5 ways we can use robotics to scale circularity
As we come to see and increasingly feel the effects of the climate crisis, the circular economy has emerged as both a worthy challenge and a necessary response. What role can robotics play in advancing it?
Ever since humans started creating, we also started creating waste. And as technology became more sophisticated, so our waste became more damaging. Accelerated by an insatiable consumption economy, society today has a problem to solve that requires a dramatic shift in methods, materials and mindset. But in order to shift our behaviors, we need to first look at what is enabling them.
Robots have been a steadily growing part of our industrial workforce since the early ’60s, automating arduous, repetitive tasks and driving consistency, speed and precision. But, up until recently, these mechanical workhorses have been one-trick ponies, engineered to perform single tasks within a linear process and for a linear economy. And, while they provided relief for human labour, their high-speed production meant we were able to (and did) consume more, faster.
Now, as they continue to become more affordable, intelligent and ubiquitous, the time has come to leverage their singular work power and build robots that advance a low-impact, circular economy.
How? One of the first obstacles in the adoption of a new system is accessibility — both physical and financial — of the better alternative. While on an idealogical level most people understand the need to embrace a more sustainable lifestyle; higher quality, ethically sourced and produced goods are, accordingly, more expensive and less readily available than their unsustainable counterparts.
Here are 5 ways we see robotics making a difference:
1. Robotics for repair
Making repair a standard service
A fundamental pillar of the circular economy, extending the life of what we already own, connects both consumer and business benefits to environmental preservation. It reduces consumer spending on new products; it reduces the waste generated by discarding the old; and it unlocks a new service revenue stream, independent of sales.
While product variability will continue to make a degree of manual work necessary, robotics can streamline industrial repair processes by combining automation and data intelligence, making them more affordable and able to be operated at the speed and the scale needed to make it a viable alternative. From damage analysis to 3D scanning, printing, welding, patching, sewing, and gluing; the onus is on large manufacturers to offer as many solutions to repairing their products as to manufacture them.
2. Robotics for disassembly
Making product parts work longer
In consumer products that are easy to take apart, damage is much easier to localize — and repair much easier to automate — without compromising the integrity of the materials. Our robotics team at PCH has been working increasingly on concepts that highlight the efficiency of robots in the dismantling and disassembly of complex objects. In demonstrating the feasibility of these operations, we hope to motivate more manufacturers to inculcate design for disassembly principles. Thinking backward from their end of life, we conceive products for decomposition — or their eventual dismantling by robots — from the start, taking care to use fewer chemically bonded or composite materials, and more standardized parts. Components within purposefully modular products can then be more easily reused and integrated into other products and processes.
3. Robotics for localized manufacturing
Making manufacturing more versatile
In order to manufacture more sustainably, we have to fundamentally change our production model and the technology that drives it. As repair and disassembly start to keep more materials in circulation, we will see a greater shift from global mass production to local, and on-demand, manufacture. Accordingly, where traditionally machines were programmed to perform a line dance of identical tasks on identical components, this rigid setup makes adaption, such as for new product models, costly and time-consuming, and makes no provision for handling of a ‘new’ generation of pre-owned, whole products. With versatile, modular machine arrays, we have already seen how our robotic colleagues can be adapted to fast-changing needs, variable products and conditions, and smaller spaces more easily and cost-effectively.
4. Robotics for reuse + recycling
Making circularity part of the consumer experience
For most industry leaders, the circular economy and its tenets are becoming better understood and more widely implemented. For most consumers though, it is either unfamiliar or unattainable with the tools or time they have at their disposal. From point-of-sale repair modules to in-store refill machines and material sorting installations, sustainable choices have to be more convenient to make. But in order to make circularity-enabling robots more accessible to the many, we need to reconfigure them to work in smaller spaces and move around. They can no longer occupy vast hangars in remote factories — they need to be integrated as seamlessly into the consumer experience as the cashier line ‘Do you have your customer loyalty card?’.
5. Robotics for circular logistics
Making more with what we have
Even if we consume less, the population of consumers continues to grow. As such, we need to start using more of what we have already produced as our source material. One of the most complex parts of this process, circular logistics, is only possible if the backend infrastructure exists to enable coordination of circular operations at every step of the supply chain. Whether at industrial or community material collection points — we need to use robotics more to harness existing value through intelligent tracking, standardized sorting, storage, and distribution.
Where do we start?
Scaling circularity with robotics is not about using machines to make the circle bigger — it’s about using technology to connect smaller circles better. Localizing manufacture. Enabling longer product use. Collecting and sorting complex product streams. Making responsible choices not only available but convenient.
But, in order to be adopted, circularity measures need to be integrated meaningfully. One needs to understand one’s existing energy, material and market flows to identify potential for optimization and establish which products both hold enough recoverable value and whose value recovery is economically sustainable.
The path to circularity is neither simple nor one-dimensional, which is why we specialize in developing bespoke systemic solutions that respond to organizations’ materials and methods, individually. And we couldn’t do what we do without the clients that have the imagination to look ahead and the boldness to act now because, to make this work, we need to work together.
Are you interested in optimizing your organization’s circularity with robotics and AI? Get in touch and let’s start building for a regenerative future.
Words by Gabriella Seemann, Concept Design Lead at PCH Innovations, visuals by Gianna Moscoso-Thompson. PCH Innovations is a Berlin-based, multi-disciplinary studio that develops divergent strategy and technology for regenerative systems.