edited by Emily R. Pellerin
Where We've Been and Where We're Going Design for Disassembly is a powerful tool (as well as a powerful mindset) for bringing measurable sustainability to the lifecycle of a product. It prioritizes repair, allows an object's components to be reclaimed, and it can prepare an object for the circular economy.
Over the past few months, I have walked through how our best Design for Disassembly (DfD) solutions might be discovered by looking towards the past. In debunking the knee-jerk reaction that newer is better, we see how, in the making methods of craft-based and indigenous cultures, we often find sophisticated, elegant, and more holistic design solutions that were at some point eradicated (or at least tossed aside) in the name of progress.
I've walked you through how to audit your own designs to see what materials and processes can be redesigned for DfD. Whether you're working at a startup scale like Sabai Design, or an international scale like IKEA, this is the clearest way to holistically assess the sustainability of your objects.
Lest you're still concerned that this is a nice theory but not realistic in practice, some of the world's leading companies are already implementing DfD as a key component of their path to circularity.
Who all is working in this realm, and how are they approaching it to satisfy not only ecological but also economical realities? I've talked with a handful of thinkers and designers, from a surprising spattering of industries, to tap how they are exploring Design for Disassembly in their respective fields – and to uncover how their work might be a model for your own designs.
Hay's Arbour Eco sofa by Daniel Rybakken's and Andreas Engesvik
Hay's Arbour Eco Sofa is a collaborative effort between designers Daniel Rybakken and Andreas Engesvik. It is Hay's first furniture to be awarded the "Nordic Swan" ecolabel, the official sustainability certification system of Nordic countries, which signifies that a product meets tough requirements for chemicals, and use of energy and resources, through its entire life cycle.
Rather than using layers and layers of cushioning with many types of foams, Hay stripped their design down to only a handful of materials, including Oeko-Tex foam, EU-Ecolabelled textiles and FSC-certified wood. And they eliminated unnecessary or redundant materials often found in upholstered furniture, like the black synthetic dust cloths ubiquitous to the bottom side of mass-market sofas.
Hay's Arbour Eco Sofa visually highlights the traditional upholstery methods- like webbing- that they adapted for contemporary manufacturing. Photo courtesy of Hay
The sofa is designed for disassembly, with each component engineered to promote easy separation and repairability. True to my theory that highly sustainable methods can be found by looking to craft-based and indigenous techniques, both the frame and cushioning feature a return to traditional craft approaches: by placing upholstery webbing center stage, rather than burying it deep inside the guts of a sofa (as many designs do), the design eliminates the need to hide the webbing with extra, redundant materials.
In addition to the sustainable furniture approaches that we've already examined from IKEA and Sabai Design, Hay's sofa exemplifies another possible path forward for housewares companies that are looking for healthier materials and processes that they can adapt.
Saucony's Jazz Court RFG Sneakers Andrea Paulson, Saucony's Head of Product Engineering, told the industry podcast The Shoe In Show that Saucony's goal to create a 100% plastic- and adhesive-free shoe was a "moonshot".
After years of iterations, the resulting Jazz Court RFG Sneaker is made with just five renewable construction materials—cotton, jute, wool, rubber, and wood cellulose (AKA Lyocel) undyed greige goods—excluding all plastics or adhesives that are otherwise ubiquitous in the shoe industry. Even the interior label is printed with natural dyes made from beets and gardenia stalks. Sneakerhead or not, this is pretty epic.
Saucony adapted each step of the manufacturing process to reduce energy and avoid chemical use. They even experimented with baking tricks to find a "recipe" of flour and water that marks stitching locations in place of the industry-standard paints or dyes. Photo courtesy of Saucony
As Paulson said, "The way we make things matters as much as what's in them." So, on top of the material changes, the shoe also required back-end adjustments at the factories to reduce energy consumption and avoid chemical use.
"Very little of [the manufacturing changes we made] were new or nascent in approach. In fact, it's the other way around," Paulson said. "Most of the solutions we came up with are from historical practices, bespoke craftsmanship, and small-batch production."
Saucony fully embraced the "return to craft" ethos by bringing back traditional shoe making techniques. The product description offers further explanation: "We employed a true sidewall stitch to attach the upper- to the mid-sole without the use of synthetic adhesives, so while the shoes are durable, they won't last forever. Which is exactly what we intended."
This all-natural shoe game with old-school techniques is not just a novelty; Saucony recently announced that they are working to eliminate all virgin plastics by 2024, with the Jazz Court RFG serving as a model for the way forward. Paulson says, "We need the Jazz Court to inform and define the [product] line holistically so that every footwear style moving forward is on that sustainability journey." (You can read more on their process here.)
