As Cute as a Button

I wanted to like Amazon’s ‘Dash’ Button. I wanted to be able to report on it as a manifestation of the long-anticipated Internet of Things, where everyday objects are networked, and can send and receive useful data.

Dash is an electronic doohickey with a single button, about the size of a human thumb. Each Dash button displays the logo of one particular brand, and is configured such that a single press causes a consignment of the corresponding item to be dispatched by Amazon. You’re supposed to use the gadget’s adhesive backing to place it somewhere relevant, such as where you store your supply of dishwasher tablets, or your, uh… Play-Doh.

Just

Wait, what? Just how many households need a streamlined way to obtain Play-Doh on a regular basis? (“D’oh!”)

This is amazing, on some levels. It demonstrates that Internet-enabled devices have become so inexpensive that they can be given away – and so very simple to set up. It wasn’t so long ago that I was blogging about the near-impossibility of getting my Raspberry Pi on a wireless network, but now anybody can get an even cheaper gadget to work. Setting up a Dash button is simplicity itself, although I was dismayed at first to find that I needed to install an Amazon app on my ’phone and turn its Bluetooth on. Was Dash merely some dumb Bluetooth remote clicker? That wasn’t what I wanted: I wanted my household to be wirelessly, remorselessly efficient even when my phone (and I) are many miles away from the cabinet where we keep the dishwasher tablets, or whatever.

I needn’t have worried, as the Bluetooth phase is only for setup. After your ’phone and Dash button have exchanged a handshake and you’ve divulged your wifi password, the only thing you need to do with your ’phone is choose exactly what it will order.

And here comes the first problem: only a very limited range of products can be ordered at the push of a button. CNET journalist Bridget Carey pointed out that the Gillette-branded button didn’t offer any way to order supplies from the women’s range, Gillette Venus. Another reviewer grumbled that only the more expensive blades such as the Fusion type could be ordered, and not the (relatively) cheapo Mach 3.

These aren’t massive problems because they aren’t a fault with the Dash button itself: it’s a question of what Amazon choose to make available, and this can be fixed at any time. So can the idea of button-clicking replenishment in the home be made to work?

It’s at the delivery stage where things go wrong. Amazon simply can’t afford to make good on the small consignments that ordinary families would want to order at the push of a button. Consider tissues: I normally buy a twin-pack of Kleenex Mansize. When we’re running low they are recorded on the shopping list, for my weekly trip to Tesco. If somebody in the house has a cold and we run out mid-week, they can probably find more tissues in the guest room, or they can use toilet roll, or go and buy their own damn tissues at the pharmacy in the village.

As an Amazon Prime customer, you have a new option: you can push the Dash button. This still leaves you blowing your nose on scratchy toilet roll for a day or two (logistics and economics being what they are) but then a harried-looking van driver with a Polish accent arrives on your doorstep, asking if he’s found the right house and carrying a box of Kleenex.

A huge box of Kleenex.

As a paid-up Prime customer (the only kind who can obtain a Dash button) you’re entitled to free, next-day delivery, but Amazon aren’t going to haemorrhage profits on the delivery of small consignments of cheap, bulky paper tissues. Instead, all they offer with a Dash button is delivery in wholesale quantities.

My Kleenex Dash button provides me with the Kleenex Mansize tissues that I wanted… twenty-four boxes at a time.

My Kleenex Dash button provides me with the tissues that I want… twenty-four boxes at a time.

In smaller homes, storage space is going to be an issue. Some people might find that Dash introduces a cash flow issue, too. Basically, in the name of convenience, you’ve become your own warehouse… and it’s not all that convenient.

I don’t find this to be very ‘green’, either. My bulk order of 1,200 tissues were very over-packaged, featuring twenty-four individual boxes, each comprised of both cardboard and a plastic film (here at Capacify, we don’t like monstrous hybrids)… all in a plastic bag, in a big cardboard box. I accept that Amazon can only sell what manufacturers such as Kimberly-Clark sell them, but the economics of this are all wrong. On a per-sneeze basis this over-packaged offering was the most economical, for me, but there was probably more cellulose used to make cardboard boxes than to make tissues.

Another big fail for the Amazon Dash button is that human beings like pressing buttons… but how often do you actually get to enjoy your button-related activity if one press delivers a four-month supply? Also, we Salivate like Pavlov’s dogs at the positive feedback of instant gratification… but Amazon can’t compress the shipping time for our stuff to anything that feels as if the push of a button is really connected to the delivery of the goods. What you get is a brief green glow to show that the request is acknowledged, and then a notification on your smartphone, giving the person who’s actually paying for the items the chance to opt out.

It’s official: romance is dead.

It’s official: romance is dead.

