How designers play a vital part in redesigning composite products for a circular economy

As society and industry move towards a more sustainability-focused future, it is becoming more common and, ultimately, more necessary for designers to use strategies that embrace circularity. Inspired by this understanding, circular design, and composite materials, Delft University of Technology, Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering (IDE) researcher Jelle Joustra was determined to make his research accessible to those interested in the topic. And thus his book, Circular Composites: A design guide for products containing composite materials in a circular economy, came to fruition.

How designers play a vital part in redesigning composite products for a circular economy

12 minutes, 10 secondes

Joustra’s book, Circular Composites, creates an entry point into the design process of redesigning composite products for a circular economy. It is aimed at anyone – students, designers, professionals – who want to create a more sustainable future through the use of innovative, effective, and practical design solutions. By providing clear design guidelines and illustrative examples, Joustra ensures that the information is readily accessible and applicable to designers. In line with the new edition of the JEC Group’s Composites Sustainability Report 2022, JEC Group sat down with Jelle to discuss his new book and to find out more about his research at the TU Delft, Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering.

JEC Group : Can you tell our readers about yourself and how composites play a role in your research and new book?
Jelle Joustra: “It is my pleasure and I’m excited to be sharing my research with you. My name is Jelle Joustra and I’ve obtained my PhD at the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering at the Delft University of Technology (TU Delft).

In our research group, Circular Product Design, we investigate and develop design strategies for a circular economy. The scope of our research is wide; ranging from consumer electronics and remanufacturing solutions to, in my case, products containing composite materials. During these studies, we often collaborate in consortia, bringing together the knowledge found in industry and academia.

As part of my research, I look at how we can design with composite materials in a way that allows for them to fit within a circular economy. You see, composite materials have an ambiguous position within such an economy. They offer opportunities for saving energy and materials, but on the other hand, closing the resource loop for these mixed materials remains challenging. From this, I realised that I wanted to leverage the potential that composite materials offer other designers. I wanted to show them that their skills can make a difference when it comes to composites and sustainability.”

JEC Group : Tell us about your new design guide. What inspired you to write it?
Jelle Joustra: “I have researched design for a circular economy for the last four years, with a specific focus on composites. And I found that there is a gap between the knowledge and theory of a circular economy and the solutions that designers provide. In the book, I aim to bring these aspects together and provide a method to apply these in practice. With the design guide, readers will find five circular economy strategies, 26 design aspects, and three design tools specifically aimed at composite products. The inspiration behind this book is, in part, other designers. My aim was to create an entry point for those who wanted to design for a circular economy (with a focus on composites), but were not 100% sure where to start or where to draw inspiration from. In addition to this, I know that designers can play a big role in sustainability. This inspired me to start looking for ways in which I could make design sustainable, and obviously, a circular economy is one way of doing this.”

JEC Group : You mention that you use a specific design method in your book, what is it?
Jelle Joustra: “In the book, I explain and explore the circular composites design method. This Delft Design method breaks down how to design with composite materials for a circular economy. With this method and this book, my aim is to inspire and guide designers in developing new products for a circular economy. The method takes a lifecycle perspective on the design, starting by mapping and defining the consecutive phases the product or part will go through in its life.

These are related to recovery opportunities, stakeholder activities, and product requirements. The aim of this exploration is to elicit opportunities to prolong a product’s life and close the resource loop.

Long product lifetimes and lifetime extension strategies reduce the need for and impact of new part production, e.g. through reuse and refurbishment. Closing the loop ensures that the materials are not discarded at end of service life, but rather recycled, thus retaining the resources and their value in the economic system. The guide suggests specific aspects to incorporate into the design in order to enable and facilitate reuse and recovery.”

Ecobulk snailshell

JEC Group : Do you think that redesigning composite materials to fit into a circular economy can be difficult?
Jelle Joustra:Yes, I do. From a distance, the whole concept of the circular economy and turning that into a feasible design can be daunting. But by reading my book and following the methods in it, you will see how it can work within your designs cases. I have tried my best to present the knowledge that is needed for circular design.”

JEC Group : What are some of the main takeaways from the Circular Composites design guide?
Jelle Joustra: “Readers will walk away with the knowledge that is needed for circular design and methods they can use within their own design process. They will be given the tools necessary to explore the product lifecycle, to generate appropriate design solutions to make them more circular, and to communicate those with the stakeholders in their product lifecycle and supply chain.”

