Technology centre Irish Manufacturing Research (IMR), backed by Enterprise Ireland, is working with companies to help them transition to a circular economy. "This is a new way to design, produce and use goods," says Dr Geraldine Brennan, circular economy lead with IMR. "In the circular economy you keep materials, components and products in use. They continue cycling and being used in the economy rather than leeching out."
Technology centres are different to other research centres in that they are industry-led, according to Kevin Flynn, technology centres programme manager at Enterprise Ireland. "Industry defines shared problems and opportunities for the centres which cover a range of sectors," he says. "Companies come together to share problems and knowledge in areas where they don't necessarily compete. They also share time, effort and money to solve them."
IMR serves the manufacturing industry. “This is an incredibly important sector to the economy,” Flynn says. “It supports around 400,000 jobs and accounts for 35 per cent of the economy. That’s very significant and well above the EU average of 14.5 per cent. It’s incredibly important to Ireland that manufacturing remains competitive and can rise to the challenges it faces.”
Among those challenges is industry 4.0 of the fourth industrial revolution. “This involves the convergence of a lot of different technologies including robotics, automation, 3D printing, AI [artificial intelligence] and augmented and virtual reality,” Flynn says. “Any one of these represents disruptive change but when you put them together it’s seismic. Ireland needs to support companies in modernising and de-risking the move to industry 4.0. Researching these types of technologies helps them achieve what they need to achieve in that regard and IMR is a one-stop shop for that.”
Sustainability is at the heart of that support. “IMR is helping them meet environmental challenges in the most cost-effective way. The circular economy involves valorising waste streams. There is a market and a financial value to what was formerly waste. For Enterprise Ireland this presents a huge opportunity to help companies develop new business models and avail of new business opportunities in the circular economy.”
IMR evolved into sustainable manufacturing over time, according to David McCormack, director of sustainable manufacturing. “We are looking to help companies at all levels of maturity on their sustainability journeys,” he says. “Be that towards becoming carbon-negative, -neutral or a positive-energy factory. We operate at the materials, energy, water nexus. We also have a focus on energy efficiency and renewable energy.”
IMR is well placed to demystify and de-risk the transition, he adds. “That’s only one side of the journey. The other side of it is associated with the circular economy – the systemic, cost-effective approach to maintaining and recovering product value. Moving to the circular economy is imperative if Ireland is to achieve its carbon reduction targets.”
The shift begins with a fundamental change in the way products are designed. “They have to be designed so that the materials used can be disassembled and remanufactured later,” says Brennan. “Industry 4.0 is enabling the circular economy as companies using the latest technologies are better placed to understand where components end up. In the linear economy it’s take, make, waste and the resources for producing goods are not optimised or exploited to their full value. There is residual value in raw materials and components. We have to rethink the idea of waste and treat it as a resource and a new form of value.”
IMR recently launched Circuléire, the national platform for circular manufacturing. Its mission is to demystify, de-risk and deliver circular business model innovation by unlocking the value that resides in an Irish circular economy.
"It is a public-private partnership created by IMR, the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, the Environmental Protection Agency and EIT Climate-KIC with 25 founding industry members," says Brennan. "It is one of the largest public-private partnerships addressing climate change in Europe. "
EIT Climate-KIC is a European Institute of Innovation and Technology, Knowledge and Innovation Community, which is working to accelerate the transition to a zero-carbon, climate-resilient society, she explains. EIT Climate-KIC identifies and supports innovation that helps society mitigate and adapt to climate change.
Between 2020 and 2022, Circuléire will take manufacturers and their supply chains on a journey from linear to circular business models through baselining, auditing, business case development and deep demonstration innovation projects delivering significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and in waste production across the network.
“Circuléire is the first initiative of its kind in Ireland,” Brennan says. “What we are trying to do is take the industry on a journey from linear to circular business models. We have a €1.5 million budget to de-risk this Irish industry.”
Ambitious but achievable targets have been set. “An estimated 100 million tonnes of materials are used annually in the Irish economy,” Brennan says. “An improvement of just 5 per cent in reuse across the economy would yield €2.32 billion per annum. But this opportunity is largely uncapitalised. This highlights the gap as well as the opportunity that exists in Ireland. At present Ireland is only 1.6 per cent circular. The European average is 11 per cent. That’s why 5 per cent seems like an achievable target. We are targeting that low-hanging fruit first.”
Circuléire is open for new members. “The more the merrier, we are still growing the network,” says Brennan. “We are taking companies on a journey. We are helping them understand what the circular economy means for them and giving them a roadmap to help them capture the advantages of the new economic model.”