Remanufacturing: UK has an opportunity to take a starring role in Europe

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Guest blogging for us today, Dr Winifred Ijomah, University of Strathclyde and Editor in Chief of the Journal of Remanufacturing, argues the case for a greater focus on remanufacturing.

Remanufacture, the process of returning used products at least to as–new functionality and giving the resultant products at least the same guarantee as new equivalent products, can be twice as profitable as manufacture.

The practice gives products of equal quality to conventional manufacturing for 50% of the energy and production costs; less CO2 is produced too, and 85% of the weight of remanufactured products can be from used components thus reducing material demand. In the UK, manufacturing and technology companies can secure a competitive position in the global economy by using remanufacturing to exploit the new product and service opportunities in the low-energy, low-carbon markets of the future.

The potential economic and environmental benefits are huge, but the economies of scale seen in traditional (i.e. raw material to product) manufacturing are not yet available in remanufacture. Although it is possible to economically remanufacture products as diverse as automotive engines, industrial robots, electrical control systems and photocopiers, remanufacturing is the exception rather than the rule.

The barriers to widespread adoption of remanufacturing are both technical and non-technical, however none are insurmountable.

Technical barriers comprise primarily of a lack of specific expertise in the small to medium size enterprises (SME) typical of the sector. New tools and techniques are required, particularly for the SMEs who currently dominate the market yet lack the resource and expertise to develop such tools. Non-technical barriers are largely due to a lack of knowledge and awareness of what is already available. There remains ambiguity in the definition of remanufacturing and its opportunities for profitability and environmental compliance. Equally, customer (and public) perceptions of remanufacturing are currently poor, with remanufacturing perceived as ‘second class’ and inferior to newly manufactured products. Policy and regulation issues also present barriers to remanufacture; prohibitive laws and regulations can hinder adoption of remanufacturing, and there are currently few pro-remanufacture policies and standards.

Addressing these challenges has the potential to transform the practice of remanufacturing and increase the competitiveness of UK companies.

A remanufacturing expertise hub would drive extensive improvement and augmenting of remanufacture technology, awareness and operational practices by implementing a coherent programme of research and Knowledge Exchange. However, the UK has at present no “expertise reservoir” where existing and potential remanufacturers can access any degree of help or even properly discuss their problems.

Europe is the only major continent with manufacturing – based economy without a large International Remanufacture Centre and this presents a key opportunity for the UK in national and international trade should it establish a major remanufacture expertise hub.

Internationally there are three major remanufacture research Centres, one in each major geographical region with a manufacturing economy: The National Key Laboratory for Remanufacturing (NKLR), Beijing, China, and, Remanufacturing, Resource Recovery (C3R) at Rochester Institute of Technology, USA, and the Advanced Remanufacturing and Technology Centre of Singapore (ARTC). Other critical masses of remanufacturing researchers include in Europe, the Remanufacturing research Group at the University of Strathclyde (UK), Bayreuth University (Germany), Linkoping University (Sweden), and Politecnico Milano (Italy).

Remanufacturing is developing from an activity limited to industrial engineering into a ubiquitous approach that provides high value and low environmental impact in every commercial sector. This process could be accelerated, and global market share won, if the industry is able to exploit the resources of the universities to develop innovative technologies and organizational structures.

In recent years there has been rapid growth of global interest in remanufacturing, for example in the USA, Japan and Europe and China.

The Chinese remanufacturing industry started relatively late. However, China sees remanufacture as a cornerstone of its future prosperity and the sustainability of its manufacturing base given foreseen issues regards resource insecurity. As a result, remanufacturing is being actively supported and promoted by state policy as an emerging and critical area of development and thus is growing extensively. For example the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) identified remanufacturing as a priority development area in the ‘10th, 11th and 12th Five Year Plans in 2010, 2011 and 2012 respectively. Further, the key areas of Chinese government and policy drivers (e.g. the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) , the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST), Ministry of Finance (MOF), and Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP)) have issued joint statements on the importance of developing the remanufacturing industry as a new growth point for Chinese the economy.

Despite the relatively lack of policy support in Europe, there is increasing amounts of funding available to support research in this area. Examples of Horizon 2020 opportunities in Remanufacturing include Call for Nanotechnologies, Advanced Materials and Production e.g. H2020-NMP-CSA-2014 (Networking, eco-design of products, eco-innovation, and product life cycle management), Call for Factories of the Future e.g. H2020-FoF-2014 Gglobal energy and resource efficiency in manufacturing enterprises) and H2020-FoF-2015 (Re-use and remanufacturing technologies and equipment for sustainable product lifecycle management). H2020-FoF-2015 alone has a budget of €145,000,000.

That said, there is more that can be done. We are currently working up a proposal for a UK Network of Excellence in Remanufacturing to cement activity here in the UK. We believe that the UK is perfectly placed to be the remanufacturing hub for Europe and to develop the expertise, skills and innovation framework to support.

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