Back to the drawing board: a circular system for design and manufacture

In this edited essay extract Northampton Business School’s Dr Kurt Yang Liu maps out new strategies for encouraging the take-up of greener design and manufacturing methods

By Dr Kurt Yang Liu, Northampton Business School

Over the next five working days BusinessGreen will be exclusively syndicating extracts from a new essay collection on greening the UK’s supply chain. The essays, compiled by the All-Party Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group (APSRG), cover topics from green design standards to shifts in consumer behaviour.

The second extract in the series is from Dr Kurt Yang Liu, lecturer in operations management at the Northampton Business School. In this edited extract of his essay he outlines how government initiatives and new technologies can deliver innovative, low-waste systems for design and manufacturing.

Studies have shown that about 80 per cent of the environmental burden and cost of a product is fixed during the design phase. “Sustainable design” or “Design for sustainability” therefore presents a huge potential for organisations to target their environmental problems and make positive contributions to reduce waste production, both at an early stage of a product life cycle as well as at consumer and post-consumer stages.

Advancement in technologies and techniques certainly can help the development of new materials and the improvement of manufacturing processes. However, sustainable design and innovation is not necessarily about new technologies, but about rethinking how to meet the need for growth while at the same time reducing negative environmental impacts such as increased raw material consumption.

Considering the current industrial development and economic environment, government and policy makers should promote and encourage businesses to design for resources conservation, waste minimisation, resource recovery/reuse and re-manufacturing. These practices are most economically viable and cost effective and most importantly, they can create a huge impact on the environment if widely adopted, both at the macro-and at the micro-level.

The government and policy makers may consider introducing a sustainable score rating system for businesses and give credit for those firms who are more proactive towards sustainable design. These firms may receive certain tax rebates or lower business rates for being greener. The government should also promote collaborative research in sustainable design, bringing expertise from both academia and industry. A set of guidelines and sustainable score indexes should be developed to facilitate the adoption and accreditation of sustainable design by organisations.

External factors must be taken into account as sustainable design often involves interaction among various parties in the supply network such as suppliers, logistics providers and customers. Strong collaboration and coordination among these network partners is the key to success. Taking design for recycling for example, it necessitates the close coordination not only within the firm, between the designers and other functional units, but also with suppliers, recyclers and consumers in order to successfully incorporate recycling considerations into product design.

Again, by introducing the sustainable scoring system, the government may facilitate the joint-effort in R&D and collaboration among the various partners along the supply chain for creating and designing more sustainable products. Similar to the Carbon Trading Scheme, it is suggested that the sustainable/green score of businesses can be traded by exchanging their resources, collaborative recycling as well as waste and by-products trading.

Novel technologies and innovative processes may bring breakthroughs to the existing operations in specific industries, therefore facilitating sustainable design and manufacturing. For example, new research has indicated that combining a mixture of long strands of shredded paper with a sodium silicate gluing agent could create a new composite which is as strong as MDF (medium density fibreboard). This material is also quick to manufacture and can be moulded into various shapes, which improves the management of water, production efficiency and increases the lifetime of paper products. This new composite could become an important future sustainable material for the manufacturing and construction industries.

In the big data era, companies are in a better position to understand their customer demands and capture the market tends. The fashion giant, Zara, for example, collects vast amounts of customer feedback and then uses big data to analyse best-selling rank, improve clothing design and styles. The information and data collected from stores are sent by branch managers through the global information network inside Zara to Zara headquarters. The designers then update the product and send the final draft to the different manufacturers. Zara makes decisions based on the data they have all in real time and this type of IT Infrastructure could also be used to cut inventories and waste within their production system.

In conclusion, sustainable design and manufacturing bring both opportunities and challenges for businesses to target their negative environmental impact. The innovative sustainable processes and practices could help industries to improve resource efficiency and waste minimisation, enhancing the triple bottom line performance.

Emerging and break-through technologies could boost the efforts in sustainable design and manufacturing such as the low-environmental impact materials and 3D printing technologies. Organisations should seek wider collaborations from across the whole supply chain, including suppliers, customers, recyclers, NGOs and various stakeholders in order to develop novel processes and technologies in this endeavour.

The government and policy makers should encourage the network-level collaborations and provide regulatory support to facilitate sustainable development in product design and manufacturing. Particularly at a macro level, Government should provide infrastructures and incentives to industries to “close the loop” and develop a circular economy.

This encouragement could then feed into customers’ and individual businesses’ encouragement to recycle, reuse and take those unwanted and end-of-life products back to the loop.

Dr Kurt Yang Liu, lecturer in operations management at the Northampton Business School

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