Is Smart Remanufacturing a Tautology?

 
 
Image Credit: Mitsubishi Caterpillar

Image Credit: Mitsubishi Caterpillar

Yes, no, maybe would be my considered response. Let me clarify. First, if I might just remind readers that remanufacturing is not the same as reconditioning or refurbishing. In a previous article on remanufacturing (“Remanufacture to achieve sustainable manufacture”, CMM Vol 9 No 1 p 43), I cited BS8887-Part 2 to define remanufacturing as the process of “returning a product to at least its original performance with a warranty that is equivalent (to) or better than that of the newly manufactured product.” 

Remanufacturing is important socio-economically. In the UK, it currently provides full-time employment for some 50,000 people and accounts for £2.4 billion in industrial output. According to the Remanufacturing Industries Council (http://www.remancouncil.org), the corresponding figures for the USA are 180,000 people and $45 billion, respectively, while the European Remanufacturing Network (http://www.remanufacturing.eu) says that the remanufacturing industry in Europe could grow to €100 billion and 600,000 employees by 2030. 

Remanufacturing is important to consumers and corporate users. Remanufactured goods are in general cheaper than newly manufactured products, typically costing 20-40% less. Another benefit is availability. “For products that are manufactured to order overseas, a remanufactured product may be available with a shorter lead time. Additionally, remanufacturing may allow the customer to continue to use equipment that is no longer be manufactured.” (http://www.remanufacturing.eu)

Remanufacturing is also important to companies that adopt it. Profit margins for remanufactured products are often higher than those for the original manufactured item. Furthermore, companies can offer new product services, obtain data for design and function improvements and enhance after-sales activities. They can build better long-term relationships with their customers than possible for businesses that rely on selling throwaway products.

Above all, however, remanufacturing is important to environmental protection and resource conservation. Compared with manufacturing, remanufacturing produces much less greenhouse gas and uses much less energy and raw materials. It can also dramatically reduce the amounts of waste to landfill. For example, through remanufacturing, Caterpillar has cut CO2 emissions by 61%, energy consumption by 86%, raw material use by 90% and landfill waste by over 99%.  

In a world with a growing population, dwindling natural resources and pressing social, economic and environmental problems, remanufacturing makes complete sense. As seen above, remanufacturing benefits society, industry and the environment – indeed creating a win-win-win situation. Clearly, as part of a concerted strategy to promote a closed-loop or circular economy generating minimal waste, remanufacturing IS smart and, therefore,“smart remanufacturing” must be a tautology.  

However, in a technological sense, remanufacturing as currently practised by many companies is anything but smart - “smart remanufacturing” is an oxymoron rather than a tautology. This is because the vast majority of remanufacturers are very small and under-resourced firms unable to afford smart manufacturing technology. While smart manufacturing belongs to the realm of Industry 4.0, it is fair to say that those micro-sized remanufacturers may still be operating in the age of previous industrial revolutions. 

Remanufacturing needs smartening up. This requires research efforts such as those being expended in my laboratory as part of our EPSRC-sponsored programme on Autonomous Remanufacturing (Project Reference EPN0185241). The work is a key step towards enabling the implementation in remanufacturing companies of the "pillars" of the fourth industrial revolution - augmented reality, autonomous robots, big data and analytical tools, cloud computing, cyber-physical systems, the Industrial Internet-of-Things and integrated IT systems.  

Our goal is to make smart remanufacturing a reality. This would unlock the potential of remanufacturing and make it feasible for many more companies to adopt, thus helping to expand the remanufacturing industry and spread the benefits of remanufacturing across the globe. Then, "smart remanufacturing" would cease to be an oxymoron and maybe become a tautology in a technological as well as a socio-economic and environmental sense. 

About the Author

Duc Pham is Chance Professor of Engineering at The University of Birmingham

 
 
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Richard Smith