What have the Romans ever done for us?

A light honeycomb centre encased in delicious… cement

Concrete is brilliant stuff. As the Romans could have told you, it provides a great way to get just the right shape without all that expensive and highly-skilled business of messing about with bricks or blocks. That’s why concrete is humanity’s most widely-used material, by tonnage.

The trouble is… that tonnage. Actually, that’s just one of concrete’s problems. Perhaps the biggest problem with concrete is that the manufacture of cement is responsible for at least 5% (some sources say 7%) of all mankind’s CO2 emissions… but low-carbon cement isn’t the subject of today’s post.

In between all that cement, you get aggregates. Historically, that meant sand, gravel and crushed stone… but when your species is making more than two billion tonnes of concrete per year, it’s all too easy to push the price of aggregates sky-high, along with the skyscrapers. That’s why it’s a good idea to introduce a recycled aggregate; making buildings out of old buildings has got to become the norm at some point during this century. It’s already happening, but inevitably the task of crushing up whatever waste you can acquire needs energy and has its own carbon consequences.

An alternative – in fact another part of the solution – is to manufacture artificial aggregates. That’s been going on for almost a century: Lightweight Expanded Clay Aggregate (or ‘LECA’) was developed in the USA around 1917. The manufacturing process involves pellets of clay that puff up when heated, like so much breakfast cereal. The resulting balls can then go into a concrete mix in place of natural stone: it’s ‘green’ because there’s less quarrying involved, and the product is more readily transported.

I might just pause to observe that when the Romans built the concrete dome on the Pantheon (still surviving 1,900 years on, and still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome) they used small clay pots and pieces of pumice in the mix, in order to reduce the weight in the higher layers of the dome.

So far so good… but a 21st century take on this promises still better performance. What if, instead of relying on clay, you could use a waste material? One of the exhibitors that impressed me most at Sustainability Live was Novagg Limited, would-be makers of just such a material. They propose to supply a new kind of aggregate, using almost entirely (98%) waste diverted from landfill – and not the ‘good’ high-value waste that everybody wants, but the real junk: industrial mineral wastes from the steel, aluminium, chemical and water industries, plus mixed glass.

novagg® pellets

They might look like mouldy pumpkins, but these pellets have a lot of potential.

The company adds a secret ingredient to make up the other 2%, and uses the same rotary kiln as the LECA manufacturing process. At a temperature some 400°C lower than with LECA (another clear advantage) the “novagg®” material puffs up into vitreous spheres that I’m told are lighter, but stronger than any competitor’s product.

Cross-section of some concrete made with novagg®

Concrete made with novagg® pellets performs well in terms of both thermal and noise insulation.

“Where there’s muck there’s brass,” as we say in Yorkshire. (Or at least, we used to.) Someday, somebody is going to make a fortune from this invention, I think. Right now, though, Novagg Limited are making sample pellets by the bag-load, not commercially producing aggregates by the truck-load. If you happen to have ten million pounds kicking around, to fund the construction of a full-scale production facility for novagg® pellets, I believe the company would like to hear from you – and you might be doing the planet a favour, too.

Novagg Limited demonstrator facility

The present-day demonstrator facility


Sustainable Infrastructure… through Archaeology

As I made my way around the stands at Sustainability Live, one company stood out. At first glance, it didn’t seem like they should be there. Amid all the companies showing off valves, pumps, safety harnesses, energy-efficient lighting and so on…

Border Archaeology Ltd

From the wall of their booth, a photograph of a human skull stared out sightlessly. This grisly centrepiece was surrounded by potsherds, and images of archaeologists at work – plus a few images of excavators, theodolites and assorted paraphernalia of the trade.

Skull image, Border Archaeology

Hey… have you lost weight?

I think my face must have said it all:

Um… why?

It turns out that there’s a very good reason, and Marketing Director Rachel Cropper was patient enough to explain it to me. Imagine that you’re commencing a civil engineering project, and soon after your contractor breaks ground, you find that you’re digging up bits and pieces of our ancient history. That’s a problem, because you might wreck a priceless piece of our heritage – or turn up some human remains, halting work.

