According to the UN’s Global E-Waste Monitor, roughly 46 million tons of e-waste was generated worldwide in 2014. Of that, just 7.1 tons were recycled or reused, and those numbers are expected to rise five percent annually for the foreseeable future.
The recently launched Nascent Objects platform offers an alternative via a customizable system of interchangeable electronic modules that can be used to assemble a variety of consumer products.
Founder and CEO Baback Elmieh, formerly of Google, started Nascent Objects to simplify the process of creating hardware. He and his team took apart 600 products released since 2012 and found that 80 percent could be built from 15 common electronic components. Underlying Nascent’s platform is a belief that “if you make invisible resources visible, people start to change their habits.”
The company’s inaugural device is Droppler, a compact water-monitoring system that helps gauge water consumption that Elmieh describes as “Shazam for water.” The company is in the midst of an Indiegogo campaign to scale production of Droppler — so far, it’s generated just over $60,000 of its $70,000 flexible goal, with four days left.
Imagine the system behind Fairphone — but with components you could swap among a host of your personal electronic devices. Elmieh describes Nascent’s modular system, a potential archetype for optimal consumer electronics design and recycling, as a kind of “digital soul.”
“Another way to think about the idea is not so dissimilar to the iPhone and the apps store,” he told me in a recent interview. “We think of the shape (body) of the products as physical ‘apps,’ which are used to give the same core modules different capabilities.
“The ‘guts’ do transcend the boundaries of products and also transform based on what shape (body) they are placed in. In a way,” he continued, “it is almost the digital soul expanding its reach from phones, computers and tablets into the physical spaces that morph and change with consumers’ needs and desires.”
The Nascent Objects platform reduces product development timelines from months to days using modular electronics and 3D-printed circuitry. In addition, users can switch modules from one product to another, saving as much as 50 percent on the cost of buying new smart devices. Platform basics include a dozen basic electronic modules (sensors, a camera, a mini-computer, etc) that click into 3D-printed brackets.
“By breaking out the components of your products, you get to keep the pieces that get reused year over year, and you can upgrade the parts you don’t have yet,” Elmieh explains. “For example, speaker technology changes very infrequently, while cameras get better roughly every 18 months. In a modular system you keep the speaker and upgrade the camera, saving over 40 percent of cost on a new product. The savings are even more when you factor in processors, sensors and other components that don’t need to change in more complex products.”
Elmieh describes the Nascent platform as “product design gone automatic.”
“Building smart devices is hard; most products take over 12 months and $1M of investment to create today. This inefficiency is a function of how supply chains and product development have co-evolved over the last 60-80 years,” he said. “Nascent re-conceives how we build products from the ground up so it can be done with 21st-century technology.
“We wanted to address two shortcomings in home water monitoring with Droppler:
- Many water meters for homes have an overly complicated design where they require you to find a water main or a pipe and then require you to attach meters on top or insert into the pipes. In speaking with users we found that this type of plumbing is a barrier for them to adopt the meters.
- The data they provide is not immediately actionable — while they can provide whole household data, they provide so much information that it’s hard to know what changes you should make to your habits. There isn’t much a typical consumer can do about the water their dishwasher or washing machine uses, but water meters lump all of that water usage along with personal water usage, making it hard for consumers to know how to change their habits for the better.
Giving users a simple real-time visual indicator of how much water they were using has a dramatic impact on inpidual water consumption habits.”
Lest potential investors have concerns about scalability, Elmieh has thought it through.
“We target scaling our platform in stages,” he explained. “First, we have a broad set of partners who can 3D print the shapes for the products. 3D printing enables us to print hundreds of the same thing or hundreds of different things in same time frame. In our analysis, 3D-printed manufacturing can scale to about 50K units before going to a more traditional DFM (design for manufacturability) manufacturing process starts to make more financial sense.
“If there is a hit product that scales above 50K, we have a transition process to move from 3D-printed manufacturing to DFM while maintaining the integrity of the modules and modularity,” he added. “We will work with product designers as they approach these numbers to strategize on the best approach based on consumer demand for their products.”
From a practical, material, innovation and sustainability standpoint, a modular design approach to electronics could be a win on all fronts. But widespread buy-in will require a sea change in consumer perception … which is hopefully nascent.