for service. (Of course, another reason is that even a degreed engineer rarely makes more than $1000 per month).
I'm not so sure I buy into the fact that consumers will pay more for items that can be disassembled. Or perhaps there isn't a connection that paying a premium for designs that have been optimized for disassembly goes hand-in-hand with getting a product that has longer legs. I think consumers are getting all too accustomed to a throw-away culture, where by when something breaks, you toss it and get a new one. I know, I've been guilty of that sentiment on more than one occasion. I'm not proud of it, but just saying ...
Beth, that's a good point. The sort of people who are likely to go to the trouble of fixing something that breaks, rather than just throwing it out and buying a new one, are the same sort of people who are likely to resist paying an extra penny for anything. (I know, because I happen to be one of those people!) Unfortunately, this does not create much of an incentive for companies to invest in design for disassembly. So, unfortunately, other than waste regulations which put some of the burden for disposal on the manufacturer (which, as has been mentioned, are difficult to enforce), and/or a massive cultural shift, there doesn't seem to be any good way of getting companies to do this.
I find that I tend to look for products that are not easy to disassemble. If I have a car with quick disconnects, what stops a thief from helping himself? Plus I have made it more tempting and convenient - he doesn't need to carry any tools with him.
Manufacturers may talk recycling but I see a resistance to that as well. They may promote recyclability but I think what they really want is for you to throw that product away and buy another one from them.
Cell phones, for instance, could be very recyclable. Being mechanically inclined, I decided to fix my HTC Tilt (broken lens) instead of buying a new one. First off, it's incredibly complicated; Second, there's one little screw with a wee bit of tape that says "Do not remove" over the top of it. If you destroy the tape (you have to in order to remove the screw), you void the warranty.
I did the same with an IPhone 3G. it's got the same screw. With the IPhone, all I needed to do was replace the rechargeable battery. Apple purposely designed the phone so the battery couldn't be replaced without a complete teardown of the entire product.
I don't believe companies (as a whole) want their products to have long legs.
Using wireless chips and accessories, engineers can now extract data from the unlikeliest of places -- pumps, motors, bridges, conveyors, refineries, cooling towers, parking garages, down-hole drills and just about anything else that can benefit from monitoring.
With strong marketplace demand for qualified engineers across the board that currently outstrips the available supply, there may never be a better time for engineers and project managers to advance their careers and salaries. Whether those moves are successful in the short-term and long-term is likely to depend on how the transition from one job to the next is handled.
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