The work was done at the School of Art and Design’s Product Innovation Research Laboratory in conjunction with the Sustainable Electronics Initiative at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, a unit within the Prairie Research Institute on campus. The collaboration was led by a diverse group of faculty members and students and supported through a grant from the Dell Corp.
The challenge offered to the students – academic leaders in the disciplines of business, engineering, industrial design and marketing – was to find a new use for laptop computer “shells” whose hard drives have been rendered inoperable.
The unserviceable laptops – or what’s left of them – traditionally are recycled or thrown away, and options for their reuse to this point have been limited.
Despite a growing number of rules and regulations to keep electronic waste out of landfills – like the law that went into effect this year in Illinois – disposal of e-waste is a growing problem around the world. It’s aggravated by the breakneck speed of technological advancement and the accelerating pace to replace obsolete hardware.
“The issue is, what do you do with these computers after they’ve outlived their use?” said William Bullock, an industrial design professor, PIRL director and a principal investigator for the laptop recycling project dubbed “A New Life for Laptops.”
“If they keep getting buried in a landfill they’re not useful anymore; it’s simply a waste,” he said.
And add to the landfill problem the global practice of using developing countries as a dumping ground for old electronics, where tons of equipment containing toxic materials are “scrapped” for residual precious metals in caustic open-air burn pits.
“By finding ways to make these things useful again they can be diverted away from those places,” he said.
Bullock said officials at Dell, which already operates an effective laptop recycling program, wanted the project not only to advance computer re-purposing research, but also to provide a cross-disciplinary learning environment for UI students.
“We invited the best and brightest students to work on this problem,” he said. “We can steer them in the right direction, but the idea is for it to be student-driven and student-presented. They’re trying to solve a problem but they’re also learning about the research process and the importance of diverse collaboration. It was a new experience for them and I think it’s been a positive one.”
Rick Maturo, of Inverness, Ill., now an advertising graduate student who worked on the project as an undergraduate, said the process opened his eyes to the value of collaborating with other disciplines.
“I don’t pride myself on being an engineer or designer, but I was being challenged to be one,” he said. “It presented a great opportunity to see things differently. Usually, in advertising, we’ve focused on communicating a message. Here it was more top-down – we had to determine who the product was even for.”
Kristen Satkas, an industrial design student from Frankfort, Ill., said her experience was similar.
“It was a lot different than any of my past experiences because it was from a different starting point,” she said. “I was impressed by where we ended up. We were successful because it seemed like all of the students were excited about it. If you didn’t know who was who, you wouldn’t have been able to tell what discipline they were in.”
Both students said class leaders were careful to introduce and walk them through the research process –which differs wildly from textbook-centered learning.
“I was almost terrified to take it because it sounded like a very difficult challenge,” Satkas said. “I was a little nervous because I don’t know very much about electronics. But now I’m glad I took it. It was a great way to brainstorm. It wasn’t just blue sky (concepts) – it was rooted in logic. They wanted us to test the limits, but it had to be something real and something that really could be done.”
“Several times we had to refocus and completely revamp the process because it wasn’t going well,” Maturo said. “There’s a belief when you come from a certain discipline that ‘I’m going to have to sit these people down and explain it to them.’ That certainly wasn’t the case here.”
The 15 students in the class were led to seek out solutions possessing entrepreneurial potential.
“This is a real-world experience,” said Cliff Shin, an industrial design professor and a project principal investigator with corporate design experience. “They’ve followed the same process as you would in a commercial research project; it’s beyond just making something look pretty.”
The students worked on the project last semester and presented their ideas in an April conference call with Dell research and development representatives.
Shin said project leaders have been encouraged by the academic growth they’ve seen in students – for some their first exposure to a full-fledged research effort.
“At first, progress was kind of slow,” Shin said. “There were times when we couldn’t agree and I’d have to step in and say, ‘stop, take a step back.’
“But as they’ve engaged each other, they’ve become friends and I started to see something bigger happening,” he said. “Then you could just see the curve increasing. This experience will be a great advantage for them.”
Industrial design graduate student Ehsan Noursalehi, of Naperville, Ill., who also led discussions and was the communication conduit between the group and faculty leaders, said the group narrowed its focus by studying venture capital patterns and more generally, the market for used computer components.
Agriculture turned out to be a likely market target and the students turned their questions toward UI farm experts for help in envisioning specific products that farmers might need enough to actually buy. Students also toured area farms and consulted regularly with Dell officials.
“From the very start we encouraged lots of ideas,” Noursalehi said, “and we’ve gotten literally hundreds of ideas. Everyone has had a voice, but they didn’t always see how they could benefit one another. It was a learning process.”
Eventually the list of ideas was whittled to three or four the group considered its best.
Among the student researchers’ best refurbishment ideas was one to create a subscription service for farmers wherein good, working computers could be offered to anyone looking to replace old equipment.
The top re-purposing proposal involves using laptop LCDs (the viewing screen) as heat lamps for newly hatched chicks (whose growth, according to research, can be positively affected by certain light colors).
Bullock said there are hopes the next class of students will take the laptops project work to “the next level” and develop a marketable product. He said some of the students’ findings have already posed questions that could lead to future research partnerships with Dell.
“We started with hundreds of ideas, but we narrowed it down to farming and agriculture as an area in need of focus,” he said. “This is the way discovery happens.”
“We’d like to see them be able to take one of these ideas to reality,” Noursalehi said. “We’re still looking for a way to hand this off to the next group because we wanted to push these ideas farther. In the end, it’s all about the follow-up.”
He said he had contacted agriculture and bioengineering students this year in an effort to form new collaborations and to further the laptops project.
“This is really a consulting project using different majors,” he said. “Sometimes you may not even understand what a student major has to offer until they become involved.”
Maturo and Satkas, who have since graduated, said they have already used their experience on the project during their employment searches.
“This has definitely been a big talking point for me,” Maturo said. “It’s real-time, real-world, relative stuff. I’ve done a lot of ‘simulator’ projects, but this one was different – it definitely wasn’t a simulation.”
“It shows prospective employers I’ve had experience being outside my comfort zone and that I’m familiar with ways to communicate with people from different backgrounds,” Satkas said. “I got more out of it than I ever expected.”