A Review and a Way to Start

Article By : Michael Kirschner

This is what we've learned so far about the circular economy.

So you want to circularize your product line. How and where do you start? I’ve been writing about this here for nearly two years and so have built up a basic, if unstructured, knowledge base of information. I took a look through my past columns and extracted what I think are some key bullet points to consider for kicking off your own product circularity program.

Management buy-in and support is critical; this comes last but should be considered as you collect the information you need to tell them the story. These points are key:

After setting the goal of improving product circularity, where do you start? My suggestion is to get a high-level idea of what the actual scope of the challenge is — and what industry is already (supposedly) addressing — by reviewing existing standards; while not necessarily 100% applicable to your products, you will get an idea of some of the metrics:

  • Review (at least) EPEAT and TCO standards for relevant and meaningful metrics and ideas (2020 June2021 February2021 March )
    • Select specific criteria that are applicable. Many of them can apply to just about any electronic product. Review your product and ask Engineering and Manufacturing experts about any challenges they believe they may face trying to meet specific criteria.
  • What standards as a whole actually apply? Can your product potentially be designed to be certified to any of them? Would it matter to your market?
    • If none of the product category-specific standards apply, how about the more generally scoped Cradle-to-Cradle Certified Product Standard? (2020 August and 2021 September)

Start looking at your products, with this knowledge in mind:

  • Pick a product and catalog the materials it contains. Then catalog the substances that comprise those materials.
    • Are there rare earths? Carcinogens? SVHCs? Unrecyclable substances? Known problematic substances on the docket for a future ban?
    • How much post-consumer recycled content is contained? And is it only metal? The metal recycling infrastructure is well-established and post-consumer recycled (PCR) metals are a normal part of some metal supply chains. What will it take to expand PCR content to plastics? (2020 November)
  • Identify the list of technical considerations and requirements for selecting materials as well as standard off-the-shelf components; then add environmental and circular requirements to the list (2020 102021 July)
  • Is your product intentionally designed for reuse? For a third use? For repairability? For upgrading? For ease of recycling? Should it be? (2020 September)
  • Zero or one tool is all that should be required for disassembly, and avoid adhesives. Discuss with your mechanical engineers. (2021 November2021 December)
  • Identify dissimilar or otherwise incompatible (for recycling) materials that are not easily separable and replace them or redesign the system that requires them (2021 January)
  • Add margin (via derating and other approaches) and capacity to enable future upgradability and a longer, more reliable use life (2021 May2021 10).

Now start looking at specific components and issues:

  • Are any aspects or components of your product considered to be “biological nutrients”? Could they be redesigned to be? (2020 August2020 10)
  • Can you design solder out of the system, at least partially if not fully? (2020 May)
  • Do you really need that battery? Are there other technologies that could be used instead? (2020 June)
  • Beyond your product composition, consider process and manufacturing-related substances (2020 December)

Look at your Product Lifecycle Management Process:

  • Where in the PLMP do these decisions need to be made? Incorporate them wherever appropriate (2021 July)

What sources of support and research exist and could potentially be helpful for some of the challenges that are bigger than your company can address alone?

  • Are there external projects that might be helpful and applicable? (2020 December2021 April) Don’t forget about your local (and even non-local) university. (2020 10)

And, finally, what do you need to support it?

  • Expertise and human resources — in house and possibly external for support — to interpret it all, weigh the options and impacts, and make design/selection decisions
  • Data and information, mostly from suppliers

While not really a classical “checklist”, hopefully this column will help you scope out the process of transitioning to a circular product and enable you to build a coherent and compelling story for your senior management. You will have to present the opportunities and challenges, the pros and cons, as well as the benefits and risks, if they are going to buy into this vision of the rapidly approaching future.

This article was originally published on EE Times.

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