JEC Group : There are quite a few examples in your book. Can you tell us more about this?
Jelle Joustra: “The book contains a number of examples of how the circular composites design method has been used in design case studies. All of the examples provided were either developed within Project ECOBULK or at TU Delft. Project ECOBULK aimed to demonstrate a closed loop for composite-based products in the construction, furniture, and automotive industries. Being part of the European Union’s Horizon 2020 program, ECOBULK was driven by partners from academia and industry situated across Europe. It ran from 2017 to 2022. The consortium included stakeholders from all phases of the value chain, from materials suppliers and designers to manufacturers and reprocessing organisations. Together, we developed a range of demonstrator products for the above-mentioned sectors using the circular composites design method.

Microcab Switchpack

For example, Microcab ltd., based in Birmingham (UK) redesigned part of its car dashboard to enable refurbishment and recycling. The designer paid special attention to dis- and reassembly of the unit and selected connections to facilitate scheduled maintenance and refurbishment.

In addition, the designer reduced the number of materials used and eliminated surface treatments to avoid cross-contamination when reprocessing. We successfully used the circular composites design method during a series of master classes at TU Delft. The classes, which were up by a multidisciplinary group of TU Delft students, came together to collaborate and develop real products.

They used this design method to explore the product lifecycle, select circular strategies, and incorporate suggested design aspects to realise circular product designs.”

JEC Group : Why should people be concerned with making composite materials more sustainable?
Jelle Joustra: “Composites can be found everywhere and are only growing in popularity. Why? Because their ability to be fine-tuned to achieve desired functionalities within various applications has resulted in lightweight structures that are not only stronger, but also use fewer materials and consumer less energy. The trouble lies in the fact that, while these materials perform exceptionally well during their lifetime… At the end of the day, you have all of these mixed materials, which makes them hard to reprocess because they are all combined in a slightly different way.

But I believe that design can be the missing link to turn this perspective around. Product properties like material formulations, component layouts, and assembly methods are all defined in the design stage. The impact of these choices affects all consecutive phases in the product life, including end of operational lifetime and recovery. The needs for successful reuse and recovery can be subtle, but often, such information is only available to a limited extent in the design phase. This is exacerbated by the generally long lifespan of composite products. Thus, design for reuse and recovery requires a designer to integrate additional, but uncertain, requirements into an already complex design process. With the circular composites design guide, we aim to support designers in analysing their case and developing appropriate solutions.”

JEC Group : What would you like to share with those interested in sustainable composite design?
Jelle Joustra: “I want to invite them to take a walk on the circular path. I know they can use their skills to realise the circular economy. Together we can bridge the gap between the circular economy’s ideas and principles with the solutions that designers can offer.

As designers, I think it is really worthwhile to continuously expand our horizons. We are already familiar with thinking in use cases and scenarios, and anticipating what will happen during a product’s lifecycle. Now, when it comes to circular design, look even further ahead. Look at how your product will be reused and then recycled at the end of its life. These are additional boundary conditions that we must consider and that my book addresses. And yes, thinking like this imposes additional requirements… but that is just another design challenge that is waiting to be solved!”

Circular composites design guide: EcoJoint, Replaceable wood connection for particleboard

JEC Group : Who is your design guide for? Is it only for designers? Or can other people find value in its pages?
Jelle Joustra: “While this book is primarily aimed at designers, I think it can be very valuable for other stakeholders in the product supply chain. This includes the material suppliers, distributors, users, recyclers, and reuse agencies. With this book they can come to grips with their role in the circular economy, their role in the product lifecycle and recovery loops, what they would need for a successful recovery, and how to discuss this with a designer. This book is also useful for students, as it will give them the tools they need to start exploring their product’s lifecycle and what it means to make it more circular.”

JEC Group : How does your research fit in at Industrial Design Engineering? Are there any other inspiring projects from Industrial Design Engineering that you would like to mention?
Jelle Joustra: “Even before my PhD studies, I knew I wanted to find out what I could do in my design practice to contribute to sustainability. This is what led me to composites. I knew I enjoyed working with them and that they could be redesigned in a way that would help close the loop. At Industrial Design Engineering, one of the research pillars of Delft Design is sustainability. This means we approach sustainably not simply as a lifestyle choice, but rather as a smart and logical choice, hard-wired into the design of products, services, and systems. As researchers, we strive to ensure our products last longer, use fewer resources to manufacture, and can be easily repaired or dismantled and reused. So, I feel like my research fits in pretty well at Industrial Design Engineering. As for other inspiring sustainability projects, there are too many to count. I’m part of a research group that studies design for a circular economy with research lines into recovery, materials and technology. For recovery, we investigate repair, remanufacturing, and recycling processes. My colleague Linda Ritzen, for example, focuses on reprocessing solutions for bio-based plastics with respect to the materials’ chemical composition.

