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This project is somewhat epic, spanning 3 months, 24,000 words, over 5 hours of interviews, site visits to universities and waste disposal centres, alike. But if you're in a hurry, this has been crunched down to just 15 tips to get you started.
As part of a series of articles, this one will focus on:
- Cheat Sheet of Tips & Tricks. (Disclaimer - for discussion only)
- Suggestions for Industry / Standardisation.
- The 15 Key R2R Questions for Designers regarding Batteries.
Tips & Tricks to Design Better.
Distilling the Highlights.
Above: a selection of portable electronics goods (ie with batteries) rounded up in my home in about half an hour. Then disassembled to illustrate the R2R tips articulated through this series.
What began with an attempt to fix my headphones has ended up as hours of exploration on how one could design better products for rechargeability and replaceability, a hugely enjoyable ‘rabbit hole’ to venture down in the process as well! After 24,000 words, I realise it’s quite an epic and I’m not offended if you jumped to the end (“TL;DR” as they say), as I would have done the same... but I also hope that the following piques your interest enough to also go back into the preliminary work, should you find yourself actually implementing any of the suggestions, as perhaps I’ll have made some mistakes / discoveries that could save you some time, money or hopefully something untoward. Thanks for reading and good luck on making your next product the best it can be!
Fuel for the Journey Ahead..
Change can be daunting, and we all know the feeling of ‘trying to run before we can walk’, so I didn’t want to just present an overly idealised ‘solution’, without also being sympathetic that this likely needs your manager/shareholders/consumers to ‘warm up’ to things. Sometimes you need a few sources of insight and inspiration. These helped me a few times in ‘change management’ in innovation, and the subject of Sustainability is arguably not immune from apathy, fear or ‘shock of the new’.
In case you haven’t read The Innovator's Dilemma, I suggest now is an excellent time, as it explains things like ‘not invented here’ push-back to change, amongst many other political challenges in corporations large and small. And if you have, I would suggest another quirkier take on a similar theme: Orbiting the Giant Hairball - which is a comic take on essentially the same issue, and don’t underestimate the levity of the book, as humour (not just reason) can often ‘untick’ many hard situations! If you’re somewhat idealistic, you may well have felt emboldened by Design for the Real World, which after 50 years of publication still resonates with a powerful quote of “There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a few.” However, all such emotions need to be ‘channelled’ and I would prescribe a couple of Rob Thompson’s excellent sourcebooks on materials and processes to allow you to make informed technical decisions, and to give credence to your ethical ambitions.
Sustainability Deja Vu
If you’ll excuse the plug, I also curated and interviewed over 20 industry professionals during Lockdown in 2020, and emceed the Webinar series on Sustainability in Design for ProtoLabs. It was a silver lining that so many people were locked in at home, and ironically would have been too expensive to fly over to a physical event (and to be un-ecological in terms of emissions!). Also people were not sick of Zoom then, and we arguably got access to some pretty sensational talent. I’d never want to live through a lockdown again, but looking back, this series of sustainability webinars had turned out to be something rather unique.
It may interest you to know that I designed all 20 interviews as ‘counterpoints’ to why one might privately excuse oneself from leaning into sustainability goals more earnestly: They range from being confused about materials science of plastics, for example, to having no understanding how the impending legislation works. Or it could be you’re ‘too small’ as a startup to afford it, or ‘too big’ as an incumbent to pivot a team or brand strategy. I tried to essentially unpack these concerns with 20mins of inspiration, 20mins of practical advice, and 20mins of Q&A from people like you who are trying to get going in this space. Think of it like a TED Talk - but with an encore of tangible advice. Hope you enjoy it!
(Thanks to ProtoLabs for allowing me to share my personal copy of the recordings, and it must be said, I’m shocked at how little has dated, and the task only feels more pressing in 2023).
I hope you enjoy the above resources, and my point is that these are a mix of inspiration and actionable facts/tips. You likely need to rally yourself and a team, but you also need substance to convince doubters. You need to combine Emotion and Reason. And above all - even better than words, talks, books, or blogs - are of course actions: It may not be that you can implement all these suggestions right away in your next product, but starting is better than finding excuses not to do anything at all. I hope the following ‘stages’ feel accessible and inspire you to make the level of change you feel is possible - and perhaps then some!
