Product disassembly: A keystone in achieving a carbon neutral future? 19 July 2021

By Peter Standring, technical secretary, Industrial Metalforming Technologies (IMfT)

It is an interesting observation that for multi-component assemblies, fasteners not only hold things together but very often, they determine how things are made. For example, the adhesive bonding of lightweight auto panels without risk of delamination is made possible by the use of self-piercing rivets, which also preserve the aesthetics of the vehicle.

A Swiss watch movement, an internal combustion engine, flatpack furniture, a vacuum cleaner, each and all owe significant parts of their design/manufacture to the methods used to hold them together. Where permanency is required, bonding through welding, gluing, forming, moulding are all techniques that can be used.

For other fastening devices, screw threads, bayonet fittings, catches, latches of all descriptions will provide both assembly and disassembly options. Clearly function, cost, value, demand and customer preference will all come into play when considering the how, why, when and where of fastening in any assembly. 

For the manufacturer, the cliché of ‘pile them high and sell them cheap’, only applies to the high volume, low value markets. Some standard fasteners perhaps?

For the customer, do they care how the assembly they buy is fastened together? How many folks purchasing vehicles will ever see most of the average 6,000 fasteners that hold a car together?

Also, there are different types of customers. The commercial, those buying machines to make other products, or it could be the end user or domestic buyers – who require something that works well and looks good. In both cases, functionality is the key. However, in recent times, with the end of life legislation, safe disposal of unwanted goods has become an important issue.

The ongoing End of Life (EoL) EU Vehicle Regulations of 2000, forced automotive OEMs into adopting the concept of ‘extended producer responsibility’ meaning they had to take back their own vehicles at no cost to the customer. This was part of an EU framework of different regulations and directives with the objective of managing waste. Interestingly, virtually all vehicle OEMs saw the EoL regulations as a form of tax and somewhat dismissively off loaded their responsibilities in this area to agencies where toxic elements are safely removed and the rest basically scrapped. To automotive OEMs, this requirement is still considered a cost.

 

A demand for change

Most people have a prejudiced attitude to change, they don’t like it! Manufacturers are no different. Once they have an investment, which is making money, why would they want to change it? Competition, improvements, the chance to make even more money, are the drivers to adopt change. To have faulty goods returned, also to have to take back what they once sold, for the manufacturer not only costs money but can incur reputational damage.

The enormous diversity of life on earth over the previous one billion years was brought about through ‘evolution’ – basically, trial and error. As the ‘tech’ companies have shown, it only takes a quarter of a century to be worth hundreds of billions of US dollars if you have access to data and the algorithms to manipulate it. No trial and error here.

For manufacturers of non-food consumer goods, whose market knowledge is confined to previous customer history and anonymous blanket advertising, their market horizon is ‘yesterday’ – compared with the trillion-dollar tech companies whose access to data ensures they determine much of our ‘tomorrows’.

The last third of the 20th Century saw a mass movement of acquisitions and mergers across European and USA manufacturers. Independent regional producers of component parts and consumer goods were subsumed into large, often rebranded businesses, or simply ceased trading. One of the consequences of this was the sharing of back office tasks and the rationalisation of the product range and standardisation of component parts.

A further but non-advertised development of this conglomeration was the adoption of a policy across the various product sectors sometimes termed as ‘built in obsolescence’. In days when regional, household named companies employed hundreds and often thousands of locally based employees, the reputation of a company for producing quality goods was an ‘established’ fact of everyday life. The bean counter’s desire to create huge businesses, focussed on specific market segments, created significant turbulence amongst manufacturing groups as they acquired/shed elements of their organisations to establish a sectorial presence. So, previously viable regional businesses were absorbed, split, sold off or closed to ensure that what remained could deliver, big!

Manufacturing efficiency based on automation could only work where high volume of demand was available. However, in any competitive environment, the market is only as big as the population it serves.

In pre-conglomerate days, when quality and reputations were based on service life and repairability, the volume of goods sold were reflected in the availability of income. Couple new high volume manufacture with a payment by instalment economy (hire purchase) and huge sales targets can be reached. But how can they be maintained?

Enter a new design philosophy, ‘built in obsolescence’, which employs the use of functional parts like bearings, seals, etc, to have an in-service life that barely exceeds the product warranty. Moreover, ensure the design is such that the product can’t be repaired, then, replacement volumes can be guaranteed.

So powerful have the financial organisations become in protecting their high volume manufacturing facilities that even where design failure has resulted in producing life threatening situations, regulatory authorities can do little to get things changed.

