The change from linear to circular design requires a mind shift

From make, take, waste to creating value for customers and business in a resource-constrained world. A challenge for many companies in a world where climate goals are getting the highest sense of urgency. Up to 80% of products environmental impacts are determined at the design phase. How to make that shift effectively while keeping costs down?

Thijs Maartens and Francesco De Fazio are experts in circular economy, design and implementation at Philips Engineering Solutions.

During a recent webinar they shared their valuable insights and learnings on making the shift to circular through design for disassembly and repair. Driven by the Philips sustainability purpose, they combine their holistic approach with a clear process and concrete tools to implement a circular design strategy.

Do you want to speed up your transition towards a circular economy? Our pool of circular economy experts can support you in multiple areas of expertise: from circular design to business modeling, supply chain, reverse logistics, strategy and roadmap creation.

Contact our circular design experts

Watch the webinar Design for disassembly

Questions and answers | webinar Design for disassembly

The business case for design for circularity

What is the business case for design for circularity? How do we convince hardcore business people to give importance to circularity as a part of their business strategy? How do we get the business leaders and sales managers on board, as extending the life of products by better/longer repairability means less sales of new products?

There are four main value drivers that we use to push this topic forward and convince “business people”:

    1. New regulations. This is an extremely important value driver for consumer products. We see new policies and regulations coming up on the topic of right to repair in Europe and North America. For some product groups, new requirements have been integrated in EU EcoDesign directives; other products are starting to be covered by new national labelling systems (e.g. French Repair Index). To be future proof, many product categories must start considering this topic. For some product categories, repair is already a regulatory requirement and it is impossible for a business not to take it into account. For others, repairability can become a powerful marketing asset, since these new labels will influence consumers’ purchases decision (very similar to what is achieved with eco-efficiency labels).
    2. Growing consumer interest. Green claims can help a company to achieve a higher market share. Consumers are starting to expect companies to do more than just using recycled plastic and they are starting to appreciate the connection between durable and repairable products and sustainability. We expect that making products repairable and providing high quality service for product life extension will play an increasingly important role in consumer purchasing decisions.
    3. New business models. Consumers are becoming more and more interested in new commercial offerings, like the sale of refurbished products (for a lower price compared to new) and subscription-based models. Philips, like many other manufacturers, has started to sell high quality refurbished and is now offering pay-per-use solutions on different product categories (e.g. electric toothbrushes, shavers, air purifiers). To make these offerings profitable, the design of the product must be optimized to enable effective End of Life (EoL) processes. Businesses are rapidly learning how unoptimized designs lead to high fall off rates and low success rates and yields in EoL processes like refurbishment. If a business wants to be successful in this new way of selling products, the way we design must change.
    4. Improving the efficiency of operations already in place. This is an extremely relevant value driver for big medical equipment. Improving the design of a product for disassembly can lead to cost savings in labor by making operations faster. Additionally, it can decrease equipment downtime (a very important selling point when your customers are big hospital institutes) and it can improve the success yield of refurbishment and parts recovery operations (leading to higher end-of-life revenues). Overall, design for disassembly can help to decrease the Total Cost of Ownership.

    Do you ever calculate that refurbishment / upgrading is the most sustainable design strategy for consumer products? Or is it always repair for this area?

    As explained during the webinar, it is important to base our decisions on real life data and context information. It can be tempting to base our decisions on high level frameworks, like the butterfly diagram and make high level generations. However, this can lead to selecting the wrong strategy for a certain product and context. Of course, it is always useful to keep in mind that certain strategies generally lead to high value retention (e.g. repair vs recycling), but eventually it should be the data to point you towards what is the best strategy for the specific product you are working on.

    Collecting products after a life-cycle is essential to close the loop. Is it always a question of the suitable business model to increase collection rate, or can you trigger it by design?

    Design can also play an important role in ensuring high collection rates. Recently, we have started to explore a design strategy called design for divestment. This is about developing solutions to lure the consumer to send back their products at end of life, instead of keeping them in a drawer and feel a “disposal sense of guilt”. This is a very new design topic, and knowledge is not yet very mature.

Use of material/material resources

How often do you feel the question from the client boils down to “what material should we use”?

We notice that clients often have the general request to make their products more sustainable or circular. The approach that we use for this was discussed during the webinar. Whether the question boils down to material selection highly depends on the decisions made in the sustainable strategy selection phase. Sustainable strategies such as ‘Recycling’ require a focus on material selection more than strategies such as ‘Repair’ where, for example, product architecture plays an important role.

How should I make material choices i.e. plastics and/or metals and how should I select type of connectors?

The approach to define which materials to use can vary a lot depending on the sustainable strategy you are considering. Possible approaches can be:

  • Selecting materials with the lowest environmental impact, considering the average lifespan and number of lifecycle you are planning for your product
  • Selecting materials that can be easily recycled by the stakeholders dealing with the specific product group you are designing
  • Selecting materials that fulfil your process requirements (e.g. materials sufficiently durable to withstand multiple disassembly and reassemble or that can be cosmetically refurbished)

The same is also valid for connectors: are you mainly optimizing your product for repair or for recycling, or both? For repair you can refer to the EU standard EN45554; in it you can find a list of tools that are considered commonly available. Make sure that the fasteners you are using can be unfastened in a non-destructive way using those tools and avoid special torque requirements. For recycling you can look at the guidelines we published in the PolyCE report, which will be made available to all the webinar participants.

