Nedap getting started with circular electronics through NWO Circular Circuits research project

The amount of e-waste in the world continues to grow. At the same time, critical materials are becoming increasingly scarce. Now is the perfect time to boost the circular economy for electronics. Nedap is doing this by participating in the Circular Circuits research project of NWO (Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek, or Dutch Research Council). “Our participation gives us front-row tickets for all new information in the field of circular electronics,” explains R&D engineer Jasper Compaijen of Nedap. He talks about this together with Jan-Henk Welink of TU Delft, circular economy project lead and also the initiator of the research project.

Jasper Compaijen has spent a long time thinking about the circular issues within his sector. “We dig raw materials out of the ground and turn them into products, but at some point these raw materials will run out. That model is unsustainable.” This thought was confirmed when he attended a webinar by Jan-Henk Welink of TU Delft. Welink has been involved in the circular economy for more than a decade, especially regarding critical materials. These are metals that are also used in electronics.

“Our participation gives us front-row tickets for all new information in the field of circular electronics”

Jasper Compaijen

R&D Engineer

Companies and knowledge institutions searching together

In the webinar, Welink talks about his recently launched Circular Circuits research project for NWO. The project sees companies and knowledge institutions go looking for ways of developing the next generation of electronics based on the principles of the circular economy. Focus areas of the research include circular design, new business models and material flows.

Getting started with the circular economy

“I was thinking along those lines,” remembers Compaijen. “Because I knew we wanted to get started with this at Nedap. Our company makes durable and smart products, products that last a long time. That’s what we stand for, and also what we’re known for. We also believe in a circular approach to product development. But we’re not yet sure how exactly we should set this up.”

All value chain partners represented

This is why Nedap joined the research project as one of the participants. The great thing about the Circular Circuits project, says Welink, is that all the links in the value chain are represented. “From designers to recycling companies,” explains the initiator. “But also manufacturers of various types of electronics.” According to Jan-Henk Welink, that’s what makes Nedap’s participation so interesting. “They make specific products with specific challenges.”

Nedap’s added value

Nedap develops software and hardware solutions, including complex electronics for a worldwide market. Examples include clothing labels, exit detection gates or tags worn by cows. “Remanufacturing is an option for some types of electronics, but for other products it’s not possible, simply because they’re too small for that,” explains Welink. Making electronics circular is so highly complex, because raw materials cannot be replaced just like that. “Certain components are simply needed to allow the product to function, like a specific type of critical metal with certain properties.” According to the researcher, it’s therefore important to devise smart strategies together that lead to circular solutions. “It’s great that we have all these different companies at our table.”

You can’t do it alone

R&D engineer Jasper Compaijen adds to this: “You can’t resolve the circular issues for electronics as a single company. The whole thing is just too big. So you need to collaborate with partners from the entire value chain.” That’s what Nedap is actively doing, not only by contributing to the project financially, but by deploying its knowledge and manpower in particular. “To us our participation is not a matter of sponsorship,” explains Compaijen. “We really want to be involved in the project: providing information, as we have lots of knowledge ourselves, but also gathering information.”

Moving forward

The research project will last five years and was launched this year. Jan-Henk Welink calls this period the start-up phase. Even though they’ve just started, he can already see the dynamics and interaction. The first PhD students have been recruited and put to work, and the exchange of knowledge, product samples and data is getting started. “Things are moving forward,” says the initiator enthusiastically. And that’s a good thing, as everyone is eagerly awaiting the outcome of the project. Eventually the results should boost the circular economy for electronics. Science becomes application. Paper becomes reality.

Three circular topics

The research project is subdivided into various parts. Nedap is focusing on three specific topics: the life-cycle analysis of material flows, the design of circular products and the development of circular business models.

New business models

About the development of new business models, the R&D engineer says: “Once we’ve sold a product to our client, we have little to say about what else happens to it.” Even though Nedap’s environmental impact is found throughout the value chain. “We purchase components, use materials, turn them into our own design and put these products to use for clients anywhere in the world.”

Selling or products as a service

“To improve our control over the impact of Nedap’s products, we’re thinking about other revenue models,” says Compaijen in anticipation of the research. “Let’s say that we didn’t sell the product, but offered it as a service. What would be the consequences for the client? And for us? If we did this worldwide for tens of thousands of products per year, we’d have to prefinance a lot. We’d be just like a bank. How should we handle this? Those are complex challenges. Note that we’re already experimenting with new business models, but on a small scale.”

Circular product design

Another part is aimed at circular product design. How can Nedap design its products in such a way that they can be reused at the end of their lifespan? Compaijen explains: “That requires different design choices. Those may be apparently simple things, like using the same types of screws, or clicking products together rather than gluing them, making them easier to disassemble.” Welink adds: “In automated recycling lines, it should be possible for products to be broken up into the various basic raw materials.”

Controlling material flows

In the third part of the research, Nedap and other participants will be looking for ways of reducing the environmental impact of a product throughout its lifespan. Here it’s important to have control over the material flows in the value chain. Which material flows are there, how large are they and where are they going? “This may, for example, involve careful collection of products, pre-processing for recycling or reuse and proper separation,” explains Welink. It’s a challenging task, especially for complex electronics. “If anything goes wrong in any of these steps you’ll be lagging behind, so you need to have full control over all of the steps.”

Head start

Jan-Henk Welink believes that, because of the involvement of the Nedap team, Nedap will know how they should be tackling the various research areas within a year. “That gives us a head start, and that’s important in business. It will allow Nedap to attain a leading position in the sector.” Jasper Compaijen is indeed hoping that the Circular Circuits research project will give his company a knowledge advantage in the field of circularity. His directors are very involved in any case, notes the engineer. “They’re also simply business risks: how can we guarantee the use of components that will also be available in the future? I’m absolutely certain: if we don’t do anything, they’ll get too expensive or won’t be available at all anymore.”