Many electronics aren’t designed for recycling or repair—I’m writing this on an old MacBook Pro with proprietary screws that make it hard to open, and inside, the battery is glued to the case and blocking more screws needed to access other parts. But manufacturers are beginning to rethink their designs to make it possible to extend the longevity of their products instead of just throwing them out when one part breaks. In a new proof-of-concept, Dell shows how a laptop can be optimized for the circular economy.
“We’re already looking at how we repair and refurbish our products,” says Drew Tosh, design development manager at Dell, which aims to redesign all of its products for circularity by the end of the decade. “But really, as we started bringing up this concept of ‘design for harvest,’ where we can, in essence, easily disassemble and claim back [parts] . . . the second life of products was kind of the key tenet.”
The prototype design, called Concept Luna, starts by reducing the size and number of components that are needed. The display has fewer layers. The motherboard, one of the parts of a computer that takes the most energy to manufacture, is 75% smaller, with fewer parts. As the designers brainstormed how to improve the computer’s fan, they realized that they could eliminate the need for it completely: By moving the small motherboard from the base of the laptop to the display, it’s exposed to more air, and can stay cool without a fan. The more efficient design also means that it requires a smaller battery, and should last twice as long, so it can later be reused. All of the changes help cut the product’s carbon footprint roughly in half.
When an internal part needs a repair or the computer eventually needs to be recycled, everything can easily be taken apart. Accessing the inside requires removing just four screws, 10 times fewer than a comparable product. Just two screws hold up the display. Tosh compares the design to the keystones used in architecture, stones at the top of an arch that hold the rest together. The main assemblies of the display and the keyboard “lock everything into place,” he says. “And so with just two screws, we get all the fixing that we need, instead of adding 50 or so many screws to hold everything together in a robust way.” The keyboard easily pops out, if just the keyboard requires fixing (an issue that has plagued some recent Apple laptops).
For the companies that Dell partners with to refurbish computers, it could mean saving an hour and a half on disassembly time, and saving money. It also means that if one part breaks and the rest of the product has more life, customers could more easily make repairs themselves. “We try to incentivize that,” Tosh says. “We’re making it so easy. We’re going to send you parts—it will take 10 minutes to take the screws out, remove the keystone, and put back your keyboard. . . . So they will be much more likely to keep using that product instead of looking for a new one.” (Apple recently reversed a long-standing position against repairability, allowing iPhone owners to make some repairs themselves without voiding their warranties.)
The design includes other innovations, such as a printed circuit board that’s made with plant-based fiber instead of plastic and uses water-soluble glue. When recyclers place the board in water, it can dissolve so they can easily access the valuable metals on the board.
Dell isn’t likely to bring this particular product to market. But as it tests the prototypes that it made, the team will decide which features can move forward on new models. The cutting-edge motherboard, Tosh says, will take more time, but the “keystone” design with fewer screws could be implemented quickly. Other design teams, working under tight time and budget constraints, can’t explore the same possibilities as the conceptual project.
“Luna is just a way of taking kind of all the most advanced things and trying to show you what the power of the possible is,” says Page Motes, global head of sustainability at Dell. “And then those will spin off to future products.”