Lifeboats are amazing. They and their volunteer crews save lives. They are designed and built to be tough – it’s a tough life – but they are well cared for and loved throughout that life. Eventually better lifeboats are designed and desired so the previous ones end their working life. For the materials they are made from, that’s just the end of life 1. What future lives could we give those materials?
Recently I went to a fantastic event at the RNLI HQ, on Poole Quay. They have worked with LoToNo to bring together a wide group of people to innovate around this problem. They have 86 lifeboats that will be decommissioned over the next few years and as the market for resale is shrinking (and they are aiming for zero waste to landfill by 2024) they want to develop new ideas to keep these fine boats out of landfill.
Lifeboats into landfill “would break the crew’s hearts”.
RNLI Mersey Class All Weather Lifeboat
There is a lot of stuff here: 43 tonnes of electronics, 954 tonnes of composites, 43 tonnes of plastic & 412 tonnes of metal. So the RNLI have set up a “decommissioning challenge” and this technical briefing gave us all a chance to meet up and get hands on, on board. The weather was beautiful, the hospitality was great and everyone was enthusiastic. Let’s check out the boats:
There are 3 classes of boat that will be retired and we got a tour of the RNLB Bingo Lifeline. She’s a Mersey class boat, the smallest but most adaptable of the 3, which will be the first to be decommissioned. 11.6m long, 14 tonnes and built from 1988 to 1993, they can be launched from a trailer or a boathouse.
Interestingly the first 10 built had aluminium hulls but later versions were made in the ‘new-fangled composite’ GRP. From strong & recyclable to stronger & not very recyclable at all. As an all-weather lifeboat the Mersey is inherently self-righting if it capsizes (all the mass is very low down) when all the hatches are sealed. Big chunky hatches. It’s like going to sea in a tank.
Do what it says
That’s a lot of bolts
These boats are tough, purely functional and put together with more fasteners than I’ve ever seen. Are 30 bolts sufficient? Yes. So let’s use 80, just to be sure. This adds some cost and assembly time but it means you have a high level of redundancy in the parts. Plus every defect is carefully logged, meaning we have information on how the parts were treated. This is not common but from a Circular Economy perspective, it is ideal.
Stella Job from Composites UK talked about the current recycling of composites – basically, it isn’t done a lot. There are only 2 sites in the UK that can process GRP. One plant can recover some fibres to be reused as reinforcement; the other mixes ground GRP and other materials to form a polymer concrete. The high embodied energy of composites can be recovered in part by burning off the resin, but this tends to damage the fibres so they become brittle and hard to recover.
Intractable is an adjective describing high complexity, which makes it difficult to change, manipulate, or resolve an issue <Wikipedia>
What I found most interesting was that even after a hard life at sea, this GRP material will still retain most of its initial strength. As a polymer it was protected from UV degradation by paint, so in theory it can remain functional for decades, even centuries, to come. Shouldn’t we take advantage of this?
Of course in a marine environment non-metallic composites are fantastic at resisting corrosion, which can give them a 2-3 fold greater lifetime than steel or aluminium. Across the boat industry, GRP boats have been made for decades now and Carbon Fibre will no doubt replace GRP. That’s a lot of composite floating about, and nobody seems to know what to do with it. Various schemes have looked at this across Europe. The most in-depth seems to be BOATCYCLE.
What came as a surprise was the focus the RNLI have on prevention instead of cure. Though they have big tough orange boats, they would prefer not to send one out in the first place. So one of their aims is to drastically reduce deaths in the ‘drowning chain’ which can be better achieved through education on, for example, best use of lifejackets. On a busy fishing boat a bulky lifejacket can get in the way during the day; they helped redesign them to be more discrete, so it’s more likely you’d wear it. Lifejacket design has come a long way:
So the RNLI have a desire to innovate but also a proud history and tradition. We were told this can cause conflict. It also means reputation is extremely important to them which adds another constraint in where these parts end up going. Gun boats or people smuggling on the news in a bright orange lifeboat is not desirable for the RNLI. Another interesting aspect to consider.
RNLI Shannon Class All Weather Lifeboat
The RNLI is now bringing boat-building in-house. They aim to turn out a new Shannon class boat (above) every 6 weeks. So the RNLI want to learn from this exercise to feed back into the design process for new generations of boat. This is just what needs to happen.
It struck me that as a charity with a long history, an ongoing purpose and an ability to design, build and maintain their equipment over decades, the RNLI is in a pretty unique position in terms of the Circular Economy. They are also world leaders in their field, both technically and with the training they offer, so it’s hoped that what is learned here could be feed out to the boat industry world wide. Exciting stuff.
So what to do? We looked at the issue through 3 categories: Whole Boat, Composites and Electrical & Mechanical. We had some brainstorm sessions on Whole Boat with each table suggesting one idea, brilliantly captured above by Emma Paxton.