How is Philips acting on material resources? Does Philips look at fossil free materials, like renewables? Do you rather use non-recyclable natural resources, or recycled/recyclable finite resources?

In general, we always prioritize renewable and recyclable resources over natural resources; in fact, it is not always true that natural resources are renewable. Philips has been already using for many years mechanically recycled plastics (post-industrial and post-consumer) for consumer products. Recently, Philips has also started to use bio-based plastic and explore chemically recycled options (e.g. for highly regulated products).


How do you optimise products for the end-of-life recycling and easy of compatibility with WEEE channels?

We developed general design guidelines for recycling, which we always use as a starting point. However, we always try to directly involve recyclers in our projects, collecting practical inputs for redesign. It is important to connect with those recycling stakeholders that are taking care of the specific (Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment) WEEE category we are working on, since the processes and technologies used can be different. We will share our design for recycling guidelines with the webinar participants.

Even if a product is easy to disassemble, do recyclers have an incentive to disassemble and recycle the parts properly if the value is low? What is the trade off?

As explained during the webinar, when we design for recycling, we do not consider design for disassembly but design for dismantling (aka destructive disassembly) and material liberation. Most e-waste recyclers in western countries have started to adopt more and more automated processes, where manual dismantling is just a limited first step. During manual dismantling, e-waste recyclers focus on removing from the recycling line hazardous components (e.g. batteries) and polluting components (e.g. wood, textile, ceramics, etc.).

Reverse logistics

How do you manage off-boarding / getting the products back once the customer has finished using the product so they can be repaired? What percentage of products do you aim to recover?

The way we collect products back varies a lot from business to business. However, what we always try to do is to leverage reverse logistics that could be already in place for other purposes.

For consumer products companies, there are sometimes reverse logistics already in place for commercial returns during the free trial period (e.g. European 14 days free trial period) and repair activities during the first 2 years warranty period. When we set up completely new circular offerings (e.g. Try&Buy or pay per use models) we try to leverage the reverse supply chain already in place (e.g. for commercial returns and repair operation).

For medical companies, there are sometimes contracts in place with DME’s (durable medical equipment suppliers), and collection can be organized together with them. For big medical equipment, we have an entire organization, called Circular Equipment, that manages global trade-in programs: when a customer (usually hospitals) wants to discard or upgrade its big imaging system, Philips can offer trade-in options, where the device is purchased back by the manufacturer or a discount on a new model is provided. Based on an evaluation, the specific device is sent to our refurbishment or parts recovery sites, or to our local network of recyclers.

How do you tackle pollution of reverse logistics, especially if your product is sold globally?

It is important to always remember our real end goal: “making business, products, and consumption more sustainable”. For that reason, we always try to be objective in the way we assess the end impact we can achieve through different solutions. If a solution does not lead to a clear sustainable improvement (e.g. lower carbon footprint), we should reconsider if what we are creating is really a better option than the original scenario. Within Philips, we often use Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to validate our decisions. We always try to minimize reverse logistics: for instance, we have a global network of local recyclers for each market; another example is our EU refurbishment program for consumer products, which works only with products returned from EU markets.

Organizing circularity

Why is change so slow?

Big corporates often adopt complex quality management systems that make sure risks are minimized and properly managed. This approach is necessary to ensure that the company is financially successful and that high quality solutions are delivered. Circularity often presents an important degree of uncertainty: it requires different processes, approaches, and ways of working compared to how things have been always done. Even if entire internal departments are pushing for change, this must be carried out in compliance with all these complex processes, which are meant to ensure that high uncertainty topics like circularity are properly adopted and set in place.

Which teams of an electronics company should be involved in a shift to a circular economy?

Most of the teams involved in the development, launch and lifecycle management of a product should be involved. We always try to involve stakeholders from the Sustainability office, Business, Marketing, Engineering, Design, Supply chain, Quality and Regulatory. We also involve those departments that take care of post launch operations, like service/repair, refurbishment, parts recovery, spare parts supply chain, consumer care.

How do you cooperate with suppliers for buy-parts when the supplier is the design owner?

This is indeed always a challenge since our decision power is limited. We are exploring new ways of defining and integrating eco-design related requirements in our discussions and agreements with suppliers.

How do you collaborate with engineers so that design modifications do not hinder technical performance/efficiency?

When we redesign for circularity, we work closely together with the engineering teams. By working together, we ensure the design modifications not only meet the circular requirements, but also the other requirements. We always try to intervene from the earliest stages of the design process, where we can properly embed circular consideration in the project value proposition and requirements list.

Do you consider usability when you design for disassembly?

Absolutely. Usability and ergonomics are considered in our design guidelines for disassembly. It is always extremely important to clearly define who the repair agent will be: is the end consumer who will repair the product or an experienced technician? Usability is extremely important when we consider consumers, but also for technicians to avoid errors and make their operations as effective as possible. Ergonomics is fundamental when we work on big equipment, where parts can be bulky and heavy.

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Francesco De Fazio | Product Design Engineer at Philips Engineering Solutions

Francesco De Fazio

Circular Product Designer


Thijs Maartens - Circular Economy consultant

Thijs Maartens

Sustainability Competence Lead

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