In our house, the neat industrial design of the Dash button is somewhat wasted because I had to hide it in the cupboard with the controls for the central heating. My young son would be fascinated by the idea that there’s a magic button that can be pressed to make stuff appear on our doorstep. (Especially if that stuff were Play-Doh… although even just to make the green light come on would probably be reason enough. Over, and over, and over…)

Instead of criticising Amazon for being a big, bad corporation that has taken over our lives, take a moment to feel some sympathy for them. They’re actually in a bit of a pickle. When they arrived on the scene, many people were still reluctant to use a credit card online for anything at all. Through innovation and sheer hard work, Jeff Bezos has built a vast commercial empire, but in the process he’s trained people to use the Internet to buy stuff – and Internet-enabled customers are fickle. They’ve been conditioned to use price comparison websites when buying new, branded goods; to expect free delivery; to cut out middle-men; to perform free returns with no quibbles; to get next-day or even same-day delivery. There is no buyer loyalty anymore, and profit margins are thin, because there’s always going to be somebody out there who is prepared to work for next-to-nothing in the hope of building market share. (And for many years, that somebody was Amazon themselves, ploughing profits back in and going for growth rather than money, as such. Consider their dividend history.)

Amazon’s efforts to put the genie of free, next-day delivery back in the bottle include the failed Amazon Pantry – where Amazon sought to persuade ‘Prime’ customers (those who already pay an annual fee for their free delivery) that they ought to pay a fee for each box of goods that were delivered. “There’s Something Rotten in Amazon’s Pantry” quipped Seamus Condron, who commented:

“Why on Earth would I, an Amazon Prime member, pay Amazon to ship me something that I won’t get for 1-4 business days? That is not an Amazon Prime service, that is a snake oil operation at its finest.”

And now, of course, the Dash button. They first appeared in limited numbers in late March of 2015, which was a bit of a blunder as many Internet denizens believed them to be a joke for April Fool’s day. But no: Amazon were sincere about Dash.

I was curious, because any study of supply chain trends ought to be all about new methods of ordering and fulfilment. It turns out that the ordering mechanism is novel, but the same old fulfilment process is used and it simply doesn’t keep pace… but then, Dash was never meant to empower the consumer. Consumers are empowered when they have access to the Internet, but that means price comparisons, shopping around… disloyalty.

For £4.99 (refunded when first used) Amazon and I entered into a relationship where I no longer have to type amazon.co.uk into a web browser, while in return Amazon get to ensure I do business only with them, that I order more than I need, that I choose from a limited range of products, and that I display the logo of a brand in my home.

Bad bargain!

The technology is interesting. That a reliable and non-nerdy wifi and bluetooth-enabled device can be built for well under £5 is interesting, too… and I look forward to seeing what else might be done with similar technology by other suppliers, or other innovators.

I’ve been monitoring the price for the consignment of tissues that I ordered, and at times they’ve been available for as little as half what I paid, although Amazon’s price fluctuates with no apparent logic. That’s fair enough if you’re a web-browser customer, but a Dash button customer runs the risk of feeling like a chump for buying things without checking the price. (Having “more money than sense,” is how we would describe this, where I come from.)

Now, I don’t mind paying top dollar once for the sake of an experiment. I got this article for Capacify out of it, after all… but I don’t intend to leave myself on the hook this way. I was going to take the Dash button out of range of my wifi network and then dismantle it, pinching the battery or batteries inside for my own use before I condem the rest of it as e-waste… but it appears that others are way ahead of me: actually hacking the Dash button to make it do something that they find to be much more useful than Amazon intended.

Consider me impressed.

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Charged with Battery

As something of a model aircraft enthusiast, I’ve been hearing scare stories about lithium-ion batteries for over a decade – and they’re not just stories: every once in a while a model flier would leave a battery charger running in their vehicle, and suffer a fire that gutted it.

Any battery will get hot if subjected to an inappropriate regime of charging or discharging, but this kind poses additional hazards due to its chemical properties. I’m going to have to simplify quite a bit here, but basically the chemistry of the common lithium-ion cell leaves it vulnerable to a condition that is euphemistically termed “thermal runaway.”

Inside each cell is a cathode and an anode, separated by an electrolyte and a porous material called the separator.

If a component has a manufacturing defect, if it becomes damaged, if it’s short-circuited or perhaps if it’s made to work too hard, the electrolyte can catch fire – but that’s just the start. In the fire, the decomposition of the cathode and anode commonly release (among other things, if I have understood correctly) oxygen, and hydrogen. The release of oxygen in particular means that the more it burns… the more it burns. Naturally, the heat generated inside the cell means that its neighbours promptly get in on the act and the whole battery burns.

If this occurs in a confined space, such as that formed by the casing of a mobile ’phone, you get a small explosion – plus toxic gases released as the other components in the phone are subjected to extreme heat.

Oh – and lithium reacts with water. It’s not really going to be an issue by the time you notice that Samsung made you a smoke grenade instead of a telephone… but strictly speaking, you ought to use a powder extinguisher on a lithium fire.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry says that “… there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

But then, Lord Henry never heard of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7.

Last time I boarded a flight, they were talking about this ’phone:

“For safety reasons we don’t permit any model of the Galaxy Note 7 to be carried on board. If you’re carrying this device, please tell a member of the cabin crew.”

