Old habits are obstacles to new materials

Product developers believe that they take rational decisions when choosing materials for new products – but this is not the case. A newly presented doctoral thesis shows that personal ideas, habits and experiences also play major roles. The consequence is that new and more sustainable materials are used more seldom than they should be.

Car bodies. Car manufacturing, one of the industries studied in the thesis. gerenme

Technology and emotions

In his thesis On Material selection and its consequences in product development, Fredrik Henriksson investigates the true factors that determine which materials are used in a product. He also looks at how engineers and designers can obtain support in choosing better and more sustainable materials to be used in new products.

Fredrik Henriksson.“The assumption that decisions are rational is not justified. People are not rational, and rational decisions are not even possible when you consider the amount of data and knowledge required to make them”, says Fredrik Henriksson. Photo credit Teiksma Buseva

The traditional perception – in education, research and industry – is that the choice of material is completely rational, and based on technical aspects such as sustainability, the production system, and regulatory requirements. But Henriksson claims that product development is in reality far from completely rational: it is, indeed, not even governed by “bounded rationality”.

He bases this conclusion on interviews with people working in the manufacturing industry, and on student projects in which the participants have been given the task of developing a product.

“The technical aspects are not unimportant, but choice of material and how material is handled are also influenced by organisational and personal aspects”, says Fredrik Henriksson.

“Organisational aspects may be the ease of communication within the company, and how the product development process is organised. Personal aspects may be the experiences, habits and training of those who develop the products. The approach they take when faced with a problem to solve also plays a role.”

Slows change down

The gap between the idea of rational product development and how it takes place in reality risks limiting the opportunities for using new and sustainable materials. Given that several irrational factors affect material choice, the risks of using new materials tend to be overestimated. To put it simply, product developers may believe that a certain material will not work, and that they have an objective basis for this belief, even though the material may, in fact, be admirably suitable.

The result is that new materials are unnecessarily excluded, and are generally underused. Since product development is largely irrational, simply providing more information will not help to get such materials used to a greater extent.

“Wood is an obvious example of a material that is underused. Traditionally, there are very clear ideas of what wood can and cannot be used for”, says Fredrik Henriksson. He adds that some interesting experiments are starting to be seen where wood is used instead of plastic.

Timber.Wood is one of the under-used materials, according to the thesis. Photo credit pejft

“I’m also sure that waste material is available, waste products from other processes that could be used as raw material.”

Old habits

Fredrik Henriksson’s thesis comprises seven articles and is deeply interdisciplinary, with elements of engineering, organisational research and behavioural sciences. He suggests that the irrational aspects of decision-making should be illuminated and given higher value, within research, industry and in the education of new engineers.

“Engineering is built on a technical foundation, and engineers are used to solving problems using technical methods. They’re comfortable with this. It’s very easy to choose a material that you’ve worked with before, and that you know can solve the problem, rather than testing something new that can do so”, says Fredrik Henriksson. 

Translated by George Farrants

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