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Flaxseed and water bottles? Lenovo’s design experiments try it all

“When we talk about design, we talk about beauty and purpose, and our relationship between design, user experience, and engineering. It is really what helps Lenovo drive innovation,” Brian Leonard, Lenovo’s vice president of design, told Digital Trends in a video interview at Mobile World Congress 2022.

One aspect of design driving Lenovo at the moment is sustainability, and with its 30th-anniversary celebration of the ThinkPad line in full swing this year, we spoke about how materials are changing the way it makes its products, and how computing may look in the years to come.

Using aluminum

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Titanium Yoga shell showing the ThinkPad logo.
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

“The way we approach design is not about what’s the new color or shape, but more about what’s going on in the world. What are the changes and shifts that we see happening,” Leonard said. “There are a couple driving us right now, and one is sustainability and a focus on how do we make a better place for all of us to live.”

Leonard noted a particular interest in materials. He singled out the recent ThinkPad X1 notebook, which is built using titanium, and how the company had shifted away from real leather in its products to only using vegan leather, as well as the use of cork for the Lenovo Go wireless keyboard and mouse. However, it was the mention of aluminum that piqued my interest, as it’s a material many may take for granted. What makes it so special?

“I will say aluminum is one of the best materials we use. It has been with us for a long time, but it’s so important because it’s 100% recyclable. It never loses its properties after it has been recycled, and it retains its strength and beauty. Any waste coming from it gets recycled, and all the recycled cans and products come together to make a new material. Our ThinkPad Z range is made from 75% recycled aluminum.”

[Aluminum] never loses its properties after it has been recycled.

He also talked about the way Lenovo specifically works with aluminum.

“One thing we do is instead of starting with a solid block of aluminum and machining it down to the smallest thing possible, [we] start with a forging process to bang the aluminum into a shape that’s close [to the final product] to minimize the amount of time and energy it takes to machine it to the final production part. It saves time, energy and reduces waste, yet it’s still just as beautiful.”

In addition to aluminum, Leonard also spoke enthusiastically about magnesium.

“Magnesium is fantastic when we’re more focused on weight and strength. For the ThinkPad 13s, the magnesium in it is 90% recycled. It helps make the notebook thin and light, and when you consider the long battery life [the battery in the ThinkPad 13s can last up to 28 hours], it shows design and engineering coming together to hit the user experience sweet spot.”

Packaging and plastics

Making the product out of more sustainable materials is only part of Lenovo’s design activities. It’s working hard on the packaging side, too.

Lenovo ThinkPad X13s screen showing documents.
Arif Bacchus/Digital Trends

“If you look at some of the packaging, especially in the ThinkPad Z range, we have taken every piece of plastic out of the packaging, including all the little baggies and note cards. It was a reduction process for us, so we could focus on things we can recycle. The inner box is 100% compostable, as it is made from bamboo and sugarcane fiber.”

There is one big plastic item still in the box, though, and that’s the charger. Apple and Samsung don’t include a charging block with its top smartphones, reducing both e-waste and packaging materials. Lenovo still includes a charger with its laptops, so how does this fit in with its push toward more sustainability?

“We’ve had a lot of conversations about that,” Leonard revealed. “We’re seeing the industry consolidate down to USB Type-C, and that makes it easier to make the charger a delete part of the product. We haven’t solidified our plans, but it’s definitely a conversation and an important part of sustainability because you have to talk about every touchpoint. One thing we have done with our chargers in the ThinkPad range is shift all the plastics to 90% post-consumer content. It’s a small step forward, but the next step may be to make that charger optional.”

Fabrics and flaxseed

Lenovo is also using plastic to create other materials.

“There’s a lot of new innovation in fabrics,” Leonard to us. “All of the fabrics we use in our products, like the Yoga 6 convertible, all of it comes from a pure stream of water bottles. You get a really clean supply of the material. It takes two water bottles to make the fabric cover for the Yoga 6. These are meaningful things.”

Lenovo is experimenting with natural materials, including flaxseed and banana husks.

Looking further into the future, Lenovo is experimenting with natural materials, specifically mentioning flaxseed and banana husks, which are being examined in ways to help reduce weight in future products. However, finding a place for these new and unusual materials won’t happen overnight, and his response shows the challenges manufacturers face when working with new, untested sustainable materials.

“The natural materials take time to study. At Lenovo, we have rigid requirements about drop tests and performance, and we have to think about do we change those requirements, or do we have to push the new materials to meet our requirements? Those things take a lot of time and innovation, and because [the materials] aren’t in our normal supply chain, we have to work with people to understand how to use them. These are the experiments we are doing now.”

The next 30 years

Sustainability and working with new materials will undoubtedly influence the future of Lenovo’s hardware, but as Leonard pointed out during our conversation, the notebook itself hasn’t drastically changed in design over the 30 years since the ThinkPad first launched. I asked what this meant for the next 30 years.

The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme with top open, showing the ThinkPad logo.

“There’s a huge opportunity,” he said. “When we start to think about computing in the future, my goal is for it to feel more of a natural user experience and more of a relationship experience.”

He agreed that hardware may become less important over time, and said that it may even become invisible (not literally, we would assume), as we move toward a more voice- and video-led personal relationship with computers around us.

“We spend a lot of time talking and dreaming about this,” he smiled. “Not only are we working on the devices we want to put into a box tomorrow or in two years time, but we’re also trying to forecast out where we want to be in five years, 10 years, or 30 years time.”

Leonard concluded our chat with why this matters, and how it ties into the company’s sustainability efforts:

“If we chart a north star of where we want to be in the future, it’ll mean we take a different path toward it versus just trying to improve what we’re working on today,” he said.

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