There are signs at check-in. There is coverage in magazines, on websites, on TV and radio. This is the kind of publicity that even Gerald Ratner would choke on.

Detail from the Emirates airline website

Detail from the front page at Emirates.com – the wrong kind of publicity

Launched on August 19th 2016, the Galaxy Note 7 was Samsung’s flagship mobile, and its specifications were impressive. Just five days later came news of a Galaxy Note 7 exploding, in South Korea. By the end of the month they had delayed shipments to South Korean carriers, although the next day the product launched in China. (Presumably this reflects a belief that the bad batteries were all to be found in a particular batch, rather than any belief that Chinese customers are inherently more fireproof or more expendable than Korean ones.)

Just a day later, Samsung announced the global recall of 2½ million ’phones, although at this stage it was voluntary. On October 6th a Southwest Airlines flight was evacuated due to smoke from a Galaxy Note 7, prompting the Federal Aviation Administration to instruct passengers not to turn on or charge the ill-fated ’phone – nor to stow it in cargo. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission urged Galaxy Note 7 users to cease using their phones, and carriers including AT&T and T-Mobile withdrew them from sale.

After a series of fires in replacement devices – those that had been subjected to additional inspections and quality control measures – Samsung finally threw in the towel, suspending production of the product and then announcing its end. The withdrawal of the Galaxy Note 7 left a highly unusual gap in the market because Samsung’s rivals commonly avoid bringing out competitor products at the same time of year, so customers who received a refund had relatively few options to spend their money on. Meanwhile, Apple’s share price surged, despite a recent lukewarm reception for their latest iPhone – a device most notable for the unpopular decision to remove the headphone socket.

Part of the problem here is the very personal nature of mobile ’phones: you put a lot of personal information on them including passwords and banking details; you store photos of your loved ones; you expect people to be able to reach you; you learn your way around the quirky operating system. Nobody wants to have to delete all their personal information and preferences, and give them up. Your ’phone is closer to you, for longer, than your loved ones – and you probably sleep with it on the nightstand. The idea that it might have harmed you, and that it will be taken from you – not because you broke it or lost it but because it’s no good – that feels like a betrayal. It seems that Samsung will continue to feel the effects of this problem for a long time to come.

On Supply Chain Radio they said that the times we live in magnify Samsung’s woes, because of the perils of social media. Certainly, there have been some great jokes about Samsung’s plight (see below) but I think our interconnected age actually makes it much simpler to handle a problem of this kind. For one thing, all Galaxy Note 7 users are online, by definition: they could be reached with a message about a product recall. Contrast that with the old days, when the manufacturer of a defective car would have to take out advertisements in newspapers, to tell the world how crappy their cars were. The new approach is free, and it’s accurately targeted: it need not scare off potential customers.

Unboxing the Galaxy Note 7

Unboxing the Galaxy Note 7 [twitter user Marcianotech]

There is also the option of a software patch, delivered over the airwaves, to fix problems. Samsung tried a patch that would limit charging to 60% of capacity… but their ’phones kept on melting down, all the same.

Even when a fix can’t be achieved remotely, at least the connected nature of the surviving Galaxy Note 7’s offers a way to ensure compliance with the recall: presumably it would be simple enough to send out a software update that forces a shutdown – and once your smartphone has become a novelty paperweight (warning: keeping it near paper is probably a mistake) most users will be persuaded to swap it for something that works.

So, are all those defective telephones going to be remanufactured? No. Samsung has announded they will destroy all the returned ’phones. Given that the device sold for something like US$850, that’s an awful waste, but we’re now looking at a product that must be treated as hazardous. It can no longer be transported by air, or carried in the post. This leaves returned Galaxy Note 7’s scattered, rendering remanufacture uneconomical. Presumably, some recycling can still take place, if only to  salvage some of the more valuable metals – but almost all of the effort that went into making these ingenious devices is wasted.

Samsung Galaxy S7, burnt

Nothing beats that new gadget smell…

When Apple laptops were found to have hazardous batteries in 2006, they were quick to point out that the batteries in question had been made by Sony. Samsung has no such luxury: the Korean giant’s batteries were made by a subsidiary. Also, the remedy for Apple’s older laptops was relatively simple because the battery was removable. Samsung only recently switched over to a sealed in battery – presumably for reasons of waterproofing – and this has magnified their pain.

According to Credit Suisse, Samsung will have have lost nearly US$17 billion in revenue as a result of these problems.

Efforts to pack still more energy into a smaller, lighter devices continue.

Almost as Good as New

I broke my iPad a little while ago. I wouldn’t have broken it if I hadn’t been trying so hard to protect it: I put it in the boot (some say, ‘trunk’) of the car, so it wouldn’t be seen by an opportunist thief, and I didn’t want it to get battered by sliding around in there, so I wrapped it in a jumper… and that’s how I came to drop it: it slipped out of the folds of the jumper when I picked it up. It only fell about two feet, but onto concrete that was enough. The case didn’t protect it sufficiently (thanks, Belkin…) and I was left with an iPad with an ugly dent on one corner, and cracks in the glass surface.

iPad screen with damage at the corner

I didn’t take a picture of the damage to mine, but it looked something like this. Ouch!

