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By Karen Herland
In a consumer society, designers have a central role convincing you that their product is the slickest, sleekest, latest, must-have item.
Martin Racine, chair of design and computation arts, has a very different approach. The Hexagram researcher has been working with his Université de Montréal colleague, Philippe Lalande, to use rapid prototyping technology to reduce waste.
Rapid prototyping is a form of 3D printing that uses plastic filaments, plaster dust or photosensitive resin to build a solid copy of a computer-defined project, much the way a printer translates your desktop document into paper and ink.
Earlier incarnations of their collaboration explored replacing small parts of objects; reconstruct a new button to replace the one that cracked and that walkman will keep playing, or rebuild the broken top of your coffee carafe instead of buying a new one.
"The problem is that technology evolves," said Racine. Your refurbished walkman is useless without tapes to put in it. And it can be extremely costly to produce a one-off piece. This issue led the designer to explore ways to design products that could evolve through time either by personalizing or updating their function or style in order to give them new life.
Racine's latest project, Metacycle, uses a business model defined by Wired magazine as crowd-sourcing; posting a problem online and soliciting responses from the internet community worldwide.
A handful of products with major landfill potential were identified. The products share a finite first use, either because they are obsolete or disposable. They also are made of materials that take a long time to break down. Among the first eight problems were VHS tapes, cell phones, toothbrushes and swim goggles.
So design blogs, web sites dealing with design and sustainability and a few university sites posed Metacycle's problem. Anyone could post any solution they developed.
"We wanted to make it playful, so people could rank the projects and make it easy to see what the public liked." In the end, Botelho and Gouveia, of Portugal, devised a rather elegant second life for used pens destined for the trash bin in the form of the Re-Office Clock.
"Pens have different colours and textures, with parts that are bright, and other parts that are translucent.” said Racine about their potential. “The task was to use creativity and ingenuity to add value."
Racine and his team worked on developing a thin-walled central puck, to reduce waste and keep material costs low. They also developed a way for the pens to snap into place, and stay put. Racine estimates the design, development time and resources his team has devoted to the project is valued in the thousands of dollars.
"We want whatever we produce to have a certain level of sophistication. We don't want things to look unfinished."
Racine would like to develop Metacycle as a sustainable business model. There are numerous ways that could happen. For instance, in the case of the Re-Office Clock, collection sites for old pens could be placed all over campus. His team could then produce clocks for resale. Or, Racine's team could devise a puck specific to the pens to be used at another company. That company could buy those pieces and resell their clocks to raise money.
Another alternative is to work with companies developing ways to make use of standard waste that they produce. Racine is currently exploring that possibility with office furniture producer Herman Miller.
Racine expects to try a new crowd-sourcing project early in the new year. Eventually, he hopes Metacycle will become a hub where people can post their recycling ideas or problems and get feedback from others. "I would love it if Metacycle became the youtube of recycling."
Meanwhile, the Metacycle team is currently working on turning old, carbon hockey sticks into crutches. Racine's team is developing a handle with rapid prototyping. They are also considering how to re-use other bits of waste in the design – for instance, using the tongues of old ski boots as the elbow supports for the crutches.
Racine said that the project works best when the most minimal of joints or connectors are produced to simply link together existing waste.