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To tackle the rising tide of e-waste from low cost electronics, we’ve explored automated disassembly mechanisms to make component recovery and recycling more efficient.

The four mechanisms have been applied to an electric toothbrush, but we believe the theory can be expanded to other categories.

A Project From The Seymourpowell
Product Experience Team.

01 // PIN

The pin mechanism uses a ‘lynchpin’ style feature which holds the internals and external housing locked in place. A small, sealed pinhole on the rear of the product can be poked, unlocking and ejecting the pin and releasing the internals.

02 // VACUUM

Closed cell foams and air sealed features forcefully expand while in a vacuum, splitting the external housing and revealing internal components. This method was inspired by a fantastic student project called ‘The Toaster Project’ ref.

03 // PISTON

Suitable for extruded constructions, the piston mechanism works by breaking a bottom cap and then pushing all internals out of an extruded housing along the same line of extrusion.

04 // UV GLUE

Adhesives running visibly along the seams of the product are deactivated under the presence of ultra-violet light. This releases the clamshell construction and the internals can be easily separated and removed.

It’s slightly embarrassed to admit it, but I’ve been brushing my teeth manually for years. That’s until quite recently when my dentist recommended an upgrade. I popped onto amazon and looked through the options.

There was the top of the range model at an insane £400. The ‘sustainable’ one at £75, with a ‘biodegradable’ PLA brush head. Or finally the budget option at £24.99. Inevitably, I went for the cheap one at which point Amazon smugly pointed out they’d sold ‘10k+’ of that model last month alone.

As an industrial designer I spend time obsessing over the product I’m working on, typically thinking of it in isolation. But one thing I occasionally fail to remember, or adequately picture, is the true scale of that product once manufactured. 10,000 units sold per month seems vast. So which other cheap electronics are selling in these quantities so regularly?

According to the Amazon best sellers list there are fabric shavers, steam irons, wireless doorbells, wireless mice, digital tyre inflators and USB C adaptors selling in their thousands, each month, with each one less than £20.

So what happens to all these cheap electronics? If those other customers are anything like me, the battery will go or it’ll be left behind in a hotel bathroom or the gross toothpaste crust accumulation will be too much to bother cleaning off and it’ll be popped in a bin.

This, despite being very good for stores like Amazon, is a huge issue and a key reason why e-waste is the fastest growing waste stream globally. Cheap electronics could in theory last longer, but they simply don’t.

Durable Products: Recycling vs Repair vs Recovery

The challenge is how we deal with this deluge of cheap, complex electronic goods entering the market? And how do we manage a future wave of products being purchased by consumers soon to enter middle class lifestyles? A good aim is to create a more Circular Economy.

A key pillar of the Circular Economy is to keep products circulating at their highest value. With that in mind a push for more durable, repairable consumer electronics has been a big topic in the industrial design sphere, and rightly so.

However with repair comes a host of technical and societal challenges, typically boiling down to two issues: can we make repairable products the same cost as their unrepairable counterparts and can we convince people to actually repair them?

Perhaps if we shared stories of the current state of e-waste recycling we might shift attitudes to it. Seeing footage of smouldering piles of old gadgets depositing toxic fumes into the lungs of the residents of Accra (Ghana) might just get a few more repairers actively fixing their stuff.

But even if we change societal attitudes, the bottom line is whether you should open that cheap toothbrush to replace a failing battery when you only paid £24.99 for it 2 years ago. It had a good run, you deserve a new one.

I’m optimistic for some product categories to get the ball rolling, namely expensive and bulky items, but I’m also a realist that we need alternative strategies adjacent to repair. This is where we must design for disassembly.

Automated Disassembly

If a product can’t be repaired and resold then the next best option is to extract value from the components and materials inside. Design for disassembly means making this process more efficient. Typical e-waste disassembly follows a ‘smash and burn until all that’s left is the expensive metal’ approach. Avoiding glue, using unified screws and designing simple closures are just a couple of strategies which make disassembly a breeze compared with the usual approach.

Going a step further, we were curious to explore how efficient this process could be. What if we automated disassembly? Like manufacturing in reverse. Apple have done this with Daisy, their disassembly robot, which they claim brings down the cost of recovering components and materials from the old iPhones they recover. But a very expensive robot disassembling a very cheap toothbrush most likely won’t work out economically. We therefore explored some different approaches to the same challenge, shown here on toothbrushes, but the principal might work for more products with a little imagination.

Eddie Hamilton is a Senior Industrial Designer and Sustainability Lead at Seymourpowell