Thought Leadership

A circular economy for a sustainable future

By Spencer Acain

Since the start of the industrial revolution, more than two centuries ago, the life of mass-produced goods our society has come to rely can be traced as a straight line from raw material, through manufacturing and usage, to end in a landfill. However, considering the climate crisis we face today, that is no longer a viable business model. The manufacturing industry has many steps they can, and must, take to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and material waste. Steps such as creating more efficient product designs, reducing energy usage through factory optimization, and improving supply chain logistics. While all of these options can provide an immediate and tangible benefit, a less immediate but no less important path to greener manufacturing is improving how we handle products that reach the end of their useful life. It is from this starting point that we derive the circular economy.

Rather than the line from raw material to landfill that exists now, when a product in a circular economy reaches end of life it is broken down, reused, retooled, and recycled as completely as possible. This might sound like common sense, since surely using something that has already been processed and tooled must be cheaper than making it from scratch, right? But it turns the answer to that question is a little more complicated than yes or no. When looking to reuse and recycle a dead product there is a carbon footprint associated with that as well. Energy used to transport the products to appropriate facilities, time and labor for disassembly, and more energy for retooling or recycling. With the way products are currently designed and manufactured many of them, especially in consumer electronics, are prohibitively difficult and expensive to disassemble and reuse. So, the move to a circular economy does not start at the end of a products life, but at the beginning, before it ever leaves the drafting board it must be designed for its eventual end-of-life.

To truly realize the potential of a circular economy, the principles of sustainability must be ingrained in a design from the very conception of a product. Extending the principles of design for assembly and design for manufacturing to cover sustainability principles is a key part of the transformation to a circular economy. Designing a product so it is easily disassembled by using mechanical or chemical joining methods that can be easily undone, creating parts that can be removed from an assembly and used in a different application, and optimizing parts for the factory and location they will be manufactured in, reducing waste, are all methods designers can use to improve sustainability of a product from the conception phase. By designing products to be both aware of the conditions they will be manufactured under and how they will be handled at end-of-life, manufacturers can realize both monetary gains and environmental benefits thanks to reduced manufacturing costs and waste.

While a circular economy does offer benefits in the areas of cost and sustainability, it does present new challenges when transitioning from our current economic model. For many industries, the move to products designed to be used and reused longer represents a major disruption to their business model. With both new products meant to last longer, and old ones reused in new ways, the demand for brand-new products diminishes. While each industry will need to find their own solution to this problem, for some the next move might be a transition to a service-based model. Similar to how leasing a car works, products in the future might be leased from the manufacturer, generating a constant revenue stream while also incentivizing products to last longer and be easier to maintain to reduce overhead.

A circular economy is one way for manufacturers and the world in general to reach a greener, more sustainable future. A circular economy is built on many changes across a supply chain and product lifecycle, all interconnected and building on each other to bend the straight line of a products lifecycle into a sustainable circle. This will be vital in building a better future for generations to come. If you are interested in learning more about improving manufacturing sustainability, check out this whitepaper.

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