Paul Maher is featured in Death by Design – the US documentary that researches the electronic industry around the world and the cost of its usage to our environment. This topic is very close to Maher who have developed a computer with a wooden casing, winning multiple awards around the globe.
Before he inspired Hollywood to understand the dangerous secrets that are hidden in all the digital devices we can’t live without now, Maher had a number of jobs. He worked a rental firm RTV by repairing radios and TVs after leaving Synge Street school in 1979. As 10 years passed, Maher had successfully completed a FAS course and started his work at Reflex Computers, still repairing things. When the company was set to a liquidation, the repair main decided to go forward on his own.
According to his words, he called his business Multimedia Computer Systems first. But as people started to talk only about the multimedia part like CDs, DVDs, personal computers, etc., the name was changed to MicroPro in 1993.
Maher’s sister-in-law Anne Galigan left a job with Allied Irish Banks to help him set up the company. It was a risk, but she knew he had former Reflex clients, including big names such as Independent Newspapers and CRH. Maher’s work involved maintaining the PCs, printers, networks and software of existing clients, and, where possible, finding new clients and fitting out their systems from scratch.
A nature lover since childhood, he was soon irked by the amount of waste the industry generated. “The amount of carcinogens in computers is phenomenal and much of it ends up as waste, with materials thrown out,” he said. “Software was updating quicker than the hardware, every three years companies were replacing their computer systems, and nearly all of it was going to landfill.”
He decided to design a longer-lasting PC. “I thought, what if I could build an upgradable, repairable, reusable computer?”
With a traditional PC everything is on one main integrated board inside the box. “So, if one piece goes, it all goes, which means the machine is only as good as its weakest link,” said Maher. “It’s cheaper for big makers to do it this way. And, because every three years is like a new generation for computers, people just get rid of them. I decided to use a modular design instead.”
He designed a machine where all the parts could be separately replaced and upgraded. Pitching himself against the might of giants such as Dell and HP, he launched the MicroPro PC in 1999 and immediately sought ISO 9001 and ISO 14001 quality standards as an effective way of establishing credibility. He also competed on service. “Our customers liked the fact that we can repair all our products for up to 10 years and that, once they have come to the end of their useful life in computing, we will take them back and repurpose them into cash registers and use the glass for emergency lighting systems,” he said. “Our carbon footprint is very small.”
Amazingly, given the scale of the competition, he also managed to compete on price. “You have to remember, the big makers operate on very big margins. And we do the set-up for our customers.”
He set his heart on winning an EU Ecolabel, the badge of honour for environmental standards, but was told that given the mercury, lead, PVCs, plastics and brominated flame retardants used in the computer industry, it would be impossible for a PC to win it. Undeterred, Maher stripped out the carcinogenic materials to build the IamEco computer.
“Nature ensures oil-based carbons are buried deep in the earth where they can’t cause trouble, yet we humans go out of our way to dig down and strip them out. With IamEco we don’t use any oil-based carbon at all. We use wood.”
His design also did away with peripherals such as mice and keyboards in favour of a touchscreen. Unfortunately, as a small firm, getting the machine certified across Europe was a difficult process. In the meantime, Apple’s revolutionary iPad launched and stole his thunder.
“Though we had the technological skills, we didn’t have the management skills to capitalise on it. The company was built on service and having great engineers.”
Still, in 2010 he secured the Ecolabel certification he had been aiming for. This was followed up by industry design awards and invitations to speak across Europe.
The company is currently designing a new “sustainably smart” tablet device using funds from Horizon 2020, an EU research programme. The project excites Maher, but his goal is not financial. “If I was in this for the money I could have sold the business 10 times over. We’re not designing environmentally sustainable computers to get rich,” he said.
Maher is also an advocate for apprenticeship in the workplace and a committed employer of people with special needs. This he attributes to the enriching experience of growing up with his younger sister Noirin, who died last Christmas.
“Coming from a special needs family gives you a very different perspective on things,” he said. “You realise it’s a very small world we live on and that we’re here for a very short time.”
Maher believes all manufacturing businesses should operate on a design-for-reuse basis. His products will age gracefully as the wooden housing matures.
The future belongs to green businesses like his, he argues. “It’s about not doing your employing — and your polluting — on the other side of the world. The future will be all about small-scale manufacturing and it will be done locally. Technological solutions will be created in a much more environmentally-friendly and sustainable way.”