How REMADE is making the case for strategic R&D—and circular economy—for U.S. manufacturing

Delegates from U.S. manufacturing industry pose for group photo.

Representatives of the REMADE Institute's membership during a 2019 meeting

Waste, or what to do with it, dominates much of the sustainability conversation. Questions center on the environmental and social impacts of waste, how it can be recycled or reused. Throughout, the focus is on products once they’re no longer useful to us. Yet, according to the European Union’s Sustainable Product Policy, 80 percent of a product’s environmental impacts follow from decisions made during the design phase, long before they’re even manufactured.

With this in mind, a growing number of companies are expanding how they think about sustainability to include the entire life cycle of their products. They are looking to industrial methods that support circular economy, such as remanufacturing, recycling, repair, and reuse. Of these, remanufacturing offers the best opportunity for keeping manufactured materials in use while driving business growth, following guidance from the United Nations Environment Programme’s International Resource Panel (UNEP IRP). But, even so, integrating remanufacturing isn’t simple—it calls for considerable changes to how manufacturers traditionally work.

Brian Hilton, a research engineer at the Golisano Insitute for Sustainability (GIS) at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), is working to make it easier for companies to plan for remanufacturing when they design products.   

“Remanufacturing’s potential as a driver of circular economy will remain untapped if we don’t change how products are designed from the get-go.”

“Remanufacturing’s potential as a driver of circular economy will remain untapped if we don’t change how products are designed from the get-go,” Hilton said. “Very often designers and remanufacturers in a single company don’t talk. Products are designed following conventional rules that don’t anticipate the steps remanufacturers have to take when a product or component reaches the end of its first life cycle. As a result, a lot of opportunities for remanufacturing, and therefore circular economy, are missed.”

One solution Hilton points to is design for remanufacturing (DfReman). A variety of DfReman rules have been developed by industry and academic researchers, though these remain largely conceptual.

“Some companies have in place best practices for DfReman, but these have limited scope when it comes to execution. Designers need something more practical and prescriptive,” Hilton explained.

Photo of researcher Brian Hilton working with a colleague in a laboratory at RIT's Golisano Institute for Sustainability (GIS)
Brian Hilton is a research engineer at the Golisano Insitute for Sustainability (GIS) at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT).

Hilton believes the problem comes down to technology: Common design tools, such as computer-aided design (CAD) software, do not incorporate even minimal rules for DfReman. To close this technical gap, he has lead a research project in partnership with the construction and mining equipment manufacturer Caterpillar Inc. (Caterpillar). Over the past two years, he and his team at GIS have learned directly from Caterpillar about how they design and remanufacture to create a set of detailed DfReman rules and guidelines. Hilton’s goal is to translate these into a software plugin that can be installed into the popular CAD tools Autodesk and Creo. The plugin would allow designers to contrast and compare a range of considerations in order to evaluate trade-offs between sustainability outcomes and constraints such as cost, function, and quality.

The international firms BorgWarner, Trane, ZF Group, and Autodesk are set to collaborate with Hilton as the project enters its second phase this summer. It is just one of 84 projects currently underway at the REMADE Institute (REMADE)—one of 16 Manufacturing USA® institutes—that are addressing similar challenges to building a circular economy for U.S. manufacturing.

An American model for strategic R&D 

Investment in American R&D outpaced most of the world in the decades after World War II. But that began to wane in the 1990s. Today, the U.S. ranks tenth in the world when it comes to R&D intensity, which measures combined public and private investment into R&D as a share of gross domestic product (GDP).

Unlike the results of private sector R&D, the DfReman CAD plugin that Hilton and his team are developing will be available to any company that wants to use it. This is part of the mission of REMADE, which was launched in 2017 by the U.S. Department of Energy (U.S. DOE) to accelerate innovation that can reduce the energy use and carbon emissions associated with industrial-scale production, processing, and end-of-life (EOL) disposition of materials.

