Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, manufacturers have tapped abundant natural resources to produce goods that lasted a few years and were then thrown away. Consumers go on to buy new ones and ensure the production cycle, and profits, continued. This “take-make-waste” model worked pretty well, in part because raw materials and energy were cheap and plentiful. Today, the result is once-unimaginable availability of countless products at affordable prices.
Some economic experts say that way of doing things is reaching its limits and needs to change. Problems include resource scarcity, and the fact that manufacturing, shipping and using products contribute to pollution and global warming.
Instead, they say, we need to move to a circular economy, a new way to design, make and use things within our planet’s limitations. It could cut CO2 emissions by more than 40% by 2030 and result in annual materials cost savings in the billions, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a leading advocate for the transition to a circular economy. And it would help alleviate the pressure many manufacturers put on the environment.
A circular economy is based on principles like engineering out waste and pollution from a product or machine. Decisions made at the design stage determine around 80% of a machine’s lifetime environmental impact. Changing our mindset to view waste as a design flaw, and by harnessing new materials and technologies, we can minimize negative consequences from the start.
Another tenet is to design durable components and products that last longer and can be remanufactured and reused, rather than dumped in a landfill. And at the end of their lives, the materials can be recycled into new products.
With little fanfare, many fluid power distributors and manufacturers are already on board. When a hydraulic component degrades or fails, one option is to replace it with a new one. But companies increasingly opt to rebuild existing hydraulic equipment instead. Trained technicians disassemble the product and evaluate each part for wear and damage. Typically, seals and bearings are replaced and other parts refurbished or swapped out as needed. Then the product is reassembled and rigorously tested to ensure it meets or exceeds OEM performance specifications. The result is a hydraulic pump or cylinder that is as good as new at about half the price.
In addition, rebuilt hydraulic products are more environmentally friendly. Consider the effort and energy that goes into making a pump. Ore must be mined, processed, transported, refined into steel; shaped and machined into various components; and then shipped to a warehouse before making it to the customer.
In a rebuild major parts, like a pump housing, usually don’t need to be replaced, and that significantly lowers energy consumption. And reconditioning typically involves processes like honing or lapping that again, require much less energy than making a new part.
Even shipping has much lower impact on the environment, because the rebuilt pump is sent directly to the customer, rather than from a manufacturer in Europe or Asia. And given the impact of Covid-19 and fractured global supply chains, local sourcing is looking better every day.
Proponents of the circular economy say if we transform how we manage resources, make and use products, and handle the materials afterwards, we can create a thriving, sustainable system that benefits the health and welfare of everyone on our planet. The fluid power industry is already doing its part.