Bridging Industry 4.0 and Circular Economy: A new research agenda for Finland?

Mikkel Stein Knudsen and Jari Kaivo-oja:

Emerging academic research concerns how the principles, practices, and enabling technologies of Industry 4.0 might unlock the potentials of Circular Economy (CE) and sustainable manufacturing (Jabbour et al., 2018; Stock et al., 2018). Digitalisation (Ellen Macarthur Foundation, 2016;  Antikainen et al., 2018) and the use of Big Data (Hazen et al., 2016; Nobre & Tavares, 2017; Jabbour et al., 2017) are seen as key enablers for increased sustainability and for the implementation of a circular economy. Technology is also a necessary enabler of a move towards Product-Service Systems (Tukker, 2015; Antikainen et al., 2018). As Moreno & Charnley (2016) notes the fundamental drivers behind Circular Economy and Industry 4.0 overlap. It is an obvious fact that the combination of Circular Economy and Industry 4.0 leads us towards the Green Economy vision.

However, research output integrating the two important fields is still very scarce and plenty of unexplored research areas remain. Tseng et al. (2018)  deliver a telling example of the hitherto missing research: While separate queries in Scopus using “Industry 4.0” and “Circular Economy” yields 4060 and 2452 results respectively, a combined search using both “Industry 4.0” and “Circular Economy” as keywords provide only three results (all published in 2017). Combined searches for “Circular Economy” and ´digit*´ (i.e. digital, digitalisation etc.) provide similarly limited results (Antikainen et al., 2018). Stock et al. (2018) make the point even broader, as they conclude, there are rarely any sustainability assessments for Industry 4.0 available”. All transition paths are not automatically leading us to sustainable development and greener infrastructures, which typically mean sustainable land use, widely adopted green consumption lifestyles and broad industrial use of nature saving technologies.

If we – ‘we’ as researchers, as Finland, as the international society – should harness the potential synergies of these two emerging business systems, and strive for a transition to a greener economy, there is therefore plenty of work ahead. It seems likely though that solving this integration puzzle, however, will also bring major (business) opportunities and a competitive advantage for the future.

Industry 4.0 and a new sustainability optimism?

Stock et al. (2018) note that most literature linking sustainability and Industry 4.0 do so with a basic tenor of optimism. Opportunities for increased sustainability by using novel technological opportunities in combinations with new business models take centre stage. Improved traceability of smart products through the entire supply chain and during the products’ use phase allow manufacturers continuously to optimize the performance of both product and production, which may deliver a more efficient use of resources. For industrial practitioners sustainability, environmental, and social opportunities is also a noted driver for implementation of Industry 4.0 (Müller et al., 2018). Highlighting what is at stake for a green economy transition, Erol (2016) even asks thought-provokingly if Industry 4.0 is the very last chance for a truly sustainable production?

Notably, the United Nations also talks of ‘Big Data for Sustainable Development’, and how “new sources of data, new technologies, and new analytical approaches, if applied responsively, can enable more agile, efficient and evidence-based decision-making and can better measure progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in a way that is both inclusive and fair”.

Source: United Nations

While this ‘optimistic’ strand of research is obviously both highly relevant and highly inspiring, increased technology uptake could also happen unsustainably. Rise of enabling technologies behind Industry 4.0 is mirrored by rising demands for scarce resources such as (certain) metals and also highly dependent on increasing consumption of energy.  We can probably sum things up this way, “Industry 4.0 and its related technologies may facilitate more sustainable production, but sustainability is not an endogenous feature of Industry 4.0.”

Industry 4.0 and its related technologies may facilitate more sustainable production, but sustainability is not an endogenous feature of Industry 4.0.

