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Remade in America: DOE funds remanufacturing research

11/12/2020

Doug Peterson

Pingfeng Wang
Pingfeng Wang

Products that are “Made in the USA” are increasingly being “Remade in the USA,” and ISE researchers are playing a major role in this remanufacturing revolution. The REMADE Institute has awarded a $1-million grant to ISE professors Harrison Kim and Pingfeng Wang, who are leading an effort to breathe new life into used products that would otherwise be sent to the scrap heap.

With this grant, Kim and Wang will be developing new mathematical models to help industry designers determine what parts and components can be economically reused and remanufactured over multiple generations of a product. By reusing and remanufacturing parts, material usage and energy consumption can be dramatically reduced.

“We want product design to be good for the environment and good for the company’s financial future as well,” Kim says. “Our goal is to improve the manufacturing competitiveness of U.S. industries.”

In other words, they’re not just leading an effort to remake products; they’re helping to remake industry.

A remanufactured product is significantly different from a reused component, Kim says. Reused parts undergo some cleaning and are almost as good as brand new. But with remanufacturing, the product is completely disassembled, and every part is inspected and then replaced, if needed. The resulting remanufactured component is considered as good as new.

John Deere, one of two industry partners working with Kim and Wang, offers remanufactured parts for farm and construction equipment through its “Reman” program. The other industry partner is the Green Electronics Council, which promotes sustainable IT products, such as phones, computers, and TV’s.

According to Kim, the models they develop will work with a wide range of product families, from heavy machinery to smart phones. When you buy an iPhone, for instance, it’s part of a product family that shares the same architecture but has variations, such as differences in storage space. Some phones in the product family might offer 64 gigabytes of storage space, while others have twice or four times as much space.

Because of the similar architecture, many parts used in a family of phones are the same. Kim and Wang’s design models will determine how long the various parts can perform reliably—critical information when your goal is to reuse and remanufacture those components through multiple generations of a product.

“For example, both old- and new-generation smart phones contain a gyroscope component,” Kim says. “This gyroscope enables you to flip your phone upside down or sideways, and the screen will adjust.”

The gyroscope is so reliable that you can use it for two consecutive product generations without a problem, he points out. But by the third generation, it faces a risk of failing.

“Imagine having to make this kind of reliability decision for every major part and component in a product,” Kim says.

The mathematical models that Kim and Wang are developing will allow designers to do just that; they will determine which components can be used for multiple generations, and which can work for only one generation of a product family.

“This is a very complex mathematical decision,” he notes.

According to Wang, he and Kim make a strong team because their specialties complement each other. Wang’s lab specializes in reliability and uncertainty in modeling, while Kim’s lab is known internationally for working on product families and sustainability design.

Kim says their models will be able to analyze a multitude of tradeoffs during the design stage, such as material choices. In a smart phone, do you go with a metal part that is 100-percent recyclable or do you choose a composite material that may not be as recyclable but is more durable and can be used through multiple generations?

“Our models will sort through these tradeoffs,” he notes.

Decisions made during the design stage also have ramifications for how easily a part can be reused or remanufactured. In a smart phone, for instance, there are several layers of materials, so where you place components can make a big difference. If you place a reusable part in the bottom layer, it will be much more difficult to get at and salvage when you disassemble the product. But if the part is placed in the top layer, you can open up the phone and remove it easily.

“You need to keep that recovery option in mind in your design process,” Kim says.

The REMADE Institute, which sponsors this research, is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and based in Rochester, New York. It was formed in 2017, with the University of Illinois as one of its founding members. Eighty percent of the $1-million funding will go to the U of I, with the other 20 percent going to the two industry partners and Iowa State University, which is providing data analytics support.

REMADE requires a one-to-one partnership between government and industry, which means that for every dollar coming from government, there needs to be one dollar worth of industry activity in the form of money, employee time, or resources.

“This encourages university researchers like us to think about real-world implications that benefit industry partners,” Kim says.

The U of I project will be a two-year effort, but the Covid-19 crisis could extend that timeframe. During the first year, Wang says, they will establish design models that link reliability design with environmental sustainability. In the second year, they will test their methodology on specific products, such as farm machinery, computers, and phones.

“We’re currently looking at the tractor family for John Deere, but our team is open to other products,” Wang says. “We want to test our methodologies on a wide variety of product families.

“We aim to make products more environmentally friendly, and one way of doing that is through better design,” he adds. “But better design also has to be economically viable. Our project addresses both issues. And if we’re successful, the impact will be substantial. It will transform the manufacturing industry.”