There are also more predictable occasions when you might need to call in the archaeologists as well, such as when conducting appropriate archaeological work is a condition of planning approval. A careful balance has to be struck between those who would like excavation to proceed at the speed of the archaeologist’s trowel, and those who would prefer that there’s no delay to construction work at all. Border Archaeology’s approach is to get involved early on, in order to reduce cost and time over-runs.

I’ve written before about how I feel that preserving our history is a part of sustainability. It doesn’t get as loud a voice as the efforts to “keep the lights on” or to delay the effects of climate change, and perhaps that’s only to be expected… but it is important. Future generations will not thank us if we always choose profit over heritage.

Border Archaeology brochure

Archaeologists have it in spades…

Border Archaeology particularly like working with water companies because such work is less vulnerable to the economic cycle. When a new pipeline is being laid the process might involve assessment and advice at the planning stages, monitoring the work being conducted and then stepping in to preserve any significant finds. Some pieces might be ‘rescued’ for analysis and perhaps public display, while others are documented and protected in situ, which is to say covered up again, and left alone: meeting the needs of future generations of archaeologists to have something to study, you might say.

Now, forgive my ignorance, but I’ve been watching ‘Time Team’ for decades now, and I just assumed that archaeologists either came from a university, worked for museums, or were volunteers. To me, the professional archaeologist was an entirely unknown genus – but Border Archaeology has about fifty of them on the books.

I’m told that an archaeologist will never get rich – and true enough, it seems that Indiana Jones has never been able to afford a new hat, nor Mick Aston from ‘Time Team’ a better jumper – but I’m still more than a little in awe of this, an industry that I never knew about until yesterday: protecting our past while simultaneously working with the construction industry to build our future.

Sustainability, it seems, comes in a lot of different guises.

Impressions of Sustainability Live

As I contemplated the scale of the event, I recalled that moment in ‘Jaws’ where Roy Scheider comments, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat!” I found myself in a similar situation: Sustainability Live 2015 is huge. That it’s co-located with UtilityWeek Live in an adjacent hall only increases the load upon our synapses.

The two events’ workshops and seminars are grouped into about half a dozen thematic areas, covering subjects such as water, energy recovery, energy efficiency and so on. This helped a bit, because it meant I had a fighting chance of being in the right place at the right time… but of course I could only be in one place, so at least five sixths of the seminars went unheeded. Also, I was only there for day one of the three, so things were bound to be missed. We should have sent a small army of researchers. Anyway, here’s the first of my reports arising from the event…

On the decarbonisation of energy

In the ‘Energy Theatre’ this afternoon John Scott, Director at Chiltern Power, chaired an interesting session entitled ‘Whole system approach to decarbonisation of energy’.

I think of moves towards ‘green’ energy as a good thing… but that’s because I’m not the person who has to deal with the consequences. As a result of the session, I now understand something about how clean energy poses challenges for the grid because of intermittent supply, and reverse flows. You put solar panels on the roof of your building, and you start feeding energy into the grid… at least, until it gets cloudy. Or until you start running a piece of equipment that demands a large amount of energy. All of a sudden you’re not a supplier, but a customer… and the grid doesn’t get any advance warning. Intermittent supply and reverse flows are not good.

UK energy flow chart for 2007

In the session I learned something new: this is an Energy Flow Chart, detailing the inputs and outputs of the UK energy sector. Of particular interest to me are the losses. Click to have a closer look.

Imagine that electric vehicles take off in a big way, and hundreds of people in a district have them plugged in. Being ‘smart’, the cars know not to recharge themselves when the variable price of electricity is highest, so they wait until a period of lower demand and then commence their recharge. That’s a good thing, surely? A way to achieve load balancing? Well… no. It would be just like those software agents that play the stock market, with no human intervention. When the price of the commodity falls, all the electric vehicles would pounce at once, resulting in a surge in demand that no source of supply can meet. According to the panel, if an estimated 5% of our vehicles were electric and were programmed to act in this way, the disruption would be enough to crash the national grid.

