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Systems Thinking and Electronics for the Circular Economy

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Over a dozen years ago, DCA put together a fishbone diagram of product-related considerations with environmental and human health impacts to consider during product definition and development. We attempted to take a 360° view of the electronic product development process with the goal of improving the performance of electronic products in the environmental/human health space. The result was presented at various conferences and webinars. While we did not call it “systems thinking as applied to electronics for the circular economy,” that’s essentially what it was.

For a given design, each of these areas must be evaluated and weighted so they can be prioritized. Looking back on this, I see that it is incomplete, focused only on the product itself. And even then, some product-related issues are not included, like repairability (though we did identify “serviceability,” which can be interpreted as applying to professional and commercial equipment instead of consumer products), disassembly tool requirements, and others.

As noted in previous columns, a company’s business model is critical to success and, while it may seem obvious, it deserves another rib in the fishbone diagram. A company’s business model impacts a number of areas in the diagram and vice-versa but the first step is to assess and measure the current state. Determine the state of your company, your products, and your product lifecycle management process today in each of these areas. Consider what your company’s goals are at both the corporate level and the product level in these areas and move forward.

As individual manufacturers wrestle with these issues one common conclusion they come to is their inability to individually drive the supply chain in the most environmentally beneficial direction. I have experienced this challenge in just about every engineering endeavor during my career that has to do with supply chains, not just those related to environmental performance and circularity. Therefore, the inevitable question becomes “what should the industry’s goal be?” And furthermore, who is going to drive it with the leverage necessary to actually make a difference?

Well, electronics isn’t just one industry by any stretch of the imagination. The classic “herd of cats” would be the best analogy, but there are pockets that band together because, again, individually their common dependencies outweigh their individual ability to drive these dependencies — including the supply base, markets, and government regulators — in a direction that is advantageous to them. Numerous industry associations do have an environment function, including IPC, ITI, CTA, Zvei, and DigitalEurope, but they are primarily focused on advocacy and preventing or limiting regulation. Leadership is rarely feasible even when it is the desired course of action due to the need to placate laggard members.

As noted last year, the Circular Electronics Partnership (CEP) formed in order to drive the industry down the circularity path but it has been quiet (or uninformative) since and, while many of them are appropriate for such an endeavor, the manufacturing members primarily represent the consumer electronics market. Commercial and business markets are only represented by a single pure-play manufacturer: Cisco. Perhaps they joined to learn from the several consumer electronics manufacturers involved. Indeed, manufacturers of commercial and industrial equipment can learn a lot from their consumer product-producing brethren, but the learning opportunities cut both ways.

Commercial and industrial equipment is often supported via service contracts for the life of the product. Maximizing service contract profitability requires a product that — on top of being reliable — is of modular design, easily serviced, very configurable and customizable, and readily upgradeable. This cannot be said of most consumer electronics, yet it’s a requirement for circularity, particularly reuse and use life extension. Framework and Fairphone seem to have gotten the message. Others, including Apple, are changing their ways and moving toward more repairable —and perhaps upgradeable and longer-lived — products.

The rest of the CEP members represent various aspects of the upstream, downstream, and reverse supply chains. Certain aspects, particularly the chemical supply base, appear to need more forward-thinking and progressive representation.

Medical, aerospace/military, automotive, and other perhaps tangential industries are not represented at all, despite the fact that they ultimately will be impacted by the direction CEP goes, if successful. I do not see their direct involvement as necessary, but their attention is.

The electronics supply chain is what all the OEMs, including these, have in common. Perhaps 90% of the supply chain can be traced back to a handful of polymer resin compounders, a handful of silicon wafer producers, and a handful of metal, ceramic, and glass producers and/or types. So, any changes induced upstream due to downstream demands for sustainability and/or circularity can have a much broader impact in any case.

CEP has bitten off a lot; we’ll see what comes of it. But today they represent what I believe to be the best potential for systems thinking about circularity for a significant fraction of the electronics industry at a level necessary to enable the entire industry to be successful in this area. Recalling the 1995 film Apollo 13, “failure is not an option.”

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