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Current open design projects fall far short of their sustainability promises

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
12th September 2013


There is no direct link between Open Design and the following environmental criteria: In this thesis, it is shown that promoting local production by users and easy assembly are the main potential of OD for the environment. Moreover, it is argued that these trends could be used in different phases of product lifecycle; by involving user in maintenance, repair, upgrade and reuse. In order to promote user involvement, information regarding all these phases has to be created and shared with the society.”

* Master Thesis The Potential of Open Design for eco-efficient product development. Submitted by Mahdi Gheshlaghi, 2013.

A recent comparative study of five open design projects conclude that they do have promise, but nevertheless fall short of their claims in the context of the sustainability of their production processes.

After looking comparative at five projects, i.e. Fair Phone / RepRap / WikiHouse / Multimachine / LifeTrac, Mahdi Gheshlaghi concludes:

“According to the interpretation of results, there is no direct link between OD and the following environmental criteria:

* Recycled and reused raw material and components; It is not clear to which degree OD products are made of recycled and reused raw material and components.

* Use of non-toxic material; It seems that OD products are not necessarily toxic-free.

* Lightweighting; OD products are not necessarily designed for lightweighting.

* Minimize energy and resources in use phase: OD products are not designed to reduce energy and resource consumption during use phase. In the case of LifeTrac, user can produce fuel for the tractor from e.g. pelletized biomass crop such as hay (OSE, 2013). This trend could be used in other OD products by adding the option of renewable energies like solar and biomass.

* Repair and upgrade; There is no major link between OD and design for repair. However, it seems that modular design of some OD products leads to easy upgrade.

* Durability; OD products are not necessarily durable.

* Easy maintenance; OD products are not generally designed for easy maintenance. However, in the case of RepRap, maintenance documentation is provided online. This is an interesting aspect of RepRap which has the potential to be followed in other OD products.

* Recycling and reuse; In general, OD products do not have recycling and reusing plans. On the other hand, it seems that OD products have some characteristics which reduce their environmental impacts throughout their life cycle. In this section, these characteristics are explained in detail.

* Promoting local production by user; OD products are supposed to be made by users; therefore, it is more likely to produce locally. According to the evaluated sample products, some characteristics of the products promote local production e.g. using simple design with generally purposed parts, design for DIY, reducing manufacturing activities.

* Simple design; It is easier for user to build products with simple designs. OD developers tend to use standard, generally purposed parts and components when designing the product.

* Design for DIY; OD products are mostly designed for DIY. Actually, user is in charge of sourcing the material and components, machining processes and assembly. For OD products, information required for all these steps are shared on Internet which helps local production by users.

* Design for local sourcing; In OD products, simplicity of design and standard material and components is beneficial for easy, local sourcing of material and components.

* Reduced manufacturing processes; Manufacturing processes require machine tools, technical knowledge, transportation of parts and energy. In OD products, complicated, expensive manufacturing activities are avoided (e.g. injection molding). Therefore, their conventional manufacturing processes allow them to be locally produced. One good example is WikiHouse where the only manufacturing process is CNC milling.

* Easy disassembly; Another aspect of OD products is that they are mostly designed for disassembly. This is mainly due to the fact that user is supposed to be in full charge of product for different reasons; e.g. make, maintenance, repair, upgrade. Reversible joining elements (screws, bolt and nuts, etc.) are preferred to irreversible ones (welding) because they are simpler and require fewer amounts of training and capital. Another reason is modular design, in (some) OD products, which helps in promoting easy customization, maintenance and upgrade.”

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