Dual challenges: A sustainable Industry 4.0 and Industry 4.0 for sustainability

In the context of sustainability, new technologies might indeed come Janus-faced. Additive manufacturing and 3D printing disrupts supply chains and reduces the need for large inventories, such as in the aero-industry (cf. Khajarvi et al., 2014). Instead, parts are manufactured (printed) at the time of actual demand, increasing efficiency and reducing waste. On the other hand, beyond specific supply chains, when every part and product can be produced anywhere and at any given time, it takes little fantasy to imagine marked reductions of product lifecycles and overall increases in consumption. Additive manufacturing is therefore not a guarantee for more sustainable production and consumption (cf. review by Kellens et al., 2017 & Holmström & Gutowski, 2017).  On average, production processes using additive manufacturing even results in a higher environmental impact than conventional production processes, although this could be compensated by functional improvements during the use stage of AM manufactured parts (Kellens et al., 2017). In her highly cited literature review, Aalto University’s Cindy Kohtala (2015) concluded “Distributed production holds promise of greater environmental sustainability, but it is not a given that it will be a new, clearly cleaner production paradigm.”

Figure 1. Environmental threats and benefits of distributed production (e.g. decentralized 3D-printing). Source: Kohtala, 2015.

Interconnectivity and continuous massive amounts of data also come with an environmental price: In Denmark for example, the government expects that international data centres will take up 20% of the current national electricity consumption by 2030. The global electricity consumption for mining cryptocurrency using Blockchain-technology already today exceeds the current national electricity consumption of Finland significantly, according to consumption estimates in a recent issue of The Economist (2018).

The challenge then is (simultaneously!) to build a sustainable Industry 4.0 and to use Industry 4.0 to build sustainability. In other words, society must: (1) Ensure to the widest extent possible sustainability and circular economy as a feature in the ecosystem of Industry 4.0-enabling technologies, (2) Explore and exploit the enabling potential of Industry 4.0 for building more sustainable business models and production systems. These challenges are illustrated in figure 2.

Figure 2. Circular Economy for Industry 4.0 and Industry 4.0 for Circular Economy.

A new research agenda for Finland?

Finland is well poised to be an international leader in the bridging of Industry 4.0 and Circular Economy. Finland is already among the global drivers of Circular Economy. It is a stated objective of the current government to make Finland a “forerunner in the circular economy by 2025”. In addition, Finland is one of the most digitalised countries of the world, and a world-leader in many areas related to Industry 4.0. Our current project – Manufacturing 4.0 – aims at translating this into a success story for the general manufacturing industry of Finland.

It would seem natural then that Finland should also take the lead in bridging Industry 4.0 with Circular Economy. This could secure long-term competitive advantages for Finnish industry and simultaneously improve the local and global environment.

This new research agenda of bridging Industry 4.0 with Circular Economy would not start from scratch, but as the recent literature shows, there are still many research areas to explore. For us, a new research agenda could for example further address some of these key questions:

The countries, which are able to integrate Industry 4.0 approach to the principles of the Circular Economy, are the probably forerunners of Industry 4.0 revolution. However, as we can see above, the list of challenges in Industry 4.0 transformation is not short.  We know also that many economic activities in many countries are stuck in Industry 1.0-3.0 phases. This means that the Industry 4.0 approach with the Circular Economy approach does not solve all the sustainability problems of globalized world economy. However, remaining to Industry 1.0-3.0 models can also be a highly risky “project” for the long-run sustainability of world economy. Greener economic structures can be developed with Industry 4.0 technologies. We know that Industry 1.0-3.0 stages of development have not yet led us to needed sustainability levels, because climate change and other environmental problems are still far from solved.

In Fig 3 we present a scenario roadmap of Industry 4.0 and circular economy development. This scenario roadmap shows that in the process of Industry 4.0 development, it is not enough to change Industry 4.0 structures to meet the deep requirements of circular economy.

Figure 3. Scenario roadmap of Industry 4.0 and the Circular Economy.

Previous old phases of Industry 1.0, Industry 2.0 and Industry 3.0 require attention concerning the adoption of environmental principles of the Circular Economy. We underline that preconditions of Industry 1.0-3.0 are really pre-conditions for Industry 4.0, but also that the simultaneous transformation towards Industry 4.0 and Circular Economy requires both attention and multiple testing phases. From this perspective we can say: “Let´s try it – let´s pilot it”.


Mikkel Stein Knudsen
Project Researcher, Finland Futures Research Centre, Turku School of Economics, University of Turku

Jari Kaivo-oja
Research Director, Adjunct Professor, Dr, Finland Futures Research Centre, Turku School of Economics, University of Turku

Note: Authors thank for Try Out! and Manufacturing 4.0 projects for financial support.





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