Product manufacturing processes have come a long way. What once had to be done by hand one at a time could then be done in batches with specialized labor and machines, improving productivity exponentially. Of course, the traditional manufacturing process is about turning inputs into outputs, where you knew what your output was going to be far in advance and could prepare your inputs and processes accordingly. Recent trends in sustainability and going green are redefining the product lifecycle, and manufacturing companies need to be able to adapt their business and processes or risk falling behind.
So what exactly do we mean when we say “going green”? The first thing that comes to mind when you think of green products are those created from sustainably sourced, easily recyclable or biodegradable materials. Though undoubtedly an important consideration when designing and manufacturing a product, that’s not what we’re getting at here. Here in 2016, we consider products to be green if they don’t need to be replaced or recycled in the first place.
So what does that look like?
Think about a typical consumer electronic product like an iPhone. It’s purchased, used for a certain period of time (say, 1-3 years), becomes outdated, and is replaced with a newer version. The older version is thrown out, recycled with various degrees of effectiveness, and ends up in a landfill. This process is incredibly inefficient and has led to millions of tons of so-called e-waste building up in US landfills every year.
Now let’s consider a green product. Green products are ever-changing. A great contrast to the iPhone is Google’s Project Ara, a completely modular smartphone that allows users to swap components out easily to customize the functionality and aesthetics of their phone. The key here is that these components can also be used to increase the phone’s performance as technology improves. As a result of its modular nature the e-waste footprint of these devices is drastically reduced and it remains in the end-users hands for significantly longer than a typical phone.
So now that you’ve seen the impact of pursuing a philosophy of reusability and modularity in product design, let’s discuss how that affects the manufacturing processes needed to turn those designs into reality.
Build for the Future
For starters, you want to try and build a product that is actually capable of being modified in the long-term. This involves a set of questions on what the future of the product may hold, such as:
- How much electrical and computing power is it going to need?
- How many component updates would a typical owner make? Would certain types of users use different components? How do you accommodate those different users?
- Will any foreseeable changes to the product in the future modify its functionality? How?
- Do you expect there will be any third-party interactions with this product such as apps, specialized components, etc.? How do you best approach that?
Ultimately, thinking this through will both give you ideas on how to evolve the product further as well help you develop a strong base-product that consumers will want to own.
This new paradigm changes the relationship between the product manufacturer and designer drastically. Previously, the designer would send the specifications to the manufacturer and the manufacturer would execute on those specifications. With an evolving product, this is no longer the case. The nature of these products requires a lot of flexibility and openness on the part of the manufacturer, and choosing the right product manufacturing company is critical.
This means that an ideal green product manufacturer should:
- Have an open line of communication.
- Be capable of rapid prototyping.
- Have significant design and engineering expertise.
- Be comfortable with long-term, scalable production arrangements.
- Be able to quickly ramp up production to address new opportunities.
- Be able to product small and large batches of products in parallel.
These concerns are critical to keep in mind, as a manufacturer that can’t deliver in these areas could fail in creating the components needed quickly enough to have the product take off and start its extended lifecycle.
When designing and manufacturing these products, user friendliness should be a key concern. This applies not only to how the consumer uses the product, but how the product is maintained and updated as well. For example, this could mean:
- Software or firmware updates install automatically or with minimal hassle.
- Components should attach and detach easily.
- Damaged components shouldn’t affect other components.
- Components can be placed in different orientations or positions.
Remember, these design modifications will be carried out by your customers, rather than highly trained workers or specialized machines. Focus testing to ensure prototype components are simple to install is crucial.
Going back to our earlier comparison, planning out the production of the iPhone is much easier than planning out the production of Google’s Project Ara or its components.
Apple has a good idea of how many iPhones it will sell, and can manufacture enough of them to fill demand (well… most of the time). They only have one key product to put together, and when they’ve produced the required quantity of that version they move to the next version.
Let’s contrast that again with Project Ara. Google can produce the base plate – which includes the phone, touch screen, cpu and basic sensors – to fill initial demand much like an iPhone, but then they have other problems. They then need to understand what demand is going to look like for a dozen different component types. How many users are going to want powerful speakers? How many will want a weather display? A camera?
These are questions only extensive market research can answer, so you have to have both ears to the ground and have a solid understanding of what your customers are looking for and plan your production lines accordingly.
Evolving Technology is the Future
As green evolving products slowly become the norm these issues will iron out. However, for those who can get ahead of the curve and tackle these challenges head-on the advantages are enormous.
Choosing the right product manufacturing company is critical in this, so choose wisely!