Increasingly as I write, I find myself considering the political implications of the materials in question. The plastics industry seems
to reflect, as with most things, a wider political debate.
To use a cliche (and perhaps extend it a little) to illustrate my thoughts; biopolymers appear to be a rather small fish in a rather
large pond … The pond is full of bigger fish as you might expect. All the fish, both big and small take in sustenance to survive,
the small fish feed on renewable plant matter, whereas the bigger fish feed on oil. However the two are competing for the same space
if not the same food, so one fish, probably the smaller, might be threatened by the other. The problem starts on that day where the
small fish no longer have the space within the lake to survive, and are forced to extinction. The larger fish continue to power on,
until that day when their choice of sustenance no longer exists, and they too face extinction.
Obviously this is a rather single track minded, worst-case-scenario way of looking at the issue. To pull away from the cliche, it seems
that in such a saturated market, where there is an unfathomably vast amount of investment in non-renewable polymers, which have been
tailored and tinkered with to produce a product which meets the immediate customer demand and return maximum profit, biopolymers face
a Goliath. The synthetics industry has a research and investment head start. The relative costs of biopolymers are higher, making direct
competition difficult. The decision to choose the more costly biopolymer has to be an ethical one, with an acceptance that costs to
yourself as a designer, and your customer after you, will increase. Similarly, it would seem the same for making the decision to invest
in biopolymers rather than synthetic polymers. The risk is much higher, and so from a business sense, or at least a capitalist business
sense, synthetics might seem the most likely to return profit on investment.
The most positive factor biopolymers do have on their side however is their renewability, whether the synthetic polymer industry are
prepared or not, the tides will one day turn. When there is no longer the oil remaining to prevent prices from rising above that of
alternative materials, then a renewable shift has the opportunity to take place. Quite when this will happen remains a topic for debate.
Perhaps among the few people able to bring about that change sooner, are the designers and manufacturers of products. If they decide
to take the risk of an ethical shift as a unified group and produce an increasing amount if renewable products, this might change things
much sooner. This however, in a world governed by money and business, seems highly unlikely.
I entered my third year of study with a predominant sense of excitement. Over the previous two years of study I have grown in confidence, skill and tact. I used the summer months, prior to third year, to reflect and prepare myself. I spent periods of two to three weeks at a time investigating potential major project ideas. These included ideas for a pram using alternative materials, bicycle safety helmets, cancer hair loss treatments, and asthma treatment. Upon returning I had established a title for my Technical Report and had started the research. From reading previous examples I understood that the opportunity provided by a Technical Report allowed me to explore both research and design, and so I was keen that the design stage be of value for my end of year degree show. Many successful individuals in the past have produced work of considerable enough quality to be presented.
I believe the initial stages of writing my essay were fairly slow, owing to my focus and desire to submerge myself within my major design process. I believe that the period around Christmas has allowed me to learn and develop skills of time management and balance. I tend to find that I work best when I can immerse myself in work and tend to be capable of working through the whole day and into the early hours of the morning comfortably. I enjoy the work I do. I feel that my working philosophy and commitment is a testament to this. I am optimistic that my work reflects this too. I have noticed that my skills have developed in the previous year, and that I am more inclined to self reflect and not just accept the need for improvement, but strive for it.
In the previous year, I have also learnt more about how I would like my future to be shaped in terms of a design career. I have had more exposure to medical design, having had tours of PDR and discussions with former students who now work within the medical design sector. I am keen to maintain strong relationships with my tutors. I find their words both encouraging and supportive. I have also recognised my desire to continue my education within design. As already mentioned, I strive for self improvement, and as such I want to be the best I can be at what I do, as opposed to simply sufficient.
In terms of my technical report on biopolymers, I enjoyed researching the topics needed for the content of my report. I drew on understanding from my Chemistry A-level studies, which formed a backbone to expanding my knowledge. I realised that in order to explore the technical detail of biopolymers, there was first a need for an understanding of broader polymer science principles, which included; polymer formation, chemical structures, degradation, and terminology. I also felt that it was pertinent to give understanding of the history of all polymers to contextualise new knowledge about biopolymers. Understanding biopolymers solely would be inadequate, I hope that my technical report has displayed both technical knowledge and also provided detail into why the knowledge is important within the world of Product Design and Manufacture today.
At times I felt frustrated by the technical nature of the report, in so far as not being able to express particular view points on the topics discussed. In particular those points on the environmental and health impact of some polymers, which I have personal opinions about. I believe that a lack of this opportunity made it difficult to discuss the diplomatic issues surrounding biopolymer development to the fullest extent. I learnt much about the subject I chose to research and noticed that my views developed throughout my writing. For example, prior to researching PVC, I was unaware of the depth of the potential issues with its use. I can’t help but feel that more should be said about the dangers of materials such as this, and yet it was difficult within the format of the report, to extend my views beyond facts provided by others. I was surprised that I was unable to find any major negative points surrounding biopolymers. Whilst there were several minor negatives, such as current cost and negative press surrounding use of food stocks (which proved to be unfounded), the use of biopolymer as an alternative for many synthetic polymers seems sensible and forward thinking. As such, I feel the way I will consider manufacturing options in my own design practice will develop. I will now give consideration to biopolymer as a realistic option when designing polymer components.