I’m particularly interested in the what to do with the Composite parts. So I’ve made a start on using my 9 Lives approach to analyse how the hulls may degrade and what might be the best way to use the material in decades to come before we think about shredding and recycling.
How could we design a product for 9 lives?
For most designers, designing something for 1 life is hard enough. So much to consider. Thinking about what your product will do at the end of its life is not instinctive. It’s a bit like planning a funeral at birth: Not the first thing on your mind. Yet if you choose a material that will outlive it’s initial function by hundreds of years then you need to think further ahead.
I’ve been fascinated by 2 companies who are known as leaders in remanufacturing: CAT and Fujitsu. One makes earth moving equipment; the other photocopiers. What they both do is design certain components to be used in 4,5,6,7 machines over that component’s life.
Finding exactly how they do this is not easy so I got thinking about approaches to help us think ahead. What design tools could help us in this quest?
FUNCTIONAL CASCADING, FUNCTION SCHEDULING, 9 JOBS….
Not catchy names. But they do capture what I’m getting at: A way to plan future lives for the things we make.
I’m also aware that ‘Lives’ is not quite the way to describe this either, as a part only really has 1 life but may have various roles or jobs in its life. More accurate but I’m sticking with 9 Lives for now as I think the metaphor works to explain the concept. A cat turns 1 life into 9 by dodging potentially life-ending situations. Plus, I like cats.
HOW DOES IT WORK
There are various attributes that a product or component has. Some are consciously designed in. Some are not. Here’s some examples:
How these attributes are maintained over time can dictate how many lives (or roles, or jobs) a thing can do. If we lay these out on a timeline, we can start to imagine how useful it could be in the future.
So with this framework, the next step is to predict how the product will perform over time. This is tricky. The thingamajig has left the factory and how its treated is out of the designers hands. But let’s be optimistic. What would be the best life or lives for our thing? If it was well cared for, what’s the best we could hope for?
For an example I’m going to use the humble and magnificent PET drinks bottle. It’s made from a material that we are told could last 500 years. Having been invented only 60 years ago, nobody really knows yet. But again, let’s be optimistic. Let’s assume it could be useful until 2514. You buy it now, it’s still being used by your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren
Why is the cheap, disposable, everyday thing magnificent? It holds a fluid that is essential to us. It’s transparent. It can hold very high pressures. It can be stacked, when pressurized, in huge quantities. It’s lightweight. It’s resilient. It can be made into beautiful forms. It’s made from a material that the biosphere can’t break down for hundreds of years. It’s amazing. And generally we drink the drink and throw it ‘away’ within a day. Or maybe hours.
At the other extreme, we could keep it useful for 500 years. That’s 182,500 days. This is before we even recycle or burn it for energy. But how?
Here’s my analysis of its maximum working life, based on these attributes.
I’ve made some assumptions here. Quite a few. I’d like to show how short the typical working life of a bottle is but on this timeline it’s just microscopic. Hopefully what’s abundantly clear is that there’s a lot more life, or lives, in this thing than we currently get out of it.
Plastics are very resilient but in terms of mechanical properties they will degrade over time. UV light is the main culprit. Knowing this, we could schedule different lives in advance. It’s pristine appearance will gradually degrade. We’ll probably be bored of the appearance way before that. That’s OK – we’ll just hide it away! Then finally, after a full life, we cremate it, releasing it’s embodied energy (from our fossilized ancestors millions of years ago) 500 years after it was taken from under the ground. 500 years of life, instead of a week or two.
A more fitting end.
So based on this analysis I’ve thought about specific lives and when they should be scheduled. To take maximum advantage of the properties that degrade the quickest (like transparency) I’ve scheduled those particular lives earlier on.
So here we’ve managed to think of 9 lives (a coincidence, honestly….) for our PET drinks bottle. There could be more. We have at least a plan for what to do with this bottle after the drink has been drunk. By doing this at the design stage it gives us a way to reconsider our design beyond the 1st life:
For 137 years as a pressure vessel the thread and seal area is critical. So a well engineered thread form keeps it useful for longer. Increasing the wall thickness by 0.2mm would keep it stronger for longer (something to consider when bottles are being ‘lightweighted’ to be ‘greener’) and reduce the chance of leaking.
Extra information marked on the bottle would also help future users: Date of manufacture lets us know the age; a material code, with extra details of fillers and additives will help those future users understand how it might break down; embodied energy tells future users how much energy they’ll get when it comes time to burn it.
I realise the biggest problem in this kind of planning is matching quantities. You might get through 365 PET bottles of drink in a year but you might need 1 solar LED bottle every 5 years. Using this approach though that kind of planning could become easier.
When it comes to non-biodegradable, “Technical Nutrients” like PET we need to design for a multitude of lives. Not just to grab attention on the shelf – that’s over in the blink of the eye – but for a full and useful life that takes advantage of the amazing properties of the materials we invent.
If you think this could be useful and have any feedback then please get in touch!