The old saying goes, “make it fool-proof, and they will invent a better fool”. I’ve seen proof of this over my career, however I now see a limit to that equation. As product design goes, we are at the infancy of indestructible designs, at least within the limits of what people can reasonably do to screw things up. The solution to this is part material science, and part packaging design.
On the material science side of things, we have created some fascinating new materials. Carbon atoms, when combined together neatly, are well known for their toughness. The primary example of this is the diamond. Aside from their decorative value, they are generally the hardest material one could choose to make something from. Man-made diamonds have been produced for over 60 years that improve the life of cutting tools. Some surgeons are known to use the same diamond scalpels for several years without sharpening, vastly outlasting a steel blade.
More recently carbon nanotubes have come into play. This formation of carbon atoms is a single atom thick lattice structure in a cylinder. Their thermal and electrical properties are amazing, but their big advantage is strength. When built as a rope, carbon nanotubes will have a strength up to 100 times more than steel rope. This will allow designs that were previously impossible such as a space elevator.
More supermaterials are showing up in products all the time. Corning has won over the smartphone market with it’s Gorilla Glass, a nearly indestructible material that has allowed bigger and thinner displays that can take a decent amount of abuse, avoid scratches, and still look good after years of use. Apple’s next smartphone, the iPhone 6, is rumored to have taken it even another step, using flat sheet artificial sapphire, whose physical properties may reach that indestructible threshold. Will it stop a bullet? No. But will it stop a knife? Apparently, Yes.
Packaging design for electronics has been dominated by plastics for decades. This is fine for a product you would handle, carefully set down on a table, maybe even take a slight tumble to the floor. But in the drop test of waist high onto a concrete floor, these start to break. The weak enclosures can’t take the stresses of 100Gs upon the sudden stop at the floor. Back to the carbon nanotubes, along with carbon fiber composites, these enclosures can reach the point of robustness so that anything short of extreme forces will not do much more than cosmetic damage to the product.