There are endless products in the field of small consumer electronics that are already on the market and added daily. The devices are not built to be repaired. Once a part is broken, they go into the trash. Global resource consumption has almost doubled in the last 30 years. As a result, the amount of e-waste also increased considerably. The latest estimates show that the world currently discards about 50 million tons of e-waste annually, an amount more significant in weight than all commercial airliners ever made. Shockingly, only about 20% of this waste is formally recycled. The toxic effects of e-waste can severely damage our air, soil, and water, harming our health.
This clearly shows that our conventional methods of production and consumption are not sustainable. We must move beyond solely focusing on profits for business and fundamentally rethink how to deliver the best products and services that cater to people, profit, and planetary needs.
From linear economy to sustainable circularity
Our Circular Screwdriver case shows how circular design principles can be incorporated into developing small, battery-powered consumer goods. By optimizing the use and reuse of resources, the production chain can keep these resources within the chain for as long as possible, which benefits the economy and reduces environmental damage.
The main parts of the screwdriver are made from rPET, which comes from a recycled, pre-existing source. The PCB is semi-3D printed using copper laminate and biodegradable polymer. We used a 18650 Li-ion cell for easy repurposing, stainless steel for near-full metal recyclability, and a brushed motor to avoid reliance on non-recoverable rare earth magnets. And each component can be assembled and disassembled by hand without any glue or tools.
We designed a click function for the component architecture that allows hand disassembly. Users can quickly repair the device by following the intelligent numbering on the product and the guide on the app. Under this prerequisite, an exchange and formal recycling are possible. Broken batteries can be replaced, components can be refurbished or substituted, and spare parts can be 3D printed locally. Even design or power alterations are possible. All resources circle in the closed system.
Eliminate waste, and close the lifecycle loop with the circular screwdriver
We not only think about making documentation and parts accessible but also about creating a repair service offering that is economically feasible and frustration-free for both users and businesses. And offering spare parts and modular upgrades for a product creates new business opportunities and deepens the customer relationship. An embedded user return system can ease the process and provide valuable knowledge for future product development.
The problem is that products must be designed for easy maintenance and recycling. The “take, make, waste” linear economic model leads to limited product lifecycles and material loss.
That’s why we redesigned a cordless screwdriver, making it fully circular in an ideal situation. The product architecture has been fundamentally redesigned to make the functional components of the screwdriver modular and easily interchangeable, as well as upgradable – both for users and for specialists in refurbishing, remanufacturing, and recycling processes. The disassembly and reassembly can be done in a few steps without special tools.
Breaking the consumption pattern and building an ecosystem
Furthermore, users can send the damaged part to a local certified service provider to get a 3D-printed replacement part. The printing service provider pulverizes and recycles the old pieces into plastic pellets for the 3D printing of new features. This eliminates the need for external parts inventory and reduces carbon emissions from logistics. For damaged motors and other internal parts, users can send them back to the manufacturer for new parts, which can be made using recovered raw materials.
The digital infrastructure connects the analog product with the business model and all stakeholders to build an ecosystem. The asset dashboard provides business owners, procurement, and sourcing visibility into material flows, cash backs, and system synergies between partners. Meanwhile, the app empowers consumers to participate in the sustainable system. The supply chain is well managed by leveraging numbers and insights, and product and marketing managers can better understand their target audience.
This closed-loop system enables all participants to coordinate their efforts and potentially harvest or sell collected data. Ultimately, this approach helps break the “take, make, waste” paradigm and promotes a more sustainable and responsible consumer electronics industry.
To fully benefit from the circular economy, we must adopt circular design principles to redesign our current products and innovate in a new way. As an innovation firm for the circular economy, we aim to bridge the gap between theory and realization. The Circular Screwdriver case highlights crucial principles and puts them into action, exemplified by a small, battery-powered consumer good, to illustrate some of the challenges businesses may encounter when transitioning to the circular economy.