Is PLM ready for the Circular Economy?

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We are all aware of the acute challenges to the environment brought about by the disposable nature of modern products. With many products like food packaging and medical devices manufactured for single-time use, many more consumer products are designed with an optimal use of 3 – 5 year, we are disposing of more man-made waste than ever. Following rapidly expanding landfill sites and increasing carbon emissions, the design for recyclability and reuse has never been more critical. It is shocking to discover that in Europe alone, 60% of the total end-of-use materials are not recycled, composted or reused according to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation. Plastics in the ocean are having a disastrous effect on marine life and unfortunately they are already contaminating the food chain. So how can we change?

The Circular Economy is a conceptual framework for sustainable development, looking to rethink manufacturing processes, from design, to manufacture, disassembly and then remanufacture. The traditional manufacturing model is very wasteful, with it’s “take, make and dispose” model only focussing on the end user. The Circular Economy looks to consider the wider lifecycles that extract, build, consume and dispose of goods and services, with a view to developing products and systems that can be “made to be made again”. The aim is to foster complete system effectiveness, thereby reducing the consumption and wastage of raw materials, water and energy sources.

As you can imagine, to implement the Circular Economy at scale, a large number of suppliers, manufacturers, service providers, cities and governments need the ability to develop solutions in a collaborative way. As with every project, they will need a collaborative method for defining requirements, developing systems models, testing and simulating ideas and products whilst securely controlling the access to information and managing configuration and change. What I have described in the last sentence is exactly what a PLM software system is designed to achieve. Whilst PLM currently has its strengths in the manufacturing and process industries, the software and methodology is beginning adoption across many other industry verticals. This has been enabled through recent PLM functionality enhancements such as managing software/application development and the asset/service lifecycles.

How can PLM be used to support the Circular Economy? PLM is already enabling design for dismantling and serviceability, through digital manufacturing planning techniques allowing the entire manufacturing and supply chain to have visibility and provide feedback on the product development phases. PLM systems are also critical in recording the BOM configurations and variants, to ensure components and assemblies can be identified and replaced efficiently with minimal downtime. However, engineers and designers need access to greater levels of information, to understand the impact of their designs on the wider lifecycles. PLM should be the platform to ensure contextual information is available to the development and simulation teams at the right time. For example, if sustainable materials are to be chosen, the PLM systems must facilitate access to the latest material research, manufacturers and costs, enabling the choice of disruptive materials such as bioplastics.

It is far more common now for organisations to have implemented data analytics across their PLM stored data,providing actionable insights and developing greater efficiencies. Currently I believe PLM vendors need to work with industry bodies, service providers, cities and governments to understand how the future data streams, (supported by the IIOT and the API economy), can be harnessed to provide actionable contextual information for the end-users. Future engineers need automated impact assessments on the through life environmental costs for their design and material selections, this should help them see the cost of choosing aluminium over a bio-material.

Product Innovation, a CIO-led learning community for manufacturers, we cover how leading organisations are managing the transition to a digital enterprise. Digital innovation and smart manufacturing has been enabled by the recent advances in network infrastructure and computational power. Join PI at our industry conferences to learn how peer-organisations are addressing the challenges of a digital economy.

Paul Empringham, VP Research, PI – a CIO-led learning community for manufacturers.

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