Thinking of our carbon economy again, what can we do to solve our waste problem? How about by being less wasteful and more efficient? How about repairing rather than replacing?
It used to be that we repaired by preference, but now it’s all about disposal and recycling and repairing is simply “old fashioned”. But recycling has an energy cost, and probably a larger one than repairing (it’s an assumption, but without doing some analysis how would we know?). And disposal means replacement – we get another one. It may be made from a higher proportion of recycled materials but it still had to be made. So how did we get here?
Well it’s standard practice now, and has increasingly been so since post-WWII. It’s taught. It’s how we think. This is modern manufacturing practice. By constantly trimming the cost of production and making a “better” product we sell more, and fewer come back for repair. The consumer gets a cheaper, better product and can get an updated, even better one, sooner (it’s a self-perpetuating feedback loop). At its heart the practice involves reducing the time spent assembling a product and cutting out wasted time and materials. Now you can also shift the assembly to the customer, a la IKEA, or you can incrementally redesign and “modularise” as much as you can (a la Toyota et al). And the latter method is very, very popular.
Now I have no real problem with the IKEA model, although I do wonder how many people simply give up on self-assembly or waste time and money taking it back; or – worse still – bringing someone else in to “fix” it. With the Toyota (or Deming, or Lean-influenced) model I have greater concerns. Perhaps in some instances – services, for example – it makes wholistic sense, but I do question the overall saving when applied to a manufactured product.
In this ‘lean’ manufacturing example a pre-configured module is just ‘plugged in’. It’s simple to install and less “wasteful” in terms of time, as well as dumbing-down the skill level required (thus cheapening the labour cost). It opens up assembly to more robotised processes, too, and designs-in less room for error. So you get a better, more reliable and cheaper product. Sounds good so far. However one issue with this highly modularised production process is that we end up with one module incorporating many functions. So when one function eventually fails you have to replace the whole module. That may mean replacing a headlight module instead of a bulb, for example, or in extremis it may force you to install an entirely new gearbox when you strip a gear. So repairs become more expensive, or simply impossible.
With cars (to cite just one example) becoming ever cheaper via streamlined, lower cost manufacturing and assembly and parts becoming individually more expensive (plus labour to fit) it becomes more likely (as time and problems mount up) that you’ll simply get a new car and write off the old one. Which is of course only increasing demand for the less-repairable car and further lowering the cost (ensuring that the trend continues). Now that sounds fine if all we want is to eternally sell more cars, which the manufacturers certainly do, but is it sustainable, or even desirable for our community?
If we look far enough ahead we get dirt-cheap disposable cars for everyone. Whether they have petrol, diesel or electric motors doesn’t matter, they’ll be everywhere. And we’ll throw them away like cheap MP3 players when one highly modularised function dies. Perhaps that’s good, since we’ll have the latest and greatest updates (including safety features, although we only get the safety features the manufacturers want us to have) whenever we want them. But if it’s not good overall – for our society or the planet – then we need to rethink the balance between mass production and disposal/recycling/repairability. And find a way to reverse our current direction.
What we have really done (by focusing on least-cost manufacturing) is move the “waste” from the manufacturing process onto the consumer. So the upfront cost looks low, but the real cost is well and truly to be paid later. If you have safety concerns about an “old” product fleet, fine, there may be other ways to ‘update’ a product without re-manufacturing the whole product (look at the computer software market, for example). It comes back to innovation, rather than simply cost-effective manufacture.
Re-introducing some repairability may cost something, but it may also save us from ourselves.