In Hindsight

Creating value instead of throwing it away - Zirkel.Training

Station 2 | June 17, 2021

Theory & Practice: Circular value creation in product development

The second round of Zirkel.Training took us to the Institute for Technical Energy Systems (ITES) at Bielefeld University of Applied Sciences and the topic of “Product Development”. With outside temperatures of over 30 degrees, students from various universities followed the four varied lectures from their home computers.

The problem of linear value creation

Dörthe Knefelkamp began by presenting the negative effects of linear production methods. For each step of the value chain, problematic aspects can be named, such as the destructive effects of raw material extraction, the use of energy and pollutants in production, or the competition for low prices in the distribution phase.

The fact that the fundamental transformation to a sustainable way of doing business can no longer be just about being “less bad” becomes clear in the comparison of the triple bottom line concept with the triple top line: while the first approach primarily seeks to minimize the negative effects in balancing economic, ecological and social benefits of economic activity, the triple top line concept aims to generate positive added value for the environment and society.

Changing quality standards

In her presentation, Prof. Dr. Eva Schwenzfeier-Hellkamp took the potential analysis of the NRW Ministry of Economic Affairs on circular value creation as a starting point for addressing the role of quality standards.

It states: “In order to achieve the goal of maintaining the best possible quality of materials in the value chain, products must be questioned and fundamentally rethought. This includes the elimination of problematic substances as well as considerations of recovery and disassembly as early as the planning phase.

Currently, however, product development by companies is still largely dominated by linear thinking, as evidenced by the classic product development process, which usually sees companies’ product responsibility end at market launch.

Approaches of a change can be observed, however, for example in the publications of the German Society for Quality (DGQ): Whereas for a long time the latter based its model of the product development process on the classic linear product life cycle with a clear sequence of development steps, for some time now it has increasingly been relying on agile quality management.

Principles of agility such as teamwork, validation by customers and rapid development cycles can be understood as a prerequisite and driver for change – also in the direction of circular value creation – not least because of the culture-transforming effect they have in companies.

On the other hand, the lack of clear standards or their inability to be operationalized is one of the obstacles to the introduction of circular value creation. External impulses from legislation are also necessary here.

Design concepts

What concrete approaches to sustainable product design are there? Fabian Schoden addressed this aspect and first made clear how central the design phase is, since up to 70 % of a product’s environmental impact is decided here.

He then presented five design strategies, each with examples of implementation:

  1. Design for Durability
  2. Design for Product Attachment and Trust
  3. Design for Ease of Maintenance and Repair
  4. Design for Disassembly and Reassembly
  5. Design for Ugradability and Adaptability

If it is not just the design of the products themselves that is being changed, but the way in which profits are generated, the redesign occurs at the level of business models. This is the case, for example, when a company sells the use of washing machines, but not the product itself – this is referred to as “product as a service.”

The change in product design and business models also changes the role of companies in the value chain. This is because circular thinking significantly expands the scope of responsibility and competence of companies, since the use phase and end of product life are included in product development – instead of ending with the sale.

Practical experience of IP Adelt GmbH

The challenges of sustainable product design in practice were vividly illustrated by Eric Adelt, Managing Director of IP Adelt GmbH.

IP Adelt GmbH produces packaging for advertising and presentation materials such as sample books, gift boxes and folders. The Bielefeld-based company has enthusiastically set out to replace environmentally harmful packaging solutions with more sustainable and environmentally friendly ones.

Particularly tricky: the diverse product range and the rather inexpensive items compared to expensive consumer goods make it difficult to recycle or incentivize recycling. Nevertheless, together with the Bielefeld University of Applied Sciences, the company has succeeded in developing approaches for more sustainable product design, such as recycling the metal binder mechanisms from used folders.

The redesign of a folder conceived with students from Bielefeld University of Applied Sciences (in cooperation with the ITES Institute) goes one step further. The cover of the folder uses cardboard with a grass content and dispenses entirely with color printing and protective film; used stapling mechanisms are also used. What is particularly interesting is that the visibly sustainable design in particular increases customers’ understanding and awareness of the issue. More can be learned about the sustainable file folder in the information film on YouTube.

The students took the opportunity for follow-up questions about, among other things, the return logistics of the folders, the willingness to share knowledge with other companies, and the cost-effectiveness of individual measures.