Harnessing the Power of Simulation for the Circular Economy

“Economy” is a popular term. The economy and its fluctuations affect everyone, but we are beginning to see a shift from a traditional linear economy, where goods are created, used, and discarded, to what is known as a circular economy, where goods and materials are kept in use for as long as possible, sometimes in multiple iterations. A circular economy is based on three principles: designing out waste and pollution; keeping products and materials in use; and regenerating natural systems.

The circular economy idea is growing more popular as the environment faces greater challenges. So much waste is being produced that we are running out of places to store it, leading to islands of plastic in the oceans and garbage being ingested by wildlife. Widespread deforestation is causing habitat loss as well as contributing to the rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. These are results of the linear economy, and people are beginning to realize that that kind of model is no longer sustainable.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has identified four building blocks of a circular economy. The first is an overall circular economy design. This involves companies restructuring their practices to facilitate reuse and recycling (remember the old “three R’s?” Reduce, reuse, recycle). This could include selecting materials that are made to last, even if they are more costly, or materials that can be easily reused, as well as manufacturing designs that consider useful applications of waste and by-products.

The second building block involves new business models, which can come both from entrepreneurs and existing industry leaders. These business models could play an important role in driving circular thinking in the mainstream, as companies leverage their influence to promote new, more sustainable ways of thinking and doing business.

The third building block involves reverse cycles, which in turn involve new skills being incorporated into the workforce. These skills include delivery chain logistics; sorting; warehousing; risk management; power generation; molecular biology and polymer chemistry, leading to better collection and treatment systems that can curtail waste.

Finally, the fourth building block involves enablers and favorable system conditions. The MacArthur Foundation defines several enablers including collaboration; rethinking incentives; providing a suitable set of environmental rules; leading by example and driving up scale fast; and access to financing.

Simulation can play a large role in the circular economy by enabling manufacturers to design for longevity.  When it comes to materials, designing a material to fit a certain function as opposed to fitting a function to a certain available material will become ever more critical in the circular economy. Starting with first-principles based molecular dynamics simulations and working all the way up to micro and macro-scales in terms of delivering a material will help efficient use of single materials, composites, alloys and multi-materials. Sustainable business through the use of lesser material – yet built-to-last packages – can go a long way in reducing wasteful consumption that ends up in landfills or oceans.

For a long time, a big part of the economy has been cheaply made goods that don’t last very long, leading to the need for consumers to regularly buy new products. This means more money in the long run for companies, while customers gravitate towards less-robust products because of their low price tags. This, however, results in a staggering amount of waste. As people are becoming more environmentally conscious, they are beginning to prioritize sustainability over cost, leading to a greater interest in products that are made to last, even if they are higher priced. With the use of simulation, manufacturers can test the life cycle of their products before creating physical prototypes, which also means less waste in the design process. Different materials can be simulated to assess their longevity, not only giving engineers an idea of a product’s life cycle but also how a material may be re-used once a certain product has reached the end of that – ideally lengthened – life cycle.

Finally, speaking in the context of “economy”, simulation provides good return on investments too. Engineered-to-last products, built on the backbone of realistic simulation is cost-effective.  Better design based on simulation intelligence means quicker turnaround to evolving trends and regulations.  Better product performance that relies insights means faster rollout of new configurations, lesser warranty claims and a greater chance to success during certification. These impact not only the corporate bottom-lines but ultimately benefit the end-user with lower price-tags as well as the environment.

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*Source: SIMULIA Blog