Companies Must Reinvent Product Design to Build Circular Economy

Designing products for a continuous lifecycle is at the core of sustainability.

Since the Industrial Revolution, the world has followed a linear economic model­—taking raw materials from the ground, turning them into products, and throwing them away when they are no longer needed. For years, this model has seemed like the most viable option to sustain society, but it’s quickly catching up to us. Today, we face mounting supply chain issues and resource limitations, climate change, and we’re also running out of places to put our trash, as global waste is expected to grow to 3.4 billion tons by 2050 at current rates.

The COVID-19 pandemic, and now a war in Europe, have revealed and exacerbated the cracks in the global supply chain. Globalization in its current form is coming to an end, and it is up to countries and companies to reassess where and how they make and distribute their products, and who they sell them to. Even if the planet was not facing an imminent climate crisis threatening our global resources, it’s wholly irresponsible to operate as if our natural resources are infinite.

To curb these issues and adopt a more sustainable approach to product development, corporations have a responsibility to shift their business strategy from the linear economic model to a circular economic model—which designs out waste and pollution by keeping products and materials in use. At its core, “sustainability,” refers to economic development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising future generations’ abilities to meet their needs. A circular economic model will allow natural systems the chance to regenerate, keeping our planet healthy for generations to come.

Re-envisioning product design

Rather than continuing with “business as usual,” we now have an opportunity to re-envision the lifecycle of products and raw materials. In the current structure of the linear economy, once a product meets it’s intended need, it’s exceedingly difficult to repurpose it into a new item. Recycling is an option, but there are limits to what can be recycled. In a circular economy, waste and pollution are designed out of product development, with plans in place to re-manufacture and refurbish products and raw materials. Instead of trying to figure out what to do with trash, a product can have continuous value from the onset with a plan in place to extend its life, even if it can no longer be used for its original purpose. This shift can radically reduce energy and resource demands and sustain a thriving economy.

The time is now to begin the transition to a circular economy—as many companies are making concerted efforts to diversify their workforces, and the face of an engineer is radically shifting—new perspectives and ideas will emerge on how to tackle this seismic challenge. Diversity in backgrounds, genders, and culture will drive innovation and creativity like never before.

The test market is in a unique position to help companies trailblaze early efforts on adopting a circular economy market strategy because the very nature of test engineering is to re-examine and try new paths over and over again until they succeed.

Test without Market Trial

Using today’s most advanced test technologies, companies across multiple sectors can explore circular design tactics and determine quickly if those methods add value at the design stage, rather than waiting for the first product lifecycle to run its course. Establishing a design without a plan to repurpose the materials can be wasteful and expensive. Each year, we need to ask the important questions up front about how each product is manufactured, used, and what happens when it is no longer needed or wanted. If design teams don’t ask themselves these questions now, end consumers will later, and ultimately, this will impact market demand for future products.

A recent report by First Insight and the Baker Retailing Center at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania surveyed that nearly two-thirds of consumers across all generations from Baby Boomers to Gen Z are now willing to spend more for sustainable products, which is a higher portion than most retailers expect. Corporate brands must acknowledge that consumers see sustainability as an important purchase consideration.

It may sound daunting, but rethinking and improving our processes is something we all need to do, no matter what vertical sector a company operates within. As the circular economy takes shape, blueprints of exactly how to innovate new processes will be needed continuously, and companies can learn from one another to improve.

It’s imperative for companies and leaders to think about a product’s impact on the world at a macro level—we cannot engineer hope without ensuring that the impact of our products does not interfere with the potential for future generations to thrive.

To learn more about NI's sustainability efforts, read our Corporate Impact Report.

Just for Fun!

Newton asked a group of medical, science, business, and engineering students the question, “How can you write 4 in between 5?” The medical students answered, “This is a joke, right?” The science students answered, “It’s impossible!” The business students answered, “Can’t find it on the internet.” The engineering students answered, “That’s easy. It’s F(IV)E!”


NI Presents—Music to Test To