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KYOCERA – a uniquely resource-efficient approach to product design

March 22, 2012 • Climate Change, Emerging Ideas, INNOVATION, SPECIAL FEATURES, SUSTAINABILITY & ETHICS, TECHNOLOGY

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By Tracey Rawling Church

KYOCERA is a name that may not be familiar, but the company has quietly been designing and manufacturing resource efficient products for many years. For example 20 years ago, the year of the first Rio Climate Summit, KYOCERA made a radical innovation in printer technology that remains the only real challenger to the conventional design originally conceived in the eighties.

 

Resource efficiency has been a key focus for KYOCERA since it was founded in 1959. Dr Kazuo Inamori established his ceramics business with the belief that some things should never be sacrificed in pursuit of commercial success. He developed a management pledge:“To preserve the spirit to work fairly and honourably, respecting people, our work, our company and our global community” and a management philosophy that seeks to “coexist harmoniously with nature and society”. This philosophy puts mindfulness of social and environmental impact at the centre of every business decision, especially new product development.

KYOCERA’s product design is driven by a desire to avoid unnecessary waste by minimising the energy and resources consumed by the product during its manufacture and use. It actively seeks opportunities to improve on established product designs and technologies by applying its expertise in ceramics. In the case of laser printers, there was much scope for improvement. Conventional laser printer design supported a business model that was designed to maximise the revenue opportunity from consumables sales. As a result the cartridge was made as complex as possible so that a premium price could be justified. That meant that every time the user ran out of toner powder, they had to discard everything that was mechanically clever about the device – a bit like replacing your car engine when it runs out of petrol. KYOCERA applied its expertise in industrial ceramics to develop long-life components that would last for 300,000 pages, resulting in a printer that was effectively cartridge-free and was branded ECOSYS to represent its fusion of ecology and economy.

KYOCERA applied its expertise in industrial ceramics to develop long-life components that would last for 300,000 pages, resulting in a printer that was effectively cartridge-free and was branded ECOSYS to represent its fusion of ecology and economy.

ECOSYS offered significant environmental advantages, especially in terms of resource efficiency and waste reduction. A conventional cartridge consists of a large number of components, made from a variety of different materials. Typically it contains just over a kilo of steel, aluminium, rubber and several types of plastic, all materials that should be returned to the economy. Some cartridges do get refurbished and refilled with toner – but this can only be done a handful of times. And because of its complexity, it’s just too difficult to dismantle and recycle so at the end of its life, a cartridge’s most likely destination is landfill.

Our planet represents a closed system and as both population and urbanisation increase it is becoming more essential that we move towards a closed loop model where materials are recovered and returned to the economy when the product reaches the end of its useful life. Consigning metals and plastics to landfill because product design doesn’t support economic recovery of its component materials should not be the norm.

 

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By building the majority of the moving parts permanently into its ECOSYS machines, KYOCERA reduced its consumable to a plastic box, a spindle and a couple of cogs – easily dismantled for recycling. It’s clear to see how this drastically reduces resource consumption during the use phase, but it also brings benefits in terms of reduced use of raw materials and energy for manufacture and reduced transport impacts.

When KYOCERA launched this technology in 1992, sustainability wasn’t even on the corporate agenda. This disruptive innovation was driven entirely by the company’s sincere commitment to reducing environmental impact.

KYOCERA performs a full lifecycle analysis on every new device, carefully selecting the raw materials for products and consumables and developing products that aim for a reduction in the use of power and other resources during every phase. Products are also designed to be durable, easily disassembled and upgradable, all with the aim of minimising resource consumption and increasing customer value.

When KYOCERA launched this technology in 1992, sustainability wasn’t even on the corporate agenda. Customer demand was not the driving factor behind the commitment to radically different product design. This disruptive innovation was driven entirely by the company’s sincere commitment to reducing environmental impact. Indeed, it quickly learned that environmental benefits would not sell the product – especially since in the early days ECOSYS printers carried a modest price premium. Fortunately, designing out waste also meant the products cost significantly less to run, so KYOCERA was able to go to market with a message of reduced total cost of ownership until sustainability became a mainstream corporate issue.

KYOCERA’s product design is driven by a desire to avoid unnecessary waste by minimising the energy and resources consumed by the product during its manufacture and use.

