The Role of Manufacturing in the Circular Economy

Connecting 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.

Let’s take a look at the right side of the butterfly diagram and look more closely at the circles and intersections. The figure below (from Rachel Dzombak, Adapted from Philips 2015 & Ellen MacArthur Foundation 2012) is a schematic of this “right side” and parallels the prior diagram with some additional specificity in where circular paths connect and showing circularity and “leakage.”

Let’s focus on where the arrows meet the block diagrams (the circular economy equivalent to “where the rubber meets the road”!) At this interface it will be required to efficiently and effectively, as appropriate:

– disassemble the product into components, subcomponents or materials, – handle the product and the pieces/materials, – process/repair/reassemble/package any remanufactured products or repaired products or maintained products, – add the materials/pieces/subcomponents/products back into the product lifecycle supply chain (that is, back into the flow at the appropriate point)


– do all this while insuring purity/quality of the material (and watch toxicity) or product, cost effectively, – with sufficient productivity to meet demand (and cost), – using machines and labor optimally, – handle the wide variety of incoming and outgoing materials and products/parts, – etc. etc.

Add to that keeping track of “where this stuff came from” and ensuring this is being done in an environmentally benign way (not to mention with energy and water and other resource efficiency) and this is a major undertaking.

But … that sounds a lot like manufacturing!

To make everything go “round and round” by extracting stuff from the life cycle and reinserting it in a useful manner back in is dependent on manufacturing in all its glory. And automation can play its role to insure this is productive but this is going to require a rethinking of “the system” and a recalibration of the business model so that the capacity and flow are large enough to insure this is economically viable.

Let’s talk more about that next posting.

Finally, LMAS researchers along with others in the Center for Green Chemistry at Berkeley will be participating in the Disruptive Innovation Festival (DIF) hosted by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation with our own Berkeley “Big Top Tent.” It will take place over three weeks in November with some live and some pre-recorded sessions on a variety of topics but all available through the DIF link for some time after November for people to watch and review. We’ll be presenting on the topic of “The Role of Manufacturing in the Circular Economy” with more detail following the above discussion. You can follow the link to DIF to register (free!) to view all the program contents.  The LMAS presentation will “go live” at 18:00 – 18:30 GMT on the November 19.

David Dornfeld is the Will C. Hall Family Chair in Engineering in Mechanical Engineering at University of California Berkeley. He leads the Laboratory for Manufacturing and Sustainability (LMAS), and he writes the Green Manufacturing blog. This article was republished with permission from David Dornfeld.

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