The circular economy: design for disassembly

A pillar of modern construction, the idea of creating things with their end of life in mind is now making its way into the consumer products space.
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In construction and architecture, the idea of designing for deconstruction has been around for a little while. It refers to the process of building structures that can be taken apart, with the original materials and components being reused to maximize their lifespan. Now, designing for disassembly – or DfD – is becoming a factor in consumer-facing product design as well. 

Designing for disassembly or deconstruction is one of the ways that product developers are enabling a circular economy to take shape. Taking apart the original components of a product and reusing them – in either the same or a completely different product – has environmental benefits. It reduces reliance on virgin raw materials, as well as the energy needed to extract or mine them. If it's done well, designing for disassembly also essentially eliminates waste. For designers, conceptualizing a product with this philosophy in mind can inspire them to use better, longer-lasting materials that will hold beyond the product's immediate use. 

The economics of this product design method make sense, too: it drastically cuts down the cost of sourcing materials, since existing materials just need to be repurposed. But, from an operational standpoint, this can feel like a counterintuitive way of working. When designing buildings, for instance, it requires very careful planning and preparation from the full architectural, engineering and construction teams. Plans and responsibility for disassembly and deconstruction essentially have to be written out before the building is even up.  

A scaled-down version of this design method is also making its way into the footwear industry – the components in a sneaker, for example, can be taken apart at the end of its life, and they're then either recycled or reused in new sneakers. Take RUEI-01, a sneaker from product designer Maxwell Ashford. Each shoe comes with a digital tag in the form of a QR code, which, when scanned, shows complete information about the shoe's components. At the end of the shoe's lifespan, automated robots can take the shoe apart. Stella McCartney's Loop sneaker uses interlocking fasteners instead of glue to attach the sole to the upper, which makes disassembly easier, while Adidas' Futurecraft.Loop is made using only one material for all the components, making recycling much easier.   

Aside from footwear, designing for disassembly is also taking off in other industries. In Japan, high-fashion brand YUIMA NAKAZATO launched Type-1 earlier this year, a line of 3D-printed clothing that is free of stitches. Instead, each component of a garment is bound together with small snap fasteners. Utah-based snowboard brand Niche has created a way to dissolve the bio-resins it uses for its boards, ensuring that none of the components used in manufacturing end up in landfill. And, although electronics can be notoriously difficult to disassemble, AIAIAI, an audio equipment manufacturer in Copenhagen, is starting to make some headway: the design team plans to design speaker units that only require one type of screwdriver to disassemble and repair, and implement that across the full AIAIAI product line. 

It’s not easy or quick for a business to switch up its production process to accommodate for disassembly, though. ‘With footwear, your supply chain is all over the place,’ says Daniel Bailey, founder and director of the footwear research studio Conceptkicks. ‘A lot of the brands doing this are more vertically integrated than most.’ 

In other words, it’s likely that the brands that are able to invest in disassembly have much more control over their supply chains, from material sourcing to manufacturing, than a smaller brand typically would. Another way to ensure that disassembled products are definitely repurposed is to offer them up to other companies and product designers. For instance, Rotor Deconstruction is a co-operative based in Brussels that trades disassembled and salvaged building components.  

As Daniel points out, changing a supply chain or manufacturing process to accommodate for disassembly and waste management can take some time. Here are some pointers to consider when setting up this design method for your brand.

• Material quality. Is the material strong enough to hold once it has been disassembled? For sanitary and safety purposes, can it be disassembled?

• Ease. How difficult is it to disassemble the product into individual components? Would it be less energy-intensive to just throw it away? 

• Fastenings. Glue can make disassembly challenging, while clever fastenings can speed up the process. Check out Resortecs, a thread that dissolves at high temperatures. 

• Tech enablement. Do individual components need to be labeled and tracked to ensure they are effectively reused? Will this information be stored on a system?

• Responsibility. Once the components have been separated, whose responsibility is it to make sure they are repurposed? If it's down to the end consumer to bring a product back to the brand for disassembly, how will they know what to do? 

This article was first published in Courier issue 44, December 2021/January 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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