Can We Make Electronics Without Factories? The Future of Gadget Design

Dominic Muren has a great way of looking at greener gadget design — make it simple, make it repairable, make it upgradable.


Dominic Muren has a great way of looking at greener gadget design — make it simple, make it repairable, make it upgradable. The longer gadgets last, the less overall environmental impact they have. He gave a great TED Talk on the idea, and we were lucky enough to get him to talk more about the essentials of green gadget design and his hopes for the future of electronics. Read his rapid-fire 5-question interview, and maybe change your mind about how our consumer electronics should be made.

You focus on post-industrial design. What exactly is that?
I first heard the phrase from my graduate advisor Jamer Hunt at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia (Jamer is now heading a cool new program at Parsons). Post-Industrial design is a play on words that tries to call out the inherent inadequacy of old-school industrial design techniques to create relevant products for a post-industrial world.

The industrial world was very top-down, centralized, GM and Phillip Morris. The post-industrial world is the opposite – bottom up, diffused. It has crowd-sourced car manufacturers (local motors), and dictators toppled by Facebook (Mubarek, et all). And, at the same time, the cheap energy, infinite environment, and insatiable market demand that drove industry’s growth have been replaced by peak oil, global warming, and credit crunches.

“Post-industrial designer” is profession that recognizes that both the game, and the playing field have changed, and the strategies must change as well.

bloom laptop photo

Image of Bloom Laptop via Autodesk

Where are we making the biggest design mistakes when it comes to recyclability of gadgets? Is it a problem with our gadget designs or with the recycling process or both?
I think it’s a bit of both, since the way things are put together informs how easily then can be taken apart. Currently, we actually spend a tremendous amount of time making electronic devices modular, because these complicated assemblies need re-use of modules (resistors, LEDs, ICs) across many different products, in order to gain economies of scale. These modules conform to common standards, and are more-or-less interchangeable (generally, the simpler the component, the easier it is to substitute).

However, most of the time we spend on designing modularity is based on the assumption that a near term low price is best, even if that results in lower long-term retained value. With the SSG [Skin-Skeleton-Guts] design framework, I’m trying to reverse this.

SSG components are designed not only to allow for mass production of their components (for low price) but also to allow re-use of meta-modules of these components — a graphics processor blade, or display screen blade, for example. Since customers can bring their blade-modules in to a retailer for re-mixing, rather than re-melting, the value that they paid for originally when they bought the device can be passed along toward the value of the next device.

I guess you could say that Skin-Skeleton-Guts is a design framework for preserving value in products throughout their life cycle.

Video: Muren on SSG Design

Are there any design concepts that get your thumbs up? For instance, the Bloom Laptop that can be taken apart in 45 seconds without any tools?
The Bloom is a cool idea – very much like Herman Miller chairs in its great design-for-disassembly mentality. But both of these systems are still built around the idea that we need to take things apart only so we can melt them down or grind them up. Re-using parts of your product calls for careful design of not only the parts, but the ecosystem you expect to build. I don’t see that happening in either model.

I suppose when Smart Cars originally touted removable panels which would allow users to change the color of their car in minutes might get closer to what I’m talking about — but I would rather that you could literally add on a back seat when you had kids, and beef up the engine when you retired and needed to tow a boat. Along the way, you never really bought a new car – you just did some pruning of your collection of parts. A better analogy might be a wardrobe: Who really ever buys all new clothes?

Instead, we modify a little at a time, replacing parts that wear out, of adding new pieces as our lifestyle changes. I needn’t point out that clothing is one of the few products manufactured in a distributed way, across the US, by small designer/manufacturers. Why can’t we have the same for electronics? How do we encourage designers to contribute to an ecosystem of pieces, rather than forcing users to buy entirely new clothes every few years?

electronics parts photo

Photo by davedehetre via Flickr Creative Commons

On your website you ask the question, “How can designers make low-cost products without factories?” Have you found an answer to this yet? Is it something we could accomplish on a large scale?
I’m currently working on around 15 techniques for low-tooling, small-scale manufacturing of durable, beautiful goods with low labor inputs (and thus, makeable anywhere in the world). I’m publishing my results on, and on the Humblefactory youtube channel. One of the most promising so far is a method for making bent bamboo furniture – chairs, tables, lamps — with a clean, modern aesthetic, and using only materials grown within my Seattle city block. These same materials – or analogs like them – are available anywhere in the world outside of the arctic.

Another project which is likely to bear some interesting fruit is a student research lab called The 100 Mile Design Challenge. The first two pilot classes are running simultaneously in Seattle and Baltimore (I’m collaborating with Inna Alesina at MICA). Students are required to develop a product that they can manufacture (make two copies of) using only materials and energy which could be sourced from within 100 miles of their city center. We have been awarded an exhibition space by ICFF, and will be exhibiting in New York in May. The initial results are pretty exciting – stay tuned.

In a TED talk you gave last year, you talk about making gadgets modular so that they can be easily hacked, upgraded and repaired. Do you see our electronics manufacturers shifting to this design perspective any time soon?
Well, actually no. Not because it’s not a good idea, but because it doesn’t make sense for these large companies to pursue this strategy. Economies of scale generally encourage production of more units of a given product, so only large market segments are good choices. At the same time, the centralization that comes with this sort of production discourages the high overhead cost of managing a diverse range of products targeted to many small user groups. Therefore, centralized production tends to favor fewer, more broadly appealing product offerings. Managing the thousands of combinations that come from just a few modules would be too much.

But I do think that many coordinated, decentralized, small manufacturers could make this model work. And, if the right infrastructure was in place to share specifications for useful collections of modules, then I suspect this global manufacturing network could produce designs which were better than any large centralized producer — because the local curator/designer of a product would be better able to match the needs of a local customer.

This Humblefactured future needs some development before we can expect it — new materials, new manufacturing methods, and new tools. But the exciting thing is, it can happen one bit at a time, and I think, eventually displace a significant amount of traditional manufacturing. In any case, the Humblefactory will be leading the charge.

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[Image by jurvetson]