~ ~ ~
Kickstarting Your Designs for Better Battery Integration.
The following are design suggestions, provocations, and even a few wishes on how we as product designers/engineers and the wider team (Sales and Marketing) might design better experiences - which are not just good for the Planet, but arguably better user experiences.
These examples are taken from my home, and are not exhaustive, but also imply that you might also enjoy cracking open a few appliances and just giving them a critical eye - to either take the best, or avoid the worst designs you find.
- Are you absolutely certain you need a Rechargeable Battery?
- Do you need a Bespoke Battery or can you use a ‘Generic’ or ‘Common’ Size?
- If it must be rechargeable - are you sure you need Lithium Technology? (Will NiMH do?)
- Is there really such a thing as “Single Use” or “Disposable” LiPos? (Answer: “No”).
- Are You Sure You Need Glue? (Probably Not).
- Should I use JST Plugs for Batteries? (yes).
- Do I need to Allow for Expansion of the LiPo battery? (Yes, absolutely!).
- Hinting to Hack // A Nudge to Repair (Inspirations from IKEA).
- Should We Make R2R Easy For People - But Not Too Easy?
- What if We Don’t Trust Users, But Want To Sell Our Own Replaceable Batteries?
- Sealed Batteries - Are They Worth The Trouble?
- Can We Create Smart/Flexible Charging Circuits?
- How to Avoid Snap-Fits (or Do Them Help to Enable R2R)?
- Does The Business Case Work?
~ ~ ~
Question 1: Are you absolutely certain you need a Rechargeable Battery?
I’ve had this beard trimmer for about 5 years now. I’ve dropped it a few times, and I run it under the tap to clean it, despite - SHOCK HORROR - it’s not waterproof to IP 67 Rated! But when you take an honest look at the components inside, they are basic, and are not over-engineered with a dizzying array of processing power with things which will short circuit. It really does the job (even made a cameo in my project for Kyle at BBC’s Big Life Fix as an inspiration for what I invented for him!), and I suspect it’ll buzz along for another 5 years. Again keep in mind most Lithium (sealed) batteries will die after 2-3 years. So this would be throwing away a perfectly durable appliance where the mechanical parts will not have worn out.
So ask yourself, can we make it ‘just enough - but no more’ to paraphrase one of Dieter Rams’ maxims. Some might feel this perhaps could be a bit more stylish, but I’d argue there is an elegance in simplicity which is worth aspiring to also. Although I have not performed a detailed LCA on an AA vs LiPo (would need to be 800mAh), I note that I only change the Alkaline batteries about once a year, so the efficiency of the device is great - probably because it’s so simple!
Secondly, if I was trimming my beard at a faster rate, I would be prompted to use my rechargeable batteries, but as mentioned, the duty cycle, or usage should be considered with care. And of course the user has the choice and it does not hurt to *suggest* they use rechargeable batteries if getting through more than 2xAA per year for example.
Question 2: Do you need a Bespoke Battery or can you use a ‘Generic’ or ‘Common’ Size?
These are my kitchen scales. They use Lithium Coin Cell “CR2032”. I can’t validate this easily (link), but anecdotally this seems one of the most common Coin Cells in low-power, infrequently used devices. My point being, you use a kitchen scale for perhaps a couple minutes in short bursts in a week or so and then it’s stored away. I probably change this about every 1-1.5 years. The design could be better to get the battery out, but no special tools needed, and not costly glue or screws.
Similarly, this is another ‘rarely used’ item, but needs a bit more power - 9v, in my Cable/Pipe Detector. With both of these, I think adding rechargeable batteries would likely be detrimental to an LCA, as they are used so infrequently, so I think there is just cause for single-use batteries. Though if for example, you were actually a builder, having this use a 9v battery - that are available in rechargeable format - is great, and I think companies should *prompt* people to at least consider this, if they are heavy users of a device, say as professionals.