 

This caused me to experience at first hand some of the best remanufacturing I’ve seen.

If you want an example of a product with no user-serviceable parts, look no further than the iPad: the whole thing is about as seamless as the mysterious black slab in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (Only thinner, of course: Sir Jony Ive and his obsession with thinness…)

I’d never needed to put Apple’s service department to the test before, and it had been a long, long time since I visited an Apple Centre. The experience was a bit confusing because the shop was crowded with people and there didn’t seem to be anything resembling a queue. (Who are all these people? I was an Apple user before it was cool…) Eventually I managed to seize a member of staff, who briefly patronised me because I’d mistakenly said I needed to get my iPad repaired. No, no, no… I could swap it for an exchange unit, I was told. This was what I meant (I can read) but to do that, it seemed I had to make an appointment with a “genius”.

Does anybody else find this immodest term a bit ridiculous, or is it just me? (A quick Google search reveals an ITworld article entitled ‘Does anyone else want to punch the “Apple Genius” guy in the face?’ so perhaps it’s not just me being a curmudgeon, on this occasion.) Perhaps Apple’s corporate-speak just doesn’t translate very well into English. Either that or accepting a broken iPad from a customer, recording their personal details and putting it into a padded envelope is something that only their finest can do.

The “genius” in question would be free in a little over an hour, it appeared: I decided not to wait.

At the weekend, I visited an authorised reseller (thanks, KRCS) and had a much better experience. No wait required, and nobody feeling sufficiently like Oscar Wild as to declare their genius. It turned out there was some moderately clever work to be done as we had to go through the process by which the “find my iPad” functionality is switched off, since I would otherwise be tracking the location of an iPad I no longer owned. I also did a factory reset that wiped all my personal information from the device.

And so, goodbye DLXM31CVFH12 … we hardly knew you.

Now here’s the interesting thing: you might well worry that your exchanged iPad will be swapped with one that’s had a hard life. The reseller said my iPad was probably in the best condition he’d ever seen (give or take a single brief bounce on a piece of South East London pavement). What if the ‘new’ one hadn’t led such a pampered existence? No problem: the device gets not only a new screen, but a new back casing, and Apple replace all the parts that are subjected to wear and tear as well. All the buttons are replaced with new components, and the battery too.

You never really notice the memory effect in rechargeable batteries, until you replace them. The gradual decline in capacity that is inevitable with virtually every battery technology had affected my iPad, too, despite only occasional usage. At £179, my “screen replacement” really gave my mini iPad a whole new lease of life. Not only was the battery much better than I remembered, but the unit came wrapped in protective film, just as it had when it left the factory the first time. No blemishes at all; not so much as a fingerprint on it. The ‘new gadget experience’ and even the ‘new gadget’ smell, all over again. This is what remanufacturing should be: a process yielding products that are as good as new, with a guarantee to prove it.

The hardware side of the experience was superb; the software side, less so. The replacement iPad came with firmware in place that I couldn’t dislodge with a full restore. Thus, I am forced to live with iOS 9 from now on. I’d kept my iPad on iOS7 because I don’t like Apple’s more recent efforts at user interface design. I find the new, minimalist graphics rather childish.

Regardless of my wishes in this regard, that era is over for me: I have no choice but to accept the results of Apple’s fanatical yet curiously selective war on skeuomorphism. Worst of all, an iPad with an up-to-date operating system demanded an up-to-date installation of iTunes on my computer, a piece of software that has steadily deteriorated in usability as it’s been made to do more and more over the last fifteen years. Perhaps I expect too much: perhaps it’s unreasonable to expect smooth scrolling through a list of tunes when you’ve only got four processor cores and 16GB of RAM? It seems so, but if discovering the answer involves asking a “genius”, I think I’ll pass.

In ‘White Suit Economics’ I discussed how products can now be designed so as to perform well for a known period of time, but then be made to degrade artificially, so as to force the user to replace them at a time chosen by the manufacturer and not the owner. I now have an iPad that responds only sluggishly when I start typing out a message, and it informs me daily that a still newer version of its operating system is now available. Newer software is designed to run on newer hardware, of course, and this is progress: if it ain’t broke, keep on fixing it until it is.

Daily Apple update message.

A daily hard sell: install now, or later… “no thanks” is not an option.

In a world where artificial intelligence is a hot topic, Apple’s software doesn’t display much in the way of smarts. It seems incapable of recognising that when I refuse to upgrade my software fifty days in a row, I’m unlikely to have changed my mind on day 51. Or day 52.

But how about day 53?

Perhaps this is artificial intelligence after all, and Apple has reincarnated Talkie Toaster.