I believe another positive from my technical report was the opportunity to carry out primary research. I took the opportunity to carry out an experiment into the production of my own biopolymer. Although I was unable to fulfil my aim of producing a biopolymer capable of being formed into a bag, the experience was enriching and added a new depth to my understanding of the material. It was an intriguing experience being able to produce my own plastic on such a small scale with such basic ingredients and tools, and it made me consider whether this might be a way we develop our means of manufacture in the future. As many experts already predict, the 3D printer may soon become a common domestic product, but if so, why not too the facility to produce our own packaging materials, or even fabrics, using simple biopolymer ingredients?
Looking forward, I hope to build on the skills I have developed during the production of my technical research report for the remainder of my studies. I have found this stage in my studies to be engaging and rewarding, I hope to do more academic work in the future, and apply the knowledge I have gained. I also hope to display the composting unit I produced during the design stage of my report at the product design end-of-year show in recognition of the knowledge I have gained during the process.
Now I am thoroughly into my research, I have noticed how much I am drawing on the topics I studied in Chemistry at A-level. The majority of the principles relevant to understanding biopolymers are those which I have studied when learning about polymers and chemical reactions three years ago. As such I already have an underlying understanding of what I am researching. Although I have experience of many of the principles, writing about these in such a way that it is informative and contextual is a new experience. I have also found it particularly interesting to learn about the history of polymers (history again is a topic I studied at A-level). Before researching, I was not aware that naturally occurring materials, such as ivory and horn were considered to be polymers. I was also unaware that bitumen is widely considered the earliest engineering material, or that it has been used for many thousands of years. I think that the word ‘plastic’ is most commonly associated with the last fifty years rather than the last eight thousand years, but considering that materials we now consider to be polymers were used such a long time ago, makes me feel more connected to the past. It seems that biopolymer development brings us nearly full circle. We once collected the naturally occurring polymers to use in their raw form, later we collected polymers and developed them into semi-synthetic polymers, later still we learnt how to create entirely synthetic polymers from non-renewable sources. Now we are making polymers from naturally occurring renewable sources again. We are returning somewhat to the methods of our ancestors. Making use of those materials which are naturally abundant and common on our planet to fulfill our needs and desires.
Interestingly for me, this has brought my studies in a full circle as well. As previously mentioned, I have studied both Chemistry and History prior to my time at University. During my A-level studies I was considering pursuing materials science as a topic for further study, but chose to study Design owing to my desire and interest to pursue a creative career. This research has brought me back to the materials science, and I now acknowledge that far from closing me off from studying materials, Product Design study is in fact a contextual gateway to studying many aspects of technological advancement, which includes the likes of material science. It is after all, Product Design which makes use of much of the technological advancement in the world.
I now have all the materials I need for my primary research experiment. I have been playing with the ideas of what I want to attempt to produce for a while. Realistically, I am skeptical as to whether it will be possible to produce anything substantial. There are a series of images of products in the book I have been reading, by E.S. Stevens. I think the easiest method for production will be to use plastic film forming methods, and then to use the film produced to make a flexible plastic product. I’ve settled on the idea of producing a bag, as this is not restricted by scale. If I am only capable for producing a single sheet of material of around A4 or A5 scale, then it will still be possible to fold the material into a bag suitable for holding a phone or something of a similar scale. I am uncertain of the true properties of the material I will be producing, the descriptions within the book are fairly vague. I hope that this element of the project will inject some depth and highlight my passion for the subject.
It seems to me that when it comes to considering the material and manufacturing process for any component, it is constantly an act of
compromising. The considerations are:
– The properties of the material.
– The scale of manufacture.
– where it can be manufactured.
– The method of manufacture.
– How the material is produced.
– The end life of the material.
– The cost of material.
– The ethical issues relating to each of the above.
Inevitably, at least one (but usually more) of these factors have to be compromised in order for a material to be chosen. When I started
my degree in 2012, I found myself considering manufacturing at the end of the design stage, over two years on, and manufacturing has
become a my principle consideration as early as the the initial concept stage of my design processes.
It seems to me that biopolymers have much to offer in terms of relieving the issue of compromising in the material and manufacturing stage of design. If there really is a renewable and compostable material which can replace a non-renewable,
oil reliant, often toxic, non-biodegradable, heavily-relied-upon material, then it begs the question; why isn’t there more of it around
today? Surely it can’t be that simple, can it?