Designing consumer products for a Circular Economy in industry 4.0

  • Rhiannon Elizabeth Hunt

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


The research presented in this thesis investigates the implications of the next industrial
paradigm shift, Industry 4.0, on the design of consumer products and, in turn the potential
achievement of a Circular Economy (CE). As the research deals with a complex real-world
problem involving emerging phenomena, a systems perspective and an exploratory, critical
realist approach have been adopted.

Since industrialisation began, a linear economic model has prevailed, resulting in an
unsustainable system for the production and consumption of consumer products. The CE
represents a sustainable alternative, whereby products, components, materials and resources
are continually cycled, creating new business models and avenues of economic growth
removed from the throughput and degradation of natural capital. As such, the design of
products plays an integral role in the achievement of a CE. Whilst isolated examples of products
designed for a CE exist, there has not yet been widespread adoption.

Chapter 1 introduces key concepts and developments underpinning the research and provides
an outline of the thesis, whilst Chapter 2 sets out the research scope. Chapters 3 and 4 then
serve as ‘state-of-the-art’ literature reviews of ‘the CE and the role of design’, and ‘Industry
4.0’, respectively. Chapter 5 details the nature of the research, and the approach, methodology
and specific research methods employed. Chapter 6 reviews pivotal historical industrial
developments and their role in shaping design to date. The results provide insights into how
and why the present model has come about as well as highlighting the relationship between
industry and design. Chapter 7 examines existing barriers to Design for a Circular Economy
(DfCE) using a series of semi-structured, in-depth interviews with designers and
representatives from entrepreneurial CE companies, supported by a thematic literature review.
This identifies a range of DfCE barriers associated with the task, the designer, the organisation
and external elements. Chapter 8 then explores the expected design implications of Industry
4.0 through the analysis of case studies depicting early adopters of Industry 4.0 technologies,
supported by selected literature. The results identify key developments, including new
manufacturing capabilities, new product possibilities, changes to the design process and the
transformation of business models. Chapter 9 then serves as a discussion, bringing together the
results of Chapters 6, 7 and 8, to determine the potential implications of Industry 4.0 for the
future implementation of DfCE.

The results of the research suggest that, as Industry 4.0 has the potential to transform both the
design process itself and the technical, economic and cultural contexts within which it is carried
out, the phenomenon presents new opportunities and challenges for DfCE. This represents a
significant opportunity for embedding CE principles within the next industrial model. The
findings are brought together in the form of a DfCE agenda for Industry 4.0, which provides
designers, stakeholders and policy makers with an advanced awareness and understanding of
the dynamic relationship between Industry 4.0 technologies, design and the CE, enabling a
proactive response.
Date of AwardApr 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton
Supervisor Professor Martin Charter (Supervisor) & Trevor Keeble (Supervisor)

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