If you were planning on making a ‘home’ and a ‘pro’ version, the ‘pro’ Scales or Detector naturally would be a better build quality for more wear and tear, but it really should have a more environmentally aware use of batteries, as suggested, and imply replaceability, ideally with rechargeable cells. To be clear, Scales would be better with AA or AA rechargeables for example.
Question 3: If it must be rechargeable - are you sure you need Lithium Technology? (Will NiMH do?)
After years of my parents fumbling with a corded phone, it broke, and so I got my parents a new phone when visiting them at Half Term break. Pleasingly it has a charging dock, and has rechargeable batteries - Nickel Metal Hydride or “NiMH” (note - not NiCd which have been banned in the UK and many places, as they contain Cadmium which is toxic).
As is shown in the photo, I can pry off the back to access the batteries with no tools (though it has a slot of a screwdriver if you don’t wish to break a nail!). Not only does this save money on BOM - by not needing screws or glue, but in case you hadn’t guessed - the compliance around NiMH batteries is such that they do not need to be sealed, and can be accessed by consumers. Consumers can of course replace these with another brand of similar capacity NiMH rechargeable battery, which I think it *impled* here, even if not stated on the box (probably for legal reasons).
Another win for NiMH over Lithium is that they are safer, and tend to just go a bit leaky with age/fault. Reading the back of my Duracell charger (with similar AAA NiMH batteries), apparently these are so safe, 8 year old kids can be trusted with them!
I’m not suggesting that all devices are suitable for this, as they do need to be low power, but given how long my folks can natter on the phone, it certainly lasts a good few hours (apparently up to 12 hours talk time) before needing a recharge. So this is pretty impressive.
If your company is striving for B-Corp or any similar metrics of Sustainability quality, then having it so batteries can be easily removed (and replaced) is a huge contribution to end of life, when it eventually comes.
Question 4: Is there really such a thing as “Single Use” or “Disposable” LiPos? (Answer: “No”).
Having asked around a few places, and as mentioned in previous blogs, there is pretty much no such thing as a non-rechargeable LiPo battery. The technology/chemistry is, by its very nature, rechargeable. There are devices that arguably justify the lack of option to recharge the LiPo batteries used, such as medical or safety devices. Carbon Monoxide Alarm below, for instance, has a 10-year lifetime, and it is probably not a product you want to ‘get wrong’ because you sourced the wrong battery from eBay or other non-regulated source. In most other cases, however, it’s increasingly tone-deaf for companies to put in a LiPo to a product, seal it in glue and plastic, and call it ‘disposable’, knowing full well that a LiPo is nearly always rechargeable.
As mentioned in previous interviews, these devices are liable to explode in trash collecting (or just in bins), and even if they do avoid landfill, and make it to recycling plants, where they may still explode if accidentally sent to grinding, they will at best only be burned.
So if you must make a single-use Vape, (all are in theory), or similar device, try to make it so the batteries can be removed at end of life, even if not realistically replaced.
Question 5: Are You Sure You Need Glue? (Probably Not).
This is a bluetooth ‘boombox’ or wireless speaker I have in the kitchen. It actually took me a few moments to figure out where the screws were, (which is perhaps a good side note to make them a little more obvious to encourage people to have a look). Anyway, once I got into it, I was feeling like this would be a ‘good design’, as I have a nice JST clip on the PCB, making it a solder-less job to remove the battery...
...But alas, this was not to be, because for some crazy reason, even though the plastic interior mould had a ‘cradle’ for the battery, the battery itself - was glued in, with Epoxy. Not only is unnecessary use of Epoxy bad for all other reasons, but this of course renders the battery change-out near impossible, without risking hacking/twisting/prying the Li Ion cell, and I was not confident I would not make a mess of it.
So if you possibly can, please try and make a battery like this possible to be removed, even if you can’t advertise it on the packaging. (more on this legality later).
Question 6: Should I use JST Plugs for Batteries? (yes).
The Japan Solderless Terminal or JST is a ubiquitous connector that is highly reliable, and perfect for securely and cheaply connecting the wires of the battery to the PCB. Not only does this help for R2R agenda, but it often saves money in assembly costs, not to mention possible future non-compliance with ease of battery removal. Unless you have a really good reason, do consider them in your design.