That’s not a crash of the kind that Microsoft puts me through with depressing regularity: it’s a wide-area outage that would take two or three days to recover from – and we’re moving into a period of increased risk of a “crash and reboot”, says Dr Simon Harrison, group strategic development manager at Mott MacDonald. Part of the problem here is the disconnect between the timescale on which the energy system evolves, and the timescale for the products it serves. Simon Harrison’s unit of measure was the parliament; cars last up to three parliaments, aircraft last five and trains six.

One suggested goal was to have de-carbonised UK electricity by 2030 (three parliaments…) but we have no idea what devices the grid of 2030 will be powering. Present-day laptops and mobile ’phones only last half a parliament or so, meaning that there will be a lot of iterations between now and then. But how “smart” will they be, and can they be persuaded to operate with the needs of the grid in mind?

New pylon design

A recent design competition yielded this new design for electricity transmission pylons. In future, the grid will be a much more intricate entity, supporting a diverse mix of sources of generation  [picture: Peter Trimming]

Who decides on the formats by which these devices communicate, and the technologies that are most appropriate? We’re seeing disruptive changes to the established system of regulation, John Scott warns, and we can’t simply leave it to the market to find solutions. Market-led developments add to the problems because you get bespoke solutions, not inter-operable ones.

Undoubtedly, technological developments will improve performance and reduce costs… but the downside of this is ever-increasing complexity: future energy systems are going to be much more vulnerable to fluctuations in demand and supply, and you know what they say about great power and great responsibility.

Personally, I think they’re going to need a bigger boat.

A Better Mousetrap

I was talking to a member of staff from The Owl Sanctuary this weekend, and was pleased to learn that unlike so much of our wildlife, native British owls aren’t classified as threatened.

Barn owls (globally, the most widely distributed species) have endured some difficulties as a result of the widespread use of poisons put down to deal with rodents (it being a very short hop up the food chain from there to those that prey upon them), and the intensification of agriculture is another problem, with hedgerows having been pulled up as farms became more mechanised.

Another problem that owls face is quite bizarre: that of being bought by the parents of Harry Potter fans. (In my day it was terrapins, sold irresponsibly to kids who liked the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. These were then abandoned in the local pond a few months later.) Presumably the Hedwig Effect is a hazard that will reduce in the years to come. It’s strange that you don’t need to have any kind of permit to buy or sell our native owls; anybody can do this… but that’s an issue you’d have to take up with your Member of Parliament.

Harry Potter, and hedwig

Not so magical: Harry Potter and his snowy owl, Hedwig

Barn conversion is all the rage, of course, and changing ramshackle farm buildings into fashionable houses presents something of a housing crisis for the humble barn owl, but they prove to be surprisingly adaptable.

Enter the warehouse owl: not a distinct species, but more of a response to the changing British landscape. If you have a big shed such as a warehouse or aircraft hangar, and the doors are regularly left open, it may well have been colonised by these refugees from Harry Potter fandom.

The first sign of them will probably be a pile of their droppings in a quiet corner. That might seem like a nuisance, but what are those droppings made of? Dead rodents. It’s a pretty decent quid pro quo really: allow some owls to occupy a corner of your roof space, and you don’t have to worry about all that tedious business with mouse traps, poison and so on, over quite a wide site area.

How neat is that? An organic solution to the problem of pests in your facility, at no cost whatsoever, other than an occasional need to sweep up their regurgitated pellets and guano, a free supply of ‘soil improver’.

Barn owls

Sitting pretty: could this be your new pest control division? [photo: ‘HeBi’]

The idea of the ‘warehouse owl’ as an emerging species is charming, but incorrect: it’s a phenomenon of etymology, and not one of genetics. Manmade structures such as barns have only existed for the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms. Before that, barn owls had to make do with trees (less popular in the rainy British isles) and caves. Indeed, elsewhere this bird is known as the church owl or cave owl, and by a number of other names. There’s no reason to assume that they won’t be called warehouse owls, someday – and this piece from Alaska shows that great horned owls are getting in on the act, as well…

I love the symmetry of this: a better mousetrap, self-replicating and self-limiting, taking care of a known pest while having virtually no impact upon business activities.

