Circular4.0: Data Driven Intelligence for a Circular Economy

Lead Research Organisation: Cranfield University
Department Name: School of Water, Energy and Environment


Circular approaches to design, manufacture and services are proposed as one of the most significant opportunities to radically re-think how we use and re-use finite resources. Pairing the digital revolution with the principles of a Circular Economy (CE) has the potential to radically transform the industrial landscape and its relationship to materials and finite resources, thus unlocking additional value for the manufacturing sector. Despite meaningful success by a handful of manufacturers to move towards more sustainable practices through the use of data-driven intelligence, it is unclear which CE strategy is the most valuable for a business and at what time in a products lifecycle it should be implemented. As such, this research aims to identify how data from products in use can inform intelligent decisions surrounding the implementation of Circular Economy strategies so as to accelerate the implementation of circular approaches to resource use within UK manufacturing.

Multiple research efforts and best practice examples have shown that a transition towards a Circular Economy can bring about lasting benefits from a more innovative, resilient and productive economy. This is particularly prevalent for manufacturing as it offers one of the biggest potentials for economic and environmental impact of any sector. It is estimated that materials savings alone in the European Union could amount to USD 630 billion. Digital technology is rapidly becoming a key enabler for unlocking the value from Circular Economy strategies with an estimated 10 billion physical objects with embedded information technology already in existence today and a predicted 50 billion in use by 2020. For the manufacturing sector, the ability to monitor and manage objects in the physical world electronically through data-driven decision-making changes the way that value is created. The capture and analysis of data streams between manufacturing, product and user is already enabling organisations to decouple manufacturing growth from resource consumption through new service offerings, providing customers with added value such as financial savings and safety improvement, and enabling organisations to shift their business model from selling to leasing. This shift in ownership, enabled through access to the right data, brings about a need for manufacturers to design products that last and to integrate processes such as remanufacturing to enable materials and resources to be cycled as many times as possible resulting in significant environmental savings, job creation and up-skilling associated with the development of new processes. Through harnessing digital technological advances to inform decisions on Circular Economy strategies, this research has the opportunity to radically transform UK manufacturing and enable the sector to capture significant value from a Circular Economy that is currently being lost.

The originality of this research lies in using data-driven intelligence to optimise the selection of CE strategies for products and the timings of intervention in the product lifecycle. This challenging three year project will bring together an internationally renowned team of experts in Circular Innovation, Manufacturing Informatics and Information Theory from Cranfield University and University of Sheffield drawing on leading-edge strengths of the host institutions and international connections with research communities, companies, business intermediaries and governance at national and international scales. The research team will partner with key players across the manufacturing sector, capable of initiating system level change, to develop novel methods for acquiring and integrating new data streams, uncovering exciting opportunities for new value creation within manufacturing organisations and enabling informed circular interventions surrounding the manufacture and use of products.

Planned Impact

The research project Circular 4.0 aims to identify how data from products in use can inform intelligent decisions surrounding the implementation of Circular Economy (CE) strategies so as to accelerate the implementation of circular approaches to resource use within UK manufacturing. The impact generated in terms of new knowledge, novel methodologies, use case demonstration, new collaborations and future research opportunities will be the measures of success of the research over the three-year programme and its legacy beyond. A broad community of national and international academics, experts, user groups, government, policy makers and industrial organisations, within and beyond the manufacture of engineering products, will directly benefit from the new scientific knowledge and theoretical advancement created through activities, research findings and multi-media outputs of the research over the three-year duration.

Research at the interfaces of the CE, Manufacturing Informatics and Information Theory within the context of the UK manufacturing sector presents significant economic, social, environmental and technological opportunities to be realised over the next 2, 5 and 10 years. Transitioning towards a CE is estimated to be worth $4.5 trillion to our global economy with UK businesses predicted to benefit by up to £23 billion per year through low cost or no cost improvements in the efficient use of resources. New knowledge, tools and methodologies developed through this research will enable organisations to capture data throughout the lifecycle of their products and make informed decisions on the most appropriate CE strategy for their products. The identification and combination of new data streams will enable UK manufacturers to realise new methods of value creation and implement new business models such as service provision and remanufacturing that are decoupled from resource use and fluctuating costs of raw materials.

The growth in global big data technology ad services is predicted to reach USD 16.9 billion with the number of big data staff specialists set to increase by 240% over the next five years in the UK alone. The research challenges to be investigated will contribute to understanding of the skills and training required for interpreting data and using novel data combinations to transform industries ensuring that the UK can take full advantage of opportunities for job creation within the fields of CE, Manufacturing Informatics and Information Theory.

The research has the potential to re-define resource use within UK manufacturing by changing the economics and organisation of manufacturing organisations. This can be achieved by providing Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) and their supply chains with new competitive advantage through data-driven insights into their products for implementing CE strategies, such as increasing utilisation, product life extension and end-of-current-life. Furthermore, organisations will have the ability to re-capture and re-deploy valuable materials and resources, therefore reducing the cost of raw materials and increasing the profit margin for their products and services. A revolutionised understanding of the interactions between products, users and manufacturers will inform opportunities for new services and circular business models through which the organisation will retain ownership of assets, significantly reducing the amount of materials that are currently downgraded or end up as landfill. The key beneficiaries of this research will be manufacturers and their supply and distribution partners, end users, policy makers, government and national and international academics across the fields of circular innovation, manufacturing, digital technology and information theory.


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