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You should consider designing for disassembly. Here's why.

What if we told you that engineers and designers can help tackle climate change?

At Ronin Product Development Labs, our team of engineers, designers, and project managers meet each week to talk about this very subject. Philosophical mindset changes. Business model changes. Process changes. Behavior changes. We are committed to examining, learning, and sharing the myriad, complex ways we might be able to move the dial for the betterment of both people and planet.

We’ve realized that one way we can make a big impact today is to design for disassembly.

Why design for disassembly?

To answer that, we first need to talk about what’s currently happening to product waste in the United States. It is either composted, recycled into materials that are reused, sent to a waste-to-energy facility (for incineration and conversion into usable energy), or sent to a landfill.

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This graph from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shows us that while over the past several decades a larger proportion of our waste is being recycled or composted, the amount we are sending to landfills is higher than ever. Plastic waste is a particular problem. Only 9% of plastic waste is recycled. The vast majority of discarded plastics (79 %) is accumulating in landfills or polluting the natural environment as litter.

It's not that consumers don't want to recycle. In fact, this article talks about how in the 1990s recycling became a major cultural phenomenon in the US. The problem is "wishful recycling." Many, many products people put into recycling bins are simply not recyclable. There is a limit to what the humans and machines at materials recovery facilities can do to separate discarded items like plastic film, extension cords, car parts, and large electronics.

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We see a future where every product can be taken apart. Where consumers can fix their own products. Where materials can easily be properly recycled or composted.

Products that are designed for disassembly will have a reduced environmental impact by making it unnecessary to acquire and process raw materials. They will keep materials out of landfills. And, they will make us more considerate of the products we make and inspire us to think deeply about how the products we use affect the environment and our health.

What is design for disassembly?

It's when products are designed intentionally for:

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The thing is, you've already seen it in action.  Steel floss containers. Bicycles. Electric fans. Clocks. There are plenty of examples of design for disassembly in recent history.

Design for disassembly is not a new trend, it's just been forgotten.

Before the fast paced, highly efficient, modern manufacturing techniques we know of today, consumer purchasing was quite different. Families saved up for large purchases to buy products that lasted, in some cases, their whole lifetime. These products could be repaired and even disassembled. And, while these folks generally owned less, they attributed more value to what they had.

Today, many underserved communities still repair products and when they can no longer repair they disassemble to extract the most valuable components. Why isn't this still commonplace? Because today many of us can get cheap products quickly. Even the most financially fragile can own something shiny and new. Labor to repair items became cost prohibitive compared to mass manufacturing these shiny new products. Repair shops started disappearing. Companies leveraged planned obsolescence programs. And wasteful consumer behavior was set in stone as younger generations, not knowing any better, came to prominence as the main purchasing power of these devices.

How can companies get started?

The great news is that design for disassembly doesn't have to be costly. When we simplify a design so it can be easily disassembled, it tends to reduce the number of components, the complexity of molds and the overall cost of materials. When you allow complex products to be easily separated into their individual materials and components they can then be reprocessed via resource recovery methods. These materials are more pure and thus more valuable. That value can be put back into the manufacturing process or sold on the open market.

Companies can get started today by simplifying disassembly.

Product developers can reduce the number of parts, minimize the number of unique materials, reduce fasteners in favor of built-in snaps, avoid using hazardous materials, eliminate coatings and adhesives, use commonly recycled materials (and add recycling codes to parts for easy identification). To ensure a successful implementation of these techniques, designers must consider several guidelines:

  1. Product architecture, design of its components, used fasteners and type of used material.
  2. End-of-life (EOL) destination for each component i.e. whether it will be recycled, reused or landfilled
  3. Revenue from each component based on its EOL destination.
  4. Cost of labor for the disassembly process.
  5. Cost of disposal of factory waste from each step in the disassembly process.
  6. The resultant profit from every single step in the disassembly process.
  7. Effect of every single step in the disassembly process: which tools are used, how much force is applied, and how much time it takesBarrier to adoption by consumer (effort to return goods) or manufacturer (effort to create a properly supporting ecosystem).

But design for disassembly is not solely the responsibility of the product development team. Collaboration between design, supply chain, and material recovery partners are key to making it successful.

Customer experience managers can get creative about making these products economically viable. They can provide disassembly instructions to consumers, encourage self-repairs, or inspire product hacking with how-to videos. Price increases may be justified through sustainability-focused marketing messages that feature transparent pricing. They can sell replacement parts to their same customer base, or identify and share easily-accessible vendors who do. They can establish company-run or a partner network of accessible repair shops. They can establish a take-back program for the end of the product's life.

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If this seems impossible, it isn't. Companies large and small, legacy and new, have worked design for disassembly into their business models, from Herman Miller to Fairphone to Baratza (a coffee grinder company). And just recently, Apple pleasantly surprised the world by announcing their Self Service Repair program, which will give consumers access to Apple parts, tools, and manuals for select products.

It’s about the user too.

Design for disassembly empowers users to buy better. When we make the decision to buy a product that was designed for disassembly, we are given the agency to tinker, to customize, and to live a little more consciously. Children have always loved taking things apart to see how they work. And, young people today are more eco-conscious than ever. Let’s instill a sense of purpose in every product they purchase.

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If you'd like to learn more, there are many resources you can explore: there's this disassembly map by TU Delft, this introduction to the circular economy by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, and this Material ConneXion webinar featuring myself, Mardis Bagley (Creative Director, Nonfiction & Professor of Sustainable Design, California Institute of the Arts), and Jennifer Gumpert (VP of Business Development and Operations, Material ConneXion).

Thank you for reading; more to come.

About the author: Dan Kennedy is a Studio Principal and Partner at Ronin Product Development Labs, an international engineering consulting firm with a strong presence in the San Francisco Bay Area. With over 20 years of product development experience and driven by a strong passion for creative collaboration, Dan leads Ronin’s sustainable design team whose focus is on developing circular economy solutions for a diverse range of clients in areas including consumer electronics, waste stream recovery, and renewable energy.

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