Companies lack sense of urgency about Critical Materials

News - 16 November 2016

Strategic

Critical Materials are elements (metals/rare earths) that may be at risk of price volatility and supply restrictions. Critical Materials are strategically important in economy, business, innovation and products, and they are essential to maintain and improve our quality of life. An example is the use of small amounts of dysprosium in a neodymium-iron-boron permanent magnet, which allows the magnet, used in an electric motor, to perform well at higher operating temperatures. This produces powerful motors, in a range of products from smart phones to electric cars.

Second World War

‘The world may face problems of Critical Material supply, but these concerns are not translated into product design activity, even though history suggests that product design could play a role in finding solutions to Critical Materials problems’, says researcher David Peck. He drew observations from five Second World War case studies on scarce materials and product design. The British government imposed strict controls on product supply, through licences, permits and rationing, supplied products to those with need and encouraged society to do with less and if possible do without.
‘Since then the range of materials used in product designs has rapidly increased, supply chains have become more complex and opaque and the materials in many hi-tech products is poorly understood by product designers. At the same time governments, in particular the EU and USA, propose that product design will be important in the effort to solve Critical Materials problems.’

Interviews

Peck conducted in-depth interviews in 29 companies with operations in The Netherlands. The results from this research show significant gaps in awareness and understanding around the topic of Critical Materials. The role of Critical Materials is seen as very important to their product design and product performance, but the topic is typically addressed by procurement/purchasing staff. The majority, over 60%, use their risk management procedures to address Critical Materials, but they are not clear on which materials are at highest risk or in which products they actually use Critical Materials. Three quarters of the companies expect their suppliers to manage the risks for them. In terms of business and Critical Materials, opportunities are seen by over a third of the companies, but a majority see critical materials as a threat, and only two companies see links to product design approaches.

Lack of urgency

‘The main point observed is that when material scarcity was a problem in WWII, product design, coordinated by government, quickly played a key role in developing solutions’, says Peck. ‘There is a parallel between the product design strategies for historical material scarcity and proposed 21st century product design strategies for Critical Materials. These approaches are being proposed by product design engineers and governments today, in particular by the European Union (as part of their circular economy proposals), but as the results of the company research indicate, there is a lack of urgency and activity in companies. The scale of the transition to a circular materials economy is large but so are the costs and risks of Critical Materials problems.’

TU Delft response

Whilst there is not, at this time, regular product design teaching on the topic, other ways of raising awareness have been developed. One is the inclusion of the topic in the Massive Open On-line Course (MOOC) entitled ‘Circular Economy, an introduction’ on the EdX platform, which was developed by the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Centre for Sustainability. Another is the development of education on critical materials and product design, in a range of activities, in the EU funded programme called EIT Raw Materials. The methods include further on-line courses, serious games, in company courses and awareness for wider society, including policy makers. Peck observes that ‘recent political events both in Europe and globally, show how quickly international trade can become insecure. A European transition towards ‘Circular Cities’ points to the way ahead. Together with our partners in Leiden and Erasmus Universities, solutions are being sought.’

More information

PhD defence D.P. Peck: Prometheus Missing: Critical Materials and Product Design
18th November 2016, 12:00, Aula TU Delft
Promotor: Prof P.V. Kandachar (Industrial Design)
Contact David Peck +31 15 27 84 895, +31 6 11 71 61 69, d.p.peck@tudelft.nl, homepage
Science Information Officer TU Delft Roy Meijer, +31 15 2781751, r.e.t.meijer@tudelft.nl

 

Image: Dysprosium chips - Materialscientist at en.wikipedia