Question 7: Do I need to Allow for Expansion of the LiPo battery? (Yes, absolutely!).
This is a NO2 Gas Sensor I was using in previous Air Quality work for DesignSpark. It’s a professional bit of kit, and costs around £200. Hence it’s not something you’d expect to throw away after 2-3 years because the LiPo battery gave up!
Perhaps because the sort of person who would buy this is a technical person by definition, it seems to be implying ‘Right to Repair - please!!’ - as the screws are not just ‘cross’ head, but also are machine screws with corresponding brass threaded inserts (rather than ‘self tapping’ which are the norm in most things like this). This is essentially ‘begging’ to be opened many times (or is a total waste of inserts!).
Anyway, inserts aside, the battery is double-sealed (a good thing to do), with a blue wrapper, and it also has been given enough space to ‘expand if needed’, and had a chunk of industrial foam/sponge stuck to it, to keep it from rattling around, but to also be compliant should the battery swell up.
In case you missed it from earlier writing, LiPos are prone to swelling over time, and allowing them a little space to do so by say 5-10% in volume is actually a good thing, as this means they will likely be detected by the user and replaced before they burst, leaking flammable and toxic contents.
My only slight grumble would be that the battery is flipped, and the sponge is on the blue-side, so the battery details could be read more easily for R2R purposes, as otherwise, this is a very nicely understated repairable device.
Question 8: Hinting to Hack // A Nudge to Repair (Inspirations from IKEA).
IKEA made an Air Quality Monitor (VINDRIKTNING), and when you look at the PCB it is all labelled up in such a way that it's almost begging to be hacked... As one YouTuber “VoltLog” puts it - “I mean this board just screams ‘hack me’ in your face, because you have these nicely labelled test points, and even the JST connections have labels to each of their pins!”.
In other words, he is saying that this is a ‘nod’ to qualified/competent persons to engage with the internals of the hardware and get creative.
Does this strategy perhaps apply to Right to Repair? Is a product that screams ‘repair me’ to the professionals possible?
Is it possible that some companies might ‘hint’ to easy battery switch-outs, but do so in a subtle way that only really competent people will get it - but that it is easier for them and does not need complex repair operations!
This is of course an interim step, but does it seem like a good idea? (Comments welcome below?).
Imagine it was you, talking to your legal advisor in your company - would the conversation perhaps look like the following... Please note this is a fake/imaginary dialogue for avoidance of doubt!
Designer: “I want to make our products repairable for competent members of the General Public”
Legal: “No way, it’s too much ‘exposure’ for us to encourage people to hack things, there could be issues with GDPR, data security, product safety, fire - who knows!! We cannot encourage hacking”
Designer: “But I didn’t say we’d advertise it overtly”
Legal: “So you will make it Hack-able, but not tell anyone about it?”
Designer: “Yes, and trust that it’s self-selecting, and only the most tech savvy people will hack it, we’d also make it clearly labelled to try to minimise mistake, such as +/- signs, and poka-yoke details to avoid say batteries being put in the wrong way around and shorting, printing the spec. of the battery, or any warnings not to under/over rate something... etc. etc. It would be too intimidating for most of the General Public, but very reassuring for those who are engineers or accomplished designers, etc. We can still put on the outside and inside ‘Only qualified repair professionals should attempt to change this battery - see CompanyName.com/Repairs_and_Spares’”
Legal: “Ok doesn't sound like a money-spinner exactly, but we’re technically not liable if we don’t advertise or encourage it”
Designer: “Great. So we can do it then?”
Legal: “Hmmm... I don’t see how not advertising it is a great business model for sales”
Designer: “It’s not the mass market we’re looking at, it’s the trends of things to come - what ideas we may have overlooked, what ideas we liked and people love, what we got wrong, and people fixed. The device will be ‘as is’ for 99% of the population, but allowing that 1% ‘access’ could take us to somewhere exciting next! We will learn from what people can do, and who does it well”
Legal: “Ok your career, my friend - good luck!”.
