Repairable Flatpack toaster
Longer lifespan: Investigating the reduction of e-waste through strategies of repair and flatpack assembly in designing sustainable electronic appliances.
The repairable flatpack toaster project is about designing a toaster that can be assembled and repaired by users. The purpose of the project is using the toaster as an example to demonstrate the feasibility of DIY assemblable and repairable consumer products. It also serves the purpose to challenge the way how products are designed and manufactured in general.
The toaster itself can be flatpacked in a box with all the components in there. Users can assemble the toaster from scratch and repair the toaster when it breaks. The idea is to extend the lifespan of the toaster through the concept of repair and circular economy. Users learn the mechanism and the structure of the toaster during the process of assembly and would therefore feel more confident to repair the toaster by themselves.
The project started with the investigation of E-waste. According to the Step Initiative (2014), E-waste refers to “a term used to cover all items of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) and its parts that have been discarded by its owner as waste without the intent of reuse”. About 41.8 million tonnes of E-waste were generated in 2014 and less than one-sixth have been recycled. The goal of the project was to come up with a solution to help reduce E-waste.
I first tried to approach this problem with the concept of emotional design. If people could be more emotionally attached to products, perhaps they would be less likely to throw them away. However, the concept of emotional design does not work very well on electrical appliances because their functional value outweighs the emotional value. Therefore, the functional value of electrical appliances has to be maintained first before we can talk about how to increase the emotional value.
The approach I took was design for repair. The concept of repair is used to maintain the functional value of appliances by extending the lifespan of products. Therefore, I camp up with the idea of a repairable toaster. The flatpack and self assembly design is used to enhance the experience of repair because I believe if people could assemble something from scratch, they would feel more confident and comfortable to repair it.
The initial idea was to make a repairable toaster only and I started by understanding how toasters work.
I disassembled two toasters to study their structures and found that it was extremely hard to take toasters apart without breaking them. They were not meant to be taken apart and repaired. Even if people wanted to repair them, they were designed and manufactured in a way that prevents people from doing so.
I realized that it was not enough to just design a repairable toaster. I wanted to challenge the idea that people are not encouraged to take electrical or electronic products apart and repair them. If people could assemble toasters from scratch, they could repair them. This could also bring them a sense of achievement, which might give them an emotional attachment to their toasters. Therefore, I decided to make a toaster that was not just repairable but also flat packed.
The development process highly depended on prototype making and 3D CAD modeling. It was hard for me to just sketch out the structure of the toaster because sketching does not always reflect how physical things work. Therefore, making physical prototypes was my only option at the earlier stage of development. I made cardboard prototypes, MDF prototypes, paperboard prototypes and eventually metal prototypes.
I made two metal prototypes on my own and the second one was very successful because it worked as intended. It could be assembled and disassembled without problems. The timer and heating elements also worked.
Prior to building metal prototypes, I built 3D CAD models first. It took time to build metal prototypes so I chose to validate and modify my design with Solidworks before building metal prototypes. 3D CAD file was also needed for metal plasma cutting.
After the second metal prototype, I realized that I could not make a very polished prototype with the facilities at school, therefore I decided to outsource the prototype to a factory.
The design of the final prototype is almost identical to the second metal prototype I made. I added a tray to the bottom and two pieces of metal inside for heat insulation. The prototype is a lot more polished than the previous ones.
Components of the toaster can be flatpacked.
The toaster passed the PAT test.
The assembly instruction.
I invited 4 participants to assemble the prototype with the assembly instruction. User tests were documented and recorded.
The purpose of the test was to evaluate the effectiveness of the assembly instruction and observe the process of assembly. I also asked for their overall experiences of assembling the toaster.
All participants considered the process very fun and easy. They also pointed out where they had difficulties and how they thought it could be improved. The assembly instruction was overall very clear but some changes could be made to make it even more effective.
Two participants felt accomplished by assembling a toaster from scratch. Two participants would like to customize the toaster with different colors or even structures.
Two participants claimed that they would feel comfortable or confident to repair the toaster since they had already assembled it, while one participant said she would still ask other people to repair it for her because she was afraid of wiring the toaster. Two participants changed their views about toasters in general because how toasters work was not as complicated as they first thought.
I learned many things from this project. Practically, I learned how to use softwares to build CAD models, how to use software to make an instruction manual, how to fabricate sheet metal, etc.
For the design process itself, I learned to research from a wider perspective (E-waste) and narrow it down to a single idea (a repairable flat pack toaster). I learned to iterate prototypes and improve the design with every iteration. I learned to make plans to move the project forward. I learned to discover and solve problems.
Compared to the final prototype itself, the design process was the most rewarding part for me because the process itself can be applied anywhere. Overall, I enjoyed the project. As a student who did not have a design background prior to studying in the product design programme, I have gained a lot from running my own project and I feel confident to apply the process to any future projects.