A measure that increases resource efficiency for one type of product can have exactly the opposite effect for another. The framework that researchers from Chalmers University of Technology have constructed is one step along the way to determining which methods for resource efficiency are best suited for which products.

Volvo CE can achieve large savings in its use of resources with a new design of a fuel filter for their trucks that can be cleaned and reused instead of the current solution that uses disposable filters. In this way, a single filter could replace the 40 or so that are currently consumed during the lifetime of the vehicle.

For electronic equipment, reuse has the greatest impact on resource efficiency, particularly when considering the contents of scarce metals. Few scarce metals can be recycled with currently available methods.

In the case of disposable items such as incontinence protection, other solutions must be sought to reduce resource consumption, such as reducing the amounts of materials and energy wasted during manufacture. There may, however, be other solutions: the study is in its initial phase.

A new framework

“There’s a big difference between incontinence products and trucks. We want to be able to evaluate and specify which types of circular solution are suitable for which types of product. We also want to identify the product characteristics that determine the measures to increase resource efficiency that give the best results,” says Anne-Marie Tillman, professor at Chalmers University of Technology and leader of one of the seven projects in Mistra REES.

The group has drawn up a framework in which a number of measures to increase efficiency have been listed. The list includes, for example, sharing, which can increase the use of products that are seldom used, the marketing of services rather than products, remanufacturing, reuse within the same or a completely new area, the reduction of waste during production, and changes in the design of a product, such as using different raw materials. These measures are subsequently considered against the background of the characteristics of the product, such as its function, the sector to which it belongs, its degree of complexity, whether it consumes energy or other intermediate goods when in use, and whether it contains scarce or toxic materials.

Doctoral students Siri Willskytt and Daniel Böckin have subsequently carried out a pilot study, together with senior researchers Anne-Marie Tillman and Maria Ljunggren Söderman, in which they have used the framework to review studies of 17 products, some of them from the companies that are participating in Mistra REES. The products and processes studied ranged from plastic wall plugs and drills to lawn mowers, lithium batteries, façade cleaning agents, and the production of milk.

Conclusions so far

The research group has been able to draw the following preliminary conclusions from the pilot study:

  • Easy disassembly promotes remanufacturing.
  • Sometimes upgrading is important for remanufacturing.
  • Products with long lifetime or low frequency of use are suitable for sharing, but it depends.
  • Efforts to make consumable products resource-efficient need to focus on production efficiency and/or recycling.
  • Repurposing is a good option in some cases.

“In contrast with other research in this field, we are carrying out a bottom-up investigation and we are trying to draw conclusions from as many case studies as possible in which the resource efficiencies of various solutions have been examined. Many other projects take a top-down approach and investigate global flows of material, or the flows within certain countries or sectors. One example is the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences (IVA), which investigated resource efficiency based on the sector,” says Anne-Marie Tillman.

“We don’t yet know what it is that determines which circular solution is to be used for which product, but we hope to be able to produce basic recommendations when we continue our analysis of the hundred or so studies that we have collected from published studies, from companies participating in REES, and from our own investigations.

Further case studies

The doctoral students will be carrying out further case studies during the spring of 2017.

Siri Willskytt will investigate Attends’ incontinence products, and how to make them more resource-efficient. Daniel Böckin will examine whether efficiency can be improved by using 3D printing as a production method for parts in diesel engines at Volvo Group. Hampus André has just started to look into the reuse of laptops together with the companies Inrego and Godsinlösen, among others.

“They will then use the autumn for analysis and writing up their licentiate theses. The work is on schedule: the doctoral students work well together and with the companies, and I’m completely satisfied with the progress of the work,” says Anne-Marie Tillman.

Doctoral students at Chalmers

Rees Chalmersdoktorander

Daniel Böckin, Siri Willskytt och Hampus André

Photo credit: Henrik Sandsjö