Using wood in product design

Using wood in product design

A natural material prized for its qualities, wood is today also recognised for the responsible dimension that accompanies it (despite, sometimes, a few preconceived ideas that still have a hard skin).

 Using wood in product design in the industry, finally, is it a good or bad idea? And compared to plastic...? Because yes, producing, transporting, maintaining... an object, whatever it is, necessarily has an impact. So how to find a balance?

Using wood in product design

Manufacturing in wood: cause or consequence of deforestation?

At the end of the 19th century, with the increase of the population, the production of wood increased greatly to provide for everyone's needs. 

It was the most used material in the industry. As a result, at the beginning of the 20th century, only 10% of the country's surface was still forested. It was then that the first awareness appeared, and with the measures to protect the forests.

The world of sports did not escape the wood! We all remember the pair of wooden skis in our grandparents' attic, or the old vintage tennis racket: wood is trendy and prized for its qualities.

In the middle of the 20th century, the industrial world started to be interested in other materials: it was the plastic revolution. Plastic is easier to work with, faster, and does not move over time. Wood is relegated to the background and the share of its use falls.

However, an awareness is emerging at the global level on the global impacts of materials. We are starting to take an interest in objects and the way they are made. Thus, we are able to evaluate the impact of a product throughout its life cycle, and to measure the impact of the materials used. With these measures, it appears that materials of natural origin represent a certain environmental advantage: in some cases less CO2 impact compared to other materials.

“Industry players are once again interested in wood. Today, as a product designer, it is essential to write a new and enlightened chapter on the use of wood, to avoid the mistakes of the past, to be aware of the challenges of the present and to guarantee a responsible future.”

Why use wood in product design?

To manufacture in wood, it is to bet as well on its technical characteristics as on its traditional side.

In the field of sporting goods (at random :) ), it is found more particularly as a structural element or as a replacement for flat panels of a product, in the case of a wooden exercise bike, in the parts that support the bike: the legs, the frame and the stem). It is also a question of the grip of the objects: handles for a scooter, a bicycle, handles of force...: wood is pleasant for the catch in hand.

From a purely technical point of view, wood will bring to the product advantages such as a low density, while guaranteeing during use a form of elasticity of the material: for example when the cricket ball will come to strike the wooden bat at high speed, the latter will be able to absorb the shock, without being damaged despite its lightness. Wood is also linked to a whole notion of perception, but which appeals to the emotional order. More precisely, it is an aesthetic material that is pleasant to the touch and has important design functions.

 The charm of a cork target, of a wooden yoga bench are arguments that prevail in the choice of material when designing. Unlike plastic, which allows greater flexibility in the manufacture of parts, wood is a material that imposes simplicity and efficiency. To assemble it, it is glued, screwed or nested in blocks, beams or plates. This constraint offers engineers the opportunity to focus on the essential.

As for tradition, using wood to design a product is also simply part of a certain school. Field hockey sticks, bowling pins or billiard cues are all examples of wooden sports items. Even today, they still use the same design materials for the respect of tradition, but also for the properties and advantages of the material.

Using wood in product design

What is the environmental impact of wood?

Wood, like any other material, is not a material for which the environmental impact is null. Even though it is classified as a natural material, it still requires some transformation. Whether it is during its cutting, its transport or its treatment of protection to the various impacts of time or its use, the wood does not grow "ready to use". We can speak about the drying of wood for example. In warm countries, we take advantage of the sun's rays to dry it, but when the climate does not allow it, the wood is dried in an accelerated way by means of oil heating, increasing considerably its environmental impact... 

In order to guarantee that the wood supplier uses more respectful methods for the environment, we can rely on external certifications. The most recognized and reliable are the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) and PEFC (Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes) certifications. These certifications are guarantees that the wood from the operator will be managed in a sustainable way. The European Union has defined this concept of sustainable management. This means that "the operator is committed to the management and use of woodlands in such a way and at such an intensity as to maintain their biological diversity, productivity, regeneration capacity, vitality and capacity to fulfil, now and in the future, the relevant ecological, economic and social functions, at local, national and international level, and not to cause damage to other ecosystems."

How can I be sure I'm doing the right thing?

Certification does not necessarily guarantee a reduced environmental impact: we must be aware of this when we take a global view of the product's life cycle. Does a product made from trees cut in a country close to its manufacturing and distribution place, without FSC certification, have more impact than the same product made from an FSC certified tree growing on the other side of the planet? It is not easy to find THE right answers... The environmental evaluation of products can be a way to try to arbitrate, but the question remains complex.

Using wood in product design

All the forests of the world are essential to the planetary balance.

Forests today cover four billion hectares, or 30% of the earth's surface. But this ecological wealth is under threat: every year, 13 million hectares of forest disappear, i.e. a quarter of the surface of France. All the world's forests are essential to the planetary balance. Deforestation represents a triple threat: to biodiversity, to global climate balance and to the living conditions of local populations living in forest basins.

What are the dangers of deforestation?

Forests play a key role through the process of photosynthesis. Trees absorb and store carbon in their roots, trunks, branches and leaves. Forests, and especially forest soils, are the second largest carbon sink on the planet after the oceans. Forests therefore help limit global warming. These carbon sinks are vulnerable environments whose capacity is diminished by global warming and its effects. The sustainable management of forests also allows to preserve or improve carbon sequestration in forests. The preservation of forests are major levers of the low carbon transition.

Using wood in product design

Why is it important to know all this?

Simply because if we know all this information, we can be sure that the raw material used comes from a reliable, legal and sustainable source.
In concrete terms, what does it look like? In a very simple way, you can read on a map the entire path of a material. On this route, the dots are the stages through which the product passes and indicate the details of where it was extracted, the name of the company involved. Thus, we can control the entire value chain and find solutions with our suppliers and partners that have less impact on the environment.

(And if you were wondering, in 2021, at DECATHLON, 20% of the world's turnover will come from products from French sources. The rest comes from China, Vietnam and India. Can we do differently? Yes, without a doubt, and we are working on it).

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