Rage against the machines? Revolutionizing industrial design

A friend recently told me a story about a U.S. community that had signed a contract with a waste-to-energy (WTE) facility in their area. It soon became public that the details of the contract included penalties if the community failed to produce enough waste to feed the WTE facility.

The incentives to recycle and otherwise reduce waste were now completely eliminated; in fact you would pay a fine if you diverted too much waste. But from the waste company's perspective, they were not going to be a profitable, efficient producer of energy if they couldn’t lock in a reliable source of fuel. What if the problem is not necessarily the contract and the powerful incentives it creates, but that they just built the wrong machine?

In industry, when we build a capital-intensive machine, whether an incinerator or a manufacturing line, securing our return on investment means becoming really good at feeding that machine. Big machines become anchor assets around which companies build entire business strategies for as long as 30 years. So those of us interested in creating "the next industrial revolution" could gain access to a powerful leverage point if we learn more about machine design.

For this expertise, we lean heavily on John Bradford, the Chief Innovation Officer for Interface’s Americas business, who studied mechanical engineering and dreamed of building airplane engines before being lured into the carpet industry. John describes how all of the machine design he was taught rested on the assumption that raw materials would be abundant and consistent (in purity and supply).

John explains how the first industrial revolution was based on the idea that resources were abundant while labor was scarce, and the machines were designed accordingly. Engineers designed machines that extracted fossil fuel and mineral resources from the earth, then optimized them to do their work faster and more efficiently with less and less labor. A similar trend played out for the next two stages of production: refining and conversion (manufacturing finished products). But the other thing that happens faster and faster when you optimize this system is the rate at which these resources (the ones we expend so much energy to extract and refine into pure materials) end up in a mixed muddle that we call “waste.” It is estimated that in the 1970s it took about seven years for the average plastic to go from being extracted as oil to ending up as “waste” in a landfill. In 2010, this cycle was being completed in half the time (3.5 years) on average, attributable in part to increased use of disposable plastics, but more importantly to the optimization of the Take-Make portion of our Take-Make-Waste system.

Next page: Why aren't industrialists mining landfills?