Perhaps I’m unfair on the Legal side of this hypothetical discussion, but the point remains that even if a company does not want the ‘exposure’ to overtly advertise Right to Repair, it can still make it ‘very repairable’ and know that ‘word will get out’ eventually (or with a nudge to a few YouTubers!).
Likewise, I’m not advising you to do this, legally speaking, but now you're thinking about it, huh...?
That said, people can mess up, and one needs to strike a fine balance between empowering people and thinking everything should be trusted with anything. Nevertheless, not everything that worries lawyers is automatically bad.
In case you’re thinking this sounds familiar, you may have heard about IKEA Hacks.
It was a fan-run website, which showed how to ‘hack’ IKEA furniture into something different. Granted some ideas were probably a bit ‘dodgy’, but they were also not outright scandalous either.
Anyway, IKEA’s legal team didn’t approve of this, and as it turned out, after a remarkable journey, IKEA ended up buying the company.
More details on the story...
https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/hacking-ikea/ (where I first hear about this!)
Question 9: Should We Make R2R Easy For People - But Not Too Easy?
Above are my screwdriver and glue gun from Bosch. Both use 18650 Li Ion cells, with spade terminals. I have not been so naive as to ask Bosch if they intended to make this ‘easily repairable to a professional?’, as I think this is a similar take to IKEA - they cannot expressly encourage people to tinker with Li Ion batteries, however, arguably it is safe for an engineer, but let’s look at the design:
- Screws were ‘cross’ (not service screws).
- I was inside the device in about 1 minute.
- Got the battery out in another minute. (Didn’t even need a teardown video).
- Batteries are fixed in with no glue, no tape, etc. come clean away.
- The temp sensor is not complex to refit / replace safely on a replacement battery.
- The battery spec is clearly visible.
- Batteries have Spade Terminals (two different sizes) to avoid shorting.
There is a ‘moot point’ here that the spade connectors are harder to source on an 18650 cell, whereas a ‘bare’ cell would be more easy to replace - but runs the risk of being installed backwards and risking fire/harm. However, sourcing a cell with terminals is by no means impossible. RS Components, for instance, sell types like this (link for example only). But I mention this specific detail as to my eyes this is a ‘competence test’ - that you need to be pretty comfortable to undertake this, so total amateurs will not do this, similar to IKEA’s PCB for IoT hacks, it’s easy for the pros, but you have to be a pro to be confident to engage with it.
I personally think this is close to my ‘comfort zone’ as a designer, as this is a good way to get things going, but not freak the legal department out. If people do engage, you can build a better case for it year on year as popularity for such R2R interactions (hopefully) gains momentum. Companies like Arduino and Raspberry Pi have succeeded because of people creating How To Guides and fun projects, and I think Repairability will undergo similar ‘cult’ origins, before building more mainstream appeal. After all, unlike Arduino, people have been repairing electronic stuff for years! We just lost our way it seems.
Question 10: What if We Don’t Trust Users, But Want To Sell Our Own Replaceable Batteries?
I worked on the DC35 when I started at Dyson in 2009, and loved how easy it was to disassemble, (not least because I was dis/re-assembling it many many times to validate test metrics!), and with this later model (Dyson V8), the same principles carry over - ‘cross’ head screws for user service, and anything ‘Torx’ is for a service engineer or repair shop professional. And I think there is a fair argument to say that in some cases users should not be touching Li Ion cells in their ‘raw’ or OEM form (like my Bosch example).
Again, I think this is where Fairphone makes a solid contribution to this debate by removing the need to be a pro engineer / service person, and allowing an easy switch-out. However, it takes considerable work to get to the stage of ‘sealed’ replaceable batteries like Dyson and Fairphone, and this is my reason for advocating for a need to have Standardisation and companies like Duracell to create trust in a LiPo / Li Ion range of cells that designers can work with, and consumers can source and replace.
Question 11: Sealed Batteries - Are They Worth The Trouble?
The first battery, on the left, is from my rechargeable headphones, so of course these are not designed for users to replace. But next to it is a phone battery which is ‘sealed’ and can be changed by users. Changes are you may have a product which will run for hours / finish the task in one charge with ease. However, what if this is not the case?
