What are in your opinion the key environmental priorities the corporations should pursue, today?
Environmental elements are in the agenda of almost all the biggest corporations since many years. Probably the first impulse was given by the UN General Assembly when about 50 years ago met at the first global conference on environment, stating that “Man is both creature and moulder of his environment”. The actual speed we are “moulding” now is unprecedented, and the direct consequence of it is the degradation of the global eco-system. At the same speed we are creating inpacts in the world, corporations attention to claim for environmental protection is increasing. But it seems that we still are very far from a balance between impacts and mitigation. So, after the first approaches towards the conduction of environmental audits, the implementation of environmental management systems, the assessment of the life cycle impacts of products and systems and the open declaration processes, it seems now that corporations understand that the only way to respect the nature is to replicate way it works. That is every single output of a biological or natural process is the direct input of another one. It’s nice to quote the Disney’s Circle of Life, when Mufasa said to Simba: “We eat antelopes. But when we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass. And so we are all connected in the great Circle of Life”. So, until we will not eliminate all the production inefficiencies and we do not find the right way to close the loop of the products/solutions life cycles, we can not talk about environmentally sustainable economies. This is becoming a key priority for many corporations today and hopefully it will become the standard way we develop new technologies.
Within Remedia Professional we are observing that many large organizations are promoting design and processes trying to improve the end of life management of electric and electronic equipment. The wish is to have an appropriate collection of the obsolete products with the objective to recuperate components that can be reused and materials that can be recycled, fully with the spirit of circular economy. And Remedia Professional offer technical and operative support in this activity, mainly organising the collection system and studying new approaches to optimise the total environmental impacts, considering the transportation of the wastes and the material that is recycled. But the obstacle that doesn’t allow the collection of all the products at the end of life is, simply, the missing information of the product story. What happened and where are the products at the end of their lives. Even if regulations and instructions are clear, the reality is often different.
Why do companies need to implement culture in the field of circular economy and additive manufacturing?
The concept of circular economy is definitely complex and probably the best way to make it simple is to make the analogy with the biological environment, as I mentioned before. However often circular economy is simply associated with the minimization of wastes. This is correct if with “waste” we intend the quality definition of it, that is any material, product, process, step or loss (loss of material including the emissions, or loss of time or emission) that doesn’t contribute directly in the functioning of the system. And in particular if we intend this in the complete life cycle of the product. Just to make and example, the solid wastes associated with the production of a small electronic device can account for 20 to 50 times the weight of the device itself. This situation in general implies high degree of resources depletion, reduced profitability due to waste management and extra sourcing, longer production times. Looking at circular logic is basically the only win win option. Preserve resources, keep the development sustainable, achieve profit. But it is a change, and changes often seen with mistrust and suspicion. Additive manufacturing is the future standard production methodology, because in each step, the material flow is optimized. So presumably will expand more and more to increase the level of circularity in product development.
What prospects and special fields of application do you see for additive manufacturing in the future?
Additive manufacturing will be the natural evolution of the optimization production processes, and will evolve from niche applications (rapid prototyping probably is the simplest example) to massive production. The rapid evolution of collaborative robots and interconnectivity is allowing now tailored production in real time and maintenance processes more reliable and fast. Probably in the future the production of spare parts production will come from distributed open systems, avoiding the long distance shipping of components, but delivered from a network of associated producers serving multiple companies. The key offer from the multinational corporations will not be anymore the massive production of products, but more and more the design, the customization, and mainly the shift from product to service. All supported by small and medium manufacturers around the world producing and assembling, with additive processes, what comes as design from the multinationals. Today the biggest technical limit to the implementation of this futuristic logic, is the intellectual property preservation, that will be challenged when product design will be circulating.
Do you pursue the material cycle approach in your company?
Circularity at ABB is pursued looking mainly at durability thanks to service and preventive maintenance supported by innovative solutions, including connected equipment and sensors alerting the right moment to make any intervention, and also in providing solutions to the clients, to help them to achieve higher efficiency (both in processes and in energy). Recently we have started some new project to increase the material cycle efficiency of our products, looking at new design of production processes and signing specific agreements with customers for the end-of-life management of the products.
Where do you see opportunities to better support the research field?
Personally I believe that we have advanced understanding of the environmental impacts of all industrial processes, we understand the industrial ecology, we have the technical solutions that may allow an excellent implementation of environmentally sound development. We miss the integration of the systems, the brave to face new business models, the scientific demonstration that change is possible and convenient. There are no globally recognized kpi (different from the money) useful to monitor the actual progresses both for the profit organizations and for the society. Within a fully globalized environment the opportunities are now really a lot and the example of a distributed manufacturing network is only one example of the possibilities that could theoretically be explored. Finally I believe that the pandemic crisis created social and economical disaster, but also offered some learning, that is change is possible. We saw great changes in traveling, meetings, social interactions, production processes, service, school organizations, family management, priorities and values. Studies addressing this behavioral evolution linked with technology integration and measurement are, in my opinion important deliverables that academia and research institutes should offer.
The interview was conducted by Prof. Flavio Tunelli.