Circular Economy - Manufacturing to End User… And Back
‘Reduce-reuse-recycle’ is a common slogan for promoting reduction of waste associated with end use of materials. But a circular economy model includes manufacturing processes and raw materials as well.
The circular economy is a concept of economic systems that uses regenerative manufacturing techniques. The output produced by these processes maintains its values as long as possible, rather than discarding it without considering its re-use. Its main focus is on waste elimination through initial raw material selection, highly efficient processes, and reducing output waste. It intends to use any waste as a creative input in the manufacturing of new products so that waste does not become simple discarded trash.
The circular economy application does not begin at the end of the processor manufacturing cycle. Instead, it focuses on efforts and processes at the beginning of the manufacturing cycle, where each manufacturing process contributes to regenerative outputs. In other words, wastes are prevented at each manufacturing stage.
Circular Economy Versus Linear Economy
Contrary to the circular economy strategy is the linear economy model, the primary basis on which most of today’s manufacturing is built.
A linear economy does not consider the output of a process as a form of input. Instead, it uses the concept of take-make-dispose. The raw materials are used to produce products. These products are used (certainly as their specifications intended) until they have reached the end of their life span. After their usage, they are discarded as waste. Therefore, all material in a linear economy process, including excess raw material, ends up in the waste after serving an intended purpose.
Figure 1. Raw materials generated as waste during a manufacturing process may often be discarded if a recycling process is unavailable. Image used courtesy of Canva
Circular economy, on the hand, uses the concept of reduce-reuse-recycle. It includes sustainable production processes that attempt to re-utilize raw materials instead of treating them as waste at the end of the product lifecycle.
To say that this process is new, or that nobody has considered the problem in the past would be foolish. The concept of recycling end products has been a goal for many years - whether from a concern for the environment, material availability, or cost. But technology innovations must actually allow these goals to be achieved, otherwise, such an efficient economic model is simply a fantasy.
What are the Problems with Linear Economy Models?
The circular economy is a way of solving problems that have become prone to manufacturing systems worldwide. It introduces innovations into existing processes to generate alternative solutions to common problems such as waste, sustainability, and environmental protection.
Let’s look at some problems that can be solved, or perhaps at least minimized, through a circular economy model.
Conventionally, reducing waste meant improving the initial manufacturing processes to produce less waste. Whether during the creation process, or at the end of the product life, waste is still produced, then being returned to different forms of natural environment such as landfill sites or the sea, remaining in the environment with its underlying negative effects.
Increased Dependence on Replenishing Raw Materials
Raw materials are essential for any manufacturing process, consuming a significant amount of an organization’s resources. In the current linear economy model, raw materials remain in the manufacturing cycle for a shorter period and can only be used once. In some industries, such as pharmaceuticals and food, raw materials also have a shelf life.
Raw materials are often imported from other countries, making them vulnerable to supply chain problems and resulting in dependence on other countries.
A major portion of waste produced by the current linear economic model is non-recyclable and contaminates natural resources such as land and water. Additionally, due to non-recyclable processes, raw material stimulates greenhouse gasses that negatively affect the environment. While long-term effects are often debated, the benefit of reducing the environmental impact of hazardous substances is undeniable.
How do we Implement the Circular Economy Model?
A circular economy refers to a paradigm shift in existing manufacturing industries that begins with more efficient processes. The processes are not specifically created with the intent of creating a circular economy overnight, but include innovations for the current linear economy.
As technology advances, there are many ways of its implementation. With all of these strategies, we certainly recognize that this is easier said than done.
New Production Processes
In a circular economy model, production processes are creative systems that can recapture waste produced in each step. It also includes processes that are capable enough to accept raw materials produced as byproducts from other processes, or even other industries.
This can be achieved by finding new ways of producing products from recycled raw materials, using less packaging, reducing waste, and consuming less energy. It also includes producing products that preserve the byproducts of each step.
Re-manufacturing is an important element of a circular economy that involves recovering and repairing components of required specifications. Purchasing re-manufactured parts has been a staple of the auto parts industry for decades. The recovered product is equivalent to or better than the newly produced item.
It increases the economic and environmental benefits by extending the life cycle of produced items. Re-manufacturing of e-waste, for example, can be utilized to produce products directly used by consumers, such as smartphones or electronic products. Re-manufacturing can also be used to produce products that become input for another process, such as the business-to-business system.
Figure 2. E-waste is an example of a process where some components may be remanufactured, or broken down into raw materials and recycled into new products. Image used courtesy of Canva
Reducing waste means that output can be utilized for as long as possible without disposal through any means. In an efficient linear economy, waste is the output that cannot become part of any process and is generally categorized into (hopefully) recyclable and non-recyclable waste.
In a circular economy, waste or byproduct becomes part of the manufacturing process at any stage of the product life cycle.
In simple terms, it means using less percentage of materials for the same level of performance deliverable. This is achieved by reducing the consumption of raw materials and energy levels at the initial stages of production processes.
Of course, production processes have to be specially designed to use less raw material and energy and cannot be achieved through existing linear economy models. It can be achieved by improved process design, using new technologies in production processes, and recycling practices throughout the entire production process.
A modern example of this strategy is generative design in manufacturing where computer algorithms can create strong, durable components equal in capacity to geometric designs, but with repetitively iterated designs cutting down any unnecessary material even from the initial simulated design.
What Steps are Manufacturers Taking to Enhance Circular Economy Models?
OEM companies pursue circular economy processes to introduce reduce-reuse-recycle in their production processes. It helps them tackle global supply chain problems and produce products that are more efficient, environmentally friendly, and cost-effective.
Assessing Energy Consumption
Identification of energy consumption is the first step in reducing energy use. It becomes critical for the manufacturers that use thousands of machines and electronic devices. These companies use systems to monitor energy consumption in different equipment and machines. Energy monitoring can also be done in an individual component in every machine.
Figure 3. Assessing energy consumption is a simple way to reduce the impact of a machine or an entire manufacturing process. Image used courtesy of Canva
An energy expert analyzes the result and suggests ways to implement energy efficiency practices.
Products as a Service
Product as a service (PaaS) means selling services of a product rather than the product itself. It helps cultivate a circular economy as the user returns the product to the supplier or manufacturer, rather than dumping or using it as waste after its usage. The supplier or the manufacturer can employ various circular economic techniques to make it part of the manufacturing process or product. The products may themselves be used for manufacturing, such as a CNC machine. The service includes a customer renting a machine, or time on a machine, as much as needed before it is returned and sent to another customer.
On the other hand, if every end-user purchases the product, they all must be disposed of at end of life, which can burden the users and the environment.
In modular design, a product is manufactured in independent groups of components, called modules. These modules can be separated and combined across different components of a process. The modular concept allows refurbishment, repair, and upgrade of a specific process.
This results in extending product lifetimes and reducing the number of products disposed of. The modular design also allows replacing, repairing, and upgrading a specific part without changing or replacing an entire part or equipment.
Every process will experience obstacles in the pursuit of efficiency. Zero waste, 100% efficiency, and complete recyclability may be unachievable goals, but certainly taking steps in the right direction can save production costs, delays, and waste by small percentages, and this itself is a victory.