It depends a lot on how likely users are to ‘switch out on the fly’ a battery, and the two following examples for a Drone and a Camera are of course compelling, where needing to have a spare battery - already charged for a device which is portable but power hungry is a wise design choice, where a slow couple-hour recharge is not viable.
This does add more expense, but it must be said this is likely to be a ‘greener’ choice, as not only can you change a battery, but also this is good for the recycling centre to extract the battery - but perhaps the more compelling business reason is that the user will also appreciate this functionality.
As to where this ‘tipping point’ is with your product is hard to say, but it seems a good time to have this discussion not just as a sustainability question, but as a better user experience debate. Could your product experience be made better with a battery change?
Question 12: Can We Create ‘Smart’/Flexible Charging Circuits?
This is a terrific device, and belongs to my wife, and she’s had it for years. In case you hadn’t guessed it’s a mp3 player, the dictaphone - and - has a small speaker for playback. But the reason I love it is that it not only accepts (AAA) Alkaline batteries - but also accepts Rechargeable NiMH.
Sadly out of production, and arguably it requires a bit of ‘user awareness’ to not charge a non-rechargeable alkaline battery (have not tried, as I’ll be in trouble if I get it wrong and kill it, but it may have a smart/protection circuit - who knows!).
Either way, my provocation here is to explore if the electronics of a device can manage both alkaline, NiMH (rechargeable) and perhaps even Li-Ion too? Right now this seems tricky, as the three batteries need to be detected, and the charging of NiMH is ‘pulsed’ whereas Lithium is ‘trickle’ charged, so some pretty complex circuit is needed....?
With this said, we all now take for granted that plugging in your laptop charger - it magically ‘recognises’ if it’s 110v or 240v, and adjusts accordingly!
So perhaps this is more a situation of ‘supply and demand’ - but my hope is that there is a equivalent of the TP4056 PCB which can handle the 3 types of battery and charge Li-Ion/NiMH as detected.
Here’s hoping - if you want to build one - give me a shout and perhaps DesignSpark might be up for funding the development of it! (drop me a DM). No promises, worth a shot...
Q13: How to Avoid Snap-Fits (or Do They Help to Enable R2R)?
I’ve never really understood why snap-fits are still used. I could be wrong, but they have always seemed like something which was born out of necessity - when injection moulding was a bit of a ‘black art’, where you can’t always predict the warpage of parts as they come out of the mould, so this was a way to ‘tighten things up’, and prevent gaps.
Nowadays we not only have much more stable polymers, internal cooling pipes in moulds, but even mould flow simulators to ensure that there is very little twist/warp in parts. CAD Software often has this as plug-ins, and companies like ProtoLabs offer mould simulation services/analysis for exactly this reason.
Don’t get me wrong, there are many places a snap-fit is needed, but as with my control handset above, I’m sceptical it’s really needed, and couldn’t be overcome with a couple better placed screws, and some pre-analysis of mould flow.
If you really must use snap-fits, is there any reason not to make them the sort that don’t snap off and break (see last photo above). This can be done, and would make it much more feasible to open and close-up again.
Question 14: Does The Business Case Work?
Going back to my hypothetical / example of Yoto Players - I still feel it’s a complex issue to say for sure (as I’m not working for or with Yoto here!) what the best strategy is. On one hand it’d be cool if they did partner with Fairphone and used their batteries, but I suspect they would need to make the device repairable only with ‘Service Screws’ (i.e. you'd need to be a professional). Of course the ‘dream’ is that a reputable company (e.g. Duracell) makes a whole range of bona fide, certified, quality rechargeable Lithium Ion/Polymer batteries that are sealed (like Fairphone’s) to be user-friendly.
Alternatively, and as Yoto can’t wait around in the hope Duracell might do this, it might need to be more pragmatic and use rechargeable NiHM batteries (the sort that are already on sale) and it can make these so like my parent’s wireless phone, it has an internal charging circuit specifically for this type of battery chemistry (FYI you cannot charge a NiMH cell on a Lithium Ion charger, as they have two different charging profiles... unless it has specifically said it ‘switches’ between them, but this cost more of course, like a 110v // 240v adapter - the business case has to stack up). Anyway, as mentioned earlier, NiMH is arguably ‘safer’ in that it does not have a fire risk, so is arguably preferable in a product that kids may well fall asleep with in their bed, so as the company scales-up, this may not be a bad idea to ensure even better safety.
