My good friend Dr Joe and I gave a talk about remanufacturing recently. I described a simulation model that can be used to predict the rate at which we might expect to get products back at the end-of-life (I’ll describe this in another post), and Dr Joe spoke about his experiences as an importer of remanufactured scooters from India.
The experience with the scooters was interesting because it showed that despite the best efforts of academics, remanufacturing remains difficult to pin down to a single definition, in the real world. I think of remanufactured goods as being returned to ‘good as new’ condition – or better, when the remanufacturing process involves building in some redesigned component or feature that hadn’t been available when the product started its first life.
For Dr Joe, though, remanufacturing had to be approached with scepticism. Some items were great when remanufactured. The cylinder heads, for example, he described as “bomb-proof”. They showed evidence of having been welded up, drilled and tapped to ensure that the spark plug was seated just right, but they never exhibited any problems. The carburettors had been extensively modified to increase the power output of the scooters, making them ‘better than new’ – in fact, the engines on the imports were considerably up-rated from their first life.
Not everything was perfect, however: some components wear significantly, deform, or fatigue during life. Wheel hubs were found to be egg-shaped, rather than round, and new ones had to be procured, there being insufficient material left to permit a machining operation. Some engine casings were found to be modern ‘fakes’ – produced by sand casting rather than the original pressure die casting process, and these were useless. On one of the first imports, an engine mounting sheared off. Some problems such as worn teeth on the kick start mechanism were dealt with by simply adding a shim at the back of the cog, to bring the teeth more fully into contact with the ratchet.
An academic would simply say that these are not remanufactured, per the accepted definition of a component being as good as new, or better, with a warranty to prove it. To a businessman, however, this is simply part of the process of doing business. When you’re importing scooters of a kind that are in considerable demand and attract a high price in the UK, you can afford to tolerate a certain amount of variability – if you have the skills and capabilities to cope with the problems. Thus, newly-arrived scooters were checked over and any parts that were clearly found to be inadequate were sent back. Since each scooter required an MOT (the Ministry of Transport test that assesses the roadworthiness of all vehicles more than three years old) this provided a good way to check each machine over. Getting each machine to comply with the terms of the test was “a lot of work” according to Dr Joe.
This tells us that the scooters weren’t remanufactured – not as whole machines, or not well enough – but they contain much that is remanufactured, and even evidence of that rarest of green goals, ‘upcycling’. In increasing the power output of the engines (necessary to make them attractive to the UK market) the imported scooter was actually worth much more than when it began its first life.
(The slides from our presentation can be found here.)