 

People power

‘The law is an ass!’ is a phrase that has often been used in literature and elsewhere. Clearly, since laws are just a collection of words, perhaps it would be charitable to say that it is the ‘interpretation’ of the law that can give it the ‘ass’ like characteristics. And, who interprets the law for their clients? More importantly perhaps is the question: ‘Who can afford the ‘best’ lawyers?’

Like many situations, the stirrings of ‘public’ disquiet over the ambitions of big business began in the USA. The basic issue across all sectors is ‘can manufacturers prevent buyers of their products from repairing them without insisting, through warranty statements, that all servicing and repairs must be handled by the manufacturer’s own authorised dealers?’. For most of this century US consumers and those acting on their behalf, have lined up against some of the largest global manufacturers to demand this right.

Currently in North America, and within the EU, this ‘right’ has/is being extended across a host of manufactured goods including automotive, electronic, white, brown, etc. The purpose, to ensure that products can be repaired at a fraction of the cost of replacement and by so doing, extend life and reduce waste. For many years, modularity and the use of sub assemblies have been key to efficient manufacture. Given that freedom to repair could become a global requirement within all of product design, maybe the micro management of sub assemblies will become the next growth area?

 

Fastening for disassembly

Excluding premium brand names, the costs of the assembly of any product will always be ‘pared to the bone’. Full automation can help achieve this. The result, an unused product that has a maximum value. 

Sell the product and immediately its value reduces. Use it and its value reduces further. Now, assume the product requires repair. Any reversal of the initial automated assembly will, by comparison, be very much more expensive than it was to assemble. Also, depending on the product and the environment it has been in, disassembly may involve cleaning, etc. The end result will be a broken product that could be restored/refurbished or scrapped. Notwithstanding the outcome, the key to the whole exercise being considered worthwhile, is the ease of disassembly.

So, the OEM, which now has the regulated responsibility to provide the means to repair (replacement parts, etc) has a choice. They can comply with legislation by, for example, providing independent repairers with the layout and special purpose tools often required to effect disassembly or they could adopt a new policy and redesign the product to allow disassembly to be carried out as efficiently as was the original assembly.

If the OEM were to offer a monetary ‘bounty’ on the return of goods to a dealership (higher value if a replacement product is purchased) then once the design for disassembly is low cost, they themselves could obtain value for the component parts they salvage. Given the volumes involved, for the automotive industry it has been shown that the fully audited metal parts could have a higher resale value at EoL than the material did when it was first purchased – making these parts zero cost. In addition, if they sold the material on for other applications, such action would provide massive reductions in CO2 and energy costs. Unfortunately, by chasing the dreams of tomorrow (for example, EV, AV, etc) and ignoring value in recovery. they throw away, without any apparent regard, what legislation obligations they have today.

 

Getting there together

Given the essential nature of all fasteners to human life, it is quite astonishing how little attention is paid to their importance. Of course, there are trade bodies linked to fasteners and institutes relating to specific subjects like welding. However, given that without the use of fasteners, nothing else would be possible, where is the huge edifice with ‘Fasteners for All’ across its door proclaiming its significance to everything else?

Since disassembly is the factor that makes product repair and material recovery a practicable possibility, why are governments around the world not bringing those who design products and fasteners together and supporting them to gain mutual advantage from what they deliver?

Necessity is the ‘Mother of Invention’ and common sense screams out the necessity to reduce material usage by encouraging product repair and component recovery. A network of global ‘Centres for Disassembly’ could provide a fastening solution for tomorrow based on what we dispose of today?

Mass production and its shadow, standardisation, was born out of a need to have interchangeable parts for firearms. This didn’t happen overnight, but it did spawn a shoal of manufacturing capability and development. Disassembly requires a similar kick start to refocus minds in exactly the same way that all government departments for war demanded their share of interchangeable parts from weapons manufacturers. Today, the war is on the profligate waste of energy and resources; the contamination of land, water and air; and a way to meet the tsunami of demands for quality of life from a monotonically increasing global population.

Design for disassembly may not meet such demands but it could help neutralise some of the problems associated with carbon intensive manufacture and help meet more human aspirations than it does today. 

Content Director

Will Lowry Content Director t: +44 (0) 1727 743 888

Biog

Will joined Fastener + Fixing Magazine in 2007 and over the last 12 years has experienced every facet of the fastener sector - interviewing key figures within the industry and visiting leading companies and exhibitions around the globe.

Will manages the content strategy across all platforms and is the guardian for the high editorial standards that the Magazine is renowned.