A bold idea that could transform industrialization caught the eye of the influential Economic Word Forum.
Dr. Marco Orisicchio and Dr. Anouk Zeu van der Laan at the Dyson School of Design Engineering are working on an idea that could transform the way the industry operates. It takes an approach we’re all familiar with, like car rental, and extends it to semi-finished goods or even raw materials. So, instead of buying steel to make the car, what if the manufacturer only paid for the steel to be used for as long as the car was on the road?
“It’s a radically different way of thinking about how we organize our economy and, fundamentally, what ownership means,” says Dr. Aurisicchio. “It will shift us towards a different way of thinking about what we use.”
They explore this idea in a blog for the World Economic Forum, a high-profile business organization whose meetings each year in Davos attract the world’s political and business elite. The blog was written in collaboration with Dr Graham Aid and Lars Nybom of European environmental services and recycling company Ragn-Sells, with whom Dr Aurisicchio and Dr Zeeuw van der Laan collaborate on case studies in this area.
Access to all areas
The idea that you pay to use something rather than own it is called the access-based business model. Car rental and ride-sharing are the most popular examples of consumerism, while it is common in the business world to rent items such as heavy machinery or office furniture and lighting. Operating in this way already has environmental advantages, as incentives to reduce consumption and return goods for reuse and recycling are included.
“It’s a radically different way of thinking about how we should organize our economy.” Dr. Marco Orisicchio Dyson College of Design Engineering
But these examples only include the end products. Dr. Aurisicchio is interested in extending this approach to the ingredients or raw materials that go into it.
“For example, a supplier might lease stainless steel sheets to an automobile manufacturer, to form tubes for a structure,” he explains. “Instead of owning the panels, the vehicle manufacturer will be charged to access the volume of materials transferred to the vehicle body for an agreed period of time. At the end of this period, the vehicle will be disassembled to allow the material supplier to retrieve the components and recycle the materials.”
This has many consequences for the environment. Material suppliers retain ownership of semi-finished goods, so they have an incentive to offer materials that are more efficient, durable, and easier to recover at the end of a product’s life. Meanwhile, a commitment to return these materials will motivate product manufacturers to redesign their goods so that they last longer, contain fewer materials, and are easier to disassemble. This will also make it easier to repair and enhance the purity of the recycled materials.
“Suddenly, things like disassembly design were no longer just an option for the manufacturer, they became a necessity,” says Dr. Zeu van der Laan. “At the same time, if you want to get a high benefit as a supplier of materials, you will have to invest a lot in recycling those materials.”
“Designing disassembly is no longer just an option for a manufacturer, it’s essential.” Dr. Anouk Zew van der Lan Dyson College of Design Engineering
Manufacturers will also have to anticipate the moment when their products will become obsolete. Infrastructure will be required to intercept, separate, sort and retrieve the material it contains, in order to fulfill contractual obligations to return it to suppliers. Technologies that make materials digitally traceable will be of particular interest.
The access model can also be extended to include raw materials for semi-finished goods. In this case, the miner may sell the right to use and process iron ore to steel producers, without ceding ownership of the material. Or a nation-state might sell the right to mine and trade ore, while retaining ownership again. The iron will eventually return to the miner or the country in its original or processed form.
To learn more, read the World Economic Forum blog What is an access-based business model and how can it tackle waste and protect resources?
Photo: Alexander_Fagaulin / Getty Images