If only everything in the supply chain were this simple!

Digital Archaeology

The Domesday Book of 1086 was the most wide-ranging and thorough study of its time – and desperately unpopular with the people upon whom taxes would be levied on the basis of their recorded holdings. With details of 13,418 places copied onto parchment, no other piece of European medieval demography comes close, and scholars continue to find it valuable more than nine hundred years on.

Domesday Book entry

A little light reading. How’s your medieval Latin?

To mark the 9th centenary of the work’s completion back in 1986 a new, multimedia edition of Domesday was compiled over a two-year period, in which people – mostly children from more than 9,000 schools – wrote about their lives, and their part of the country. The whole nation was subdivided into 3km x 4km blocks, any of which could include photos and text, and in some cases movies. Schools and other interested parties got a BBC Master computer and a Philips VP415 “Domesday Player” so that they could access the information held on special-format LaserDiscs – a precursor to the DVD that stored a “massive” 324MB of data on each side of a 30cm disc. (There was a ‘Community’ disc and a ‘National’ disc; nowadays the whole thing could fit many times over on the cheapest USB flash drive still made.)

Big optical discs; big hair. The 1980’s

Big optical discs; big hair. The 1980s.

It’s a great little piece of history. Despite the low-resolution, amateur photographs and writing to match, it’s a snapshot in time, and it can be very interesting to look through and remember how things were.

But we nearly lost it.

The technology that had been used for the BBC Domesday Project was a snapshot in time as well. As the 21st century dawned, few people still had access to a BBC Master computer in working condition, and Philips VP415 disc readers were rarer still. Because the project had used custom formats in both software and hardware (pushing the boundaries of what could be achieved in the mid-1980s) this was no mere file format issue. Domesday had stored each image as a single frame of analogue video, with an overlaid user interface, and this was a difficult mess to untangle.

The original Domesday Book had survived nine hundred years, becoming more durable after 1861 when a scholar would most likely have worked from a photographic reproduction. The information in the new Domesday Project, for all its technological ingenuity, didn’t manage fifteen years before it was for all practical purposes inaccessible.

A heroic effort by several groups secured a more future-proofed version of the work, basically by recreating it: tracking down master copies of information held on a 1-inch videotape format, writing emulation software that allowed a modern computer to interface with a VP415 “Domesday Player” and so on. In 2011, a BBC initiative led to much (but not all) of the Community disc being published on the Internet. Copyright issues mean that the full contents of the Domesday Project are unlikely to be made available before 2090 – although perhaps one might hope for publication in 2086, in time for the 1,000th anniversary of the original.

Digital obsolescence is a terrible shame. It’s bad enough that we throw away tens of millions of computers every year; how much worse to think that we might be throwing away everything that we did with them as well! You might recall how a collection of work by Andy Warhol was found on a stash of floppy discs and ‘rescued’ last year

Digital Campbell’s soup tin, Andy Warhol

Um, yeah. Priceless. [Andy Warhol]

This isn’t just a problem affecting overlooked bits and pieces of culture: businesses are fighting an ongoing battle against digital obsolescence as well. Imagine making and supporting long-lived systems such as a ship, or a power station: the design information you might need to look up will have been through half a dozen processes of translation, from when the design was executed on a mainframe computer, and then converted for access on minis, on DOS-based machines, and then various versions of Windows. The design software, as well as the operating system, will likely have changed. Translations of 3D geometry are notoriously unreliable, particularly where bezier patches were used to define surface shape, which means it can become very difficult to manufacture new parts. Do you translate your files and hope for the best, or do you try to keep your 1970s era mainframe in working order? There are no good answers.