Another Peculiar Patent

Rollin White was a machinist, working for Samuel Colt as a contract worker. At the same time, he tinkered with bits and pieces of scrap, and designed a firearm of his own. It wasn’t a practical or even workable design: it was inferior to existing handguns, but in 1855 White was granted a patent, number 12,648: “Improvement in Repeating Fire-arms”.

detail view from White’s 1855 patent

“People see me, Rollin…” – a detail from White’s 1855 patent

This would be of no significance whatsoever, were it not for the fact that White accidentally included a feature that nobody had patented in the USA. His weapon showed a cylinder bored all the way through, such that cartridges might be inserted from the back – just about the only sensible way to load many firearms.

Such a feature should never have been covered by a patent, because it was already commonplace. In Europe the Lefaucheux Model 1854 was already in production: a revolver using the new self-contained metallic cartridges.

Lefaucheux Model 1854 revolver

The Lefaucheux Model 1854 embodies the essential arrangement of a modern revolver – but appeared before the Rollin White patent.

In the USA, things weren’t quite so up-to-date, and revolvers used loose black powder. The owner of a revolver had to pour powder into each of the cylinder mouths, ram a bullet into place, and fit a percussion cap onto the rear of each cylinder cavity. The revolver gave you several rapid shots… but after that you had a fiddly job on your hands.

Samuel Colt also held some patents. Years earlier, he’d figured out how to index the cylinders of a revolver so that a fresh one was presented after each shot, based in part upon a mechanism that he’d seen used for a ship’s wheel. Colt’s patents were set to expire in 1857, however, and this led others to design revolvers of their own.

Illustration from Colt’s 1836 patent for a “Revolving gun”

Illustration from Colt’s 1836 patent for a “Revolving gun”

Among them were two partners whose names might be familiar: Horace Smith and Daniel Baird Wesson. They’d worked together before, and as Colt’s patent expiry loomed, Wesson was developing a new cartridge revolver. His research turned up Rollin White’s bizarre patent, and some potentially bad news: the “bored-through cylinder” was protected for years to come.

Smith and Wesson approached Rollin White, and entered into an agreement with him: White would be paid a royalty of 25 cents for every revolver they produced. In return, White granted them exclusivity, and undertook to defend the patent against infringement. Smith and Wesson moved fast: on the day that the key Colt patent expired, their workshops started volume production of their “Model 1”.

While it was in effect, patent 12,648 forced manufacturers other than Smith and Wesson to come up with some of the strangest handguns of the 19th century. There were tapered cartridges that loaded from the front of the cylinder; there were side-loading cylinders; there was a cheeky “dual ignition cylinder” that featured screw-in inserts for old-style percussion caps… that you promptly unscrewed, leaving you with what was effectively a “bored-through cylinder” that would accommodate cartridges.

Plant’s Manufacturing Company Front-Loading Army Revolver

Plant’s Manufacturing Company front-loading revolver. The funny little ‘bolt action’ is used to eject spent cartridges, forwards.

 

Brooklyn Firearms’ “Slocum” side-loading cartridge revolver

Close-up of the Brooklyn Firearms’ “Slocum” side-loading cartridge revolver: every chamber has its own sliding panel. The side-loading cylinder would reappear a century later with the heroically ugly Dardick 1100

 

James Reid Model No. 4 Revolver with a “Dual Ignition” cylinder

James Reid Model No. 4 Revolver with a “Dual Ignition” cylinder – cleverly circumventing the Rollin White Patent

Rollin White ought to have made out like a bandit: a 25 cent royalty represented a considerable chunk of the profit on a handgun that sold for $12.75 – not bad pay considering that he should never have been granted the license. In reality, White was kept busy with expensive lawsuits, and although the courts usually found in his favour, Smith and Wesson profited far more than the patent-holder. In an application to extend the patent on the grounds that he had not been fairly compensated, White reported that he had made $71,000 while Smith and Wesson earned over $1 million. As ‘An act for the relief of Rollin White’ the bill went clear through the senate – before being vetoed by President Ulysses S. Grant in January 1870. The patent had caused considerable inconvenience to those working to arm the forces of the Union during the American Civil War, and the former Commanding General of the United States Army wasn’t about to let that go.

Rollin White, not exactly a patent troll but certainly one of the more disruptive unsuccessful inventors of the 19th century, fell into bankruptcy… although ultimately he did somewhat better in the sewing machine business.

The patent was gone, but the lesson in how not to license intellectual property remains true to this day.

The Gaseous State

The question that I’ve been pondering this week: what if existing models of the supply chain are outdated, and a whole new dimension is required? We speak of workflow, liquidity, pooling of resources… but what if commerce no longer resembles a liquid, but a gas?

A liquid sloshes about, and finds its lowest possible level. We’ve seen that: work gravitates to the place where it’s cheapest (and where regulation and taxation are the least onerous)… but that’s only half the story. A gas expands until it fills every nook and cranny: and it keeps on pushing until the pressure is equal throughout the system.

