Less But Better

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10th December 2023
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7 min read

Photo by Jacob Rank on Unsplash

First, Some Context

My wife said [jokingly] to me very early on in our relationship that as a hippie-at-heart, she feels at odds with a person who perpetuates consumerism for a living.

I had to agree. Being something of an anti-consumerist myself, I'm also at odds with my occupation.

While I talked about the commodification of goods by AI a few weeks ago, in many respects the cheap labour costs in China and other Eastern regions has already caused the commodification of many goods. To the point we throw them out and replace them (coincidentally, the image in my AI post had rideshare scooters in it), rather than reuse, repair, or recycle them. It's cheaper.

You don't have to look far to see it either; just take a quick look through any pile of 'junk' put out on the curb for bulk waste collection to see how many perfectly serviceable products are in it. I picked up a full carton (ie 30+ units) of new-in-box GU10 LED globes from such a pile just two days ago. That's materials dug out of the ground, shipped across the world, converted into products, shipped across the world again, bought and sold, then destined to be put back into the ground still in the box.

As [Western] consumers, we are very used to having lots of stuff. So much stuff in fact that we can no longer park our cars in our garages. Most of that stuff eventually ends up, largely unused, in bulk waste collection to make way for new stuff.

My mum told me that when she was young (likely in the 60s), they would buy apples individually wrapped in tissue paper. Mum can't remember of course, but as a percentage of household income, how much do you think that apple cost? I bet it was a lot more than what we pay for apples now. I can guarantee they bought fewer apples, and you can be certain they weren't thrown out.

In the decades since, society has been trained that goods are cheap and disposable. To get here has meant the exploitation of workers, financial markets, manufacturers, retailers, the planet, and even the consumers themselves.

In a post-pandemic world where we're trying to restart sovereign capability, it is nearly impossible to match this price points society has grown very comfortable with.

Sovereign "Capability"

While consumption is at present mostly fuelled with debt anyway, unless households want to go all US Treasury on their borrowing, buying the same amount of stuff at the costs domestic production will dictate just isn't possible.

If we want consumers to buy domestically produced goods, consumers need to be 'untrained' out of buying lots of cheap junk.

They will have to buy less.

A change towards buying fewer but better goods would represent a monumental societal shift in purchasing behaviour. One that's unlikely to ever be fully realised.

But we saw what happened when we put all our eggs in one basket. Locally made products should be an option for those who would choose to produce it, and those who would choose to buy it. It needs to be incentivised by the government from the top down. And realised by businesses, designers, and manufacturers from the bottom up.

Unfortunately, the free market will always be driven by the dollar. If locally-made goods cannot compete on price, then they must compete on value. Businesses trying to build locally-made offerings need to become the Redwings of their industry. Items that cost 3x the price, but last 5x as long. And look cool doing it.

The more competitive the price can be of course, the less of a 'tough sell' that will be.

I've been working on a couple of [mountain bike-related] small projects on the side that I'm planning to have made locally. I've discovered first-hand some of the challenges of doing this very thing, and keeping the end result competitive in a price-driven market. Here are a few observations.

Design for Durability

While this might be obvious, it's as much an ideology to be used throughout development as it is any physical attribute. In my project I knew I could never make my product as cheap as the competition, so instead I set about ensuring it would last.

If developing a product to last is a guiding principal of the design, then durability in the end result can sometimes be gained effectively for free. Sure, sometimes you may need to use a little more material in strategic areas, but clever design for robustness may not add anything to the cost of goods (COG). This is what happens when designers and business owners care about the lifecycle of their products.

Infusing the product with durability and repairability will ensure the product continues to deliver value to the customer long after the purchase price has been forgotten.

But of course, durability alone won't make the sale. It also has to be really, really good.

Design for Capability

If it doesn't already exist, I'm going to invent the term now. Design for Capability (DFC) is the process of developing the design for manufacture, but optimised for the specific materials and capabilities available at the point of manufacture. Like DFM, but localised.

Design can be far more agile early on in development than manufacturing can be later. If the desire is to produce goods locally, then the onus is on the designers to begin identifying and collaborating with manufacturers as early as practical.

In my specific example; the material and part size were both chosen based on the bar sizes of that material that were locally available. Not just available, but readily available. Not some obscure special order item. Further, the specific bar size was chosen because it would fit directly into the spindle without an additional liner, and the geometry was tailored to suit the machine capability. This serves to reduce both tooling cost and machine time.

By optimising the design for the available materials and processes, the costs associated with manufacturing locally can be minimised.

There is a caveat however. I fully acknowledge that some capabilities simply no longer exist in Australia and other Western countries. In pursuit of profit many capabilities have been off-shored to the point there is no longer any other option. While that may slowly change in time, that's the way it is right now.

Design for Automation

Let's call this one DFA.

At the BridgeTech Symposium in 2022 I listened to a speaker from Bosch talk about the design and development they did for the automated assembly of the Ellume connected COVID test. While I think single-use electronics like this are abhorrent (and fortunately it looks like they at least won't end up in Australian landfill), it was an excellent insight into how design and manufacturing can collaborate to automate production and reduce COGs.

As with DFA, a strong collaboration with manufacturing is required early on in the design process. An understanding of how robots and other automated processes may interface with the components of an assembly will inform an optimised design. Not just in terms of how a robot may interface with the specific components, but also how many components can be offloaded to the automation process.

My example was nothing near as elaborate as the Bosch case study. We simply tweaked the design so that with a little creativity we could produce 95% of the part in a single operation. Eliminating additional setups and the associated labour.

The easier and faster a design is to automate, and the more of it that can be automated, the cheaper the automation investment and assembly costs.

Less but Better

Whether we truly see the pendulum swing away from consumers buying lots of junk and towards less but better goods, only time will tell. I'm as doubtful as I am hopeful. Yet, as goods get cheaper and junkier in pursuit of profit, there's room for products that are an investment for the long term.

There's opportunity there to grow local industry.

But to get there will require a concerted effort by governments to support local businesses, and a fire in the belly of designers and suppliers to build strong, competitive products.

But it will require more than that. It'll require a shift by consumers to buy less, but better.


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Tagged: automation · capability · design · manufacturing