Invention and innovation: An introduction
Invention and innovation: An introduction

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Invention and innovation: An introduction

17.3 Choosing appropriate materials and manufacturing process

The choice of materials and manufacturing process for a particular new product is an important aspect of the innovation process. It is not necessarily the case that the materials chosen for the early prototypes of an invention are those best suited for the larger-scale manufacture of the innovation. Choice of materials can affect the performance, quality and economic manufacture of most new products, so it's important to choose wisely.

While inventors and designers usually need to seek specialist assistance when it comes to choosing materials, it helps to inform their choices if they have a broad overview of the main types of material and their properties. Designers need to consider a range of materials properties:

  • performance – behaviour of the material in the finished product;

  • processing – behaviour of the material during manufacture;

  • economic – cost and availability of material;

  • aesthetic – appearance and texture of processed material.

Increasingly environmental impacts are playing a part in the choice of materials. These impacts include the energy consumed and pollution produced in the extraction and preprocessing of raw materials as well as their final processing into a product; and the effect of chosen materials on the life of the product; the potential for recycling and environmentally sound disposal at the end of the product's life. With all these factors to consider it's not surprising the final choice of materials for a new product is often a compromise, strongly influenced by the costs both of the material itself and of processing it.

Now watch the video The total beauty of sustainable products by clicking the link below.

Total beauty of sustainable products (10 minutes)

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Transcript: Beauty Video

Edwin Datschefski
This is the legacy that designers have left us with: a huge mish-mash of different types of materials and objects. We've got PVC, we've got metal, we've got concrete, we've got engine oil, we got vinyl from the backs of car seats. You couldn't make this up. It's a weird concoction and somewhere a designer hasn't specified what happens at the end of the life.
There are millions of different products on the world market. But few, if any, have been designed to be truly sustainable.
Edwin Datschefski
What do we mean by sustainability? It's about people, planet and profits. People means we've got to have good communities and we've got to have good conditions for the workforce. It's about the planet, it's about environment and we've got to have environmental sustainability. And it's also about profits. None of this is any good if we go out of business. And designers have a big role to play.
Edwin advocates the concept of Total Beauty, where products are designed to minimise negative environmental and social impacts. The concept is based on a set of five key principles.
Edwin Datschefski
The five principles to make a product sustainable are that:
it should be cyclic, that's using recycled materials or using grown materials;
it should be solar — all the energy should be using renewable energy;
it should be safe, non-toxic;
it should be super-efficient, using the least amount of materials and energy; and
it should be social — that's good for people, for consumers and for workers.
Sustainability is becoming part of the design vocabulary, but all too often designers interpret it in a very narrow way.
Edwin Datschefski
When designers come to me and they say ‘I have designed a sustainable product', what they've usually done is, they say, they've made it out of recyclable material. OK, recyclable material is good stuff these days, you can have polyester that's made of recycled plastic bottles, just like these ones here. Or you can have recycled high-density polyethylene. But using a material just by itself, isn't necessarily all you need to do. You need to think about durability and the end-of-use, just in the same way as you would for any other product.
Of Edwin's five principles, cyclic is perhaps the simplest to put into action. There are many recyclable materials to choose from, but the way in which materials are processed and put together can prevent a material being recycled. TV sets and video recorders are good examples of the problem.
Edwin Datschefski
The biggest problems can really be divided into two parts. You've got the casing of the products and you've got the interior. The casing is metal, plastic. Interior is things like chips, power supplies, transformers and so on.
The manufacturing process for these two elements is where a lot of the impacts arise. The casing's relatively straightforward but it's big. Metal, plastic; energy use in that, pollution in that, and the manufacture of that and the distribution. The interior is a bit harder to handle. Although it's less by mass, the chemicals and the processing that goes on to make things like chips and circuit boards is highly polluting.
So, everyone always imagines that electronic items are nice because they're not very big but environmentally it all adds up to a considerable amount of environmental damage. You can recycle the metal, you can recycle the plastic, but are you going to get the tiny bit of tantalum that's in this chip? I don't think people are able to recycle at that level yet. That's where we've got to go in the future.
It's much harder to satisfy the solar principle — designing products which consume only renewable energy.
Edwin Datschefski
Many people say for example, well how can you have a solar chair, it doesn't consume any energy. But there's energy used to make the material, to extract the raw material, to process it, to distribute it. So, in fact you see that chair uses quite a lot of energy. Now all that energy source has to be solar, and that I mean essentially renewable energy.
Safe is about all the releases to the environment of that product all the way through its life. Are they non-toxic, are they safe? Most of the types of conventional waste disposal have their own hazards. Incineration causes pollution from the smoke coming out of the chimney. Landfill causes problems in terms of taking up space and potential leaking of hazardous materials into groundwater and so on. So recycling is clearly important, along with its variants which are re-use and re-manufacture.
Cyclic, solar and safe are main guiding principles for designers trying to reduce the impact of their products on the planet. Designing products which are more efficient, using less materials or energy, can bring advantages for the environment too, and benefit both producers and consumers.
Edwin Datschefski
All products have been improving in efficiency in many different ways: in terms of lighter materials, in terms of getting the job done with smaller amount of water, energy, materials and so on.
And those improvements are, basically, competitively driven: it always make sense to use less stuff to get the job done. And we'll see improvements of that all the way, but it is a losing battle because the efficiency curve means that you make dramatic improvements and then, over time, to get that last little bit of improvement, it's diminishing returns until you get a leap-through technology, when you can make a dramatic improvement but that requires re-tooling and a whole different kind of product approach.
Increased efficiency is a useful weapon in the competitive market for consumer goods.
Edwin Datschefski
We're now reaching a point where it would be sensible, if you have a 10-year-old washing machine, to throw it away, buy a brand new washing machine because the amount of water, energy and soap powder that you will save will be worth all that energy to make a whole new washing machine.
But for a product to have the ‘total beauty' of sustainability, the designer needs to consider the social impact of that product.
Edwin Datschefski
We have to realise that products have consequences for people. They're often hidden but in the chain of manufacturing a product, people are exploited sadly at the moment and getting good conditions for workers across the manufacturing chain is something that designers have a role in ensuring.
Sustainability is about a win-win-win situation where we optimise the benefits to society, the benefits for the economy and the benefits for the environment. In the past, it seems like the environment and even the welfare of people come second to profit, but unless we have the three platforms working together we can't have a sustainable future.
So, why are sustainable products hard to find?
Edwin Datschefski
Companies would like to say: ‘Yes, we'll make a super-green product and consumers will buy it in their droves'.
Unfortunately, they rarely do because, to get a product like that, you're going to have some kind of performance change. And I say change with good reason: it's going to perform in a slightly different way at a slightly different price point to the products that the consumers are used to. So, unless they see a real clear benefit for themselves, green by itself is not enough to sell more product. This makes the designer's job especially hard so they have to make the product better, and better for the environment: better in terms of performance, price and environment all at the same time. Hey, well that's why we pay designers — they've got to do something for their money!
End transcript: Beauty Video
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In the same way that inventors and designers need knowledge of the range of materials available, they equally need to know the strengths and limitations of a range of manufacturing processes. As with the choice of suitable materials for a product there will often be a number of feasible processes. The following are the different criteria that can be applied to identify an optimum process in a particular case.

