Although the process is often wasteful, try these tricks of the trade.
Your invention doesn’t necessarily have to be prototyped with plastic. Robust parts can be machined from wood or molded from natural wax. Paper and cardboard can also be great prototyping materials.
As innovators and citizens of Earth, it is our duty to create products and processes that help humanity as well as our environment. However, when we are building physical prototypes, we rarely think about whether our tools and materials are eco-friendly.
Prototyping is inherently wasteful. We are building something with no certainty of success that may need to be rebuilt over and over again, with slight modifications to evaluate and perfect a technology. However, there are ways to make first-rate prototypes while keeping Mother Earth happy.
This is one of the best ways to go green. Although many consumer products are made from petroleum-based plastics, they don’t necessarily have to be prototyped with plastic, especially in early-stage prototyping. Robust parts can be machined from wood or molded from natural wax. Paper and cardboard can also be great prototyping materials. They can be cut easily on a laser cutter and assembled into prototypes.
3D printing is a popular prototyping tool, and fortunately there are eco-friendly materials available for extrusion-based printers. Companies such as Clean Strands (cleanstrands.com) offer starch-, hemp-, corn- and even beer-based 3D printer filament that will minimize your carbon footprint when you make plastic parts.
Your recycle bin is a great source for prototyping materials. Food packaging is often made from strong engineered plastics such as polyethylene and polypropylene. Soda bottles, cottage cheese containers and milk jugs are great donors of useful material that can be formed into prototypes. Foam packaging for ground beef and other meat can also be washed and reused into prototypes.
Component harvesting from old consumer goods is another Earth-friendly way to get parts for your prototypes. Outdated electronics can be scavenged for motors, gears and other interesting mechanisms, as well as component-level electronics that include resistors, capacitors and inductors.
Old toys often have clever mechanisms and mechanical components such as springs and screws that can be repurposed. Just make sure to wait until your kids go to bed before you tear apart their favorite toys.
Computer-controlled prototyping tools are convenient, but they can use a lot of power. 3D printers use high-powered heaters to melt filament; laser cutters use high-wattage lasers to cut. To curb the excess power usage, consider using traditional tools such as rulers, scissors, knives or hand saws to process material for your prototypes. It may take a little longer but will use much less power.
Batteries and battery life
Electronic products need power, which often comes from a battery. Whenever possible, use rechargeable batteries for your prototypes and tools. They last longer than non-rechargeables and keep nasty chemicals from getting into landfills.
It is also Eco-friendly to charge your batteries properly. Always use approved chargers that will not stress the batteries and cause premature breakdown of the internal structures and chemicals. This is especially important for lithium batteries, because they are much more sensitive than nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries.
Clever electronic design and coding can also help increase battery life in prototypes. Popular microcontrollers for prototypers, Arduinos, are low-power devices that can be used to read sensors and drive peripherals such as LEDs. However, running LEDs at high brightness and for long periods can eat power and drain batteries. You can save a lot of power by writing code that drives them at minimum power, and only for as long as necessary. The ultimate green solution is to use solar panels to power the device, or at least to charge batteries for the prototype.
For advanced prototypers using wireless communication for IoT devices, the choice of wireless protocol can help save power. Among the mainstream wireless protocols, cellular and Wi-Fi use far more power than Bluetooth so should only be used when high data rates and long range are necessary. For extreme low-power requirements, protocols such as LoRa (low frequency, long range) can pass small data packets long distances but with low power requirements.
In late-stage product design, clever engineering can minimize material usage and parts count. Even if a product cannot use Eco-friendly materials, you can minimize the environmental impact by making the parts with as little material as possible. The wall thickness of plastic parts can be thinned and ribs added in strategic places where mechanical strength is important. Plastic parts can also be designed with fastening features built into the parts, eliminating the need for additional parts such as screws.
Making a product as small as possible also reduces the carbon footprint of the shipping. Smaller products can be fit more efficiently in shipping containers and delivery trucks, which in turn reduces carbon emissions from those trucks.
Create an Eco-friendly product
The ultimate way to be an Eco-friendly product developer is to create a product that helps eliminate excess energy usage or other waste. Smart home products such as the Nest cut down on heating and cooling energy usage by monitoring and controlling the HVAC system, and smart leak detection systems can cut water to the home before huge amounts are wasted from leaky or burst pipes.
There are myriad ways to improve performance of our energy-using systems. Look around your environment, analyze the waste and try to create a product to help reduce it.
Power down your shop
Whether you have a tricked-out garage or just the corner of a room in your house to build your prototypes, proper shop procedures can curb waste and power consumption. Always shut down electronic tools such as computers and power supplies at the end of the day. Never leave high-wattage heating tools such as hot glue guns and soldering irons plugged in and running when not in use.
A great solution for those with a 3D printer is to plug it into a web-connected power outlet such as a WeMo, and hook up a web cam pointed at the build platform. When you leave it running, you can remotely check the print status on your smartphone; if the print has failed, you can shut down the printer to prevent wasted material and energy. Oh, and don’t forget to turn out the lights.