Circle of life

Posted on 16 Aug 2023 by The Manufacturer

Dave Hughes, Director UKI Solutions Consulting at PTC, examines the importance of designing for a circular economy and explores why there are some initial steps companies are already beginning to take.

Waste and pollution are a huge problem globally, and virtually all the products we use in our daily lives, from mobile phones to cars and household appliances, contain materials that are harmful to nature.

It is therefore important that manufacturers do what they can to accelerate the move towards a circular economy, as underlined in a recent letter from the European Commission.

But how do they do that?

Developing a circular approach

Circularity is still a new concept, but several businesses have already begun their efforts in this area.

For manufacturers, modular design is interesting as it allows for large-scale customisation of products, while also having an important recycling aspect.

The goal of the circular economy is not necessarily to recycle all materials all of the time. It is often more realistic if we can instead ensure that products can be used for as long as possible, and then disassemble as many large components as we can and reuse them again. Only when this is no longer possible is the material recycled and used for another product.

Most industrial products today cannot be fully circular. Circularity can be realised to different degrees for different products, with disposable products at one end and fully circular products at the other. The idea is to gradually reduce waste and carbon emissions.

A new way of thinking

Educating designers about this way of thinking is a process and there are things that designers need to consider. For example, companies need to make sure they meet the regulations and requirements that come from authorities and companies, requirements that can often be linked to both production and how the product is used.

Using material databases, designers can calculate the material’s recyclability and environmental footprint. This data can be used advantageously at the design stage, and then presented based on the total environmental footprint of the product.

Getting ready for recycling

The next step is to make it possible to recycle or reuse as much of the material as possible at the end of the product’s life cycle. Here, modular design plays an important role. In the case of multi-material products, manufacturers need to change their mindset and reconnect with the requirements for separating materials for recycling at a later stage.

Generative design

With the right solutions, it is also possible to set constraints within the framework of a generative design model. In this case, the technology helps to assemble materials within the constraints. However, the generative models need to be developed as they currently only handle one material at a time.

With this type of simulation, you can also work with so-called ‘promotion validators’. With these, you can ensure that specific simulations or optimisations are run against the design and then integrated in a way that other engineers cannot skip a step where he or she can remove excess material or suggest better ways to separate materials.

Some companies have also introduced gamification into the design process. For example, an engine designer may be encouraged to reduce the weight of an engine that will be used in a million trucks. When summarising the work, he or she may receive feedback along the lines of: ‘your work today reduced the environmental impact equivalent to the emissions of 1,000 pickup trucks’. This type of feedback has proven to be highly motivating.

Although the journey towards a circular economy is slow, it is at least underway, and it will accelerate as more companies take the plunge and start using modular and generative design technologies.

But for now, we should seize every opportunity for incremental improvement, no matter how small. Because every step is important in the journey towards a circular economy.

LiveWorx boost for PTC’s sustainability drive

PTC has announced a raft of new initiatives to boost its environmental sustainability practices at the recent LiveWorx 23.

The digital transformation specialist has signed the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) commitment letter, pledging both near-term emissions reductions and long-term net-zero targets.

In addition, the company is expanding its relationships with Ansys and aPriori to support manufacturers’ environmental sustainability goals in the areas of product dematerialisation and manufacturing efficiency.