Go for green

UK manufacturing can gain cost benefits using ‘clean design’. Tom Shelley reports on examples where this has been proved

It is possible to both design and manufacture products which will be more environmentally friendly and cheaper in Britain.

These products can then either be sold at prices which compete with the Far East or at higher price levels than their current market dictates.

The evidence for this comes from case studies and advice available from a Government organisation which has just re-launched itself.

The same conclusions can be reached by anyone applying brainstorming methods to existing products, especially electrical equipment, made to old designs currently manufactured using the cheaper labour available in certain parts of the Far East.

The Environmental Technology Best Practice Programme has just renamed itself, Envirowise. Sponsored by the DTI and the Department of the Environment, and managed by AEA Technology and NPL Management, it aims to reduce waste and, at the same time, encourage UK firms to become more profitable.

Richard Swannell of Envirowise, speaking in Birmingham said: "Good environmental practice should save money. The best approach is to minimise waste at source. 1 per cent of turnover is usually very easy to save, amounting to around 1,000 per employee per year. The true cost of waste is often ten times the cost of disposal, or about 4 per cent of turnover."

Envirowise, however, is much more than just thinking of ways of saving waste. Much more importantly, it is about re-thinking in terms of ‘clean design’ – products requiring less effort and materials to make; using less resources during their lifetime, those that are more easily recycled when they come to the end of their lives; and hopefully sell for more money.

One of the ways Envirowise encourages eco-friendly design is to organise brain storming workshops. One, advised by Peter Evans from Sony UK, was attended by Eureka. Some of the outcomes were dramatic (see boxes). All the studied products were cheap to purchase, all appeared to have been made somewhere unidentified in the Far East and all begged for re-design in terms of improved manufacture, functionality, performance and ease of recycling. In each case, having refined the design and function, the group concluded that it should be possible to manufacture a much improved product in the UK for about the same price as the one made in the Far East – and then sell it for a higher price.

Anyone who doubts that better and more eco-friendly products command a higher price should look, among others, the Dyson range of vacuum cleaners, which do away with bags and do their job quicker and the latest digital cameras which do away with film and chemical processing.

Anyone who thinks they do not need to worry about future recycling of products should pay attention to the EU’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive. Compulsory electrical product recycling is scheduled to come into force in the UK in September 2003.

Workshop case 1: The electric jug kettle

The workshop group studying an electric jug kettle went beyond improving the existing kettle to re-thinking what a jug kettle is supposed to do.

What is the point, they asked, of boiling two litres of water to make a cup of coffee when only a small quantity is required?

What is required, they decided, is something completely different, with an adjustable thermostat, which has less thermal mass and is capable of efficiently heating only one cup full of water at a time. All agreed that Russell Hobbs had set a good example in jug kettle innovation by introducing low thermal mass, thick-film disk heating elements and thermal colour changing to indicate temperature, but felt that there was still room for further advancement and innovation.

Workshop case 2: The clock radio

The two-part plastic case (neither part marked to indicate material for recycling) was joined by four screws. The Sony expert advised us that these could be replaced by plastic tabs one screw. Inside, there were three printed circuit boards, secured by 16 screws and populated by around 100 old fashioned discrete components.

The team agreed that using a modern integrated circuit plus radio receiver chip should allow a reduction to one PCB secured by plastic snap posts. It should be possible to do away with the heavy power transformer by adopting more power efficient electronics. The coil wound loudspeaker could be replaced by a piece of piezoelectric material or the latest idea in audio, a transducer attached to the case, making it act as a sounding board – an innovation invented by DERA, now being marketed by PDD in Fulham. The mechanical push buttons should be replaced by sealed membrane switches, increasing useful life while reducing unit cost.

Having reduced size and weight by one half and two thirds respectively, it should be possible to mould the product in a more interesting and exciting shape, allowing it to be sold at a higher price. The re-designed product could be expected to use greatly reduced resources both to make and to run, cost less and be easier to recycle. It was also suggested that if the electronics were more efficient, it might be possible to power the unit using a solar cell and an internal, rechargeable battery, sufficient to give at least one hour’s full volume sound once a day, with a second rechargeable battery to keep track of the time, doing away with the need for a plug and power cable.

Real world case: Electronic redesign saves time and trouble

A data logger interface unit has been significantly redesigned both to help protect the environment and save cost.

Steve Scarlett, technical manager of Crawford Hansford and Kimber, in Farnborough, explains how it greatly simplified fixings, reduced assembly time and eliminated more than 90 per cent of the lead content.

"In the original assembly, we used 12 screws, plus 5 spacers and washers to mount the PCBs. In the redesign, we mounted the PCBs in grooves in the insides of enclosures and on plastic turrets. We then only needed 8 screws and no spacers and no washers."

Lead was mostly eliminated by going over to PCBs coated in silver alloy by the ‘Sterling’ silver process instead of lead/tin solder. PCB makers Eurotech, of Plymouth and Exeter, find that since it changed its technology, it has eliminated the costs associated with disposal of toxic effluent. The new process allows recovery of copper from the waste etchant, yielding a small cash return, while leaving a clean effluent which can safely be flushed away.

Real world case: Recycled furniture joined without waste

Andrew Mitchell, managing director of Avad furniture, in Yorkshire, is making high quality furniture from waste wood without using glues or metal fixings.

The firm obtains its raw material from demolished wooden barns and used packing crates. The joining method is tensioned steel wire secured by cone-shaped pieces of wood. A life cycle assessment study indicates that the company’s products have a 40 per cent lower environmental impact than its competitors while selling at a premium price.

Design Pointers

Redesigning products to make them more environmentally friendly can usually be expected to reduce costs at the same time

Exciting products can be value engineered to eliminate unnecessary fastenings, multiple materials and discrete, old fashioned, power hungry electronic components

Rethinking function can often lead to new and innovative products

Better and innovative products can be expected to sell at premium prices, allowing greater profits

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