Implementing circular design in the manufacturing process

By Dina Padalkina

This article is published in The Beam #5 — Subscribe now for more on the topic

Picture:Samuel Zeller

Global resource scarcity became not only an issue for environmentalists, but reached the attention of the business environment. Business models based on the circular economy approach is a possible alternative that can reduce resource intensive production; even Google started using this definition for its business model optimisation.

Circular economy is inspired by the living system, meaning there is no such notion as waste. One species’ waste is another’s food, and accordingly, every waste piece should be a resource for the next production step. Recovering and reusing as many products and materials, on the one hand, and development of the product design that considers future material recovery, on the other hand, are essential for the circular business models. This mindset opposes to the traditional linear “take, make, dispose” system, introducing instead “make/remake, use/reuse” economy.

Moving from theory to practice

All developed solutions try to foster system effectiveness by revealing and designing from the negative externalities, preserve and enhance natural capital, and optimise resource use by circulating products, components and materials. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation recently issued a report covering different implication areas of Circular Economy in agriculture, food circulation, automotive cars, renewable energy, and of course manufacture.

Development of the new technology shortens the product lifecycle significantly. Annual gadget updates fosters us to update the device with the same speed; the most known example is our phone. Nevertheless the product itself consists of the valuable materials that could ensure its functionality for at least the next 10 years. So, it seems very logical that we just need to decouple valuable and long-lasting materials from the previous product that would be in the traditional system identified as waste, and re-use it in the production of the new technologically updated version ensuring as well the same quality standard.

Currently the most advanced phone producer is the Dutch company FairPhone. The idea behind the Fairphone 2 (the company’s second released model) is to empower users to take ownership of their product/phones and offer easy options for maintenance. The company offers an ecosystem around the phone that supports long-lasting use, first-hand or second-hand. The phone is designed as the module system that simplifies the maintaining and recycling process and basically aims that the owner can exchange each model by themselves. On the other hand, Phonebloks was the first Lego-type designed smartphone, which was block exchangeable and repairable. It was a so-called inspirational project for other phone companies, among them Motorola, Google with its Project ARA (currently on hold), ZTE Eco-modus (at the concept stage), and PuzzlePhone that is currently in development stage from Finland. A commercialised phone that also used the modular approach is the LG G5. To dig deeper, modular systems were picked up as well by more Consumer Electronic producers like “One Education”, who are focusing on building a modular laptop, or Neptun Company, developing a modular platform of smartbands, tablets and smartphones.

Examples of remanufacturing and circular design for the manufacturing industry are also appearing in furniture production. The UK office furniture maker Orangebox’s design philosophy is based on using less material to create durable products that are easy to disassemble and recover for remanufacture. Virtually all of the materials (98%) used to make the ARA chair are recyclable. Under cradle-to-cradle, each raw material chemical compound has to be assessed to ensure that at end-of-life, it can be taken back into the production cycle to create new high-grade products. To maximise the value of the materials used in this chair and other products, Orangebox has set up a recycling facility at its manufacturing site in south Wales so it can offer a customer take-back service.

Another industry that started embracing circular economy principles is fashion and fabric production. Currently more and more fashion brands, including Adidas, Nike and Timberland, launched clothing lines from recycled PET bottles, and even marine plastic waste. This is of course a small fraction of the collection. Wear2 Company focuses on a textile process technology that allows clothing to be selectively disassembled at end-of-life. It allows manufacturers to specify during the design phase which pieces of the garment they would like to separate out in the future, such as zips, labels, buttons and logos.

Despite the straightforward logic, the challenge remains significant to rethink and implement circular design in the manufacturing process. Legislation and certification is one of them, meaning that new quality standards have to be developed to ensure safety of the recycled product. Rebuilding the traditional manufacturing process is also not an easy task, as it complicates the new product’s design, development, and adds a new stage in the product lifecycle: collection, meaning the return and collection point of these products has to be established as well, which could be seen as a hassle for traditional business models.