This is a post prepared by Rhiannon Hunt. Rhiannon is a researcher and award-winning designer currently completing a Ph.D. focused on product design for a circular economy in Industry 4.0 with the Centre for Sustainable Design ® at the University for the Creative Arts, Surrey. With a background in environmental science, she is passionate about promoting the wealth of opportunities afforded by design and technology in achieving a more sustainable, circular economy. Connect with Rhiannon here to find out more. For now, enjoy her very interesting post on design and sustainability and the 4th Industrial Revolution.
“Design has long been recognized as being key to achieving more sustainable, circular production and consumption. In fact, it is often stated that the design of a product is responsible for 70-80% of its environmental impacts. Despite this, design is often under-represented within the sustainability rhetoric surrounding Industry 4.0, with the focus tending to be on manufacturing efficiency improvements and increased productivity. Whilst these steps are important, real value can be found in the opportunities that Industry 4.0 presents for product innovation and in designing new products and services in line with a circular economy. This represents a missed opportunity and forms the main motivation for my doctoral research.
We now find ourselves on the cusp of a Fourth Industrial Revolution characterized not by any singular technology, but by the networked connection of the digital and the material world through the integration of cyber-physical-systems (CPS). Like the major industrial developments that have preceded it, Industry 4.0 is expected to result in significant, disruptive change to the way in which products are produced, consumed and designed. As a result, business models and the industrial architecture that supports the production and consumption of products will also be forced to evolve and adapt. Changing any one of the following parameters; products themselves, how they are designed, who designs them and/or the industrial context that brings them into existence through supply and demand, has the potential to remove or reinforce existing barriers to the realisation of a Circular Economy and to present new opportunities and complications for its future implementation. Below I outline some of the ways in which Industry 4.0 could potentially impact on product design and the achievement of a circular economy.
One of the challenges in designing for a circular economy is the need to design products that are both desirable and durable during use and easily and economically disassemblable at end of life. Due to the high labor costs associated with manual disassembly, relative to the material value in waste products, recyclability is often neglected in favor of product aesthetics, functionality and reliability. However, one of the developments associated with Industry 4.0 is that of smart, automated product manufacturing, in which an embedded RfID tag coordinates a product’s construction as it moves through the production process. Should it be possible to run this process in reverse, smart and automated product disassembly could reduce or eliminate existing design trade-offs between product durability and recyclability.
The realization of the Internet of Things (IoT), in which everyday objects become connected and networked devices, could also present opportunities for sustainable product design. The live feedback of data from consumer products could provide designers with valuable insights into product life cycles beyond the point of sale, including during use and end of life phases. Designers would then be able to monitor failure points, use and maintenance practices and final disposal routes and then make the necessary adjustments to their designs to improve product circularity and sustainability.
Additionally, in the case of smart products, it may be possible to design software updates to improve functionality or aesthetic appeal without the need to replace the physical objects themselves.
With the rise of digital fabrication methods, including 3D printing, laser cutting, CNC-milling and robotic assembly, the ability to economically manufacture products in small batches, or even batches of one, becomes a real possibility. Mass customization could enable products to be accurately designed to the specific needs of each individual consumer and even enable them to be a part of the design process. As consumer engagement within the design process can help to create a stronger emotional bond between consumer and product, this could help to counter the current throwaway culture afforded by mass-production of low-cost, standardized products.
Further to this, the expense of tooling and the need to produce high volumes in order to achieve economies of scale using traditional production methods requires considerable upfront investment. Digital fabrication and the capacity to produce products in smaller batches may lower existing cost-barriers to radical product innovation. This could encourage designers and entrepreneurs to be more experimental and innovative, which might lead to more circular product innovations and new products that address sustainability issues.
Whilst these examples are certainly not exhaustive, they highlight Industry 4.0’s relevance to design and the circular economy. As Industry 4.0 is still in development, the foresight of both the possible opportunities and challenges it presents are needed so that preparatory actions can be taken to ensure a sustainable future.