Microwave Oven 2.0: Building Electronics to Last
Why do consumers so readily replace products in favor of putting the effort to maintain them? Yes, advances in technology sometimes make versions obsolete or less efficient in comparison, but deeper than that, the problem is often a lack of emotional attachment between them and their objects. The emotional highlight of the typical user-object relationship is that moment it’s pulled out of the box, shiny and new, in front of us for the first time. From there it goes downhill, until ultimately, it is discarded sooner than need be. The microwave oven epitomizes this lifecycle. Inspired by the design philosophy pulled from Jonathan Chapman and his book, Emotionally Durable Design, I created the Microwave Oven 2.0. The design won first place in the Design for (Your) Product Lifetime Student Challenge sponsored by Autodesk, Core77, and iFixit.
What leads microwaves to first fall out of favor with their owners? Imagine yourself putting your face in any given microwave and inhaling, and it becomes obvious. Their interiors become gross with use. Firstly, cleaning microwaves is an arduous task. But even when attended to, after time, no amount of cleaning can overcome the odors and discoloration that seep into the paints and plastic that line current microwave interiors. My solution? Line the interior with easy-to-remove ceramic panels. Simply slide them out and toss them into the dishwasher from time to time and microwave 2.0 will continue to be fresh and odor free. But is this enough?
Not really. To truly make our products desirable in the long haul, they need to grow with us, delivering new experiences to consume. Updates can assist in this, but how do you upgrade a microwave? I chose the interface. Currently, most of them are overflowing with functions that are largely underused. Users tend to stick to the unsatisfactory routine of setting low times, watching the food, stopping and touching, and then repeating the process. Instead, how about a camera recognition system that gets to know the foods we eat, how we heat them, and makes suggestions from other users’ habits? We don’t care about the time our food cooks, we care about it’s temperature. Using a thermographic focusing system, the next upgrade allows you to simply set ‘hot’ and let it reliably fulfill the request. Microwave 2.0 doesn’t come with these, but it comes with the slots for them. Once unit sales can justify the investment, these update packages can be engineered, driving both users to keep their microwave in favor of getting a new one and green aftermarket revenue for the manufacturer.
Now that users are inspired to keep their microwave, they need to be able to keep it working. Once I discovered that microwaves are the most dangerous appliance to fix in most households, my aspirations for this project were almost dashed. It was a stroke of good fortune when I discovered that just as recently as this last summer a new type of microwave oven had been engineered that is much safer to handle. But how to implement it? I struggled with inelegant ideations for a while until I turned to the Autodesk Improving Product Lifetimes videos, which directly informed every design decision I made in regards to function, fabrication, and end-of-life.
The final design includes easy-to-install components. Touchscreen instructions make replacing a part as simple as clearing a paper jam from a copier. Drawer slides help parts slide out for access. The exterior of the microwave can be easily customized; third-party manufacturers can design exteriors that better match a user's kitchen, so someone is more likely to love the microwave and want to keep it.
The microwave can also be easily recycled. The unpainted stainless steel fasteners don't need to be removed before recycling, so there's virtually no need for disassembly. The unit's other materials—Paperstone, glass, and ceramic—were also selected for sustainability.
Images courtesy of Marshall Jamshidi