Well, maybe not everything can be improved, but every thing can be. “Surely not,” you think. “Some things are so old and worked over that nothing more can be done with them.”
Well, how about a garbage can? Is there a simpler manufactured object? Fold a sheet of steel into an open box and weld the seams, or squirt low-density polyethylene into a mold, and you’re done. But BigBelly Solar realized that garbage cans are not meant to hold trash – they’re meant to hold trash until someone picks it up. For public trash cans, what matters is the cost of the pickup, not that of the can itself. So they’ve come out with a can that monitors its fullness level and radios the DPW when it needs attention. That can cut the number of pickups by 2/3, saving a vast amount.
The can includes a 6W solar panel, an ultrasonic sensor of the trash level, and a GPRS radio for signalling. It ties into a software system that collects data from all the cans in a neighborhood and plans garbage truck routes. This complements their main line of BigBelly compacting cans. They can hold up to 5X more than a regular can because they have a solar-powered compacting blade. And they’re made in the USA!
“But that’s just exploiting the progress in electronics,” you scoff. “Anything can have a wireless node on it these days. The bell rings, you salivate, and give a gizmo an IP address. The chips probably cost less than the can does.”
OK, lets try something simpler – push lawnmowers. The first one was patented in England in 1830, and the current form of reel mower comes from the late 19th century. It uses a helical set of blades turned by a gear train off the main wheels to squeeze the grass between the blades and a rear cutting bar.
The problem with it is that the blades scrape across the cutting bar, which dulls them. That makes them harder to push, requires them to be sharpened at least once per season, and causes the grass to not be clipped as neatly, which looks worse and harms the grass itself.
So someone at Fiskars devised the StaySharp Max Reel Mower, which has a much more stable positioning of the cutting bar versus the reel, and so doesn’t scrape. They claim it only needs to be sharpened every 7 years. It also has a catcher that throws the grass forward instead of all over your feet, and a chain drive for extra torque when hitting twigs. I find it much easier to push, and it gives a nice clean cut, although it is a bit heavier. It comes in their signature orange so you can show off to your neighbors.
“That’s just better materials,” you continue to scoff. “And Chinese labor to assemble a more complex machine.”
You’re a tough crowd. Let’s go with something simpler still, a snow shovel. Here’s the latest model from the Connecticut-based Wovel Corp, the Snow Wolf. I actually own the previous version, which is heavier and doesn’t fold up. Even in the extremely narrow field of wheeled snow shovels, improvements are possible! You push the snow along with the big blade, and then push down on the handles to flip it up onto a pile. You can clear a big driveway with it far faster than with an ordinary shovel, and with much less back stress.
“But you couldn’t build a wheel like that 20 years ago,” you complain. “It needs stronger plastics and better injection molding to make something that large.”
OK, that brings me to the most astonishing improvement yet – a faster way to tie shoelaces:
You form a loop with each hand and pull them through each other. Click on the graphic for full diagrams. The creator is one Ian Fieggen, an Australian programmer and web designer. One problem with the method is that you don’t have a spare finger to hold the bottom knot tight while you’re tying the top one, but it really is faster than the standard approach. This is what the Internet was invented for.
So people are out there improving centuries-old mechanisms like lawnmowers, and millennia-old techniques like shoelace-tying. What makes you think your problems are insurmountable?