Safer end of engineering: How to plan for the end of life of your innovation

06 Sep 2021

SEEL

The decommissioning, dismantling and disposal of products and structures at the end of their life can damage the environment and squander scarce resources if not carried out responsibly. As we as a society seek to become more sustainable, it is more important than ever that we address this problem and consider resource use and end of life in innovation.

The Academy’s Enterprise Hub supports numerous engineering entrepreneurs with a range of innovations that have the potential to create a more sustainable society. With this in mind, the Enterprise Hub collaborated with Engineering X to run a workshop on Safer End of Engineering Life, to consider the end of life of their innovation and their impact on the environment as part of a engineering tech business, with Dr Ruth Boumphrey, Director of Research and Strategic Programmes at Lloyd’s Register Foundation and SEEL programme board member, and Professor Peter Childs FREng, Professorial Lead in Engineering Design and the founding Head of the Dyson School of Design Engineering at Imperial College London.

What did we learn?

  • No one has all the answers. This is a difficult space which is hard for entrepreneurs to consider when they are working hard to get their business running and there are no easy solutions. We encourage all entrepreneurs to keep thinking about end of engineered life and collaborating to find shared solutions and ways forward.
  • Go bit by bit. Often start-ups try to be completely sustainable from the start and be completely circular which is very difficult and can make it seem like an impossible task. To get you started, it is best to come up with a long-term plan to make it achievable.
  • Get your team to work together. Are there considerations in the design stage that will make the end of life easier or make your product more circular? Starting these conversations early will make it easier in the long run.
  • Repair or replace? There is a question on whether to replace an entire product when part of it breaks or to only replace a faulty component. Consider your product and if there is a component that is likely to break more quickly than others (i.e., electronic parts), put it in an easily accessible place. For example, boilers where the fan breaks more easily so is positioned on the outside.
  • Take a long-term view. The cost of a disgruntled customer who is struggling to get their product repaired or replaced is potentially much higher than designing for easy returns and warranties. Consider the long-term gains for your business by having this, particularly as the consumer base becomes more environmentally conscious.
  • Ten years goes quick. The length of your product insurance is an important consideration and even though five or 10 years may sound a long time, it is gone in a flash. Consider longer coverage and plan for longevity so that you are not caught out.
  • Make the business case. Investors still see end of engineered life planning or circularity as a nice thing to have, rather than critical to a product. Think about how to make the business case for end of engineered life planning for your products by emphasising that as more focus comes on to sustainability, this could be seen as more of a liability for a business that has failed to adapt.

Examples from the Hub

Our thanks to Amrit Chandan from Aceleron and Iain Purves from Loowatt who shared their experiences on planning for the end of life of their products and increasing their circularly. Check out their work and how they are implementing end of engineering life in their production system here:

Aceleron is an award-winning clean technology company on a mission to make lithium batteries better and increase their duration in the “first life” and safer end-of-life treatment. Aceleron’s compression technology platform, ensures that batteries:

(i) Are built to be rebuilt, cost effectively and safely, (ii) Are sustainable, by enabling cell replacement and upgrade as chemistry develops, (iii) Are genuinely circular, seeing scarce resources carefully nurtured and preserved. This is particularly important in developing regions where the technology/facilities to deal with this growing e-waste challenge doesn't exist. This is both an environmental and social challenge as e-waste is often dumped in rivers etc or recovered using 'low-tech' methods which are harmful to health (open air smelting of e-waste). Aceleron are directly addressing this whilst increasing the positive social impact that this technology can have.

Loowatt’s patented toilets integrate revolutionary, waterless flush technology to deliver hygienic and safe toilets, for domestic and commercial installations around the world. The waterless flush is enabled through the highly efficient use of polymer film to line the toilet bowl. Loowatt has adopted a systems design approach to minimise environmental impact. Firstly, film usage in the toilet product is minimised in Loowatt’s patented mechanism. Secondly, custom machinery rapidly and efficiently separates the film from human waste. Lastly, the separated polymer film can be recycled or composted. Recycling creates circularity in materials usage and improves life-cycle characteristics. The undiluted and chemical-free human waste is ideal for energy and nutrient recovery in utility systems.

What happens next?

This is a critical and complex space where no one has all the answers, but progress in this area is undeniably central to achieving sustainability and climate goals, as well as the safety issues that occur when waste is not properly managed. For now, we need to take any steps we can to shift the trend in the right direction. We encourage our Hub Members and other entrepreneurs to consider end of life planning for their products .Take a look at the Engineering X Safer End of Engineered Life programme for work on tackling open burning of waste globally and more.

The Enterprise Hub is developing a module to explore further End of Engineered Life and how to integrate this in the creation and development of your products and services.

Please get in touch with Francesca Cesare-Pintorno, Enterprise Hub Community Manager on Francesca.Cesare-Pintorno@raeng.org.uk and Hazel Ingham, SEEL Programme Manager on Hazel.Ingram@raeng.org.uk for any further information.

Engineering X is an international collaboration, founded by the Royal Academy of Engineering and Lloyd’s Register Foundation, that brings global experts together to engineer change.

Resources

The Engineering X Safer End of Engineered Life programme seeks to address challenges and improve safety globally by understanding and applying practical interventions to the billions of tonnes of end-of-life materials, artefacts and structures that humanity produces each year.
Engineering X is a new international collaboration that brings together some of the world’s leading problem-solvers to address the great challenges of our age.

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