I’ve recently converted my PhD thesis into a modern format. (We weren’t required to provide an electronic submission, back in my day…) The process required computers of three different vintages, and quite a lot of laborious copying and pasting. The thesis had been written on a Power Macintosh 5500/275, a machine I’d bought in 1998 – the year they were discontinued. It had long since gone for recycling, but the good old 5500 had featured a SCSI port (now a long-obsolete interconnection standard) which had allowed me to make backups. After all that work, you can bet I made a lot of backups!

My word processor of choice back then was part of a suite of office tools called ClarisWorks – long since discontinued. Modern software such as Pages and Word refused to open my ClarisWorks files, but a quick search of the Internet revealed that others were using a free package called LibreOffice to open all kinds of obsolete file formats. I used this as an interim stage to get the text into my word processor of choice.

That got me the text, but not the images. These required a different approach, and had to be brought in individually, via an aged laptop that had fortunately been bundled with “AppleWorks 6”, which marked the swan song of the Claris tools before Apple killed them off. (I keep that laptop around because my latest machine doesn’t have an optical drive – another format that’s rapidly heading for the dustbin of history.)

All was well until I reached Appendix 3. In the print copy this had been a collection of images from a Powerpoint presentation, dating back to 1994. I’m nerdy enough to own a USB floppy disc drive, so accessing the physical media wasn’t a problem… but did Microsoft Powerpoint deign to open a Powerpoint presentation from twenty-one years ago? Hell, no. Nothing I still owned would touch it. Help came from Zamzar, who offer free online file conversion. Fortunately, I wasn’t trying to convert anything confidential, so I could use a web-based service. My first attempt failed, but then I managed to convert the old .ppt file to an interim format from around 1997, which was acceptable to modern Powerpoint, and Appendix 3 was rescued.

Like the BBC Domesday Project in miniature, only fifteen years had passed but my work required quite a bit of human intervention to make it accessible again. (And let’s be honest, only the author would care enough to undertake the job.) This must be happening to information all over the world, all the time – and you can be sure it’s going to keep on happening.

Five megabyte hard drive, 1956

A generous five megabytes of storage… 1956 style.

It’s alarming, quite frankly, to discover how easy it is for a piece of work that you once spent weeks or months on to disappear into oblivion. When the VIVACE Project ended in early 2008, for example, we all patted ourselves on the back, secure in the knowledge that the hosting for the project website was all paid up for the next five years and all the public project reports would continue to be available.

Five years seemed like ages; long enough, surely, for everyone to get what they need from the project. Well, apparently not; I’ve had to trawl through snapshots made by the Wayback Machine, an Internet archiving tool, in order to find copies of my own work.

A project ends, and you move to a new job. Obviously, you don’t get to take your computer with you. Meanwhile, you upgrade to a new computer at home, or maybe suffer a hard drive failure… and the next time you want to draw upon some old piece of work, you can’t find it. Or perhaps, as above, you can find it but you can’t open it. In the case of VIVACE, this was a project funded with €50m of taxpayers’ money, plus money from industry: to think that some of the things we discovered might be effectively gone less than a decade later is alarming.

Of course, they might well still exist on some obscure disk in a personal collection, as a printout on a library shelf or in a filing cabinet somewhere, but this is the 21st century and we expect our information to be only a mouse click away. If it can’t be found instantly we assume it doesn’t exist. (Students, I’m looking at you…) Also, there’s the danger that anything that’s hard to find is likely to become ever more obscured over time, as the output of still more documents buries the older information.

Piles of CDs

That file you wanted? It’s safely backed up. Somewhere. I think…

This should be of concern to those who care about sustainability. Health, clean air, decent drinking water… they’re important, but we’re not here simply to survive and raise families. Rabbits can do that. I feel that humanity ought to create something with intellectual or artistic merit. Sustainability demands doing things with an eye on the future, and building to last – but if this is the Information Age, why isn’t our information built to last?

School: where sustainability begins at home

On March 20th, sustainability coach Anthony Day presented at the Education Show in Birmingham. His topic was sustainability in schools, with three main themes; the school as a sustainable business, the role of sustainability in the curriculum, and its emergence as a career choice for young people.

