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Wrapping our heads around circular economy

Engineers and manufacturers are under pressure to innovate

In the fight against environmental destruction and climate change, the responsible use of resources and avoiding waste have a crucial role to play. These goals can be achieved through a consistent circular economy. But what does that mean for manufacturers of consumer goods? What do engineers need to be aware of when creating designs?

“The circular economy requires both industry and consumers to completely rethink things”, says engineer Luc Vinkenvleugel, Senior Project Manager & Consultant at PCV Group in Enschede. “One aspect of this is that customers no longer purchase a product, but rather rent it. This means that manufacturers need to produce devices that last longer and restructure their business models to focus on services such as renting, maintenance and financing. The result is that less equipment is produced, which in turn saves resources and significantly reduces the amount of waste”, the engineer explains. This is a development that fits perfectly with the PCV Group philosophy.

Laundry machine with a window to nature

Consumers are no longer purchasing products, but services – what exactly does that mean? “The automotive industry is selling mobility, rather than cars. The lighting industry is selling light, rather than lamps. We already see this in the music industry, as people stream music and no longer buy CDs like they used to”, are a few examples Vinkenvleugel provides. This restructuring to a circular economy is demanded and encouraged by the EU. By 2030, the EU Commission wants only recyclable and sustainable products to enter the European market. In the same time frame, it wants to increase the recycling rate of so-called municipal waste to 60 percent.

New business models

Restructuring will have huge consequences for manufacturing companies in the consumer goods sector. “Changes to their business models will lead to changes in aspects from product design all the way through to accounting – virtually every process will have to be adapted”, emphasises the engineer. In his field of work, the most significant change is that manufacturers will need more robust equipment in the future than they have today. “The industry is currently based on the model that a product lasts for a few years before being replaced. However, on the one hand, this leads to high consumption of resources, and, on the other hand, to enormous mountains of waste. If equipment is to be rented in the future, it will need to last much longer. Otherwise, the users of those units will not be satisfied and will change to another manufacturer. This process starts with the very first development steps.” And this is exactly where the PCV experts come into their own. “We can start thinking about this from the first product concept. The development of products that last longer is one of our specialities.“ From the first concept to the selection of materials and robust mechanisms, PCV Group has already developed numerous sustainable products with and for a variety of industrial customers.  

Smart technology boosts sustainability

PCV is currently testing out the next step towards a circular economy together with a group of students from the Netherlands. As part of their studies, they have been tasked with developing a sensor for a coffee grinder and incorporating it into the appliance. This sensor should send data about the condition of the coffee grinder and possible wear to the manufacturer, so that they know when parts need to be replaced. The sensor should also provide information about the quality of the coffee or when new coffee beans need to be delivered. “This sort of predictive maintenance is an important aspect of the circular economy. The longer the device keeps working, the more satisfied the customer will be. In addition, the manufacturer can tailor its services precisely to the customer based on this data.” This is where communication between the device and the manufacturer – the Internet of Things – really makes sense. “In today’s coffee machines, there is not much point in having such a sensor. But in the future, it will be indispensable.”

The challenge now is to raise awareness among manufacturers of (fully automated) coffee machines. “The first steps need to be taken. As I mentioned before, the implications for companies are enormous. Their sales departments will no longer be selling new machines, but services. Equipment rental and maintenance must be integrated into the company’s balance sheet instead of actual sales. Purchasing must focus on sustainable materials and completely avoid disposable components. This is not a change that can be made overnight.”

Training engineers

This new way of thinking must also be carried over into the universities where the engineers of the future are being trained. “The new generation of engineers must internalise this approach directly”, explains Vinkenvleugel. “We are still in the rethinking process. In the future, the basic idea of the circular economy must be second nature to engineers.” The ‘sensor in the coffee grinder’ project is a first step towards this.

The EU’s goals are certainly ambitious. It wants to achieve high rates of recycling by 2030 – primarily on the basis of the circular economy. “That is just nine years away”, says the engineer. “So, we need to start implementing a circular economy now.” In any case, the PCV Group is ready to do so.

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