Friday, 19 September 2014
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Creating a fad-free gadget

I’m not good at fixing things. It’s not easy to admit that to the very capable readership of The Engineer but I’m someone who’s much more comfortable with a pen than a screwdriver in his hands. And unfortunately I’m probably not in the minority.

Replacing broken appliances and electronic items when they could be repaired wastes energy and resources, even if it is good for our economy in the short term. But it’s not just the case that most people lack the skills to carry out repairs themselves; many products today aren’t designed to be fixed at all, or cost so little to produce that it’s cheaper just to replace them.

The rapid advance of technology together with our consumer culture also creates a constant demand for new products that can carry out exciting new functions, making items bought just a couple of years ago seem obsolete, even if they’re still in good working order.

So what if there were a way to upgrade our computers and appliances without having to buy completely new models? What if our gadgets were seen as items that would last a lifetime and always be desirable rather than disposable and brutally subject to fashion?

These questions were raised by a recent Sony-led brainstorming project designed to generate ideas about how technology might help make our lifestyles more sustainable in decades to come.

By examining the potential problems and advances we will face in years to come, the Futurescapes project came up with the idea of creating a single multi-functional device kept over a lifetime that would have emotional value as well as being technologically up-to-date.

‘The concept is in two parts. One is that it needs to be modular and upgradeable, not only the hardware but also the software,’ said Rodrigo Bautista from Engage by Design, the agency that led the concept development.

‘The second bit was to imagine a device in the future would not only be your mobile phone. It will be something you can project with onto a screen, give you entertainment and at the same time communicate to the rest of the world.’

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Is it possible to design a gadget that wouldn’t go out of fashion? Engage by Design’s vision of how Wandular might look.

Bautista admitted that developing the technology to create a device that can be continually upgraded would require a lot of research and development. In fact the concept name – “Wandular,” a combination of “wand” and “modular” ­– seems apt as you might need a bit of magic to build one.

But actually, technology is already moving towards some of these ideas. Mobile phones now play music, connect to the internet, take photos and can even be used to pay for goods. It’s not hard to imagine a future where we don’t carry keys or cash, just our smartphones.

And although we replace our gadgets as faster processors and smaller memory chips are developed, we are increasingly relying on internet cloud services to not only store our data but also carry out functions of our computers such as voice-powered search. If we can use the cloud for processing as well as storing data it will reduce the need for us to have the latest chip in our phones, perhaps making upgrading them easier and cheaper.

But another problem is the business model. How would this idea impact a firm like Sony, which like all electronics companies relies on products becoming obsolete so their customers will buy new ones?

‘One of the things that came out of [Futurescapes] is that a device like Wandular is still an evolving device,’ said Chris Clifton, Sony’s chief technology officer of semiconductor and electronic solutions.

‘It’s not that this device necessarily exists in one point in time and doesn’t change, but you can see that the way that it would change would be different, it would be by hardware and software plugins.’

‘“We don’t know” is the honest answer because this is a concept and really we want to open this up to get views from others. But I think within the electronics industry as a whole, looking at how business models evolve is something we’re used to.’

One possibility is that companies sell subscriptions instead of charging up front for a product. We already do this with our mobile phones and people are increasingly paying for cloud services.

For us to move towards a more sustainable model of consuming technology requires more than just advances in the equipment itself. It needs a massive culture shift where people are prepared to pay for something that will last. Especially in a difficult economy, this seems like a huge challenge that is unlikely to be overcome any time soon.

But perhaps the Wandular concept itself could help drive this. If we can create technology that is more easily upgradeable – and repairable – then throwing things away might seem like a much worse idea.


Readers' comments (11)

  • I’m not convinced that “Replacing broken appliances and electronic items when they could be repaired wastes energy and resources” is quite the bad thing that it is painted. Instead or repairing or designing products with longevity (that will most likely be superseded fundamentally in the future anyway) why not have engineers work out how to develop energy systems that head towards guilt free ‘unlimited energy (fusion – or others as, yet not thought of).

    Also instead of making the problem individuated &personal (ie apply guilt through ‘over consumption) – why not invest more effort in Industrialising recycling (through automation, chemistry, biological processes etc.) As we develop it is good that technologies have shorted life spans and are replaced rapidly. Why should we have substandard, suboptimal devices, processes and technologies? I have no problem with service type payment – but let engineers still have the option to come up with forward looking ‘grand solutions’ instead of being held back by so called ‘sustainable’ thinking.

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  • PC's, software and the continuous upgrade merry-go-round are the perfect examples why this will never work - there are too many commerial interests at stake. Just look at MS Office - do you think the average Office 2010 user really DOES use any more functionality than already existed in Office '97? We DON'T need more bells and whistles !!

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  • How about doing something now rather than talking about future.

    Get those companies release service information to the public. this would be good for UK economy since we do not make things much any more, and increase life span of those products will help UK export deficit.

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  • Sometimes it's just down to plain old marketing on. Engineering, especially consumer lead products, has unfortunately become more like the fashion business!

    Good for the suppliers bad for the customers and the planet.

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  • We already have plenty of gadgets that are permanent. Once they evolve to a point where they've reached the peak of their usefulness, people only buy them to replace them. Take, for example, the tumbler door lock and keys. They have been around for an awfully long time and are only replaced when they're broken. A person can carry a pocket knife around for a lifetime. Or a bed or table. Electronics are evolving so rapidly that they have not reached their optimum level of usefulness where they can do that (yet). A person used to keep a camera for decades. Now cameras are virtually obsolete. TVs also. The rapid evolution of this technology is what creates this. The phone has already replaced the camera, the video recorder, the telephone, the note pad, the calender, and the wrist watch. That is significant. The evolution of electronics technology is actually, believe it or not, still in its infancy. Nobody knows where it's going, but it will continue to evolve and new innovations will continue to replace old. The cell phone is basically just rented at a high cost with a contract in place.

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  • My mobile phone is just that, a phone, no camera, no internet, do not even text. Why must we be lumbered with things we do not want, just because fashion has been driven by commercial need/greed.

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  • It is quite telling that the epitome of this fashion obsolescent gadgetry is also the epitome of lack of maintainability.
    Apple equipment has neither manual, service info or even the most basic ability to replace the battery (well , not officially).
    Nobody got rich making the everlasting lightbulb. (Philips Q lamp!)

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  • Businesses + Lobbyists + Politicians = This will never work!

    The only things that will allow this to work are:

    1. Standards.
    2. Regulation.

    There are some standards, e.g. USB, where there is significant consumer demand.

    However to have the whole device upgradable you will run into the business lobbyists.

    In order for there not to be a monopoly, there would have to be a standard.

    In order for it to be used by everyone it would need to be regulated.

    This would then need to be applied world wide to be effective.

    The businesses will play the 'stifles innovation' card and that will be the end of it.

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  • I usually bang on about consumerism being a key problem when there's an article about "green" cars. Perhaps I should just become a consultant - I'd be minted on the basis of this.

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  • An intersting idea to 'try' & promote sustainability of products but when there is the potential 'problem' of tin whiskers by using lead free solders this could cut the life expectancy of a product.For example one can still use 40 year old camera lenses on modern body's but the new lenses with in built electronincs a 10year recyle point.

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