Durable and Sound

Article By : Michael Kirschner

The Beosound Level speaker is the first electronic product to achieve certification for sustainability from the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute.

Last year I briefly discussed a book that greatly influenced me, McDonough and Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle. At the time, no electronic product had achieved even the lowest level of certification by the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute: Bronze.

That’s changed now: a wireless speaker from Bang & Olufsen is the very first electronic product to be certified to the Bronze level, in this case to the new version 4 of the standard. The Beosound Level, a beautiful (if I do say so myself) battery-powered — and very expensive at $1799/unit (stereo requires two of them) — speaker, is the first electronic product in the history of the certification process to achieve even the lowest level.

The Beosound Level

The approach to modularity seems entirely appropriate and reflects the kind of thinking I wrote about last month that is increasingly missing from consumer electronics (see my previous column about my unrepairable subwoofer). The data rates necessary for audio are relatively low so wirelessly connecting via now-ancient standards like 802.11b or even Bluetooth 1.0 should still result in adequate data rates for excellent sound quality. But I like the fact that B&O considered that they don’t know what the future may hold so that module is replaceable.

This is, to me, an exciting achievement. Bronze-level certification requires that a manufacturer have significantly better than required (by regulation) knowledge of the materials, substances, (final) manufacturing process and related chemical substances (e.g. solvents, solders, adhesives. However, certain commonly used toxic substances that are still only disclosable under REACH when used outside the EU (Annex XIV authorized substances) are restricted at the Bronze level; that is perhaps the greatest challenge to overcome.

As the Bronze level may only be maintained for 4 years without moving on to a more advanced level (e.g. Silver), obtaining certification is not a one-time act: it requires ongoing diligence and, in some cases, extraordinary progress in technical, environmental, and social criteria throughout the supply chain and product lifecycle. That may be the biggest deterrent for electronics manufacturers.

By the way, France will “introduce a … durability index rating from 2024 that also focuses on reliability and robustness” for electrical and electronic equipment (EEE). France has already beaten the rest of the European Union to the punch by introducing a reparability index for several product categories. The ADEME “Preparatory study for the introduction of a durability index: Final Report”

seeks to pre-empt the future implementation of the durability index and to outline its general principles and guidelines (ADEME and the French Ministry will begin further research on EEE categories at a later stage). The present study provides a framework for durability (a review of existing methods, technical levels, obstacles and limits) to gather stakeholder expertise then identify initial methodological proposals to develop the index.

I find it both interesting and frustrating that governments are driving research into the durability of consumer EEE: this is something the electronics industry, admittedly driven by the military since World War II, has historically done and, perhaps less collaboratively today than we have in the past, still do to some extent. Apparently our agenda does not match governments’ agenda. While manufacturers want to ensure that a product is reliable and durable enough to meet consumers’ expectations (and mitigate expected warranty costs), governments want to change those consumers’ expectations. Part of their approach is driving competition in the realm of product longevity. By publishing comparative values for durability, reparability, etc., consumers can incorporate those parameters into their purchase decisions.

My frustration is that the electronics industry didn’t see this coming. In the sustainability space we primarily focus on energy efficiency and, less intentionally but still laudably, dematerialization (the primary success here has been the replacement of CRTs with flat screens). While some of the major consumer electronics manufacturers also have a strong focus on toxicity, most do not. None really focus on extending product use life for consumers, except perhaps Dutch smartphone manufacturer Fairphone. As the Synthesis document, linked to below, says:

…there are no incentives for producers to improve their products (through ecodesign, for example) to extend their lifespans, make them more robust (fewer breakdowns and breakages) or more repairable. Most manufacturers deem these aspects to be at odds with economic interests encouraging increasingly frequent replacement, thus driving to new sales. This is premature obsolescence (even planned obsolescence if the manufacturer intentionally reduces the lifespan of a product to boost replacement rates).

Reliability engineers, now is your time to get involved and shine. In your copious spare time, read the report linked to above (as well as the “Preparatory study for the introduction of a durability index: Synthesis”).

Do we, as an industry, need to reinvest in research entities to take the responsibility back from governments and lead this type of research? Do we want to?

This article was originally published on EE Times.

Michael Kirschner is president of Design Chain Associates LLC.


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