This is the evolutionary change in the modern-day supply chain. From solid (we expect things to stay put, and we expect to do things the way we’ve always done them) to liquid (everything takes the path of least resistance and flows downhill) to gas, and the ‘new normal’ that everything is everywhere. Instant gratification, same-day delivery, and so on.

The future is... more energetic.

The future is… more energetic.

The change isn’t just a new challenge wrought by new expectations on the demand side, though: the fulfilment paradigm has also changed. New actors participate in the supply chain now, while old ones take on different and expanded roles.

The service sector is being shaken up by disruptive changes. People with a spare room in their home now use Airbnb to compete directly with the conventional providers of short-stay accommodation. People with a vehicle and time on their hands sign up with Uber, offering a service comparable to taxis, on a casual basis.

Manufacturing businesses aren’t safe from disruption of this kind. What’s to stop a manufacturer from selling idle machine time to anybody that can benefit from it? Twenty-five years ago, Prestige Garden Furniture of Bolton were making parts for the Jaguar cars that competed at Le Mans… with good data exchange formats and a growing list of successful collaborations, this sort of thing is only going to increase. Add in ‘the cloud’ and the notion that businesses can tender for work on a case-by-case basis, and the commercial landscape begins to look very different.

On the retail side, who’s to say that the next thing you buy will come from a conventional source? In some applications, a ‘previously enjoyed’ product might be just what the customer needs, simultaneously shielding them from tax and depreciation, and allowing them to feel better about their environmental impact… and in eBay citizens (and businesses) have an excellent marketplace in which to buy or sell with some confidence that prices are fair.

Finance has gone crowdsourced, too. Where entrepreneurs once had to meet with the bank manager, Kickstarter offers a way to fund everything from movies to gadgets, while peer-to-peer loans allow borrowers access to credit and give savers a decent return on investment… with no high street bank in sight.

This is the all-pervasive commerce of the future: where a vastly expanded pool of casual or unconventional actors provide additional capability. Ignore them all and go with old-style formal relationships if you must, but understand that there are a whole lot of other people out there who want to get involved – and might end up working for the opposition. Done well, the coordination of a set of such contributions could be a powerful strategic differentiator because there’s an army of people who could play a part, in every city.

What triggered the change that turned the liquid of old-style commerce into an all-pervasive gas?

Microwaves.

The cellphone changed everything. The Internet made a big change, for sure, but it was mobile that really let the genie out of the bottle. Once calls were make to a person rather than a place, a plumber no longer needed a relative staying at home to take calls and make appointments. Cutting out the ‘receptionist-at-home’ role (and there must have been many thousands of such people) meant they could take on paid work elsewhere. Mobile ’phones also meant a farmer would know if today was the right day to harvest his vegetable crop – and could perhaps secure a price with a buyer, instead of being at the mercy of a middleman. That same mobile telephone allows ride-sharing, live translation services, paperless ticketing and much more.

In my family, when we send holiday postcards, we don’t start by buying a postcard: we use our own photo, uploaded with an accompanying message to a print-on-demand firm who create the card and put it straight into the post. In effect we have become actors in our own supply chain, replacing the professional photographer who formerly earned royalties on their images. We’ve eliminated the foreign leg of the postal service, too: never again will we queue in the bureau de poste and request “un timbre pour l’Angleterre”… and the likelihood that the resulting card will be delivered by the Royal Mail is declining, too: there are so many others who could bid for the contract.

The world has changed, and the lesson to be learned here is not to be the old-style incumbent, selling pre-printed postcards in a digital age. Like any paradigm shift, there will be winners and losers, and the first step towards becoming a winner is to be aware that the shift is underway. The future is digital, no doubt, but it’s also amorphous, chaotic… and gaseous.

Scheiss Glumpf

We learned a new phrase from our German friends this weekend, or perhaps a part of a phrase: Scheiss Glumpf.

We had to ask: what does it mean? The Scheiss bit is familiar enough, I’m sure… but Germans do so love to concatenate their words. (Remember, these are the people who brought us “Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften”: insurance companies providing legal protection.)

Thus, a Bavarian carpenter who strikes his thumb instead of a nail is able to say…

HimmiherrgottZagramentZefixHallelujaJamilextamArschScheissGlumpffaregts

You can see “Scheiss Glumpf” on the bottom row – but what does it mean?

“It’s something you say when your kid is playing with some plastic toy, and it breaks right away,” our German friend explained. “We say it’s just Scheiss Glumpf: it’s garbage.”

I see a lot of Scheiss Glumpf. My son favours quantity over quality, for sure: he’ll always choose a fleet of shoddy injection-moulded vehicles that come three or four on a card from Poundland, rather than one durable toy… but that’s to be expected, because he’s four years old.

Are we all infants? Why do we keep on buying Scheiss Glumpf?

We do, though, don’t we?