As for materials, next to my research in composites, we investigate bio-based plastics. Effective implementation of these materials often requires more than directly substituting a fossil-based plastic with a bio-based counterpart. Fellow Industrial Design Engineering researcher Puck Bos develops design strategies for various product categories, particularly focusing on durable products. Also, Jeremy Faludi works on additive manufacturing technologies with these materials. His students replace melting of plastic with extrusion of bio-composites, which cuts print energy and material impacts, and lowers toxicity as well as cost. However, mechanical properties need improvement. Additionally, recent Industrial Design Engineering Best Graduate, Riel Bessai, who worked with me to bring the Circular Composites design guide together, has just started his PhD research on regenerative design. He is investigating how materials and objects might play a role in restoring the adverse effects that our economy has had on the environment, climate, and society. With regards to technology, we are looking into the opportunities that the Internet-of-Things has to offer in terms of circular product use, as well as development of additive manufacturing technology with low energy and materials consumption.”

Circular composites design guide

JEC Group : During your time at Industrial Design Engineering and your research, have you noticed any trends popping up in the area of circular composites?
Jelle Joustra: “There are desires and there are some solutions being developed. On the short term, there are a couple of paths which are being explored to make composite materials more sustainable. I, for example, have been looking into the design aspect – so how can these products be designed in a way that allows them to be reused and recycled?

Then there is the technological branch. People focusing on this are looking at how composite materials are processed and what type of technology is needed to reprocess them. So, what kind of material formulations lend themselves well to being reused and reprocessed. For example, there is the direction that bio-composites are taking. Rather than using non-renewable resources (like fossil fuels) to generate these types of materials, some researchers are looking at how they can be build using renewable resources.”

JEC Group : Where can people get the book?
Jelle Joustra: “The book is published through TU Delft Open Publishing and it is available in two formats. The first is as a free downloadable PDF (the link to this is available below). The second is as a hard copy, print-on-demand book. As a design research institute, we strive to make sure that our knowledge is accessible to others.”

JEC Group : Now that you have published this book, what comes next?
Jelle Joustra: “My research into circular composites has gained traction through collaborations with researchers and industry. At Industrial Design Engineering, I worked closely with Professor Ruud Balkenende, researcher Bas Flipsen, and Professor Conny Bakker in developing the circular composites design method. While student projects, ECOBULK partners, and discussions with fellow researchers brought the design concepts to fruition. Now that the Circular Composites design guide has been published, I will continue researching sustainable and circular material use through collaborative research projects and experiments. For example, I will be working with a group of students from TU Delft, Leiden University, and Erasmus University Rotterdam to study smart and circular materials use in aviation industry. The students will conduct their thesis research on particular aspects of the main topic to arrive at a multidisciplinary answer.

In addition to this, I will continue developing the concept of structural reuse. Structural reuse entails segmenting components, e.g. wind turbine blades, into reusable construction elements. Earlier studies demonstrated the feasibility of the concept as well as some limitations with respect to shape. I’m currently working on a procedure which allows for subsequent reshaping of parts and addressing this in the initial product design. Early experimentation showed promising results and will find its immediate use in a new project.

And finally, later this year, we will kick-off Project Lichen-Blades, which focuses on developing wind turbine blades for a circular economy. During this project, we aim to develop blades with a reduced carbon footprint by using natural materials and minimum- waste manufacturing techniques. A special erosion resistant surface texture will ensure a long life and the blade will be designed for structural reuse.

This will assist in maintaining its functionality over several successive use cycles. Alongside the technological aspects, new business models will be developed in order to maintain value and distribute it amongst stakeholders. This project will be conducted in close collaboration with the TU Delft faculties of Industrial Design Engineering, represented by Ruud Balkenende and myself, and Aerospace Engineering, represented by Julie Teuwen and Kunal Mansania; as well as, Maastricht University, represented by Nancy Bocken. The project is backed by a large consortium of industry partners, such as wind turbine manufacturer Suzlon, construction company Heijmans, and material supplier BComp. With research and projects like these, we will continue to refine design approaches, educate designers, and contribute to achieving a sustainable and circular economy.”

Get your hands on a copy Joustra’s book, Circular Composites:
A design guide for products containing composite materials in a circular economy, is now available via TU Delft Open Publishing. The book is accessible as a free-to-download PDF or as a print-on-demand book. For more information, visit this link: https://books.open.tudelft.nl/home/catalog/book/23.

This book was published by TU Delft Open Publishing. It was researched and written by Jelle Joustra, with design and formatting assistance from IDE PhD candidate Riel Bessai

Jelle’s interview is part of the Composites Sustainability Report 2022 by JEC Group. Click and purchase the full report: https://www.jeccomposites.com/product/composites-sustainability-report-2022/

Composites Sustainability Report 2022
More information www.jeccomposites.com