Opinion and Recycling and Environment and Viewpoint and Manufacturing & Technology and Technology

De-manufacturing can save resources

April 20, 2009

I was born near the scent of Gary's steel mills in the 1950s. Indiana's manufacturing expertise and solid work force made Hoosiers key in the industrial post-World War II era. Whole ecologies grew around making vehicles, electronics, furniture and pharmaceuticals. Labor costs grew and eventually labor was sadly exported. Some wrote off Indiana's manufacturing as destined for failure. But there's a possible savior: de-manufacturing.

Anything that is made ought to be easily de-made. You can see the waste and inefficiency everywhere, be it a garbage scow dumping its contents off New Jersey or trucks in line at our own landfills. Recycling is unnecessarily tough—but it could be made much easier, and we have many of the technologies ready to do so.

Take your typical 1991 gas hog, now in disrepair and destined for the junkyard. Getting the iron out of it, and maybe the aluminum and other metals, seems to be the best we can do today. What if we tagged either each part, or a composite identity, into new vehicles so they can be devolved into raw materials again—saving a vast amount of the cost of making new materials? Imagine getting all the metals, sorted plastics and composites—and knowing which is where?

Another example is the computer. A radio frequency ID tag similar to those used by retailers would reveal the data that tells how to devolve the computer into component parts, so as to add actual value to a dead machine. Makers would use the same electronic bill of materials to say exactly what might be harmful to put into landfills, or what should be removed before devolution.

Instantly, a commodity market for your dead washing machine exists. It contains X amount of steel, copper, specific plastics and composite materials. It's a known quantity that, with little effort, becomes the input for new product with a known process of how to turn the old washer into a new car fender or guitar strings. Take it to a devolver and get the residual value from it. Material recycling goes to a new level.

Very few items in the consumer world are made from old-fashioned paper blueprints and bills of materials—it's all computerized. The data is available. A standardized taxonomy of how to categorize what will be eventually devolved materials needs to be developed. Call it a metadatabase for pre-grave products. What one saves by using either an RFID/bar code or a simple stamp on each part or object is the energy and resources needed to make those materials available once again. Yes, it would take years to get everyone to conform and learn the system, but I've witnessed one model of how it could be done.

I have watched as the Computer Technology Industry Association built an industrywide bar-code identification system for shipments and warranties. Today, big-box retailers can't live without this electronic data interchange bar-code and tagging system. Extending this process to the component objects used in manufacturing to allow them to be easily devolved and reused is just a step further, and a way to keep landfills emptier, water resources cleaner, and energy resources conserved. We can build; we can devolve and rebuild.

Few want to believe it, but planet Earth has finite resources. Reusing them makes financial sense beyond the ecological value. Indiana was once a captain of industry. It doesn't need to become a statewide junkyard to become a leader in repurposing raw materials technology: Devolution could become a revolution.
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Henderson is managing director of ExtremeLabs Inc., a local computer analysis firm. 

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