Thinking back to my childhood (and a number of toys that came from jumble sales, and were thus older still) the cars produced under the ‘Dinky Toys’ brand were ridiculously tough. US manufacturer Tonka even claimed (with a somewhat unfair test showing everything you will ever need to know about scaling laws) that their toys were tougher than the real thing:

The toys of the 1970s were so well-made that they could be handed down from child to child, in a way that was all but guaranteed to drive their manufacturer out of business. A list of the manufacturers who provided the toys of my childhood reads like a roll call of casualties in the postwar decline of British manufacturing: Palitoy, Tri-ang, Meccano, Chad Valley… all acquired by somebody else, or disappeared entirely. Not beaten by a rival who made better toys, but beaten by their inability to react to the changes wrought by the age of Scheiss Glumpf.

Nowadays, it seems the whole economy is geared towards Scheiss Glumpf: products that are flimsy, but inexpensive. We’ve grown accustomed to teeshirts that look shabby when you’ve washed them a couple of times, but you know that things have sunk to a new low when you start seeing tools that you’re expected to throw away. (Whatever happened to saw sharpening services, anyway?)

Why does anybody need two saws?

Saws used to last a lifetime. Now they’re two for £10 at B&Q. You just know they’re not going to be much good.

Is this inevitable? We shall see. But first a word on the scam that flimsy products work upon us all, eloquently explained by the late Terry Pratchett, in the character of Captain Samuel Vimes:

“The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.

“Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.

“But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while a poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

“This was the Captain Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socioeconomic unfairness.”

– Terry Pratchett, ‘Men at Arms’

How many things do you own that were made in the last twenty years, and which you plan to pass on to your descendants? Can you think of anything that’s worth listing specifically in your will, and that you’ll still have, whether you should die tomorrow, or twenty years form now?

Jewellery, maybe. Not much else.

Patek Philippe, watchmakers, told us in a recent advertising campaign that “You never actually own a Patek Philippe: you merely look after it for the next generation.” If you can afford to spend more money on a wristwatch than most people spend on a car, perhaps you deserve a bit of durability. The rest of us make do with much cheaper substitutes… but probably enjoy a lower total cost of timepiece ownership, over a lifetime. Owning a Patek Philippe, then, is about more than telling the time. You’re buying something else.

So, we choose Scheiss Glumpf for complicated reasons – but it doesn’t just exist at the bottom of the price range. Some people who apparently have more money than sense actually pay a premium for theirs. Apple offer a gold ‘edition’ version of their wristwatch at up to £13,500… for a gadget that your descendants almost certainly won’t take delight in wearing. Being a ‘smart’ watch, it’s subject to a cycle of redevelopment and consequent obsolescence in perhaps two years. It’s guaranteed solid gold digital Scheiss Glumpf.

The holidays are a great time for the exchange of Scheiss Glumpf, whether it’s Easter with its incredibly inefficient format for the delivery of chocolate, or Christmas with all its excesses in presentation, packaging, and the entirely understandable desire to make sure your kids have the “best Christmas ever” (coupled with the low, low price that seductive Scheiss Glumpf always exhibits). But are we any happier?

At Christmas, my in-laws gave us a very generous gift. One that we’ll use for years to come, secure in the knowledge that it’ll never wear out: lifetime membership of English Heritage. I was alarmed to see just how much it cost, but it’s a brilliant gift. Free entry to over four hundred historical sites: from Stonehenge to Cold War bunkers; windmills to stately homes, and much in-between.

Even today, some things aren’t Scheiss Glumpf: choose wisely.

Stonehenge, Wiltshire.

A relic from a time when things were built to last.

The Circular Economy: n, o, p, and q

Such a nice idea, isn’t it? That the byproducts from everything that you need are useful and valuable elsewhere within the system that sustains us all. No waste, no pollution.

No more throwing things away, because (other than a very few, very expensive space probes) humanity hasn’t yet worked out how to send things away.

So how do we turn something linear into something circular?

Natural systems manage to be (more-or-less) circular: the water cycle, for example: evaporation, condensation and precipitation, over and over for billions of years. Or fish in the sea: left to themselves, the various species of fish would fill all the different niches where we have now made them scarce, and natural levels of predation would merely make room for more fish.

Cyclic systems must work, because the natural world got along fine before Charles Darwin, Sir David Attenborough or the Common Fisheries Policy. Long before conscious study and intervention, many species were happily chalking up a span of a million years or more, with plenty of diversity.

Then along comes a species that supplemented the natural cycles with a new one. Animals had used tools before, but one animal didn’t merely make use of sticks and stones that happened to be lying around: man acquired the ability to think ahead, and to shape complex tools that couldn’t have occurred naturally.

I want to use the Acheulean handaxe to illustrate the point because this very early, very simple machine shows something fundamental about human technology: it’s not cyclic. If you were butchering a carcass with your handaxe and you broke it on a stubborn bone, or you decided that it had become too blunt, you had to get a new one. (You could, perhaps, chip another flake off to reveal a new sharp edge, but your axe would become smaller if you did this.) Thus, at the dawn of man, people were acting in more-or-less the same way as we do when we go to Phones4U and request an upgrade. This one’s no good: get a new one.

