Monday, 8 June 2009

Manufacturing and the environment.

There's a very good series of blog posts on Bunnie's blog about manufacturing electronic consumer goods in China. In a past life I was heavily involved with such work, although fortunately only from a UK perspective. Conference calls with Japanese customers in a warm, stuffy room on a bank holiday Monday are all, thankfully, in the past.

I think it is important to realise how the consumer goods we buy are made. There has been a great deal of talk over the last few years about how our food is grown; we should also be thinking about the way all of our goods are made. This makes sense not only from an environmental point of view, but also an economic one. That little MP3 player that you buy for fifty pounds in the shop has been for a massively long and convoluted process to get to market, one that few people know and even fewer understand.

Just making the plastic case and ensuring that it meets all the required environmental and other regulations is a time consuming and expensive process. Moulds have to be made, tested, and any alterations prove to be very expensive. Injection moulding (a common way in which plastic cases are made) is detailed in another of Bunnie's postings. The videos are quite astounding.

Have you ever bought a cheap electronic product with buttons that do not work on that particular model, or a space where another button could be fitted? This will almost certainly be because they are using the mouldings of a different, more expensive model, and the manufacturers have just altered the number of buttons fitted. This keeps the price down, but can make a product look unrefined or even ugly.

Fortunately, although the mouldings are expensive, they can be reused many times. This means that the expense is front-loaded. That is, it may cost £40,000 to design the case and make prototypes, but once that process has been gone through, each additional unit may cost only 20 pence. If you make 100,000 units, then that up-front design cost is 40 pence per unit. Thus the true cost of each case is 60 pence (20 pence manufacture and 40 pence for the mould). The more cases you make, the more the up-front costs gets diluted amongst them.

And remember, this is just for the case. I can see many components on my laptop: the case, the buttons, the LCD screen, the battery, the power cable, the DVD drive, the USB connectors, the power connectors, the touchpad, the buttons, the volume slider, the case catch, the network connectors and the PCMCIA slot. And these are only the things visible from outside. Inside there will be the processor, the memory, the motherboard, cabling and many discrete components. Each of these will have been individually designed at massive cost. Then a plant has to be created or altered to create them in bulk. I would reckon my single, rather elderly laptop would have enough embedded costs in it that, if you were to make only one, it would easily cost you several billion pounds.

Sounds incredible? Think of this; computer chips are made in what are called fabrication plants (fabs). Intel spent £1.3 billion making just one fab in China. The fabs produce multiple chips on a single wafer of silicon, sometimes 30cm in diameter. Making the wafers is only one part of the process.

If you want to know more about the technical aspects of how chips are made, see Britney Spears' Guide to Semiconductor Physics. It appears as well as being a celebrity, mother and singer, Britney is also a highly intelligent lady. In particular, I can recommend the page on photlithography (now there's a word I don't get to type every day!).

The distance travelled during manufacture can also be amazing; a chip that ┼×encan was working on at our old company had a work flow something like this: the wafers were made at a fab plant in China; they were sent over to Austria for packaging (i.e. the wafers were split up and converted into chips). These were then sent back to China for the final finishing work. Only then were some of the chips sent to the UK for testing. This rather laborious route was taken as it was too expensive to have a packaging plant in China, and the wafers were small and cheap to transport.

The economies of scale allow such expense to be split over millions of products. This is a world that few of us get to see, but is vitally important to all of our lives. Many TV programs and adverts show robots working inside car factories, yet car purchases are few and far between when compared to all of the other manufactured goods that we buy. Yet, unlike cars, it is seen as being unsexy, and therefore uninteresting.

Think of this, and multiply similar workflows and processes through all of the components of just one consumer product. Think of the time, money and effort that has gone into making your £50 MP3 player, your £300 TV or even £800 fridge-freezer. Think of how everything in your house (and even the components of the house itself) have been designed and manufactured. Think of all this, and realise how much unseen effort goes into modern life.

The public needs to be educated about this. Many people want to live a more green lifestyle whilst maintaining their current standards of living. They may change all their bulbs over to be energy-efficient, then go out and buy a new mobile phone. After all, mobile phone chargers hardly use any power. Yet how much energy was used when making that phone? The answer would be frightening. It would not surprise me if it was many more times than the energy the mobile phone would use during its life.

Unfortunately, a green lifestyle may have to be an anti-consumerism lifestyle.

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