  • Cost – the capital cost of new equipment, the cost of dedicated tools such as moulds, the labour costs of setting up and operating the process, and the assumed rate of depreciation for tools and equipment.

  • Cycle time – how long it takes to process one item (part, component or product).

  • Product quality – the standards required in terms of performance properties, surface finish and dimensional tolerances, and maintaining quality over time.

  • Flexibility – how easy it is to produce different designs on the same equipment.

  • Materials utilisation – the amount of waste material generated during processing.

The relative importance of these criteria will vary depending on the volume to be produced and on whether the products will be identical or the same equipment will be used to manufacture different designs.

The ability to design and make a new product to the optimum quality specifications at the lowest cost and in the shortest time has been the general goal of manufacturers since the start of the industrial revolution. The means by which this goal has been achieved have developed as materials, techniques and the organisation of production have evolved. Not only has the transformation of the manufacturing process enabled many inventions of increasing complexity to reach the market and become successful innovations, the manufacturing process itself has been the subject of much innovation.

In a number of the examples earlier in this unit you've seen that the development of most innovations includes significant reductions in cost, which make the product affordable by larger numbers of customers. (Examples include the BIC ballpoint pen, Edison's electric light and the electronic tagging of products.) Often this cost breakthrough is due to decisions made in the area of materials and manufacture. A new material might be used in the product that makes it easier and cheaper to manufacture (the use of plastic for the bodies of ballpoint pens); a new assembly process might be more efficient with fewer components and fewer stages (recall that the assembly of Edison's electric light was reduced from 200 to 20 steps and the labour time from 1 hour to 20 seconds); a new manufacturing process might become applicable to the production of an innovation (fluidic self-assembly allowing production of RFID tags on an industrial scale).

Further savings might be achieved by regularly reviewing the design and manufacturing process for a product and aiming where possible for simplification and integration. Can the product be redesigned with fewer parts? Can parts be designed to serve more than one function? Can a new or different principle be used? Can parts be redesigned for ease of fabrication? Can fasteners be eliminated or reduced by using tabs or snap-fits? Can a product be designed to use standard components?

The basis of mass production is the complete interchangeability of components and the simplicity of attaching them to each other. With this increasing reliance on interchangeability in a world dependent on mass-produced products, it becomes more important than ever to know that products are being manufactured accurately to common standards and that their performance can be relied on.

Standards are another key component of the innovation process, providing guidance to the manufacturer on the expected quality and performance of a new product or process. And standards reassure the user that the product has been well tested before being launched onto the market. (See Section 3: 1.4.)


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