Anyway, putting the moot point of which battery Yoto would hypothetically choose aside, the reason I am excited by this as an example is that it has a lot of business model nuances which would ‘soften the blow’ or make it more repairable. As mentioned previously, it has an aspirational group of early adopters who would likely champion the R2R agenda as part of other aligned values of good design, sustainable awareness, avoiding landfill, hand-me-down, keeping in use, etc. Also, Yoto evidently makes good money from the ‘audio cards’, as opposed to just the devices - a ‘printers and ink’ model, if you will. So this mix of economics as well as brand alignment may mean it could have a more repairable option in future.
Reflections: What’s Next for R2R?
It must be said that having worked on this for some months now, there does not seem to be any perfect ‘poster products’ or ‘flawless brands’ in this regard, hence needing to create a hypothetical with Yoto, who I think is pretty close to being a possible poster product/brand, if they had user replaceable batteries - but even then, this is a nuanced design decision, and there is no ‘quick fix’, but arguably one has to ‘begin by beginning’ as my mentor at LEGO used to say in uncertain times!
Even Fairphone with its phones and headphones are great, but still come at a premium, so there will always be some concession at the start, if not with cost, then some other trade off. It’s a balance on what consumers will tolerate, as part of a brands 'journey’ in sustainability.
Going forward, I would anticipate products which have a good brand predisposition to sustainable design and repairability will be more likely to incorporate the extra design features to enable and encourage R2R to happen. Alongside this, they will likely need the business model to ‘cushion’ that extra expense, and being brutally honest, navigate the transition from ‘early adopters’ to a larger market, where both genuine mistakes will be made, and compensation will be due, as well as lawsuits being filed by opportunists willfully ‘getting it wrong’. It is a hard road ahead.
As a designer it is not pleasant to think so little of people, but if one has ever worked in a large organisation and been around to witness lawsuits - people can be really dumb and/or really cynically minded at times, and it only needs one or two to rock the boat.
So this is a design reality, and I hope that we find ways to navigate through such situations, be it in ‘IKEA-Hack’ style, or with a growing momentum that it is actually pretty satisfying to fix something, and brands that make us feel good are often the ones that win overall - but they would need support through those expensive and higher-risk stages of transition to deliver our Right to Repair, which will for a long time may actually feel more like Fight to Repair!
The Nature of Enduring Design.
It’s perhaps interesting that what may sound like a starting point to engage people about the right to repair (ie consumers), and mature into a provocation of what Designers and Engineers can do better in their work (as professionals) - ultimately arrives at a synergy between the two: After all, Sustainability is not going to be solved by Users or Creators in isolations - but by both! It will be a nuanced tension, a dance if you will, between the virtues and profit, between pragmatism and flare, between longevity and fashion, between stasis and maintenance. And arguably this is where one finds oneself looking at the greatest innovator of all - Mother Nature, which is almost always the best harmonisation of many factors, creating optimal designers which are as ‘lightweight’ as possible - without being fragile; are self-healing - without failing to be bold and exciting.
If nature wouldn’t design a creature that died just because of a thorn-scratch, why should we design a product that fails because of a sticky button, or stops working if a part becomes loose, or breaks when a user makes a ‘everyday’ mistake?
As designers we can bemoan ‘fast fashion’ and say it is a ‘chicken and egg’ issue that needs consumers to care (and pay) more, but personally, even to be as self-serving as to say I care about my reputation - I’d want to design a product that is loved, even when it wears out, and ironically, like a knife that is re-honed, or a instrument re-tuned or reconditioned, or as prosaic as a new tyres for a car - there is actually something wonderful about seeing a familiar, and beloved possession be repaired and ready to see another day. To create more memories, not just more stuff.
R2R: A Love Letter to Designer and Engineers.
