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Future topic "Circular Economy"

Leveraging standards and norms to accelerate value creation
Prof. Ralf B. Wehrspohn
Prof. Ralf B. Wehrspohn
Member of the Executive Board of Fraunhofer Gesellschaft
"Circular Economy"

Defossilisation and the creation of a sustainable industrial society will only be successful if technological inventions lead to innovations brought about through novel and successful business models. Cyclical processes have a central role to change in this transition. Around 90 billion tonnes of raw materials are consumed around the world each year – a figure that is expected to double if Asian and African countries with rapidly expanding populations continue to draw closer to Western standards of living. With this in mind, securing an affordable yet optimally sustainable supply of raw materials is one of the greatest challenges of current times, as reflected in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Standardisation will have a pivotal role to play, acting as a catalyst and driving progress towards circular industrial processes.

How can demand for raw materials be sustainably met? The key is what has been dubbed a circular economy, a system that aims to control the extraction of raw materials from the environment in order to protect sources of materials and the environment while simultaneously boosting prosperity and economic vitality with lasting effects. At present, around 7% of all materials processed around the world are kept in material cycles; in the European Union, this figure is 15%. Recycling is just one means of improving this figure. Many companies are already mindful of sustainability, sometimes voluntarily and sometimes for purely business reasons. However, as a result of national and EU regulations such as the European Green Deal, industry is under mounting pressure to take action. Objectifying the specific procedures within industrial processes is essential if industry is to improve the efficiency of material usage and energy input. This opens up new possibilities for the standardisation of products, procedures, interfaces and qualities – and, above all, cross-sectoral standards.

The Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft approach

The concept of Materials Data Space (MDS©), a digital twin for the entire value-creation chain capable of depicting specific scenarios and generating simulations, could well lay the foundations for the digitalisation of Industry 4.0. This system also enables Total Design Management© (TDM) – the ability to simultaneously optimise material design in terms of how a product meets requirements, optimise product design in terms of competitiveness, and optimise design for deconstruction and recycling to facilitate efficient cycle management. Standardisation is a key factor in the success of such systems; it combines universal availability with proprietary rights of use while simultaneously taking MDS© as a basis upon which to depict the relationships between process interventions and objectivised sustainability.

Example: Circular plastics economy

In the field of plastics, where 99% of materials are manufactured from raw materials and which accounts for around 6% of global crude oil consumption, various approaches are currently being trialled with the aim of establishing a circular plastics economy. The dimensions of the competition between systems are alternative sources (bio-based rather than fossil-based materials) associated with the use of both existing and novel processing technologies, the possibilities of recycling and even intelligent thermal utilisation techniques such as pyrolysis with the aim of creating the purest industrial gases possible, which can in turn be used as a starting material for plastics.

Example: Circular electromobility

The circular economy also has significant potential in relation to electromobility. Lithium-ion batteries contain valuable raw materials such as cobalt, lithium, nickel and copper that it makes both economic and ecological sense to recover. The same applies for the modern high-performance magnets in the drivetrain, which contain rare earth elements including neodymium, cerium and dysprosium. These magnets are composed of a complex compound of different materials. Fraunhofer has developed a process to separate individual components into specific materials with a high degree of purity and then reuse them.

Business models

Managing information and corresponding recycling technologies presents manifold opportunities for entrepreneurs. Wherever recycling is ruled out or a company backs away from disclosing information in a transparent – and preferably standardised – form, other business models could come into play. Complex and valuable materials could remain the property of producers and available to use on a leasing basis, as is already common for high-performance batteries in cars. These solutions also require some forms of standardisation to provide objectivity in matters of sustainability.

"In addition, the need for new business models presents opportunities for Germany as a technology location."

Prof. Ralf B. Wehrspohn, Member of the Executive Board of Fraunhofer Gesellschaft

In addition, the need for new business models presents opportunities for Germany as a technology location. Intelligent modular systems can simplify component separation; innovative materials can increase the range of potential uses and, ultimately, recycling itself represents a new application for automation – a field in which the German engineering sector is a technological leader. This is why it is so important we invest today in technologies that will facilitate corresponding applications in the future. For companies whose core competencies lie in the field of connectivity, there are entirely new opportunities in product construction and design in order to create a circular economy for automation components. What’s more, recycling presents entirely new fields of application for connectivity itself through innovative differentiations.



In light of the demonstration of economic efficiency and sustainability based on the concepts of Materials Data Space (MDS) and Total Design Management (TDM), standardisation is a crucial design element of Industry 4.0 and a key requirement for technology-driven innovations in the circular economy. It can help to develop systemic and intercommunicative value-creation chains into value-creation networks – and represents an opportunity that Germany, as a location for technology, should grasp with both hands.

The Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft is dedicated to actively shaping the global transition from existing linear processes to a circular system. It researches the systemic, technical and social innovations required to achieve this along with adapted value-creation networks and necessary forms of standardisation. For queries regarding collaborations in the field of standardisation, please contact Thomas Buhl, Competence Center for Norms and Standards, either by telephone at +49 (0)89 1205 1700 or via email at

Prof. Ralf B. Wehrspohn
Prof. Ralf B. Wehrspohn, Member of the Executive Board of Fraunhofer Gesellschaft, responsible for technology marketing and business models.
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