Research Themes

Circular Economy

Circular economy is an approach for realising a constructive balance between ecologic, economic, and societal systems through a new economic model for value creation. It targets industrial activity to use resources more productively and eliminate waste in the product lifecycle. Resources are recovered from end-of-life products to be returned to the supply chain as input for new value-adding activity. Thereby realising an economy in which resources are utilised, recovered and restored in closed loops.

The following application areas can be considered: 1) the direct closed loop of materials & recycling, including  separation and reapplying; 2) the loop on a production & product level, including manufacturing processes, modular design, remanufacturing and design for circularity; and 3) the level of companies, including value chains and business models. Within SBE all three application levels are represented in different research areas.   

MATERIALS AND RECYCLING

Material resources are becoming scarce rapidly. Hence, the future challenge is to obtain materials from natural and sustainable sources. Damage, maintenance, repair (including self-healing) and recycling are key issues, as well as material behavior and wear during service time. Recycling processes must be developed to apply recycled materials at their highest utility in an energy efficient way. A big challenge is to develop components and products from which materials separately can be withdrawn for reuse.

Research in SBE focuses on energy and material savings (by new and improved separation methods and an increased use of sustainable energy), reduction of byproducts and scrap, and recycling of key components from waste streams (e.g. minerals from paper sludge, carbon black from used tires). The research on materials is based on a fundamental understanding (on different length scales) of material behaviour, with the objective to optimize materials, processes and performance, taking into account the full life cycle of parts and components. Modeling activities form an integral part of this approach and are carried out at multi-scale level.  The material research is focused on (bio)composites, elastomers, phosphorous, minerals, metals, asphalt, and carbon and glass fibers.  

PRODUCTION AND PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT

Manufacturing processes and products should be adapted to maximally support the circular economy approach envisioned. Products and production should be optimized to generate maximum benefits during the complete product lifecycle. The success of circular economy strategies requires attention for the user acceptance of alternative products and service systems. This will imply changes in the design process of products and production processes (e.g. replacing virgin materials by recycled stock, modular design of products, remanufacturing principles and light-weight constructions). To collaborate within the value chain during the complete product lifecycles or material loops, data sharing, ICT and internet of thing are essential. From a product development point of view this implies the challenge of designing customizable and adaptable products and product-service systems in a modular way so as to be interoperable, exchangeable and updateable during the product lifetime and enable reuse and remanufacturing as alternative approaches for closing the material loop.

A major topic in manufacturing products (single, series, bulk) is to reduce energy and material consumption as well as material and production waste. New processes (for recycling and separation) and manufacturing techniques are needed to incorporate the use of closed loop materials and principles of product service systems. This also includes design for maintenance and predictive maintenance strategies to optimize value throughout the complete lifecycles. Predictive process modeling tools form an essential building block that allows robust optimization of manufacturing processes. Research focuses on the user experience, smart energy, zero defect manufacturing, material efficient processes and development of products for a circular economy, integrating commercial, environmental and social aspects of sustainability.

NEW BUSINESS MODELS

Changing from a linear economy to a circular economy, business models need focus on value creation, taking into account the importance of the natural ecosystem and the change in relation between stakeholders. Key is to strategically prepare (chains of) firms in order to reconfigure their value creation process in the pursuit of offering products and processes for serving a circular economy (transition management); to support firms with competences (i.e. business analytics) in anticipating the changes associated with the transition to a circular economy; and to develop new business models that might emerge in a circular economy. Value creation will change: from selling products, to lease, collaborative consumption, and services. Product service systems (PSS) and industrial product service systems (IPS2) formalize this notion, stating that value is delivered by both physical and service modules. Adoption of these product service systems will lead to a change in consumer behavior.  Research in SBE focuses on the development of instruments for the identification of success factors, information management, product life cycle management and variability, and translating theory in business opportunities. One of the key research questions is how coopetitive competences help business models to evolve into efficient and effective mechanisms of value creation within a circular economy.