“REMADE is an example of how the U.S. can strategically advance R&D to meet the climate, energy, and economic goals set by the Biden administration and the U.S. DOE,” said Nabil Nasr, REMADE’s founding CEO.

Photo of Nabil Nasr, founding CEO of the REMADE Institute
Nabil Nasr is REMADE’s founding CEO as well as the director of RIT's Golisano Institute for Sustainability (GIS). 

Kelly Speakes-Backman, principal deputy assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy at the U.S. DOE, sees circular economy as crucial to meeting the country’s climate targets. “By investing in technologies that improve our ability to re-use, recycle and remanufacture these materials, the U.S. DOE is moving America toward a circular economy and reducing carbon emissions across the manufacturing sector," she said to explain REMADE’s strategic value to the nation.

“If we don't reduce industrial energy consumption and industrial emissions, research shows we will only get a little more than halfway to net-zero by 2050,” added Nasr. “A circular economy approach to how we manufacture and use everyday products is needed to get us all the way there.”

Nasr was instrumental in setting the institute’s four primary strategic goals. The first is to reduce energy use and emissions by decreasing the use of raw material in energy-intensive industries. Second is to replace an increasing percentage of raw materials in manufacturing with secondary material feedstocks. Third, improve the economics of secondary feedstocks in order to make them more competitive with raw materials on the market. Fourth, develop transformational technologies that will expand material reuse, remanufacturing, recovery, and recycling.

REMADE spans the public-private divide, with 141 members that include manufacturers, academic institutions, trade associations, and national laboratories.

“Collaboration between industry, policymakers, and research organization is key to how REMADE makes R&D work in the U.S.”

“Collaboration between industry, policymakers, and research organization is key to how REMADE makes R&D work in the U.S.”

John Disharoon, who serves on REMADE’s governance board and is director of market access for Cat Reman, agrees.

“When you combine the experience of industry and the research of academia with matching funds from, in this instance, the Department of Energy, you create an atmosphere that can facilitate a more rapid advance to commercialize projects that may not have had the focus with just a single entity pursuing it,” Disharoon said. “When we look at the expanding membership and the number of projects underway at REMADE, it certainly suggests others agree.”

REMADE follows in the footsteps of RIT’s Center for Remanufacturing and Resource Recovery (C3R), an earlier initiative led by Nasr that was founded in 1997. C3R has supported a range of public-private collaborations to advance remanufacturing across industrial sectors. It fills an important gap, connecting remanufacturers across industrial sectors and working closely with trade associations like the Remanufacturing Industries Council.    

By breaking down traditional R&D siloes, REMADE is able to meaningfully link the real technical and logistical problems facing industry to novel research underway at leading national labs and universities in the U.S. This opens new opportunities for solving long-standing sustainability challenges, like plastic.  

Tough challenges, big pay-offs  

Just 8.4 percent of the plastic collected for recycling in the U.S. actually gets recycled. Yet, rather than a dismal surprise, it’s a promising opportunity for REMADE to cut emissions. If even 40 percent of the plastic collected in the U.S. was recycled, it would be enough to offset about 11 million metric tons of greenhouse gases while saving the energy equivalent of nearly 24,000 metric tons of oil per year. But manufacturers and policymakers still have a limited understanding of the economic, social, and environmental impacts of the new mechanical and chemical technologies that could be used to get there.  

This was the thinking behind a proposal submitted to REMADE by Michigan Technological University, Chemstations, Resource Recycling Systems, Yale University, and Idaho National Laboratory. The project was selected by REMADE in 2021, which means it received 50 percent of its funding through the U.S. DOE, which sponsors the institute. The remaining half is matched by the project’s participants, which is known as cost-share. To date, more than $85.6 million have been invested into REMADE projects in the same way.  

The project led to the creation of a model that simulates how manufacturing and recycling processes could be configured in a circular economy for polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and olefin plastics, which together make up nearly two-thirds of all U.S. plastic production. In a preliminary case study, it predicted that, compared to current practices, a circular economy for PET would cut emissions by 24 percent.