You can find a podcast of the talk here.

Mr Day had a lot of good advice for schools, mentioning bodies such as the Carbon Trust, the Energy Saving Trust, WRAP, and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation – any of which might provide help with making a school ‘greener’, and saving money. He also mentioned Friends of the Earth’s “run on sun” campaign.

What most interested me, though, was his take on sustainability in the curriculum. “It puts a different dimension on the pupils’ understanding of their place in the world,” he said, “and how the world is changing.”

If we want to teach sustainability, we have to teach by example.

While Mr Day gave his presentation in Birmingham, I was in Malaysia running a workshop on sustainable supply chain strategy as part of our BSc in Supply Chain Management. I’m pleased to say that our partner (the Supply Chain Management Professional Centre, SCMPC) in Kuala Lumpur also believes that we should practice what we preach.

The centre has a long history in the training of supply chain professionals, but only relatively recently has the curriculum been expanded to include ‘green’ operations. Accrediting bodies and an increasing number of employers now want graduates to be able to get to grips with ‘green’ issues, and this is reflected in recent updates to the programme. As you might expect, we address the environmental impact of manufacturing, logistics and supply chain operations, but sustainability can be pursued at many different levels, and SCMPC shows that a business in a supply chain training role doesn’t need to present only the theory.

Anthony Day’s message to schools would be entirely familiar to the management at SCMPC. It’s about ‘doing the right thing’, sure enough… but pursuing sustainability is also good business sense, as I learned during my most recent visit. Changes began, as is often the case, with the installation of low energy lightbulbs – LED types compatible with existing fittings. (I approve; I never thought much of the compact fluorescent type). Modern LED bulbs are being installed throughout the centre, with priority given to areas where the lights are switched on for most of the day.

SCMPC class photo

Director Edward Ang, and some of his students

Perhaps a more significant example was that whenever possible, faulty equipment is repaired rather than replaced. Finding a business with the skills to repair digital projectors wasn’t easy, and it’s harder still to find this at a competitive price, when compared to simply replacing electronic items outright… but again, SCMPC shows that the skills on the curriculum aren’t there just for show; procurement prevailed, and a suitable deal was struck. For a training outfit that uses digital projectors all the time, the effort paid dividends – and it has resulted in less e-Waste being produced, of course. Using a common model throughout the centre has permitted cannibalisation – something we could all think about when tempted by the latest hardware, perhaps!

Polystyrene cups have been replaced with paper ones, with a clear environmental benefit… and a sign appeals for attendees to take only one cup. Office waste goes for recycling, too. While any one of these small steps won’t make a huge difference on its own, each moves things in the right direction, and shows evidence of intent. There’s nothing wrong with picking the low-hanging fruit first! Future plans include adding motion sensors to control the lighting and save additional energy. I asked about water-saving, but such a small quantity of water is used within the centre that this isn’t being pursued at present. (Water may be somewhat less of an issue in rainy Kuala Lumpur than elsewhere in the world: there’s no ‘one size fits all’ in sustainability.)

When a course begins, students are given an information pack, and these come in a small, re-usable carrier bag. These not only promote the centre, but in their redesigned form they now give top billing to sustainability. We might take issue with the whole ‘bag for life’ thing – the UK Environment Agency seems determined to dispel a few myths – but that’s another story.

SCMPC branded carrier bag

SCMPC branded carrier bag

Meanwhile, if you really want to ‘go green’ and have a bag for life, here’s a great example of ‘upcycling’ that you might consider… Sourced make bags by hand, from old lorry curtain material. The designers make use of the logos and lettering that the material displayed in its previous life, so every bag (or laptop case) is unique. Not only can you feel good about your recycled purchase, but you can look good, too.

Anthony Day doesn’t like the term “retail therapy”… but I wonder if he’d be prepared to make an exception in this instance?

Bag by Sourced

Before Sourced, old truck tarps never looked this good – and (gasp) it’s made in Britain!