Flint hand axe

Prototype Swiss Army Knife, circa 750,000 BCE

You can’t recycle a broken flint handaxe. The Earth will do it for you via erosion and the compression of sedimentary rock, but that doesn’t happen on any sort of timescale that a mere species can take an interest in. Instead, you go and get more raw materials from out of the ground.

Interestingly, in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania where handaxes were first made, the materials were ten kilometres from any settlement. Even back then, it seems we had logistics and procurement, as well as waste.

You might be tempted to dismiss this example on the grounds that we’re better than this nowadays. It’s true that the bronze age brought us tools that could be reforged, but for the vast majority of human history the stone handaxe was the only device there was, and you couldn’t remake a handaxe any more than you can turn fired pottery back into clay, or make bread out of burnt toast.

We take the raw materials we need, make our devices, wear them out, throw them away, and start again. This is called the linear economy, and we still apply it today. For a while, recycling was an option, but nowadays many modern products are a mass of different materials, not readily or economically separated.

Technology has given us all kinds of good things like dentistry, family planning and communications. Almost nobody would advocate a return to the simpler technologies of an earlier age, but many of the things that we enjoy nowadays come with an environmental price, because they are the product of a linear economy.

Our supply chains are exactly that: supply chains, not supply loops.

Heavy machinery at a landfill site

How’s recycling working out, where you live?

You can think of the single useful life that is obtained from many materials as being like an arc: it comes out of the ground, enters into a period of usefulness, ceases to be useful, and returns to the earth. It’s an ’n’ shape.

the n-shaped economy

Under the ‘n’-shaped economy, materials describe a brief arc of usefulness, before returning to the ground

The archetype for the circular economy is an ’o’ shape, which sees items or materials going round and round ad infinitum. It’s a nice idea, but it’s wholly idealised. Getting something from nothing isn’t realistic because even if you never waste anything again, the materials you depend upon came out of the ground at some point. Statistically, we all (as citizens of planet Earth) own something like 80kg of aluminium… yet two hundred years ago, nobody had ever seen any. Recycling is essential with this costly and energy-intensive material… but it wasn’t always an option: the pump had to be primed.

The ‘o’-shaped, circular economy

The ‘o’-shaped, circular economy may be difficult to realise, with complex products

Thus, the circular economy that supersedes the ’n’ shape isn’t really an ‘o’, but more of a ‘p’. Materials must be taken out of the ground if they are to ascend into a useful cycle. 

The ‘p’-shaped economy

The ‘p’-shaped economy may be more realistic, recognising that cycles have to begin from something…

Even then, that’s not the happy ending of the story. Although your product may be more throughly sustainable, fairtrade, non-toxic, homespun, low-carbon, vegan, recycled and eco-labelled than Jeremy Corbyn’s moustache, there’s always a bit of entropy in any system. Materials wear away, or get contaminated, or mixed together in a way that changes them for good – or they get destroyed in accidents, or simply lost. If the circular economy is truly an economy, then you have to accept that people are going to buy or lease your products and take them away and use them in unanticipated ways.

The ‘q’-shaped model

The ‘q’-shaped model recognises that even though you reuse and recycle as much as possible, entropy awaits

Like zero defects or full employment, the circular economy is unattainable, but it’s a neat way to express an aspiration. In reality, it’s not an ‘o’ shape at all, but if we apply enough ingenuity we might manage a shape that looks something like “pooooq” – a shape that describes lots of useful ‘orbits’ before entropy sets in at last.

The ‘pooooq-shaped economy’

The ‘pooooq’ economy: our best-case scenario sees redesigned products being used the maximum number of times, before they eventually become unfit to serve.

I once heard a guest speaker (and I wish I could remember who it was… Professor Bernard Hon, maybe?) who told us that a car’s electric window-winder mechanism was an ideal candidate for component reuse. It’s hidden away inside the door, so the Fashion Police can’t make a fuss that it isn’t the latest type. Car window winder mechanisms are reasonably durable, because of course it would reflect badly upon the brand if they failed… but how much more would it cost to make a window actuator that was designed to last through not just the life of the car, but through the life of five cars, with the unit being extracted and refitted four more times?

Twenty percent extra, our guest speaker said. But if that’s true, who pays for the current practice whereby an end-of-life vehicle gets shredded and the parts are either melted down or burnt in the name of energy recovery?

Car window actuator

Everything you ever wanted to know about automotive window actuators may be a mere click away.

We all pay. Motorists, for sure, but in fact everyone who needs commodities such as materials and energy… which means all of us.

It seems we’re barely out of the bronze age. Some people and organisations are showing that it’s possible to be ‘greener’, but many items are no more likely to be reused than a worn out Acheulean handaxe. Of course, we’re new at this: it’s only been seven thousand years since we started working with metals.

Perhaps we’ll crack this Circular Economy thing yet – and perhaps evaluating our efforts in terms of ’n’, ‘o’, ‘p’ and ‘q’ will help.