Five key sustainability considerations for product designers

Five key sustainability considerations for product designers

October 31, 2022
Smart thinking on sustainable product design can cut costs as well as reduce environmental impacts.

Smart thinking on sustainable product design can cut costs as well as reduce environmental impacts.

Every business using plastics and electronics knows it needs to do better on sustainability. TG0, which uses both, is no exception. This means we’re constantly looking at new ways to help our clients do better on sustainability, through smarter product design.

Here are five things designers should consider when creating more sustainable electronic products.

1. Material choices

Ocean plastics and the climate change agenda mean there’s increasing scrutiny on material usage within popular products. Brands are therefore examining two possibilities; replacing raw materials with more sustainable or bio-based alternatives and using materials which are more easily re-used or recycled.  

TG0 often uses both plastics and electronics in its solutions, and like our peers, we are acutely aware of the need to improve on sustainability. Looking across the plastics industry, improvements in material use include incorporating more Post-Consumer (recycled) Resin, replacing plastics with biological components such as those derived from sugar cane, lightweighting (reducing the amount of raw plastics used to create the product – and therefore also saving costs), or choosing plastic types that are easier to recycle or more likely to be recycled.

Material choices also play a large part in sustainable electronics design and can play into improving ease of repairability and extending battery lifecycles. Companies like Google and Amazon also incorporate more recycled metals into consumer goods.

But it’s not just the type of materials being used that needs to be considered; combinations of materials should also be analysed. Reducing the variety of materials can make items easier to dismantle and recycle, or allow them to be disposed of in a more environmentally-friendly manner. Designers should also be thinking carefully about material finishes such as films and sprays, and whether masterbatch polymer colours and mould finishes are better alternatives.

At TG0 we are always looking for partners to help with our recycled material content, as well as cutting weight and reducing materials complexity from our designs.

2. Manufacturing choices

True sustainability means examining the full ‘cradle-to-grave’ lifecycle of products, rather than just whether a product can be recycled at end-of-life. Optimising the manufacturing steps needed for producing a part can have a big impact, by reducing emissions from factories and transportation.

As an example, TG0 technology integrates the production of the aspect material with our patented sensors, which reduces the number of parts and materials needed to embed sensing capabilities in a product. This cuts manufacturing waste and energy consumption during production and assembly.  

However, we are still looking to improve in this area. As the trend of streamlined manufacturing and functions integration in products continues, we will be exploring reversible joining methods for double-shot injections, or reversible bonding/welding processes to easily separate materials of a different nature.  

Designers need to think carefully, beyond prototype to mass production, to see if it’s possible to create the same product in a more streamlined, more sustainable fashion.

3. Ease of disassembly

Recycling is only one aspect of end-of-life sustainability. The full lifecycle approach means we must also design products for ease of disassembly. This is especially important for electronic products, as they are typically made from a variety of materials that do not belong to the same ‘cycles’ e.g. metals and plastics.

All TG0 products integrate electronics hardware with plastic parts as our plastic-based sensors need to produce a stable and resilient connection with the printed circuit board (PCB) in which the electronics are hosted. We always strive to use reversible connectors that allow for the disassembly of the parts and minimise the type of connectors in a single product.

Our VR controller etee is a great example. The main body of the controller is composed of two parts that slot together without fasteners, and then our sensor is wrapped around it. Once this part is assembled, the PCB with the electrical connections to the sensing materials slides in place. The friction between the PCB and the sensor material produces a stable connection without the need for additional connectors. An aspect skin is then assembled on top and the handle is attached. This means all parts are made of different materials and can be easily assembled and disassembled.

4. Design for repairability and product upgrading

Several industries, most notably fashion, are moving to a longer-life or reusable model. Consumer goods product designers are now thinking of ease of repair, rather than ease of replacement.  

This is a complex subject. Today, a lot of our everyday products are extremely difficult to repair, or repairing them is so complex and costly that replacement is an easier option. We have developed a throwaway culture rather than a repair culture. With legislation being introduced to cut waste and e-waste, it’s now the responsibility of brands, designers and manufacturers to enable repairability and product upgrading.

In a world in which all companies are moving towards digitalisation and software is the ultimate product ‘upgrade’ it makes sense for the hardware and electronics to be accessed easily and repaired to last longer. The software can also enable detection of malfunctions that can be logged in the cloud, with notifications sent to manufacturers.

5. Legislation

In an ideal world consumer demands alone would be enough to spur brands into action. But competitive considerations and shareholders demanding short-term returns mean some brands are not transitioning to more sustainable processes as fast as they could be.

That’s where governments come in. A wave of legislation, circular economic planning and new initiatives for waste disposal is gathering pace. Product designers need to stay on top of and even predict, the changing regulatory environment, if they are to keep their businesses within the law, long-term.

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