That Saucony is leading this charge in its field is a momentous occasion; for although policies like the EU's Right to Repair Law mean that many of us are starting to grasp how DfD can be applied to home electronics, so many business leaders (not to mention consumers) have a hard time grasping how or why it can be applied to other products. Excitingly, too, footwear is not the only industry at the vanguard of this approach.
At the IDSA Sustainability Deep Dive conference this past June, Daniela Bohlinger, Head of Sustainability at BMW Group Design, spoke about the company's pledge to reduce carbon emissions across the life cycle of its vehicles (including the production process) by at least 40% in support of the Paris Climate Agreement.
BMW is also quick to acknowledge the practical, economic value of the circular economy – which in both name and practice is, after all, an economic principle. Supply chain problems have been holding up every imaginable sector the past few years, so in both an adroit and proactive avoidance of the pitfalls, BMW pursued an opportunity to recycle old vehicle parts into their raw materials of tomorrow.
BMW began creating systems to reclaim those old cars, and redesigned their factories to include disassembly facilities; this allowed them to begin recycling steel, aluminum, copper, and plastics into new car parts, and to even upcycle whole, undamaged vehicle parts like dashboards.
Many cars parts are already designed with disassembly in mind—after all, car owners expect to repair or replace a handful of parts at some point in the life of each car. But the incredibly complex nature of cars involves truly leveling-up DfD on a sophisticated scale.
For example, although we're all used to the idea of the mechanical elements of a car being DfD, we don't normally think of the car interior being designed with that in mind. BMW debuted the i Vision Circular showcar at International Mobility Show this past September, which showcased some clues of how the company will begin addressing DfD in the future.
Although it's a concept car, Bohlinger told me that its principles provide a "bookend of circular design" for BMW, and a vision for how their future product lines may be approached. "We´re going to learn from our experience with the design of the BMWi Vision Circular," she says, "and adapt it into our new design language."
For the i Vision Circular, Bohlinger told me that she had specific instructions for the design team. She says, for example, that "they should not design embedded displays anymore;" rather, they should be designed to "easily take out" because "detachable connections are essential for easy dismantling." Thus, they're more easily separable as mono-materials, and in turn are more easily recyclable.
The i Vision Circular, a new concept car from BMW, is a test case for how the company might be implementing sustainable practices moving forward. Photo courtesy of BMW
Bohlinger cites designing with fewer materials in clear "groups," with coordinating performance levels, as part of the methodology. Much like the approach outlined in the POÄNG design audit, this showcar interior emphasizes a simplified palette of just five materials. And, to reduce the CO2, its lounge-like atmosphere substituted their usual leather upholstery for recycled PET textiles whose yarns are spun from recycled seat covers. (It's the ideal: materials from a closed-loop system being placed back into a closed-loop system, for the cycle to then continue.) This is in line with BMW's goal to decrease the environmental footprint of their products and business operations as a whole; they are leaning hard into using as many unmixed mono-materials as possible, and using materials – like the aforementioned as well as recycled plastics and metals – that are already in circulation.
When I interviewed Bohlinger, she was frank that DfD probably isn't top of mind for many of their customers. "The circular economy is something we do because of environmental and economical reasons. A customer does not immediately have to understand that our car is ready for dismantling – it only touches the customer when they see that they can get a light bulb replaced and not the whole light." With this recognition and approach, BMW is beginning to craft a compelling argument that these new approaches and simplified usage of materials will be part of how we define luxury in the future.
While Bohlinger is upfront about how reaching these goals is a slow and evolving process, the company's work is a crucial case study for how extremely complex products – infused with so many layers of semantics, mechanics, and safety protocols – can provide a model for systems overhauls and financial models that center circularity, regardless of scale or market.
These stories are just a handful of the many way DfD and traditional making methods can be adapted for a wide variety of industries. Where are you seeing these used? What craft techniques are ripe for contemporary adaptions? Where have you seen a revisiting of craft methods in the design industry? Have you practiced it in your own work? What historical methods or approaches should we be integrating into contemporary design? Share your thoughts, suggestions, and stories in the comment section below.
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I remember Design for Disassembly and Design for Serviceability were concepts I learned in my Mechanical Engineering undergrad. Glad to see they're making their way into B2C categories and major brands. Manufacturers, not consumers, should bear the weight of responsibility for closing the loop on product lifecycles.
DfD definitely is the wave of the future. So cool to hear how all of these companies are making it part of their business model.
Wow, to hear that companies as high-impact/influential from a commercial perspective (ie BMW) are taking circularity seriously feels really crucial.