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'Remanufacturing' set to skyrocket as companies cut waste and energy use

Jennifer Johnson

ABB has refurbished and upgraded thousands of its robots in the past 25 years or so (Credit: Shutterstock)
ABB has refurbished and upgraded thousands of its robots in the past 25 years or so (Credit: Shutterstock)

Anyone who has ever cracked a phone screen or spilled a glass of water on a laptop has faced a similar dilemma: do you buy a replacement device? Or do you attempt a do-it-yourself repair?

Those who favour the latter approach will know that it’s common for manufacturers to restrict access to the parts, tools and documentation you’d need to fix your devices properly. As a result, it can also be difficult to find a local repair shop that can take on these jobs. This is why campaigners have been advocating for the “right to repair”. The movement has gained legislative momentum – with the UK government’s Right to Repair law going into effect last year. 

Reuse and repair

For appliance manufacturers, this is all part of a wider paradigm shift away from the “take, make, waste” linear model of production. The alternative is a circular economy – one that incorporates reuse, repair, recycling and remanufacturing with the ultimate aim of reducing waste and improving sustainability. Moving from a linear to a circular model will require some processes to be redesigned, although advocates are keen to emphasise that this is a business opportunity rather than a hassle.

Companies that make complex, high-value items (think jet engines or automotive parts) are especially good candidates for remanufacturing. In this process, a product is disassembled and old components are replaced with their updated equivalents. The remade device is designed to be just as reliable as the original but, because some of the embodied materials are in use for longer, energy is saved and waste is avoided. It’s the industrial equivalent of replacing your phone’s worn-out battery, instead of getting an entirely new phone.

Industry has known about the benefits of remanufacturing for years, although the practice is not yet standard in many of the sectors where it could make a big impact. However, some first-movers are striving to build remanufacturing into their sales pipelines. For instance, Toyota has acknowledged that many of the vehicles it leases in the UK are used to two-to-three-year cycles. Therefore, the Japanese carmaker has announced plans to remanufacture its vehicles twice throughout their lives – and recycle them once the third rotation is complete.

In 2020, automation giant ABB said it was expanding its global network of robotics remanufacturing facilities to enable it to buy back legacy robots that would otherwise be scrapped. It then updates the machines and sells them on to new owners. ABB says it has refurbished and upgraded thousands of its robots in the past 25 years or so. What was once merely a shrewd business practice has now become a sustainable selling point. 

Expanding market

The European Remanufacturing Network has estimated that the remanufacturing industry could grow to €90bn by 2030 and employ 255,000 people. However, this will require new quality management and “reverse” logistics processes to be put into place to ensure that products are readily available to be remanufactured. This might also mean companies have to redesign their shop floors for new ways of working. 

Proponents of a circular economy want to intervene before salvageable technologies are disposed of. The idea is gaining traction in a world increasingly conscious of throwaway consumer habits. We may soon have the right to repair the entire infrastructure of our daily lives.  


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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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