White Suit Economics

I recently found myself watching The Man in the White Suit, a classic Ealing comedy from 1951. It’s the story of Sidney Stratton, research chemist, who pursues the invention of a synthetic fibre that is virtually indestructible.

Film poster for The Man in the White Suit, 1951

Alec Guinness was never that fresh-faced, was he?

The film is an interesting snapshot of its time, from back when The North was probably a mysterious place to many cinemagoers; one of flat caps and funny accents. It’s from a time when it seemed that mastery over the atom would unlock all kinds of potential, but when the UK still made textiles in a big way – in somewhat grim, labour-intensive mills owned by cigar-smoking industrialists, apparently.

It also seems to have been a time when you could lose your job, and simply bob down to the Labour Exchange to secure another. Strange times indeed!

In order to prove his theory, the central character has to conduct his research in secret, the cost of his equipment and materials being hidden from a succession of employers by sheer bureaucracy. Even so, Stratton goes through a number of jobs in the textile industry before he finally manages to produce the miracle material. When he does, he’s surprised to discover that nobody wants his breakthrough to have occurred. Industrialists and trade unions alike conclude that it spells the end for them, with one last boom while they manufacture everybody some clothes in the new fibre, after which they can look forward to nothing but the closure of all their factories.

Trouble at t’ mill: Stratton shows off his new apparel to the Works Committee

Trouble at t’ mill: Stratton shows off his new apparel to the Works Committee

With hindsight, we can see that the disaster they sought to avert wasn’t all that far off anyway. Despite being the nation that invented the textile industry, the decline was already well established and the UK would become a net importer of cotton cloth by 1958, something that the Cotton Industry Act of 1959 wouldn’t reverse.

The ‘big joke’ of the film is that both the fat cats and the trade unions collude as they seek the same thing. They want the invention suppressed so that things can stay as they were, and this leaves the naïve Sidney Stratton with few allies. Even his landlady is offended by the dabbling of scientists. “What about my bit o’ washin’?” she asks: Stratton’s fibre has a static charge that causes it to repel dirt, so it threatens to destroy service-based activities such as laundry as well as manufacturing.

Alec Guinness, detained by his employer, and cronies

The ‘Fat Cats’ are no happier than the trade unionists…

This, of course, cannot be allowed, and so Sidney Stratton is pursued through the town by a mob… until it turns out that the fibre he has invented is unstable. As the mob closes in, the distinctive white suit spontaneously degrades, the previously indestructible fabric turning into woolly clumps that are taken as souvenirs by the mob. Left in his underwear, Stratton is given an overcoat by one of his pursue, and all is well. (Although in the final scene, it is implied that the newly-discharged scientist will try again.)

Conspicuously missing from The Man in the White Suit is the question of fashion. The idea that an everlasting set of clothes spells the death of the textile industry is flawed because it assumes nobody will ever want a different look. Perhaps in 1951, under postwar austerity, this was a somewhat easier issue to forget… but don’t the economics of the film also assume that people never change shape? Perhaps that’s the same austerity is at work: rationing didn’t completely end until 1954…

In real-world manufacturing, industries face problems every bit as challenging as those portrayed in The Man in the White Suit. That products should have a reputation for quality and reliability, yet still allow an ongoing revenue stream; that products should be as clever and as useful as we can possibly devise and yet still be made better the following year, and again the year after that. ‘Green’ issues only make the problem more complex, by introducing a new set of goals and constraints, but despite all this some industries have responded to these constraints with offerings that work a lot like the fictional White Suit.

Maybe I’m just too keen to make a fast buck, but I actually see a market for a temporarily indestructible product that subsequently degrades. In a sense, it’s the perfect product: something that’s guaranteed a world-beater in terms of durability, but that obediently destroys itself after a known amount of time, such that you can sell the customer another one. If the manufacturing process is affordable enough, a short (but predictable) lifespan might be a good thing.

