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Circularity Begins With Design

Zoé recently spoke on the topic of circular design in Montreal

Over the last six months, I’ve seen much more attention paid to circularity, a sustainability topic that I see a lot in my line of work. It now appears in job titles, has entire conferences dedicated to it, and is being embraced by an increasing number of companies that are committed to zero-waste.

But it’s also showing up in my everyday world, like an ad that aired during this summer’s Wimbledon Tennis tournament talking about a 100% recyclable water bottle, or a public art installation created to inspire people to think twice about using plastic straws. While we’re all inundated with the daunting reality of waste and today’s recycling dilemmas, circularity offers a framework for rethinking the products we purchase and use each day.

Why do I care about circularity? In short, it’s my job. As an environmental engineer—with a specialized focus on product life cycle assessment (LCA)—I spent several years of my career working directly with product designers and manufacturers, helping them assess and reduce the environmental impact of their products and processes. It’s how I fell in love with design, and today I’m lucky to focus my work on helping Autodesk customers use our technology to rethink how they design and manufacture their products.

The Concept of Circularity

So, what exactly is circularity? Simply put, it’s a closed-loop system that doesn’t generate waste. In a linear economy – which is what we largely have today – you extract resources, make something, use it, and then throw it away. By contrast, the goal in a circular economy is to use a product at its highest value for as long as possible – and that can mean product itself or material and components it’s made of. Some of the more common strategies to enable the circularity of a product and reduce waste include reuse, refurbishing, remanufacturing, recycling, and upcycling.

See why future sustainability requires a circular economy in this video.

I see circularity as the “North Star” of sustainability, with circular design at its core.

Primary Ingredients

When working with customers to achieve circularity, we focus on three main areas:

  • Better design. There are a few design strategies that help, from making a design modular with easy disassembly, to being more repairable and also more durable. Most of these are simply good fundamental design practices and can be accomplished with core design tools. For example, a printer or a phone that has reached end of use is difficult to recycle or upcycle, because the different pieces of plastic are glued together and can’t easily be separated from one another. If it had been designed to be constructed without glue, it’d be a different story.

While design is just one element of circularity, I’d argue that it’s probably the most important. If you don’t think about circularity at the design phase, then you can’t design your product for disassembly or recyclability. These concepts need to be integrated at the beginning of the product development cycle.

Landfill waste at a dump.

Need more convincing? Ellen MacArthur, of the circular economy think tank The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, says “waste and pollution are not accidents but the consequences of decisions made at the design phase, where around 80% of our environmental impacts are determined.”

Autodesk tools like Inventor, Fusion 360, Moldflow, CFD, and others help with everything from reducing weight, to creating standardized components​, designing for durability, and designing for easy disassembly at end of use.

  • Better materials. A circular economy depends on better choice of materials. Rather than using finite natural resources, for example, is it possible to make something using a recycled material? This might involve comparing a traditional plastic material against a recycled material to see how it impacts the geometry of the part that is to be manufactured.

Autodesk’s generative design technology lets users explore and choose recycled and recyclable materials for their designs, and provides comparisons to gauge how these materials impact a product performances. Moldflow has a database of 10,000 materials that allows users to compare manufacturability, cost, and environmental impact at the same level, which in turn helps them make better choices.

  • Better use of data. Every economy is powered by information and the circular economy is no different. To succeed, many different stakeholders need to be connected throughout the lifecycle of a product and share information with one another. For example, designers can be connected with innovative material suppliers so that they can design and simulate with those materials in mind, or to waste management facilities so that they can know ahead of time what materials the waste management facility will actually be able to recycle.

A cloud-based product development tool like Fusion 360 puts data at the center and connects the workflow between design and manufacturing, presenting the opportunity for feedback loops to ensure less waste in production.

From Ideas to Action

Research shows that this is just the beginning in the movement toward circular design. A recent Newsweek Vantage report on circularity found that almost of all the senior executives surveyed – 98% – were familiar with the concept of circularity, and 30% said their companies have a circular strategy today, with many more anticipating doing so in the future. We’ve already seen some impressive results around circularity from an assortment of our customers in different industries, including:

  • Wellman takes old carpets and transforms that plastic into car parts – a fantastic example of taking “waste” and turning it into a higher-value product and showcasing how cross-industry collaboration is key to scale circularity in the future. At a smaller scale, Bureo uses fishnets to make skateboards.

The Balbo Wideboy dresser from 57st design.

  • 57st design is a furniture company that buys back its furniture from customers, regardless of wear, in order to refurbish it and sell it again. By giving customers credit towards a new purchase for turning in their old furniture, 57st design is reducing waste – and the familiar sight of used furniture being tossed to the curb – while building a successful business model.
  • AMP Robotics is changing the economics of recycling with a combination of industrial artificial intelligence and robotics. The company makes robots that assist with sortation in waste management facilities, enabling more recyclability. This ensures fewer items wind up in the dump, and more material circulates back into the economy.

Let’s Get Circular

Beyond the obvious of being better for the environment, the benefits of circular design are clear. It helps reduce costs in both design and production, meaning fewer materials are needed and companies can benefit from a simplified supply chain with fewer spare parts in inventory.

How can design help achieve circularity? Find out here.

We also foresee additional regulation coming as the reality of today’s waste management situation becomes more and more dire. While plastic bans get the most attention, product repair and “end-of-life” laws are also expanding in scope. Just last month the EU adopted eco-design measures for appliances that include requirements for repairability and recyclability, contributing to circular economy objectives by improving the life span, maintenance, re-use, upgrade, recyclability and waste handling of appliances. Global operations require better data, designs and collaboration to remain compliant and companies who prioritize circularity will be better prepared for impending policy changes.

I’m excited to continue educating and activating the design community about circularity and the ways that Autodesk tools and technologies can help companies become a part of the circular economy. By maintaining a focus on circularity, a less wasteful and more sustainable future is within our reach. Together, let’s design a better future.