Companies pioneer ’materials as a service’ using techniques created at Imperial

Innovative material suppliers are looking to retain ownership over the metals and chemicals they supply as a new sustainable business model takes off.

Under the proposed model, companies that supply raw materials and semi-finished parts such as metal panels no longer sell these to manufacturers but offer manufacturers temporary access to them. They recover the materials once the products reach the end of their lives.

The model, known as ’materials as a service’, is under development by innovative businesses and academics and has been attracting growing interest since we reported on it an Imperial Stories feature last year.

What Marco calls ’materials as a service’ just made sense to us," says Mr Seville. It’s what we’ve been working on but we didn’t realise anyone else saw it that way. Tony Seville Aircraft Interior Recycling Association (AIRA)

In addition to providing a new business opportunity for suppliers of materials and parts, it could also incentivise sustainable design choices. The could include materials that are more efficient, durable and easier to recover, and products that contain fewer materials and are easier to disassemble.

In the last year, Dr Marco Aurisicchio in Imperial’s Dyson School of Design Engineering , one of a few researchers globally investigating the concept, has been working with business collaborators to progress application of the model in a number of real-world use cases.

From waste management to material supply

Swedish environmental services group Ragn-Sells is looking to the future with ambitious plans to become a materials supplier at the centre of the circular economy.

Among several projects that Dr Aurisicchio is working on with the company is the concept of chemicals as a service. The proposal is to supply chemicals such as ferric chloride, an important compound for wastewater treatment, to water companies on a temporary basis before recovering them from sewage sludge left over from the treatment.

This could allow the Ragn-Sells to compete with suppliers of virgin chemicals by offering a more cost-effective alternative. It could also benefit the environment by reusing valuable resources and removing pollutants from the environment.

Lars Nybom, Innovation Manager at Ragn-Sells, says that these changes are not only about removing harmful waste from the environment, but addressing the climate crisis.

"According to the UN’s International Resource Panel, the extraction of natural resources accounts for over 50% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions," he explains. "We therefore need not only to transition away from fossil fuels but to shift the feedstocks used by industry from virgin to secondary - which is actually a far more complex problem."

The extraction of natural resources accounts for over 50% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. We therefore need not only to transition away from fossil fuels but to change the feedstocks used by industry. We want to be a material supplier that creates value from waste resources." Lars Nybom Ragn-Sells

Mr Nybom says that the company is uncharacteristically innovative for a waste management company. "We have been thinking on a very theoretical level what our role will be in the future, and we now have a 2030 innovation strategy that I would say is awesome.

"As a waste management and recycling business, Ragn-Sells has interfaces towards all’other industries, which puts us in an interesting position. We want to be a material supplier that creates value from waste resources."

The challenge, he says, is that the modelling tools used by businesses to model this kind of transformation, especially in a way that encompasses many different industries, are not widely available.

"Marco was one of the only academics we could find who was publishing useful material on the subject and he is helping us across a number of projects to operationalise our strategy," says Mr Nybom.

"We have had trouble finding tools for modelling the flow of resources that also capture the complexity of a shifting industrial system. We can do a bit of modelling for our company, work out what’s up and downstream for us. But the trick for us is to model a whole system."

Dr Aurisicchio explains: "If you want circularity you can’t think about the business model in just one organisation. You have to think about the business models of all’organisations in the supply chain. And they all need to understand what they can gain from a business perspective. The question of how you design and align circular business models is quite new and there is still very little work in this space."

To help Ragn-Sells and other collaborators model their economic, environmental and social value propositions he is using a specially designed tool called the Circular Business Ecosystem Model Canvas , which he co-created with his student Avyay Jamadagni.

A new model for aircraft interiors

Another sector that could benefit from a circular business model is aircraft interiors. The challenge is that commercial aircraft interiors are replaced more frequently than aircraft are, and the interior parts are often sent unnecessarily to landfill.

Dr Aurisicchio is sharing his expertise with AIRA , a company that is working to tackle this problem by applying its expertise in the collection, recycling and re-use of materials from aircraft interiors

"A big part of the problem with components such as seats is that airlines don’t know what materials are in them," says Tony Seville, Director of AIRA. "We started addressing this problem 12 years ago and have found that the materials are often recyclable, often in a closed loop [without loss of quality]."

If you want circularity you can’t think about the business model in just one organisation. You have to think about the business models of all’organisations in the supply chain. And they all need to understand what they can gain from a business perspective Dr Marco Aurisicchio

Dr Aurisicchio is helping the company develop a business model in which the materials and parts used to make aircraft seats are lent to manufacturers and the seats themselves lent to airlines before being reclaimed.

This includes using tools to explore the economics of the existing linear model and of the proposed circular one, in addition to looking from a mechanical engineering perspective at how seats can be redesigned to fit with the new business model.

"What Marco calls ’materials as a service’ just made sense to us," says Mr Seville. "It’s what we’ve been working on but we didn’t realise anyone else saw it that way. It’s really good to see that academics are far ahead with it and that we can combine this with our knowledge about specific materials and possibilities."

Dr Aurisicchio is also exploring the concept with businesses in industries such as furniture, sports equipment and mining.

Targeting global equity

While materials as a service has the potential to impact individual businesses and sectors, it could also have wide-reaching implications for complex supply chains and systems of global trade.

One international group of researchers Dr Aurisicchio is part of is concerned by the resource-intensive nature of the energy transition. "Electrification, for example, needs a lot of natural resources, many of which are scarce, critical, difficult to access," says Dr Aurisicchio. "Europe doesn’t have them all, so we need to import them from continents like Africa. At present large mining corporations have access to land to extract materials, and often leave little benefit to the local countries."

The researchers say that materials as a service could benefit global equity by allowing mineral-rich nations in the global south to retain ownership and in consequence control of the economic benefits from their natural resources.

"This community views materials as a service as a means to address the issue of inequality we’re going to have with the circular economy," says Dr Aurisicchio. "My collaborators and I see materials as a service as a solution that could allow countries in the global south to create a continuous revenue by providing mining corporations access to natural resources, enabling a transition to a circular economy that is fair and just."