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When design renews recycling

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Océplast, a player highly committed to eco-responsible plastics processing, specialising in outdoor composite furnishings, has embarked on a design thinking approach. With the help of a design agency, the Vendée-based company has rethought its entire product range. A look back at a still unusual experience in an industrial environment.
 
Ae design thinking ? It is first of all a way of "thinking differently". And the logic of design thinking is defined around a problem and the environment it encompasses. Between a co-creation method and an economy of experience, this innovative approach is still widely associated with startups evolving in the world of new technologies. It is much less so in the world of industrial SMEs. And yet, Océplast, a company from the Vendée specializing in composite exterior landscaping (fences, claustras and terraces), has succeeded, with the help of the Nantes agency 6° Designers, in reinventing itself thanks to this user-centered design approach.
 
While the use of recycled PVC in composite products is a particularly complicated process, offering customers a finished product made from recycled material that is truly aesthetic can be just as complicated. It is through a Design Thinking approach that the brand Océwood has succeeded in creating a range that combines design and eco-responsibility, as their new generation of composite decks and fences. For the company, it was also fundamental to complete their process of sourcing linen and recycled PVC. It therefore chose to favour its local ecosystem by collaborating with suppliers located less than 150 km from its factory, in order to reduce its environmental impact and CO2 emissions.

 
 
"It all began in April 2016, during workshops organised by the Nantes-based association Design In. We discovered that the essentially product approach to design was not the only possible way forward, says Bertrand Dubin, co-founder of Océplast, "By reversing the approach, i.e. by going first to the user in order to identify his needs and uses, many disappointments can be avoided".
 

When design renews recycling

This is a common sense observation, but one that is often overshadowed by industrial habits and constraints. Enthusiastic about the method, Océplast's managers have decided to put it into practice with the idea of rethinking their product offer marketed under the brand name Océwood. A very committed player in the ecoresponsible plastics industry, the company, which has developed an ecological and agro-renewable manufacturing process combining recycled plastic and flax shives, has thus been able to renew recycling through design. In harmony with Victor Papenek who, in 1971 in "Design for a real world", already demonstrated the importance of ecological awareness in the designer's approach and called for radical solutions to preserve the environment.
The integration of flax shives in the company's products is an example of the demands of this responsible approach. They wanted to find a substitute for wood flour, which is increasingly used by industry and less and less available under ecological conditions. They then turned their attention to flax shives, made from flax straw and used very little by industry or agriculture. However, this fibre has incomparable resistance and ageing qualities.
 
"Designers are in the best position to develop manufacturing methods that apply to specific and localized contexts. They need to explore the opportunities that surround us, taking advantage of each situation to connect human activities with environmental principles. » said in 2011 the designer Ariane Prin, on the occasion of the project "From Here For Here."  Project that had the interest to raise two particular points: the creation of usual products specific to a site, made with the waste generated by this site and the legitimacy to create new objects while keeping the pleasure of manufacturing without the feeling of guilt. In fact, using waste induces the idea of teaching the user to look at an element in a different way in order to derive several benefits for the environment and for himself.
This project also questioned the idea of exploiting everyone's know-how through the different implementation phases in order to generate the overall scenario.

Also, to carry out its design thinking approach, Océplast worked for a year and a half with 6° Designers. "Much more than a customer-supplier relationship, we have built a very close partnership with the agency where the human dimension is very strong.says Bertrand Dubin, "When you work with a design agency, you don't just work on products, you work on people, emotion and experience.
 

Bringing out intuitions

For Charlotte and Peter Fiell, in their Design Handbook (Taschen Verlag), "Recycling, despite its beneficial aspects, does not sufficiently reduce energy consumption and in a way encourages a culture of disposability. On the other hand, extending the life of a product minimizes energy consumption and waste disposal: doubling the life of a product halves its negative impact on the environment. »

So, before imagining the new products of the Océwood brand, the first step was to organize an ideation session (idea creation process). During one day, outside the company "in order to disregard the daily work", a working group of about ten Océplast employees, led by three members of the agency 6° Designers, let their imagination run free around themes related to the company's development prospects (sales increase, new customers, new products, new experiences...). "The principle is to bring out intuitions, feelings and desires. Often in companies, when you take the trouble to listen, there are many useful ideas, not necessarily product ideas but rather needs that are as many avenues of research.explains Tomás Ahrens, director of 6° Deisgners.
 
At the end of this first phase, the ideas were classified according to potential projects. One of them emerged: the idea of declining existing products in order to reach a larger number of people. Following this, the agency carried out a study among consumers to identify their expectations in terms of concealment and closure. This survey resulted in a classification into 12 universes: classic, contemporary, oriental, natural... Nine of them were finally selected. "However, our offer only met two of these nine typologies. We therefore decided to develop our range by creating four atmospheres that bring together these nine worlds: contemporary, natural, elegance and fusion", says Bertrand Dubin.  
 
The following months were devoted to a "test & learn" process, inherent to any design thinking approach. "This phase of creation, which is essential, goes through prototyping, customer tests and adjustments with sometimes the use of external know-how, as in the case of Océplast which called upon a small-scale aluminum foundry which made it possible to meet a specific expectation of a certain consumer profile", details Tomás Ahrens.
 
Océplast is thus part of this new generation of industrialists who know how to free themselves from old models by not hesitating to adapt their offer and not to impose the vision of their engineers or technicians. "All this user-centred in-depth work allows us, as an industrial company, to work on atmospheres and no longer on products. A more relevant approach that focuses on the emotion generated by our outdoor design concepts rather than the type of materials used, concludes Bertrand Dubin.

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