Perhaps the thing that marketeers, trendsetters, tastemakers and society really have to grapple with, is to dial-back the fashion of beauty being flawless and pristine, (lest it be rejected wholesale), and instead to wonder why the patina of life is not something that is accrued over time and tells a unique tale between owner and their product. Why is it that some things ‘age well’ and some things don’t so much? Why do some people ‘age gracefully’?
Perhaps the common terms between the two are ‘character’ and ‘care’...?
Spiritualised’s Out of Sight, had the lyrics;
“If I am good, I could add years to my life // I would rather add some life to my years”.
So much of what is difficult about Sustainable Design (or life for that matter!) is encapsulated by what is not said: We can extend our life by being ‘good’, sure. But who just wants to exist?! If you want to ‘live’ more, does the absence of that prerequisite imply that the secret is in being ‘bad’?
The song was released when the author and singer, Jason Pierce was 36. I suspect most people close to this age recognise the impending ‘mid-life crisis’ or just shall we just say, ‘existential tension’ one feels at seeing enough of humanity to realise it’s beyond their comprehension, and there are nearly always two robust sides of many arguments - as my friend Fru Bekifi jokingly reminded me of Paul Valéry’s quote: “Everything simple is false. Everything complex is unusable” - it can be paralysing to know how to act, when facing the enormity of The Climate Crisis.
As much as the legendary designer, Dieter Rams implored us that “Less but Better” - this is still a hard virtue to act upon in day to day life, as arguably Abstinence is as stifling, as Decadence is self-destructive. Harder still to create desirable products which do more good than harm.
Perhaps Pierce’s omission is the ambiguity, or perhaps hope - that ‘adding life to my years’ does not automatically come at the inverse of being ‘good’. Perhaps the mystery to the riddle is to realise we cannot see things in terms of black and white, good and evil - the human condition is contradictory, paradoxical, and in a state of flux.
It seems that the life we add to our years is predominantly what we say it is, considering George Carlin pointed out, “The Planet’s FINE, it’s the People who’re F**ked!” - in regard to our arrogance that we are ‘saving the planet’ or even ‘upsetting Mother Nature’ as per Apple’s latest CSR Advert - the Earth will endure, it’s our children who will not, if we continue unabated in our consumption.
Perhaps the uncomfortable folly of so much green marketing/products is the notion that we’re so superior and omnipotent and are choosing to ‘protect the planet’ - and earnestly keeping up with the Eco-Joneses or busy showing off as the Eco-Joneses.
Arguably this trap is the ‘oldest one in the book’ - that the longer we live with a friend, loved one, or even a personal possession, arguably the fonder we are of it. The rejections come from hasty, superficial or egotistical decisions that typically do not stand the test of time. The parallel between our judgement of people, who are infinitely complex, should arguably be less complex for simply choosing products that are of enduring character, sound quality, and are built for the long road ahead of us.
The need to build better, not perfect, but sustainable is a choice we should strive for, for the same reason we cherish imperfections, not because they don’t fail us, but because overcoming them somehow is a mirror to our own character: The ruptures we repair, the faults we fix, the challenges overcome and the wisdom gleaned through the process, and that we are fortunate enough that a few people share in a moment of trusting that something is enough - that someone is enough...and that we too, are enough.
Pre-Departure Notice - How an Attempt to Repair my Headphones Turned into a 3-Month Journey with a Grand Finale at the Recycling Centre.
Intro - The Fight to Repair with Jude Pullen, for RS DesignSpark.
Part 1 - LiPo Battery Basics, Headless Laptops & Safety First.
Part 2 - Returning to Hong Kong, My Design Conspiracy Theories and Meeting Dr Lawrence.
Part 3 - Falling in Love With The Problem of R2R, Looria, and Pre-Purchase Reparability Considerations.
Part 4 - Ken Pillonel’s Ingenious iPhone Hack, and Repairability as a Disruptor.
Part 5 - Battery Post-Mortems with Andy Sinclair, Vapes, Dogmatism and Hacking My Headphones.
Part 6 - Legislation Loopholes, Eco Black Mirror, Chunky Fashion, and R2R Business Models and The Case for Standardisation.
Part 7 - Design, Engineering & Electronics Recommendations for R2R.
Contact: If you have any other questions, or would like to collaborate, please get in touch (link).