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The Role of Manufacturing in the Circular Economy

david dornfeldConnecting All the Arrows

A while back in the last posting (July?!) the circular economy was included in the discussion about the role of people and the “3rd machine age.” The start of the discussion reminded us all of the Ricoh Comet Circle with the forward and reverse supply chain loops. You’ll recall that the forward (counterclockwise loop) at the top of the Comet Circle is from materials through production to delivery to the consumer and use. The reverse (clockwise loop at the bottom of the Circle) is after the consumer is done with the product back through recycling, recovery and return to material supply chain. Usually when the circular economy is mentioned it is in the context of the return loop — including extended use of the product, return to consumer via secondary use, repair, remanufacturing or, at least, resource recovery. Whatever is not part of the return circles (sort of like the dust spewing from the tail of a comet) is lost, non-circular or, in the lingo of the circular economy folks, “leakage.”

The “circular view” of the economy is in contrast to the “linear view.” In a post earlier this year, the concept of the circular economy was introduced with an illustration of the desired paths of material use in an ideal economy, the “technical materials cycle,” as a parallel to the biological materials cycle. Let’s review the concept of circularity in the economy so we are all on the same page!

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), the current “linear” economy (meaning basically take + make + dispose) is based on large quantities of cheap, easily available energy, water and materials. That model is rapidly reading its limits as materials, water and (to some extent) energy become more inaccessible or, at least, costly to obtain. We might expand the take + make + dispose to something a bit more complicated as take + process + make + distribute + and dispose … but it’s the same idea. The figure below gives a more detailed picture of the product life cycle in our linear economy.

The circular economy, by contrast, is defined by EMF as restorative in nature and “regenerative by design”, meaning that it attempts to maintain products, components, and materials at their highest utility and value at all times — minimize down cycling or conversion to energy or disposal. EMF defines a technical and a biological cycle — the so-called “butterfly” diagram illustrating how, in a circular economy, products are designed to enable “cycles of disassembly and reuse” and thus reducing or eliminating waste, see below from EMF. You will want to go to the link to see the detail

To accomplish this, it is necessary to “circularize” the linear image above as below by including return loops (ala the Ricoh Comet Circle) for such things as product repair and reuse, parts harvesting, remanufacturing and redistribution, materials recovery and reprocessing, and recycling.

So how is this to be accomplished? Not surprisingly (at least not surprising if you’ve been reading this blog for any time) manufacturing plays a large, and to many, key role.

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