In the last few of years, increased focus on CSR coupled with rising energy costs and environmental legislation has created a market where an increasing number of customers demand products which can demonstrate reduced environmental impact as well as delivering on commercial requirements. More recently, the economic crisis has refocused attention on the need to reduce waste – and thereby cost – and the issue of resource security is beginning to exercise corporate minds. Resource-efficient products are becoming increasingly desirable as a result, but it’s important not to see them as a panacea.

Introducing a resource-efficient technology can only ever provide part of the solution. For many products – especially energy-using products – the lion’s share of the environmental impact is incurred during the use phase, and the way users engage with those products can have a massive influence on their overall impact. Manufacturers and suppliers therefore have a moral obligation to invest in understanding user attitudes and behaviours and influencing the change needed to drive more resource-efficient product use.

Independent research funded by KYOCERA in the UK has observed that office workers understand very well how their behaviour causes waste. In fact, of the 6,000 or so pages printed every year by the average UK office worker, the respondents admitted that over 60% were completely unnecessary. The challenge is not only in drawing attention to this behaviour, but providing systems to regulate activity so that users don’t have to think too deeply about it – on the basis that the easier it is to do the right thing, the more likely people are to do it.

The current market trend towards managed print services is hugely helpful in this respect. Rather than simply selling a piece of hardware, and possibly a maintenance contract to support it, a managed print provider offers a holistic solution that supports the complete document workflows in the customer organisation. Based on an audit of current printing and copying activity, identification of commercial and environmental goals and an understanding of the organisation’s business processes, a managed print project will seek to provide exactly the right combination of hardware and document management software to support the business processes – no more and no less. This optimised solution can address goals such as a reduction in energy consumption or paper use, as well as cost reduction. A high level of management information is available from fleet management software that enables achievement of objectives to be quantified and reported, as well as providing data to inform continuous optimisation of the system.

Most of UK office workers admitted that over 60% of what they print is completely unnecessary. The challenge is not only in drawing attention to this behaviour, but to make it easier for them to do the right thing.

Buying this type of solution requires a different approach by procurement professionals, however. The traditional approach of specifying a number of devices of a particular specification compels the potential supplier to propose a device-centric solution. To derive maximum benefit from innovations in the way printing and copying solutions are delivered, purchasers need to be less prescriptive in their invitations to tender. An outcome-based request offers more scope for the provider to add value through innovative solutions, and is more likely to deliver an outcome that provides significant and quantifiable benefits.

 

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As we move towards an age when access to rare earths used in IT products becomes uncertain and the prices of raw materials rise due to tensions between demand and scarcity, manufacturers will come under increasing pressure to design more resource-efficient products. KYOCERA continues to refine its product design to achieve continuous improvements in key areas, especially energy use. For example, using a thinner film on transfer rollers enables them to heat up quicker, reducing energy consumption during warm-up and also encouraging users to invoke power save mode by returning devices to “ready” mode quicker. Toner has been redesigned to create smaller, more rounded particles which not only consume less raw material to manufacture but also require less heat – and therefore energy – to fuse them to the paper. These incremental improvements are less dramatic than the disruptive innovation that led to cartridge-free printers, but they represent a product design philosophy that relentlessly seeks to combine greater user economy with lower environmental impact. Meanwhile, KYOCERA also works with NGOs and policymakers on broadening the public procurement agenda beyond the usual suspects of energy efficiency, packaging waste and pollutants to include design for disassembly, modularity, upgradability and extended product life. The need for more resource efficient product design is urgent, compelling and persistent and requires the commitment of entire industries, not just a handful of committed suppliers. But if the companies that have embraced resource-efficiency can influence changes in procurement policy then industry will have no choice but to adapt.

About the author

Tracey Rawling Church – Director of Brand and Reputation, KYOCERA
Ever since it was founded in 1959, KYOCERA’s corporate value system has always been rooted in an ethical and sustainable approach to business, a philosophy which has become increasingly relevant in recent years. Tracey Rawling Church joined the company in 1993, attracted by the opportunity to work on its pioneering ECOSYS resource-efficient laser printer range. As PR manager, she was responsible for the campaign that beat the launch of Windows 95 to the award for best technology campaign. Moving on through product management and marketing communications, she was promoted to KYOCERA MITA’s executive team in 2003 and became Director of Brand and Reputation in 2008. As a result of her work on KYOCERA’s Green Card network, which promotes sustainable business practices, she has become a regular contributor to seminars and conferences on sustainability and CSR topics. She is a member of the 10:10 board and sits on the Reading Climate Change Committee.

 

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