Imagine if you could make an aero engine that was deliberately designed to have a fixed useful life. Present-day engines are built to last for decades, with occasional overhauls during which expensive spares are fitted, but what if we could dispense with all that faffing about and offer airlines an engine that was guaranteed faultless for twenty thousand flying hours? Once the service life is reached, this hypothetical engine is fit only for the scrapyard.

Is that bad? Well, not entirely. A ‘disposable’ engine ought to be cheaper to make – and you’re going to be taking a conventional engine off the wing for servicing anyway, so switching out the disposable one doesn’t complicate the business of running an airline overmuch. It also offers predictable costs and therefore simpler management. An airline isn’t necessarily interested in engine maintenance, repair and overhaul. They might do it, but it’s not a core competency.

A ‘disposable’ engine might be lighter, and because it’s being replaced outright every six or seven years, it offers a handy way to upgrade if engine technology improves over time. Basically, it’s an intriguing idea… if such an engine could be designed. The White Suit of the aero engine world; always as good as new, until a known point is reached when the whole engine is irrefutably unfit to fly. Some of the work I did on the EU-funded VIVACE project investigated a hypothetical ‘disposable’ engine as one possible future scenario, and we selected it as being worthy of investigation by looking at what has already happened in other, faster-evolving industries where White Suits aren’t all that uncommon.

I recall a Ford that I once owned; it gave me basic but virtually trouble-free motoring until it reached a hundred thousand miles, when suddenly everything seemed to go wrong at once. I gave (yes, gave) it to a scrap yard before it reached 101,000 recorded miles. Although it was inconvenient at the time, I have to admit a grudging admiration for the skill with which the product was designed, to all but self-destruct when its time came. In a sense, this kind of engineering is the holy grail of consumerism. A product that visibly degrades would put out a kind of negative advertising for the brand, but mine was a car that nobody could complain was unreliable, and it didn’t rust or rattle or smoke badly… until the self-destruct phase, when it was time to go and buy a new car.

Consider what’s happened in music retail. If you sold music in 1951, this was almost certainly done in the form of gramaphone records; fragile, grooved discs that allowed customers to hear their favourite songs at home. Whether made from shellac (an insect-derived resin from the forests of India and Thailand) or the exciting new vinyl (invented in 1949) the discs attracted dust, they scratched readily, and (because the record player’s needle must be physically in contact with the medium) they degraded a little bit each time they were played: they were perfect for repeat business potential! Then along came the compact disc (and then the digital download) and music stopped degrading. It’s also put an end to format-hopping: I’d sometimes bought the same album as a record and later as a compact disc, but there will be no more repeat purchases of favourite tunes now that they have become nothing but information. They have become another White Suit.

The device on which the customer plays music has improved in durability as well. Where a 1951 phonograph would have been an expensive, temperamental assembly of mechanical parts and early electronic devices such as valves, the 21st century music player has virtually no moving parts at all. An iPod has a grand total of four buttons on it… and that’s about it. Everything else is solid state, sealed for life… and although you can destroy an iPod if you bash it hard enough, it doesn’t really wear. There’s an issue with rechargeable batteries degrading over time and eventually becoming useless, but this again matches Sidney Stratton’s miracle fibre; the gadget essentially remains good as new for a period of time, and then it stops working. (And manufacturers hope that fashion, or a succession of new features, will be enough to cause you to take the plunge and buy yourself something new in the meantime.)

iPod touch

Audacious simplification: there are more moving parts on a trumpet, quite frankly.

We might take issue with software upgrades that degrade the user experience for those with older gadgets, but again, this is White Suit economics at work: the manufacturer supports a product to the best of their ability for a while – patching security flaws that are identified, for example – keeping the product working well. Then, after a time, they force you to upgrade, either by discontinuing their technical support or by ‘improving’ their software to the point where older gadgets can’t run it. At which point, ouch: you got White Suited. There is even the possibility of manufacturers designing in a ‘kill switch’ such that they control the life of a product directly. Here’s a link to a story about Epson printers coming equipped with exactly that, courtesy of the Restart Project, and the citizens who are fighting back.

Epson Stylus D68: kill switch included as standard

Boo, Epson: just… boo!