How you can improve the circularity of your products
We are really enthusiastic about circularity. We want our products to be used and used again and again. This means we need clever design and we need durable materials, which is the heart of reusability. That is where aluminium comes in.
I’m one of the founders of Ritswand, a Dutch company that produces modular interior wall systems for flexible workspaces, such as small offices or meeting rooms. We use free-standing extruded aluminium frames that can be fitted with glass or wood or whatever the customer desires, and connect them with zip fasteners – zippers, like for large tents or caravans. Ritswand is actually Dutch for “zipper wall.”
Circularity is our philosophy, and the circularity of products can always be improved. Right around when the pandemic struck, we had been looking at ways to improve the life-cycle analysis of our system and to reduce the overall number of components.
Zippers as an answer to reusability
At the beginning, we made separation walls that were screwed to walls. Then about five years ago, a customer asked if we could produce separation walls that we could move – that could be taken apart easily and then used again. Attached by zippers.
The whole concept is now detachable and reusable. No screws, no connection to the building. With non-permanent fixtures, we can offer a circular product. Circular design, a more circular product.
Circularity and functionality in a complex aluminium profile
Applying circularity to products, there are two things I would like to mention that helped us.
One is having a low number of stock-keeping units (SKUs). We have 43 components to build our products from. This is an extremely low number. It keeps our operation streamlined and easier to manage, with regard to suppliers and transportation and so forth. As an example, we use the same aluminium frame design for rectangles, squares, linear squares – like a Lego concept.
The second thing is that the whole functionality of the unit is in the aluminium profile. Circular products should last as long as possible, which means we need durable materials. If the material can last long, then it is a great investment.
The aluminium profile we use is not only durable but it offers great functionality. And re-use.
Replacing steel with aluminium
Replacing steel with aluminium reduced the weight and as we moved forward, with support from the Hydro EcoDesign methodology, we came up with a smarter solution. Again, in trying to realize circularity in a product, the light weight of aluminium also saves us time in installation. Our transport costs in man-hours were higher before, because of the weight. And, because we take back our products for re-use, easy handling is extremely important for us.
Lastly, this aluminium solution helped us reduce our number of components even further. We had an opportunity to make a bolt in the aluminium, and in this way we reduced from 45 to 43 our number of SKUs.
Designing out waste
Good design is key to reducing waste. Our goal is 99% re-use of the materials in our products. But also essential to good design is the possibility of adapting the product to the design wishes of architects and big corporations. The enormous flexibility in finishing our product with practically any fabric and wood coverings makes the product fit in every building.
We have achieved some of the improvement that we wanted. Still, we know there are ways to become better. For example, transportation can be circular. We see this as a chain. The way we deliver to our customers is the way we want our suppliers to deliver to us.
How long will our products last? That is hard to say. They may last 100 years. Designing flexible solutions that can be reused again and again is the goal, bringing circularity into practice. Renovating a building should be based on adapting the building to new needs by reusing building materials and components, instead of buying new.