"Currently, plastics are produced and used in a linear fashion,” said the project’s principal investigator (PI), David Shonnard, a professor of chemical engineering at Michigan Technological University who also directs the Sustainable Futures Institute (SFI) there. “This systems-analysis project will predict the changes in emissions and energy in a circular economy for U.S. plastics."  

The framework could help close the billion-pound annual gap between current U.S. supplies of PET- and olefin-based products and the anticipated demand for recycled plastics.

Next Shonnard and his team look to expand the model to forecast pathways for reducing energy use and emissions for plastics recycling. Once complete, the framework could help close the billion-pound annual gap between current U.S. supplies of PET- and olefin-based products and the anticipated demand for recycled plastics.

Why REMADE is working

REMADE estimates that the technologies developed by its partners are capable of reducing the annual emissions of the U.S. manufacturing sectors that process energy-intensive metals, polymers, fibers, and electronic waste (e-waste) by 11.5 percent. According to 2022 metrics released by the institute, its members have developed innovations that will save the energy equivalent of 216 million barrels of oil, once deployed. Projects to date will create up to 600,000 direct and indirect jobs, generating up to $42 billion in new revenue for U.S. companies.

Michael Thurston leads the remanufacturing and end-of-life (EOL) reuse node at REMADE.

“In the five years since REMADE began, we’re already seeing measurable results,” Thurston noted. “I think a lot of this comes down to how rigorously we track the progress of the projects we fund.”

Every REMADE project proposal must include anticipated impacts based on the institute’s technical performance metrics (TPMs). So, for example, Hilton and his team expect the DfR reman CAD plugin to support design practices that will lead to a 15-percent increase in the remanufacturability of components (known as “cores”) for heavy duty vehicles and machinery. This would lower the sector’s demand for raw materials, mostly metal, by 0.28 million metric tons and lower the associated annual energy use by an amount equivalent to more than 809,000 metric tons of coal.

REMADE’s strategy is embodied in a technical roadmap. Updated every year, the planning tool allows for strategic realignments to shifts in climate and industrial policy as well as fast, tactical adjustments to unforeseen economic or political changes.

Photo of a partially disassembled electric vehicle (EV)
Electric vehicles are essential to decarbonizing the U.S., but the anticipated surge in their production is already posing significant sustainability challenges. 

“The strong growth in the number of industry members, and their engagement in institute projects, is an indication of the importance and support for REMADE’s mission and that the technology roadmap is on the right track,” Thurston added.

The forthcoming 2022 technical roadmap will expand the institute’s focus areas to include electric vehicles (EV) and photovoltaic (PV) solar power.

The forthcoming 2022 technical roadmap will expand the institute’s focus areas to include electric vehicles (EV) and photovoltaic (PV) solar power. These technologies are essential to decarbonizing the U.S. through electrification, but the anticipated surge in their production is already posing significant sustainability challenges. They rely on critical materials like lithium, nickel, and cobalt for batteries or copper, silver, and indium for PV solar panels. These are considered critical because they are limited in supply, difficult to extract, or heavily concentrated in few geographic regions. Sustainability experts, including Hilton, Nasr, and Thurston, believe these future economic and national security vulnerabilities could be avoided by laying down a circular economy foundation for EV components and solar panels today.

REMADE, like all the Manufacturing USA® institutes, offer tangible evidence that a strategic R&D policy can work in the U.S. The common thread throughout? Innovation happens when you sync up the needs, strengths, and resources of American industry, policy, and academic research.

 

    

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About the author

Golisano Institute for Sustainability (GIS) is a global leader in sustainability education and research. Drawing upon the skills of more than 100 full-time engineers, technicians, research faculty, and sponsored students, it operates six dynamic research centers and over 84,000 square feet of industrial infrastructure for sustainability modeling, testing, and prototyping. Graduate-level degree programs are also offered that convey the institute's knowledge to the next generation of industry professionals.

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